Better Call Saul “Dedicado a Max” (S5E05)

“Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” – Chuck

Saul’s on a path to destruction that’s never going to course-correct and now Kim has made the conscious decision to join him.  Secretly appointing her boyfriend Jimmy as Mr. Acker’s attorney against Mesa Verde makes for a desperate, contrived play, invoking blatant conflict of interest and rising tensions with her most financially secure client.  The crooked schemes of Saul Goodman are too far-fetched for her to play ignorant to but Kim goes forth with it as C.E.O. Kevin Wachtell is blinded by her loyalty.  The question of the episode is how far is Kim willing to go to put her career at risk for a morally favorable outcome? Like Mike recovering from a stab wound across the border, she’s at a crossroads of what she actually wants to make of her life.  There’s still time to turn back from the dangerous path but does part of her even want to?

One would wonder if subconsciously Kim is setting herself up for failure by trying to solve the Mr. Acker situation in such a daringly transparent manner. Surely she knows involving Jimmy as the opposing council is a bad idea prone to suspicion from her peers and most trusted client, but perhaps it’s a hard and honest attempt at seeing what shakes loose by pushing her limits.  Termination for malfeasance? Losing Mesa Verde and freeing herself from the role of playing loyal soldier to meet a mega banking firm’s corporate needs at any cost? Confirmation that Saul Goodman is no good for her? A lot is at risk here, but Kim has carried an existential burden and moral hypocrisy for so long, this entire arrangement might be her way of allowing the universe to sort things out for her, no matter how difficult the outcome may be. Kim dreads change but there’s no denying (and I think she strongly senses this) that something needs to give, sooner rather than later.

Kim has always been fascinated with law and order applied to all fields of specialty.  When she quit HHM and tried to go it alone as a solo practitioner, Mesa Verde served as a life raft. As far as she was concerned, helping a banking firm expand by jumping over technical hurdles and cutting through red tape was just as noble an exercise as Jimmy McGill pursuing elder law.  As long as the law was being upheld, she could do no wrong.  Little did she know how much more complicated things would get when Mesa Verde’s campaign to expand its territories would become a long, mundane, and unfulfilling process.  It’s one thing that her client has always been tainted through Jimmy’s document tampering, leaving Chuck’s reputation tarnished and his life eventually destroyed, but the situation with Mr. Acker is the last straw, proving that all of this was for nothing other than helping a big bank become richer.  Kim gets nothing out of it except a compromised heart and soul to a process that’s all tunnel with no foreseeable, redeeming destination.

For the past year, she has found the perfect balance in spiritual and professional fulfillment by dedicating most of her time to pro bono work.  Helping people, not corporations.  If there’s anything promising that she knows she values for certain, it’s this.  When Jimmy proposed the idea of scamming one of her pro bono clients in the season premiere, she fiercely shut the idea down to the point of scolding an excitable Jimmy in the courthouse hallway within her client’s earshot.  She’s aware of Jimmy’s intrusiveness and the overbearing impression he can have on her, especially when she realizes it’s easier to go ahead with scamming her pro bono client behind Jimmy’s back, than admitting any humility or defeat over their confrontation.  In the following episode “50% Off”, Kim draws the line and makes it clear that her clients are off-limits.  “Dedicado a Max” sheds new light on those principles though as Mesa Verde becomes the exception.

This once again excites Jimmy as he’s detected Kim’s virtuousness as an exposed, corruptible spot in her armor (something that’s always existed), allowing her once again to come down to his level.  Jimmy takes pleasure in getting her to scam Mesa Verde because for him it’s an exhilarating game no matter who’s on the other end.  It’s show time and he wants Kim to enjoy it just as much as he does.  When asked to recap her initial play of the scam against Kevin during their meeting at the country club, Jimmy insists that she imitate Kevin (voice and all) while Jimmy plays as her.  It’s an unusual, funny request and Kim’s thrown off by how much pleasure Jimmy gets out of this, but she indulges him.  In what might be the most hilarious performance by Rhea Seehorn all season (Seriously, the range she has in this show is extraordinary), we see something surprising is brought out in Kim, being her true disdain for Kevin and the contempt for her role in working for him.

These are feelings that she hides well under the guard of professionalism and an exercise in integrity she upholds even when at home. Kevin Wachtell has pushed her to the brink though, so when she finally lets loose and vilifies Kevin through her impersonation of him, even Jimmy is sideswiped by it.  This is the unfiltered Kim that Jimmy adores and always strives to unveil.  By doing so, he’s opened Pandora’s box, eager to explore the gifts that lie within (a new shared page in the chapter of their relationship) while ignorant to the unspecified evils and consequences that likely will come from it.  Kim doesn’t like to keep that box opened.  She tends to creak it ajar every now and then but right now she’s very vulnerable and willing to see where it gets her.

“Dedicado a Max” (translation “Dedicated to Max”) isn’t just in reference to Gus’ late partner, but can also be wordplay applied to how far characters are willing to go for a desired goal.  Kim plays on Kevin’s impatience and intolerance for nonsense as Saul Goodman throws Mesa Verde every BS reason for postponement on demolition of Mr. Acker’s house that he can.  The logistical issue of the financial hit they’re taking by ramming through each of Saul’s roadblocks is enough an argument for Kevin to back down.  What Kim doesn’t account for is Kevin’s arrogance and the stubbornness instilled within him by his father.  Like Mesa Verde’s logo, Kevin relishes in the horse-riding cowboy mentality of winning a duel and acquiring land.  He’s willing to do that at any cost, calling on Kim to step up her game.

She can fold or take her dedication for Mr. Acker to the next level by consulting a third party, which Jimmy warns her only heads into more dangerous territory, while sneakily piquing her curiosity with the idea to begin with.  Jimmy is willing to test Kim’s determination by calling Mike for help.  Due to bad cell phone reception from Mike being out of the country, Jimmy asks if he’s currently in a tunnel.  Metaphorically, like Kim, Mike is caught in a tunnel, dwelling in a suspended state of uncertainty with lack of fulfillment.  It’s a strong similarity among several that’s shared between Mike and Kim (both are dependable, thorough in achieving their goals, and no-nonsense) which makes their potential to cross paths all the more of a tease when Mike declines Jimmy’s request for help.

Instead, Jimmy goes down the veterinarian’s criminal underworld totem pole and summons Steven Ogg’s character (credited as Sobchak) who introduces himself to Jimmy and Kim with the alias, Mr. X.  This is the same loudmouth criminal P.I. that Mike subdued in season 1’s “Pimento” when hired as a potential bodyguard for Daniel Wormald (Pryce).  While he can come off as kind of a bumbling goon, he does prove useful by infiltrating Kevin Wachtell’s house and taking photos of anything that could possibly give Jimmy and Kim an edge.  How far Kim is willing to go is indeed tested here as she questions how he broke into her client’s house.

She’s somewhat relieved when learning it was through the guise of a security system repairman under Kevin’s consent.  Jimmy can sense that beyond Mr. X doing everything he can to potentially dig dirt up on Kevin, his services are superficial and when Mr. X proposes the next step is to kidnap Kevin into an unmarked van and drive him out to the desert, Jimmy shows him the door.  This is how quickly following the wrong path escalates and thankfully they were able to do away with him before things got more out of control.  But are they learning what happens when overlooking how things get done when leaving things in the hands of those who are less morally-inclined? Kim might have spawned an idea from what she sees in the photos and it involves the Mesa Verde logo.  Perhaps a copyright issue?  Still, she’s recognizing the silver lining to misbehavior that she’s getting in way over head with.

Kim’s tunnel-vision in sabotaging Mesa Verde might be a hail mary that Kevin and Paige are none the wiser to, but she never considers that her boss Rich Schweikart is able to pick up on what’s really going on, being someone who can see the situation from the outside, in.  He rightfully calls her out for the contrivance of Jimmy’s involvement as opposing council and the convenience that Jimmy’s fighting for the exact thing Kim went out of her way to contend against in prior meetings.  Rich knows that taking Kim away from her pro bono work to help Mesa Verde has been like pulling teeth as of recent so he can apply that pattern of behavior to her true motives.  It’s why he prefers she’s temporarily taken off the case until the Mr. Acker situation is dealt with, hinting at the possibility of malfeasance.  This stirs Kim up and she compels Rich out in the open of the S&C law office to come out loud and clear what he’s accusing her of.  It’s her way of feeding the narrative of her innocence by showing she doesn’t care who hears her protest.

The truth will always set you free, so to speak.  Of course, we know Kim is defending a lie and Rich is only trying to protect her, but if she refuses his protection, he’s just as willing to let justice take it’s course.  During this public unraveling, Kim reminds Rich how hard she’s worked for Mesa Verde and demands he tell her why she would risk everything for some squatter.  In this moment, Kim isn’t so much asking Rich this as she’s asking the question for herself.  That’s the dilemma she’s left with when returning to her office.  Why is she going so far to protect Mr. Acker at the expense of her own career and reputation?  Because of moral reservations and her own childhood which influences it? Because of Saul Goodman dangling the carrot into bending the law in favor of a world she sees fit?  Kim is pushing the limit at this point and instead of Saul’s scams giving her an easy out or shaking an outcome loose to help dictate her decisions going forward, she’s once again back where she started yet more exposed.  The burden of what road she goes down from here is completely on her.

If you couldn’t tell by now, this is a big Kim episode, but as mentioned Mike is also at a crossroads.  In fact, he’s done much worse for himself in order to solve his problem by using a deadly altercation with street toughs as a fateful solution to end his misery over Werner’s murder.  Mike is indeed saved through Gus’ surveillance and transported across the border to treat his wounds.  Frustrated that he can’t escape being held under Gus’ wing, he marches down the road in hope to find any conceivable path to lead him home.  A security cart whizzes down the dirt road like something out of a science fiction movie, bringing more emphasis to the strange land Mike finds himself in, but when it’s revealed to be driven by Gus’ doctor, he informs Mike of his orders to take care for him.  Gus’ doctor, Barry, gives Mike a choice to allow this to continue until he gets better and Mike begrudgingly accepts.  Human contact is not something Mike usually embraces outside his family, so it’s quite the step to witness him willingly surrender to someone else’s care.

What’s most important is he’s not being forced to stay.  It just makes sense for him to until he gets better and Dr. Barry even gives Mike detailed directions on how to get home once he is.  After his son’s murder, it’s hard for Mike to trust anyone again, but this small community thrives on innocence and altruism as he’s provided food and shelter while on the mend.  He’s reminded of the tenderness in humanity when a group of school children frolic past him when dismissed from class.  When determined to build a phone charger of his own accord to revive his dead cell phone battery, we’re reminded of the GPS tracker he meticulously arranged in order to meet Gus to begin with.  As the audience, we’re expected to see Mike independently solve his own problem in the way he always does, but that’s undercut by his caretaker simply handing him a new phone charger.  Mike is so used to being self-efficient and trusting only in himself, that he’s forgotten that people are willing to help him.  The world hasn’t given up on Mike and he shouldn’t give up on it.

However, this doesn’t take away from Mike’s serious qualms with Gus.  When he calls Gus on the phone, Mike sums him up as a man who doesn’t do anything without a reason.  Unlike the good people Mike is currently surrounded by, there’s always an ulterior motive at play.  When Gus finally visits, Mike questions what that motive might be and calls out Gus’ potential strategy of manipulation.  Showing Mike there’s a brighter side to Gus? Or that his anonymous donations to this secluded community is a sign that he’s not a remorseless monster unwilling to compensate for his actions?  Gus stays truthful though and owns up to the man he is.  He knows he’s guilty of despicable and outright evil things.  He doesn’t pretend otherwise but he does distinguish a difference between himself and the people he’s up against (namely the Salamancas).  By showing Mike in full transparency that’s he’s come to terms with himself and what he’s done, he’s showing Mike there’s hope for him to do the same.

Gus has already given Mike the leg up in taking the moral high ground against him.  Maybe it’s a blessing that Mike can still feel bad about the things he does, but I don’t think Mike wants to suffer from it anymore.  If the alternative to suicide is working for Gus, there needs to be some merit behind it.  Gus needs a soldier and particularly one who understands the pains of revenge.  As bad as Gus is, Mike can at least commiserate in helping another man correct something that can’t be corrected.  It’s not a question of morality, but an opportune quest of coming to peace with oneself.  Mike is a killer.  That’s who he’s always been and killing doesn’t solve anything, but when directed at the right people, it gives him purpose and satisfies that undying need for payback.  That’s a quality Gus cherishes in Mike. It might be the very bridge in getting Mike on his side, but the bridge is incomplete as of right now.  Mike doesn’t know Gus’ story and if he’s to fully understand their connection, Gus might have to share his horrific past.  Unless Mike is so desperate to get back on his feet, that the memorial fountain that lies before them is enough for him to put two and two together.

Other thoughts:

Document tampering was once a scam consequential to a multiple season story arc leading up to Chuck’s demise and integral to Jimmy’s transformation into Saul.  In the fight to help Mr. Acker keep his home, it’s only a mere kickoff to a series of throwaway schemes involving a fake ancient artifact excavation, orchestrated concerns of radioactivity, and a parade of religious fanatics pouring onto the property over a mock-image of Jesus on Mr. Acker’s fence.  This goes to show how careless Saul Goodman is to a consequence Jimmy has already payed heavily for in the past. Before you can even make the connection to season 2 and think about what bad can come from one scam, he’s already on to the next one.  This is rapid-fire behavior that’s not going to end well.

The head of the construction crew was played by Futurama’s John DiMaggio.  Took me a second viewing to notice!

Howard calls Jimmy with no clue as to what happened with his car and wants to know if Jimmy has mulled over the options of his proposal to work at HHM.  He tells Jimmy he’s ready to go over the details and Jimmy responds with a “sounds good”, hanging up with Howard in mid-sentence.  Surely this is the end of the proposal, putting a final period on how far removed Saul Goodman is from Howard’s world.  Or is it?

Your thoughts?

Better Call Saul “Namaste” (S5E04)

When Saul is called upon to represent the two addicts from “50% Off’s” cold open, he’s still on a high from playing a part in an intricate power move amidst high profile forces involving the D.E.A. and a war between drug kingpins. He’s come out the other side unscathed (for now) and it’s a rush which makes him realize what his talents are truly worth. Saul raises his rate with these two to $4,000, being half off (as promised), but to the $8,000 he received for his business with Lalo.  When they protest, Saul pounds his chest in regards to his skills before strong-arming them into asking for clean money from one of their grandparents to meet his costs. He even uses the same power play as Hank and Gomez by making his way out the door, guilting the addicts for their missed opportunity.  At this point, we can expect as long as Lalo manipulates Saul into remaining his go-to attorney, Saul will be requiring much more than $8,000 in future endeavors and an increase in rate from his low ranking clients. Jimmy is taking charge of his newly crowned moniker as he continues to learn what he’s capable of.

Saul is no longer just a name.  He’s becoming defined. When called into a lunch meeting with Howard, he’s put on the spot to distinguish the difference between Saul Goodman and Jimmy McGill as if he’s an analytical fan of his own show.  Saul proves surprisingly articulate on the spot, deeming himself as a life raft when you’re sold down the river and a friend to a friendless, among a multitude of colorful, rapid-fire summations.  Howard wonders whether Jimmy McGill could also live up to this sparky ideology and Saul deflects that it’s possible but Saul Goodman already does. It’s here where Howard detects the underlying sore spot of how the Jimmy McGill name and legacy has been tarnished from HHM entertaining Chuck’s resentments by refusing to hire Jimmy when he was barred or when he brought in the Sandpiper case.

Howard wants to correct his lack of backbone from the past now that Chuck isn’t pulling the strings and states that as far as he’s concerned any bad blood HHM has been through with Jimmy is of separate issue between Jimmy and Chuck. While Jimmy maintains composure the best he can, Howard’s spiritual upswing and forward-moving mentality is precisely what gets under Jimmy/Saul’s skin. Howard gets to move on and play the gracious, welcoming gatekeeper to HHM, while he forces Jimmy to self-reflect and rub his nose in his deep-seated hang-ups with Chuck (precisely what he aims not to do).  As soon as Howard mentioned Chuck’s name, you could see the micro-cataclysms buried within Jimmy and masked by Saul begin to erupt.  However, for the sake of social niceties and Howard’s good intentions, he hears him out even if by doing so while using food and multiple swigs of his drink to keep himself in check.  What Howard is offering here is not just an opportunity that was denied to Jimmy for so long but a new hopeful and honest take of who an outside force sees him as

Jimmy’s argues valid reasons for why hiring him wouldn’t be a good idea (referring to Jimmy’s own misbehavior at Davis & Main), but Howard proceeds to turn a blind eye to it in favor for valuing Jimmy saying what he means and calling out truth and judgement for what it is.  Jimmy has tried to prove otherwise to what people see him as (a lawyer guilty people hire, morally flexible, Slippin’ Jimmy, etc.) for the better part of his life and Chuck was the major catalyst in having him finally double-down into Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree, but nobody has ever sized Jimmy up in a more positive light the way Howard is here.  Kim has always argued Jimmy’s potential but she was never a gate-keeper of opportunity to the extent that Howard is.

For Jimmy, Howard’s buttery praise is too little, too late.  Jimmy’s trajectory towards Saul reached a point of no return last episode when he got involved with Lalo, so while Howard is making a sincere (if not desperate) effort to rectify injustices against Jimmy, it’s a convenient slap in the face that it’s now that someone recognizes Jimmy’s potential.  Saul is already on the path to rectifying the mistakes of Jimmy McGill and Howard just sets himself up (like pins to a bowling ball) for Jimmy to take a higher power’s offer and shove it back in their face.  It’s the same thing that happened during the interview at Neff’s Copiers last season but with Howard it’s much more personal.

Usually Jimmy’s methods in scamming someone or getting things to go in his favor undergo an intricate and well thought out process, but because of the deeply sensitive nerve Howard struck with Jimmy, it’s no wonder that the payback against him is nothing more blunt and clunky as simply chucking bowling balls on Howard’s fancy car.  Will Howard be able to retrace his steps and deduce Jimmy as the perpetrator or is he too oblivious even when claiming to understand Jimmy?  Poor Howard.  He’s a good, smart guy who means well, but he’s a prisoner to the McGill War’s aftermath no matter how much therapy has helped him and at the end of the day, he’s just not long for Saul Goodman’s world. Hopefully, for his sake, he stays far away.

Kim, on the other hand, is not so lucky as she starts her morning recovering from a drunken stupor with Jimmy from the night before.  Never has a tooth brushing scene, which has been a symbolic runner of the state of their relationship since season 2’s “Switch”, been more depressing and zombified.  Bad day of prior aside, she aims to start fresh and resolve the problems of yesterday, even taking it upon herself to sweep up the broken beer bottles she and Jimmy chucked from the night before.  Kim tries to sway Mesa Verde’s C.E.O. Kevin Wachtell to reconsider buying up an alternate vacant lot (2375 which has a flooding problem) over the lot where every homeowner but Mr. Acker has complied to vacate for the construction of the banks’ call center.

She argues that the lot has shored up the drainage, repaved roads and that their operation will become more efficient and pay dividends in the long term despite eating the cost of the land they already own.  This is her last chance to save Mr. Acker from getting kicked out his house.  It’s the moral right she cherishes over the legal, but Kevin and Paige are dismissive to the reputational risk of throwing a man from his home and argue that as long as they’re in the legal right, they’re willing to fight Mr. Acker on this.  Sadly, to great hesitation, Kim confides in Saul Goodman, who just got finished lighting a court case with figurative fireworks as he tricks an eye witness into pointing at a dummy defendant, not realizing the real defendant is sitting in the back of the room.  The courtroom stirs into upended commotion over this reveal which results in a mistrial.

This is the trouble-making spontaneity and unpredictable flare that Saul thrives with, but it’s at the expense of everyone involved, even his client who will not get disciplined by the State for his crime, and therefore not learn from his actions.  Saul will play with fire to get his way and this is who Kim resorts to calling for her rescue after every possible by-the-book effort to fix the Mr. Acker problem herself, fails.  Kim’s most quotable line from season 2, “You don’t save me. I save me.“, is a badge of honor she’s always carried, but in this case it’s reached a dead end.  That’s owed to how much her involvement with Jimmy has chiseled away at her legal compass.  She drew the line last season in “Wiedersehen” when declaring that she would only go forward with a scheme after weighing the moral outcome as she sees fit.  A man getting to keep his beloved home at the cost of her most depended client Mesa Verde getting dragged through the mud is something she decides warrants the green light.

She recruits Saul to offer Mr. Acker his services as a defense attorney and Saul follows through by prying open his gate and keeping one foot in the front door before flashing Mr. Acker a photo of man fucking a horse.  It’s the gall in delivering such a graphically perverse pitch and applying symbolism to how far Saul is willing to go to stick it to Mesa Verde (their bank’s logo being a cowboy on a horse), which wins Mr. Acker over.  Kim is essentially sacrificing her own civic duty and reputation in helping Mesa Verde legally expand their banking enterprise, as well as compromising herself morally by pursuing an end to justify the means.  How does Saul going up against Kim as opposing council, even if structurally orchestrated by the two, not result in an absolute mess?  It’s like reciting Beetlejuice’s name three times.  He’ll probably get the job done but not in any way anyone wants.  You can whole-heartedly expect Kim will regret summoning him.

Kim allowing Mesa Verde to take a crucial hit in the name of preserving something more valuable is awfully similar to what Gus must allow happen to his operation. If Gus wishes to raise no suspicion of Nacho relaying Lalo’s every move to him, he needs to allow the D.E.A. to capture the money from the reported dead drops. We get to see Hank and Gomez surveil the culvert from season 3’s “Witness” which is where one of the dead drops is reported to be.  The dread Gus anticipates as he awaits the sacrifice of three men to the D.E.A. and an estimated $700,000 loss in drug money amounts to a frustration he can only contain by abusing his role as a Los Pollos Hermanos owner.

Gus needs some form of control in this crisis so he pressures Lyle into cleaning the deep fryer to perfection ala Walt enlisting Jesse’s help in catching a fly in the superlab.  It was likely spotless from the start, but Gus continues to find flaw in Lyle’s efforts.  Lyle also might be manipulated into cleaning it twice in order for Gus to strengthen an alibi depending on what shakes loose from these busts.  Hank and Gomez’s stakeout/chase scene being intercut with Lyle’s unwavering perseverance to make his boss happy is an effective manner in getting into Gus’ headspace and showing the viewer how much tension he carries beneath such rigid composure.

And that leaves us with Mike who shows up at Stacey’s thinking it’s his time of the week to babysit Kaylee.  He wants to apologize for snapping at her the way he did but Stacey has already hired another sitter for the day after trying to call Mike previously and getting no response.  She states she’s better off if Mike just take a week to get back to himself because something is clearly off with him.  In the same way Howard triggers Jimmy by bringing up Chuck, you can see in Mike’s grief-stricken expression that he’s using every ounce of energy to prevent himself from bursting into flames when Matty is mentioned. He shoots venom at the notion of “getting back to himself” before storming back to his car.  Mike hasn’t had a clue how to get back to himself ever since Matty was murdered.  He’s been on the path to finding his place and correcting something which can’t be corrected in the wake of his son’s tragedy, but ultimately it’s lead him down worse avenues.

Putting himself in the position to murder Werner directly has proven Mike’s been running in an inescapable circle. Like Kim and Gus, he feels he has no other choice but to succumb to a more chaotic solution bearing unforseen consequences in ending his misery.  By strolling through the bad neighborhood and granting the group of thugs from last episode an opportunity for revenge, he’s craving pain and punishment.  Whether he lives or dies, his life and the burden he carries is put into the universe’s hands.  After getting the shit kicked out him and eventually stabbed, the scene cuts to black before revealing Mike in a strange, if not reminiscent setting where his wounds are being treated.  This could be the residence of Gus’ doctor from Breaking Bad on the other side of the border or something and somewhere along the same vein, but two things are clear:

1) The street thugs must have been thwarted or else Mike surely would have died.

2) Gus is the only one who has taken a special interest in Mike, so he must have had someone keeping close tabs on him similar to Jesse Pinkman after Gale’s murder.  Otherwise, I doubt Mike would have received medical attention in time and in such an unconventional place.

What happens from here will undoubtedly contribute to Mike’s rehabilitation and the rescue alone could likely spark the beginning of him feeling absolution for what he’s done. Trauma will always exist, but perhaps this place, presented to the viewer as something of a sanctuary, is key to shedding perspective for Mike after a near-death experience.  Jesse needed a retreat after a four episode downward spiral in Breaking Bad when Gus ordered Mike to take him on a ride-along.  Mike is more independent from being under Gus’ thumb so even if his physical and mental health does improve, what draws him back as Gus’ proud right-hand man?

Other stuff to note:

It’s appropriate that Howard’s licence plate is the 1337 (LEET) spin on the phrase Namaste (being Namast3) because for Jimmy the digit 3 being a backwards ‘E’ is like a flippant way of saying “Howard, you can take your pretentious clarity and gesture of respect and shove it.”

In the cold open, those three bells in the antique store’s doorway first made me think of Gus’ doctor office, which used a similar angle when introduced in Better Call Saul’s season 3 episode, “Sunk Costs”.  Nothing thematically really ties the bookend of Mike’s mysterious sanctuary with Jimmy’s mission to buy bowling balls, but I appreciate the use of imagery putting the vague idea of Gus’ doctor in the viewer’s head without officially revealing his presence at all.

Hank and Gomez might have been successful in making a major dent in an illegal drug dealing operation, but Hank is still smart enough to know that they haven’t even scraped the surface.  Krazy 8 will be put to good use by them in the future but Hank knows he’s not the key to getting the more high profile players.  Hank might come off like a macho clown, but you can already see the deeper layers within him beginning to show.  He’s hungry for greater things and the potential to pursue it is there.

Your thoughts?

Better Call Saul “The Guy For This” (S5E03)

“It’s not about what you want.  When you’re in, you’re in.” – Nacho

If last episode was about Saul setting events in motion for himself, “The Guy for This” is about him realizing his point of no return. Too many high factors are at play that are beyond his control and will prove more urgent than taking any last chance reservations over his life choices. The prospect of navel-gazing has long passed, being something that might have saved him last season if circumstances with Chuck’s death and their final conversation didn’t drive Jimmy’s decision to avoid therapy. The fun of Jimmy’s reinstatement as the fresh and colorful Saul Goodman stops the moment Nacho scoops him off the street.  The beautifully shot, Blue Velvet-esque cold open plays on these themes of underlying menace with the ants engulfing his discarded ice cream. If there was any shred of innocence remaining in Jimmy, it’s now too late to recover as he’s attracted alien-like adversaries to his happy corner of the world. Jimmy McGill has officially become contaminated and Saul Goodman will soon have no choice but to join the complex inner workings of Better Call Saul’s deep criminal underworld.  A member of the colony, if you will.

This infestation of Jimmy’s soul has been a long time coming.  If it wasn’t for his mix-up with Tuco in the desert, pleading every argument accordingly to prevent Tuco from skinning the skater twins alive, Lalo wouldn’t hold Saul Goodman in such high regard as a “criminial lawyer”.  Jimmy tries to turn away Lalo’s proposition by offering him a drop phone, but is advised that this is business that’s better conducted with a lawyer in person.  Jimmy then tries to increase his rate to a made-up figure of $7,925, suspending disbelief that Lalo and Nacho are no more high profile than his usual clients.  He hopes this expense will repel them but Lalo rounds the offer up to $8,000 with ease and for all we know, was willing to pay Saul more.  If there’s anything Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman have shared in common since the start, it’s that money is everything.  This is what seals the fate of both counterparts and turns Saul into a greasy cog within the drug game’s machine.  As Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad will later state, “I guess people see those zeroes dance before their eyes… it’s kind of like highway hypnosis.” Jimmy never foretells how he ends up down the path his choices lead, as long as money fills his pockets in the present moment.

Before even getting into what Saul is hired to do here, it’s important to note that Lalo chalking up Jimmy’s talents as the guy with the mouth going “blah blah blah” is a telling sign of disrespect.  He thinks of Saul as a bullshit artist and for the time being, he’s entertained by this superpower, but there’s only so far Saul can spin BS as an attorney and dazzle as a criminal associate before it amounts to some dire consequence.  Jimmy might not consider the repercussions of the shortcuts he takes or the crimes he commits, but he’s pretty aware that this business arrangement is bad news.  Lalo is expecting perfection from Saul like two skater twins walking out of the desert scot-free despite Tuco wanting them dead, but in reality, they got wheeled out of that situation each with a broken leg.  There’s a reality to Saul Goodman’ where there’s always a sorry fallout to his actions and Lalo is unable or refuses to see that.

It gets worse for Saul when he learns he’s assigned to represent Domingo Molina (Krazy 8) and use his client’s ongoing detainment as a way to feed the D.E.A. incriminating information on a third party.  For Saul, this party remains a mystery, but for us, we know the intel of dead drops is in direct conflict with Gus Fring’s operation.  Hector’s ominous idea from last episode to hit Gus where the money flows is now put into play and Saul is caught up as the middleman.  If the intel fails in leading to arrests, then Krazy 8 is going to be locked up and Lalo won’t be a happy customer. If the plan goes off without a hitch, then Saul gets more on Gus’ radar, regardless if we know the two, to Saul’s knowledge, have never met.  There’s really no winning outcome here and as of right now, Nacho informing Gus on Lalo’s plan makes all this double-dealing more transparent and hopefully more manageable.

That’s not to say this isn’t an extremely messy situation.  I would imagine Gus gets the better handle of it and Lalo will become Saul’s true foe, but as of right now the money remains in the places reported to the D.E.A. so as not to raise Lalo’s suspicions of any betrayal.  As a line of communication, Nacho is more valuable to Gus than how much of a hit his operation takes.  That could be seen as a blessing but also a burden since Nacho might continue to be even more of a punching bag depending on how much damage Lalo causes.  Essentially, Krazy 8 is the hotline between the D.E.A. and Lalo while Nacho is the hotline between Lalo and Gus.  Everyone’s connected to a line nobody wants to be a part of.  Even the unwilling Saul Goodman.

Considering it’s Lalo who Saul is most afraid of in Breaking Bad and Fring is more or less a ghost to him, you have to wonder what Lalo is willing to do to ensure he keeps Saul Goodman in line.  Saul tries to excuse himself again from providing any further services by stressing the tightness of his schedule but Lalo doesn’t take no for an answer.  We have seen how far Lalo will go just to get what he wants by tailing Mike, surveilling Gus, and even killing an innocent civilian (TravelWire clerk) outside the game.  He’s intrusive and competent in getting results at any cost.  At what point does Saul throw his hands in the air when what’s asked of him gets too hot? What if Lalo responds by tracking Saul’s residence followed by threatening harm upon Kim? A man like Gus would be wise to avoid tangling with any officer of the court, because he has to maintain the cover life he’s invested so much time building for himself.  Lalo on the other hand, as a Salamanca, is a loose cannon and always has the option to run back home until the heat dies down.

Nacho’s original plan to flee to Canada with his father seems to becoming less and less of an option as Manuel notifies him about his upholstery shop getting a generous buyout offer.  He suspects Nacho put the buyer up to this so Manuel can be in a better position to lam it.  This becomes apparently true as Nacho can barely keep himself from lying to his father’s face when confronted on it.  What stings most is how hurt Manuel seems that the very business he planned to pass on to his son is nothing more than an expendable hurdle Nacho needs to do away with so he can go forth with running from the problems he’s brought upon himself.

As much as Nacho predicament pains me, I have to agree with Manuel’s frustration because it’s the same frustration that can be applied to most of the show’s characters.  The cost of empathy or consideration for others being the means for these characters to get what they want and the lack of responsibility for one’s actions.  You live the life you’ve made for yourself but you can’t expect others to stray from the lives they’ve intended to lead.  Manuel won’t run and he makes this clear.  At this point, Nacho can either flee on his own or accept his fate in the game he told Saul there’s no escape from.  Whether he goes to the police or takes his chance continuing to be a helpless puppet, this is the life he chose and eventually you reap what you sow.

Mike descends further in light of Werner’s murder similar to how Jesse spiraled after Gale’s.  Both numb themselves with their vices (in Mike’s case, binge-drinking) and explore unorthodox ways to deal with their grief like Mike seemingly inviting an altercation with a group of thugs. This adds an extra layer to Mike taking Jesse under his wing in Breaking Bad, even if begrudgingly.  This is without a doubt the most off-kilt Mike has been mentally and emotionally throughout both shows and I honestly couldn’t tell you a solution for it other than time taking its course.  In Breaking Bad, Gus fueled Jesse’s self-worth by employing him as Mike’s partner for collecting dead drops and granted him self-confidence by orchestrating a mock ambush he could overcome. This helped Jesse deal better with his grief and post-traumatic stress, but swaying Mike out of his whirlwind of self-loathing might take a higher degree of finesse to the point where it’s barely a manipulation.  If Gus didn’t have so much on his plate right now, I’d say a sincere sit-down is in order, but who knows if he even owes him that.

It’s hard to envision how Gus and Mike get back on even ground but in the meantime Mike is belligerently demanding a bartender take down a postcard of the Sydney Opera House, being the architectural feat which Werner mentioned his father helped achieve.  The image of this famous structure obviously provokes Mike directly because of this but even deeper, it’s a symbol for the pedestal his own son put him on. Someone to be marveled at in his greatness.  Mike does not feel he deserves such praise as he was forced to confess to Matty long ago that he was down in the gutter with the rest of the crooked Philadelphia precinct which would later spawn the two cops who murdered him.

Kim gets in a stand-off with crabby homeowner Mr. Acker regarding the house he’s built and resided in since 1974 being on land that he doesn’t actually own.  The stipulation of his 100 year lease says the property owner can buy him out any time at fair market value plus $5,000.  Due to good will and inflation she ups the offer to $18,000.  He scoffs at the idea, sizing her up as a rich snob in a suit who probably donates to charity or serves at a soup kitchen to make herself feel better for tearing families from their homes. This hits a nerve with Kim and she unloads, declaring that the price is now $10,000 if he comes to his senses and a sheriff will get involved if he doesn’t obey.

Kim basically becomes the very thing thing she fights against when pursuing her pro bono work for low income clients.  She’s forced to defend the law through its technicalities in favor of a big bank’s expansion, all at the cost of one man’s suffering which is a nuanced human issue she holds more value towards.  By ripping into Mr. Acker on his decision to fight against what higher powers demand of him, she’s playing devil’s advocate to her own struggle to stay on the straight and narrow while Jimmy continues to do the opposite and slip further and further from her life as the strange Saul Goodman.

The pro bono case that’s now set to go to trial is something she feels reassurance of through the fact that jurors will be summoned, being real down-to-earth people who might treat her client’s case with the appropriate level of human perspective she feels it deserves.  This is the work that the Mesa Verde’s expansion fails to offer and what’s worse is when Kim takes it upon herself to talk to Mr. Acker more openly,  one lowly, humble person to another.  She’s gracious in taking time out of her schedule and paying out of her own pocket to help him find new property he can own. She eventually discloses a personal story out of sympathy for him about how her family never owned a house.  Kim, who never divulges into her past, shares how she sometimes would get shaken awake in the middle of the night and dragged outside in her pajamas and bare feet so that her family could skip rent and hop over to the next apartment. Sometimes it was so cold out in the streets, her toes turned blue.  This is not information Kim feels comfortable admitting, no less to a stranger, but it’s her best approach.

Mr. Acker unfortunately still shuts the door in her face, signifying that others or (better yet) the world will remain unsympathetic no matter what hardship she’s struggled with.  This could become a dangerous epiphany for Kim if she decides to embrace Saul Goodman and his mission to take initiative against a world that always kept him down.  Plus, that available house for purchase that Saul dangled before her in the previous episode? It’s something we now know to be more specifically alluring, after learning the rough upbringing she was forced to grow up with.  Kim and Saul end the episode not being able to confide in one another but both being on the same unspoken page as they begin recklessly throwing beer bottles from their balcony.  This could be interpreted as their shared disdain for the world, almost like Kim adjusting her world view to meet Saul’s.  It could be a cry for help or a way to mask the disintegration of their relationship, but could also be the adaptation of them growing closer.  The transformation of these two characters and the road they’re heading down is happening right before our eyes and like ant-covered ice cream, we can only sit back and watch.

Other things to note:

  • Did I not mention the D.E.A. agents who Krazy 8 will become a confidential informant for are Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez? Very exciting to see these two!  How much of a role they play in this season is to be determined, but I have a feeling they aren’t going anywhere just yet.  The layers of deception to Krazy 8’s arrangement as a C.I. and the stipulations Saul sets to prevent him from having a target on his back helps cleverly set the stage for why Krazy 8 continues to be a player in the drug game the way he continues to be in Breaking Bad.  
  • I wrote this review while waiting in a criminal court building after being summoned for jury duty.  The waiting process took all day so it was the perfect opportunity and setting to really give my review some thought.  I was dismissed from consideration to serve on the jury panel by the end of the day.

 

Better Call Saul “50% Off” (S5E02)

“In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it so stop apologizing and accept it. Embrace it. Frankly, I’d have more respect for you if you did.” – Chuck

Jimmy can pull himself back from going too far as Saul all he wants but Saul is already setting events into motion from the limits he will continue to push. The episode opens with two skells taking Saul’s ‘50% off’ per legal representation offer as an excuse to go on a wave of frenetic, doped-out crime sprees in the hope to score more drugs. For these addicts, reward trumps risk and they are just two potential clients wrecking havoc out in the world out of who knows how many but their actions will reverberate exponentially. Within the hour, Saul has already caused a direct chain of events that leads him right back into the stammering guy we knew back when he was on his knees before Tuco and Nacho in the desert.  The broken gnome from the cold open and Saul’s tossed ice cream cone at the end perfectly illustrate this correlation.

But is Jimmy the same person from the last time Nacho saw him? Saul has always possessed fear in the face of immediate danger as a defense mechanism.  Fear is not a trait that distinguishes Saul from Jimmy.  It’s Saul’s lack of remorse for the consequences of his actions which Jimmy periodically carries with him. I wouldn’t say the Saul we see here is completely free of doubt or regret, but it’s much easier for him to be.  Not only is Chuck not around to judge him, but Chuck is the one who told Jimmy he would have more respect for him if he owned up to his misgivings and skip the show of remorse as a process. Saul is consciously carrying out Chuck’s worst nightmare, sticking it to his deceased brother by wielding his law degree around the courthouse bowels like a chimp with a machine gun. In another way, he’s subconsciously fulfilling Chuck’s challenge to embrace his slippery ways to the fullest, out of the respect he always craved from him.  The elevator hustle he runs on Suzanne (who was already conned into a loss over last season’s Huell dispute) is a brilliant, if not extremely shady way to accelerate their shared case load so he can make room for more clients and in turn, make more money.

In order for Jimmy to embrace himself as a criminal lawyer without regret, he must lose consideration for who gets caught up in his tailspin.  What he will or won’t come to learn, evident of the chaos that ensues in the cold open, is his behavior has a much more expansive blast radius than he can imagine.  If it wasn’t for his 50% offer deal to the addicts, they wouldn’t take that as an invitation to illegally obtain as much fast cash as they can.  If it wasn’t for all that cash, the storm drain as a delivery system wouldn’t be clogged with 10 bags of dope.  This leads to the Krazy 8 (a nickname originating as Ocho Loco for his bad poker play) getting busted by the police trying to fix it, which leads to Lalo coming up with an idea to get Krazy 8 help, which leads Nacho boomeranging right back into Jimmy’s world.

Whether the idea of Jimmy’s crooked services as a lawyer sprang up because of Nacho’s history with him or Saul has made such a splash in the criminal world already to the point where he’s on Lalo’s radar, this is the dangerous road Jimmy/Saul was going to go down one way or another.  Jimmy’s world of building a new name for himself while juggling his relationship with Kim has now begun its convergence with the criminal underworld. Up until now, these two sides of the show have ran mostly parallel.  Only two episodes into season 5, Lalo has already made an influence on Saul Goodman’s life and we know from Breaking Bad that it’s only going to get worse considering Saul feels relieved at gunpoint when it’s verified Walt and Jesse are not associated with this prestigious cartel member.

This is what makes Kim and Jimmy’s brief visit at an extravagant open house all the more worrying. On one hand, it gives them a chance to clear the air.  Kim makes her reservations known that scamming her clients at any measure or time is not okay with her and Jimmy humbly accepts that.  Jimmy is also honest about the slip-up he made in giving a 50% off deal per legal representation of non-violent felonies and vows he’ll never make that mistake again.  He reassures her that nothing too bad will happen from it, which we know is a reassurance he can’t be certain of and in whole isn’t true, but Kim takes this in good stride nonetheless.

Kim and Jimmy have their differences but their relationship in this moment feels more hopeful after coming to an understanding with one another. Kim even entertains the prospect of them living in such a big house together and is playful and laughing when soaking a fully clothed Jimmy in the shower.  This is all fine and dandy considering we want these two characters to be happy with one another and maybe possibly share a future, but we know Saul’s trajectory doesn’t end in rainbows and sunshine.  As Better Call Saul’s two main worlds begin to merge amidst the brink of war between Gus and Lalo, how soon is it before Kim is crossing paths with any of these dangerous figures? How might they influence her absence from Breaking Bad?

What’s great about these storylines melding together is that I’m just as invested in the fate of Nacho as I am in Kim’s.  I’ve never felt such a heightened sense of dread and despair since Breaking Bad’s final season compared to when Nacho is abducted from his bed by Gus’ crew and made to sit and watch as Gus holds a figurative scythe over his father’s head. It’s a shocking mood shift that really makes you feel like this is the end for Nacho’s father but Gus uses this as fearful motivation to get Nacho to gain Lalo’s trust.  As much as I fear for Nacho and his father, I’m also curious about Gus because we learn in Breaking Bad that he does not believe fear to be an effective motivator.  He tells this to Mike in regards to Walt’s motivation to work for him after Mike proposes the idea of filling Walt in about Tuco’s cousins and how working for Gus would protect him.  What happens with Nacho that makes Gus stray (as best he can) from this method?

As of right now, instilling fear in Nacho is working. He’s willing to risk everything for his father by jumping across rooftops to snatch the remaining product from the stash house as it’s being raided by police.  All of this is to gain Lalo’s trust as Gus demanded, but how long can Nacho thrust himself upon grenades before Lalo takes advantage and pushes him to the limit? Lalo has a great amount of respect for Nacho now, but what does that mean coming from this charming lunatic? This is the same guy who treated Nacho’s prison-defying action stunt like it was a scene from a movie, chuckling at the idea that he’s about to get caught.  Nacho gained his trust but as a soldier willing to nearly fall on his sword for the operation.  Something eventually is going to give here and now that Saul Goodman is becoming more involved, what transpires next remains wildly unpredictable and won’t be pretty.

There’s also a matter of Krazy 8, who’s become more and more of a character as this series progresses.  Saul likely has been recruited to represent him but from what we know from the former show, I have to ask the question. Is this the bust (taking place in 2004) where Hank Schrader flips him into an informant? Hank reports to his task force in Breaking Bad’s season 1 episode “Cancer Man”, “Way smarter than your average cheese eater.  I turned him out when he was street level.”  Gomez then goes on to say that Krazy 8 would snake out all the small town dealers he informed on in order to climb the ranks, so we can suspect this was an ongoing process. Enough to last roughly four years though until the Breaking Bad timeline begins? It’s hard to say, but if this is the start of Krazy 8 getting flipped and Saul is the one who’s representing him, doesn’t that complicate things? Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here but there’s a gap of story that’s again, curious.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had so many questions going into a season but it being the penultimate, it’s a good sign to how increasingly compelling this show is becoming all across the board as a prequel.

Meanwhile, Mike wakes up hungover after a rough night, being clearly is in a bad place after murdering a good man.  It’s one thing to see Mike lose his cool at work and not be on good terms with Gus, but it’s another when his double life bleeds into the one that matters most.  This episode is about worlds colliding, being cleverly titled “50% Off” not just because of Saul’s deal with potential clients, but because Better Call Saul has been more or less two shows in one where until now has striven to be neatly divided.  That’s never fully the case though in a universe that’s established how every piece and action undertaken matters.  Eventually your decision in one world will dictate what happens in the other and for Mike, this leads to him scolding Kaylee after a significant nerve is hit when she inquires about her dad’s death.  Specifically about his job as a cop and how “the bad guys got him” is what sets Mike off.

We’ve seen Mike’s nerve struck in last season’s “Talk” when Stacey shares how she’s starting to feel guilty for not thinking about her late husband Matty for stretches of time, but taking it out on Kaylee is much more upsetting.  I don’t blame Mike for his grief, but this is the dark, descending spiral he’s been on for a while now and it’s now catching up to him.  I’m sure he feels regret for lashing out on his grand-daughter so we can only hope he can come to terms with what he’s done and the life he’s chosen for himself before the people he truly cares about suffer for it.  It’s a strange thing to hope for since it basically means Mike has to become more cold-blooded and numb to the horrible things he’ll continue to directly or indirectly take part in.

One last thing. It looks like Howard wants to set an appointment for lunch with Saul.  Bob Odenkirk gives a superb, subtle performance when confronted here by allowing a shred of Jimmy McGill’s guilt to peek through the Saul Goodman mask.  Jimmy doesn’t know what Howard wants but from his perspective, Howard was always more in Chuck’s camp and any judgement Chuck carried may have been passed on to his grieving law partner.  We have to remember that the last interaction between these two before Chuck passed was Jimmy trying to get Howard to settle on the Sandpiper case followed by Howard coldly calling him out as transparent and pathetic for trying to hustle the money.

Howard has obviously dialed that resentment back ever since Chuck’s death, but them being on the same page with one another is still something I wouldn’t say is completely warm.  On the other hand, Jimmy did give Howard a tough love speech to help save HHM which might have worked, while also donating $23,000 to Howard for Chuck’s memorial reading room.  Imagine if Howard wants to hire Saul at HHM? That would be crazy, but whatever the case is, Howard associating with Saul Goodman at this point is just another future of a character we’re going to have to add to the list to be concerned about.

Some tidbits:

  • Kim barely has any closet space for herself seeing as it’s packed with Saul Goodman suits and attire.  A sad metaphor for her misplacement in this relationship and the not-so-bright future of her sticking around.
  • Jimmy apparently has 45 clients to juggle.  The scene where he’s ironing his clothes while trying to talk on his cell phone was a perfect way to introduce Saul Goodman’s hands-free bluetooth ear-piece. The physical transformation is almost complete, save for the combed over mullet.
  • Lalo meets with Hector for advice on how to proceed with his suspicions over Gus.  Hector rings his bell when Lalo mentions that Gus, Juan, and Don Eladio are more concerned over money than the principles valued by the Salamanca family.  Hector seems to be onto something, but where could the money lead Lalo in helping uncovering Gus’ secrets?

 

Better Call Saul “Magic Man” (S5E01)

Ladies and gents.  Boys and girls. Welcome back! Season 5’s “Magic Man” is chock full of whimsy, wonder, and absolute unnerving tension.  Tradition dictates we start with Gene’s post-Breaking Bad content which has become more extensive and anxiety-filled than any previous season premiere cold open yet.  That’s saying a lot.  Better Call Saul, like its predecessor, never back-pedals when stressing the urgent significance of its cliff-hangers.  When Gene found himself being heavily studied through a taxi cab driver’s rear-view mirror last season, we had every right to feel panicked.  Season premieres had long established Gene’s usual paranoia of being found out, but the obviously suspicious taxi cab driver donning an Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener set off too many alarm bells for it to amount to nothing this far into the story.

We’re lulled into a false sense of security as we watch Gene keep his police radio scanner running to ensure this stranger didn’t make any police reports of a Saul Goodman sighting.  Gene even makes a carefully placed call to a Cinnabon employee from an out of town payphone slyly inquiring if anybody in particular had been asking for him.  After some time has passed, all seems well and Gene returns to work but lo and behold, the cabbie shows up revealing himself as Jeff, a long-time fan who seems to get off on having famous passengers.  There’s many uncomfortable moments in this show but this scene ranks among the highest as Jeff is not only speaking for the first time directly at Gene, but he’s rude, intrusive, and smarmy.  These are qualities I would never have attributed to what little we could make of him during last season, which is what helps drive this suspension of disbelief that maybe this isn’t the same guy…but it is.  Jeff interrogating Gene in such a gross, depriving manner and forcing him to recite Saul’s key catch phrase while asserting a sense of power over knowing who he is, is nothing short of infuriating.

Ironically, this is the same mall bench that got Gene in this predicament to begin with in season 3’s “Mabel” when Saul’s primal urge to blurt “Get a lawyer!” to a detained shop-lifter causes his own physical collapse.  This leads to the hospital visit he would later take the cab home from.  As Captain Bauer from the Air Force base told Jimmy in that very same season 3 opener, “the wheel is going to turn”, meaning consequences are coming for the life direction Jimmy chooses.  By beckoning the shop-lifter to get a lawyer, despite compromising his low profile in the vicinity of law enforcement, Gene reaffirms who he is.  Not someone who can stay in hiding.  Not Gene.  Gene is not in his D.N.A.  He’s Saul Goodman.  A problem solver at any cost.

This theme is reignited when Gene is faced with an easy, if not expensive reset button from Ed the Disappearer.  Gene’s got diamonds of all things in his band aid box (a keepsake introduced since the series premiere) which very well may pay for the steep expenses for him to “poof” and relocate, but then it hits him…  As the title of the episode suggests, Saul Goodman is the magic man and that’s who he is and always was. “Welcome to My World” by Dean Martin is the song that plays when Gene opens the Cinnabon for business and that’s the tune he’s skipping to.  He no longer plans to run from where he’s ended up or whatever any higher power has in store for him.  As the song goes:

“I’ll be waiting here…

With my arms unfurled…

Waiting here for you…

Welcome to my world…”

This is a pure character-driven decision for Saul to stay in Omaha and handle the cab driver and his silent pal on his own.  It’s very different from Walter White not being able to disappear himself and his family because of a plot-based obstacle like Skyler having no choice but to give away Walt’s money to Ted Beneke.  It’s also a much different direction than New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto that drove Walt back to New Mexico in the Breaking Bad finale.  Nebraska’s State motto is “Equality before the Law” which is something Saul has always valued in his own twisted way going all the way back to his desire to be Chuck’s peer, no matter how many corners he needed to cut to achieve that.  Saul Goodman will not allow anyone to ever hold any sense of power over him.  It’s all an equal playing field and he’ll bend the law in any way he sees fit to fight and win.

But does he actually value equality anymore? Jimmy McGill certainly did, but Saul Goodman seems to revel in rising above all else.  This entire episode, Saul refers to his own future clientele as assholes and morons.  It’s less about helping the less fortunate like Kim has been doing as a public defender and more about running a manipulative game on them for his own gain.  What’s most unsettling though is how Saul seems to lump the entire world in with the rest of his clients, garnering no consideration for anyone but himself, including Kim.  The world is one big mark for him to con and everyone in it is just another trick in his bag.  Kim, as Saul states, is someone who can pull him back when he’s gone too far and that’s what he values in their relationship.  She’s a necessity but that has nothing to do with what Kim values.  When Jimmy asks “Is there some angle I’m not seeing here?” while sharing direct eye contact, she can’t bring herself to protest.  This is how the beginning of a break-up happens when one partner simply allows the other to blow the relationship up.  If Jimmy can’t see why his behavior and outlook is destructive, then their separation will become justified.  There’s no use in explaining why she feels hurt if it conflicts with his newfound world view that’s taking off like a runaway freight train.

Kim enters this season in a haze, emerging into focus after a dizzying array of passing colors, representative of the magic puff of smoke cast by Saul Goodman, but also representative of her mixed bag of emotions.  Kim, like many people, is not somebody who’s alright being made vulnerable.  She definitely is not okay with being used the way she was and continues to be. Towards the end, Saul parades around the courthouse lobby using his impressionable film crew to solicit his sleazy services and uses fellow public defender Bill Oakley like a prop in a skit.  Kim, unbeknownst to Saul, is used like another prop against her will as he practically usurps Kim’s role as a legitimate legal practitioner, nearly demanding they run a scam on her clients to prevent them from wanting to take their case to trial.  Talking Saul Goodman down to the point where she has to lose her cool in order to pull him back to Earth is a humiliating, difficult position to be put in.  How long does she have to keep being his tether to reality before he breaks her? Is this the role Kim wants to serve as in their relationship?

Kim is left nearly defeated in the face of her clients and to save face she uses that to play up the scam Saul impelled upon her.  It’s easier to go along than admitting her own defeat which is a dangerous road to go down.  Saul essentially forces Kim’s hand in a similar way Jeff the cab driver forces Gene’s.  Both are left on a bench, strung along like a puppet against their will by someone who is attributed to the same adjectives: rude, intrusive and smarmy.  The question is, does Kim do the equivalent of disappearing by ending the relationship or is she going to own up to the man she’s been involved with for all this time? Better yet, who is she to be with him in the first place?

In last season’s “Wiedersehen” Jimmy called Kim out for not being completely in his camp. It’s an ongoing contradiction that’s owed to an identity crisis and that in turn is due to not coming into full terms with the world she’s paved for herself.  What is Kim’s world? Is it to be Saul Goodman’s undying, supportive partner to the point where it leads to her potential demise or is her life better off elsewhere? Does her mysterious past life growing up along the Kansas/Nebraska border dictate any of the decisions that lead her here from the beginning? This is the overwhelming crossroad she’s left with as she catches her breath in the stairwell because now she has to commit to one choice or another.  After all they have been through it’s hard to leave him (fallacy of sunk costs), but staying with him is absolutely dangerous and she already senses that. There is so many questions to consider here and season 5 seems determined to explore them.

Speaking of impending doom, the parallel story of Better Call Saul finds Lalo delving deeper into the Werner Ziegler conspiracy now that he knows the man has been reported dead.  His suspicions that something odd is afoot leads him to investigate the cocaine supply after Nacho steers him towards what might be more of a non-issue.  Nacho is a middle man double agent who is just trying to keep the peace until he can forge a plan to get him and his father out of the country.  However, Lalo being put on the trail of drugs leads him right back to Gus’ chicken farm after learning that some of the cocaine had been replaced with meth, a product Don Eladio has long frowned upon and takes offense at the very idea of its inclusion into the operation without his say.

Lalo meets with Gus under Juan Bolsa’s moderation and Gus apologizes for the secrets he’s kept from them, delivering a cover story for the super lab explaining that construction is underway for a chicken chiller.  Lalo knows enough details through his private sleuthing that this cover story is all smoke and mirrors.  He knows about a south wall and of poured concrete which seems to have nothing to do with the project Gus is showing them. He’s also smart enough to know that Mike is shadier than the supervisor of a legitimate construction crew after surveilling Mike in season 4’s finale.  Juan might have bought Gus’ phony story but for Lalo, the game has just begun and he lets Gus know that with a wink and smile.

What’s most interesting about this development is that when Juan firmly reassures Lalo that Gus is strictly business who holds no grudge over his partner Max’s death, Lalo responds, “Like what happened in Santiago? Was that business too?”.  Back when Max was killed in the flashback in Breaking Bad’s “Hermanos”, Max pleaded with Don Eladio, vouching that Gus is a good man who saved him from the Santiago slums. Can we expect more of Gus’ past in Chile to actually be explored? Or will it remain a mystery ala the contents of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction? How does Lalo factor into Santiago? Did Gus do something that affected him or more importantly the Salamanca family as a whole? Is there a deeper reason to Hector’s hatred of Gus?  We know Hector has held a grudge against Gus going all the way back to the flashback in Breaking Bad’s “One Minute” where Hector referred to the Chicken Man smugly as a “Big Generalissimo” who shouldn’t be trusted.  There’s many theories that surround Gus, including the likeliness that he was connected to the Pinochet Regime.  Something that would make him high ranking enough for Don Eladio to spare his life.  Regardless, this shows just how ingrained Lalo is in this universe. At this point, I’m becoming more interested in him as a character than as a plot device to converge the show’s storylines.

Meanwhile, Mike relieves the Germans of their operation, stressing the consequences in the event they break their agreement of never speaking a word of what they helped build.  They are completely aware that Werner’s death was no accident but are united to stay cooperative.  I imagine if one person breaks their word, the entire crew are under the threat of said consequence.  That said, Kai, who was presented as last season’s red herring/bad apple, surprisingly tries to comfort Mike that what he had to do was for the best and that in the end, Werner was a good man, but soft.  These condolences only get under Mike’s skin and he does to Kai what I believe he was waiting to do all of last season and knocks him sideways.  Being told that Werner is soft as an excuse for his disposal is the last thing Mike wants to hear because it once again brings up the memory of his own son’s death.  It’s something he had to shake to even go through with Werner’s murder but alas, it will always haunt him.  The next guy called upon to go home by Mike is Casper who tells Mike exactly what he would prefer his son to be remembered as: “He was worth 50 of you.”  This only cuts into Mike deeper and for a rare occasion we see Mike get put in his place.

Mike and Gus, as expected, are not on good terms.  For one, Mike is insulted by Gus’ corporate way of resolving the Werner situation with the wife.  She’s compensated for her grief as if you can put a dollar value on such a thing.  For Gus, throwing money at the problem of Werner’s wife and throwing money at Mike to be on retainer for doing nothing is an evil Mike won’t stand for.  His own moral reservations over what he’s done is just collateral damage in an operation that’s bigger than him. There’s a bridge of story here that still has yet to be naturally told to bring Mike around to his involvement with Gus.  Like Kim, he’s going to have figure out his place in the world he’s lent himself to.  The only person in this entire hour who seems to be completely comfortable with themselves right now is Saul Goodman and that’s not too reassuring.  Season 5’s premiere is carrying the show forward into extremely chaotic territory.  At some point, something horrible is going to have to give.  The anticipation of whatever that may be is scary.

Also, rest in peace Robert Forster.

It was good to see him play the role of Ed the Disappearer one last time.

 

 

Better Call Saul “Winner” (S4E10)

In a question of unbridled sincerity, season four’s swan song “Winner” kicks off with a flashback showcasing a time when newly appointed attorney Jimmy McGill felt the strongest affection and admiration for his brother, Chuck, who swears him in before the New Mexico Bar Association. It’s a moment so strong to the extent where even Chuck (harbored grudges aside) is enamored likewise by this feeling.  The brotherly bond runs deep as Jimmy celebrates becoming a lawyer with his karaoke rendition of Abba’s “The Winner Takes it All”, which a reluctant Chuck is pulled on stage to sing alongside him.  It’s the one time in the show where Chuck is happily swept up in Jimmy’s blissful aurora and embraces him most fondly and publicly.

Even if he doesn’t want to admit it, Chuck is proud of Jimmy here and that becomes most prevalent when the two are alone crashing together for the night where there’s nobody around to potentially pretend for.  Despite politely brushing off Jimmy’s drunken ramblings that the two McGill brothers have become equals, Chuck immediately snaps out of any fixed umbrage when Jimmy begins to sing the song once again.  Jimmy cherishes this sweet, rare moment of connection to his brother and Chuck chimes in because he too appreciates its value.  It’s the most pure on-screen display of the unconditional love, however complicated, that exists between them.

Jimmy ironically carries this memory with him throughout the episode, even when forcing himself to appear sad over Chuck’s death to any on-lookers from the law community.  The paradoxical magic of Abba’s “The Winner Takes it All” brought these brothers close but the lyrics actually prophesize their bleak, underlying conflict and serves as a theme to the regrets Jimmy feels for allowing himself to love and honor Chuck for the better part of his life.  Jimmy tried his best to play by the rules in order to recapture that rare feeling of making Chuck proud and in the end, it crushed him.  As he sees it, his past mistakes forever doomed him as an irredeemable screw-up to those who hold the keys to the castle of opportunity and that’s how it’s always been.  He realizes the world will define you by your actions and reaffirms the only way to counter that is by cutting corners, which has always been his instinct.

Jimmy relays this line of thinking to a young Kristy Esposito, a rejected finalist for HHM’s memorial scholarship who he served on the board to vote for.  As her only supporter, Jimmy sympathized with her, being a kid who was once caught shop-lifting and seemed to have worked hard to correct a mistake she very well may have learned from.  Jimmy pleads to her, “Remember, the winner takes it all,” after telling her to bend the rules and rise above the people who are dead-set to shut her out.  It’s this “the end justifies the means” form of advice he wishes he could have given to his younger self before the McGill war came to a head.  As Kim made clear last episode, Jimmy is always down and there’s no more appropriate place but HHM’s depressing basement parking lot for him to have an uncontrolled breakdown over this epiphany.  What might sting most is he could have been on the figurative fiftieth floor instead if he had not felt such a burning desire to make Chuck happy.  Through his suppressed grief, this is the feeling that is so real and sincere, it finally comes pouring out with a devastating performance by Bob Odenkirk.

At the end of the cold open, Jimmy stresses the natural order of symmetry in a drunken tangent to Chuck (two eyes, two hands, two nipples, etc.).  It’s all nonsense babbling but it paints a clear picture of Jimmy’s world-view assumption that he’s entitled to just as much as Chuck for achieving the bare minimum solely because of his idealized fantasy that they’re two brothers of the same profession.  Jimmy even suggests adding another M to HHM in order to restore symmetry (HHMM).  I don’t think Jimmy necessarily believes he’s as smart as his brother or as accomplished, but despite Chuck living life on the straight and narrow, he has a strong, resilient backbone.  He has just as much of a backbone to zig left as Jimmy has to zag right and that’s something their father, from Jimmy’s perspective, sorely lacked.  Jimmy has always felt superior to his father but Chuck built a life for himself in tribute to how good his father was and I think this always amazed Jimmy.  The thought of taking something seen as pathetic and turning it into gold is one thing, but for Chuck to reject Jimmy in a harsher manner than Jimmy rejected his father could be seen as the greatest slap in the face.

The tension in Jimmy’s story lies in the anticipation that he’s going to finally confront his brother’s death and allow himself to truly feel his feelings to appear sincere at his appealed reinstatement hearing.  Faking tears over Chuck’s headstone while literally sobbing the words “boo-hoo” sets itself up for the question: How does Jimmy go from a laughable circus act to a moment of sincere, cathartic introspection by the end of the hour?  We already witness him have an honest breakdown in HHM’s basement parking lot so we know he’s capable of feeling something. Chuck’s farewell letter being taken out like it’s the magic key to recapturing those emotions for a genuinely sound testimony clues us in on the plan, but we already know the letter had no effect on him the first time around.  Maybe now it will work though, especially since all the hard, expensive ground-work of Jimmy’s grieving narrative has been spread to everyone in Chuck’s professional orbit? At the hearing, Jimmy barely reads a few sentences before stopping himself and it’s here where we realize this off-the-cuff deviation from the plan is the true road to salvation.

In my review of the previous episode “Wiedersehen”, I mentioned how this season seemed to be building towards Jimmy confronting his brother’s death, while the parallel story of Mike is about unburdening himself from the death of his son.  The separate journeys undertaken by these two characters tend to mirror each other whether through similarities or opposition. Symmetry, if you will.  It seemed pretty cut and dry that Jimmy had to tap into his honest opinion on Chuck in order to truly emote. The speech he gives to the board is in the essence of a moving Don Draper pitch.  It’s humble, it’s spontaneous, and we know as long-time viewers, that he’s speaking the hard truth.  When we see Kim (someone who arguably knows Jimmy more than anyone) getting misty-eyed, we know this is real.  It’s real, it’s real, it’s real, and then Jimmy pulls down the curtain in celebration of winning everyone over and reveals it’s all bullshit, duping all of us, including Kim.  Was it an act though? Or did he somehow allow himself to feel something real and in turn used it for deception? That’s the scariest part of this ending being that he can go so far down the emotional well which he’s avoided all season and come back up with it meaning nothing to himself.

Kim is left stranded speechless as she, for once, is on the receiving end of Jimmy’s scheme.  A scheme that he pulled out of thin air without realizing the effect it would have on anyone in the vicinity, regardless if it’s someone he supposedly cares about.  How can Kim trust Jimmy after that?  She’s worked scams with him before and is aware of his magic and trickery but this ending reveals a darker side to him where even the real and sincere is just another tool in his bag of tricks.  Everything real that Kim feels for Jimmy or believes Jimmy feels for her is potentially worthless now.  If he could dismissively turn the grief for his dead brother into a lottery ticket, then what chance does Kim have to mean anything beyond another card in his deck? How can she make heads or tails of what he actually values?  Throughout the entire series, fans have been waiting for the introduction to Saul, and while this ending is the greatest push forward and the journey is not over, we’re getting what we’ve been anticipating in the most heart-wrenching, tragic way.  The final turn where Jimmy pivots his entire body in one eerie motion before exclaiming “It’s S’all good man!” is the most earned, ‘twist-of-the-knife’ conclusion to date.

The outcome to Mike’s story goes as predicted by my last write-up, but that by no means takes anything away from the magnitude of where it leaves us. The episode spirals into a mad hunt for Werner while also juggling a cat-and-mouse game between Lalo and Mike for reasons that remain curiously odd.  Lalo, who serves as a mystery as to exactly how he’ll play into the show’s endgame, surveils Gus’ operation in this time of crisis.  He has no knowledge of the construction of the super lab or why everyone is scrambling all over town, but he’s getting closer to learning something, even it means ramming cars in private parking lots or killing the TravelWire clerk who helped give Mike information on Werner’s possible whereabouts.  The Lalo portion of the B story is very chaotic, as it should be, but it’s ultimately setting the stage for what story developments we can expect from season 5.  In the end, we know Lalo is going to play an important enough role to the point where it will bleed into Saul Goodman’s world and possibly signify Nacho’s demise, or who knows, even Kim’s. Gus told Juan Bolsa in the beginning of the season, “someone will make a move on the Salamanca family and that will bring war, which brings chaos, which brings the D.E.A.” We’ll stay tuned.

As I mentioned, story execution still needed to play its part in properly landing the conclusion of Mike being forced to deal with Werner Ziegler. In my “Coushatta” write-up, I speculated how Mike would possibly pledge allegiance to Gus if he is put in the position to take Werner out and this episode helps us understand that, somewhat.  Throughout the hour, an angry, concerned Gus stays silent.  The story becomes less about forcing Mike to do anything and more of Mike feeling responsible for this colossal hiccup which he knows he should have been on top of.  Better Call Saul revels most in character-driven outcomes more than plot-driven.  The characters dig their own graves and that’s a factor that helps Mike realize that Gus’ operation is too great for him to have a conflict of morality over what happens to Werner.

Werner knew what he signed up for and knew his decision to leave was foolish, but he was blinded by his undying urge to simply see his wife again.  If the lives we lead lend themselves to a story, then our decisions (again, reflective of where the world places us) will eventually write ourselves into inescapable corners. Unfortunately, all the pieces were in the right place for Werner to meet his end even if he didn’t fully understand the game he was playing until it was too late.  Just the same, all the pieces were in the right place for Mike to deliver what Werner had coming to him and that’s because of Mike’s own choices throughout the season.  The final scene with Mike and Werner is handled so beautifully in the way Mike grants Werner a chance to save his wife while Werner sees Mike’s troubled situation clearly for what it is, and unlike Walter White’s frantic, compromising refusal to accept his own fate, Werner not only accepts but selflessly makes it easier for Mike to do what he has to do.  Werner is the sweetest man to ever fall victim directly to Mike and this definitely shakes Mike to his core.

There are so many stars visible in New Mexico.  I will walk out there…to get a better look…” – Werner

It’s official now.  Mike has now become everything he’s always hated.  He’s now killed a good man and turned an unsuspecting wife into a widow.  It’s what happened to his son and the good samaritan Hector killed back when Mike hijacked the delivery truck in season 2.  He blamed himself quite heavily for both of these tragedies, so we can expect season 5 will open with Mike in an extremely dark place.  The thing is, with a fuming Gus left inside the most expensive hole in the ground West of the Mississippi, does Mike being indebted to this problem become more urgent than his own internal reservations over what he’s done?  Will he bury this incident deeper in the archives of all the terrible things he’s had to do and become more hardened?  We know he’s more cold-blooded about killing in Breaking Bad than where he is now, but this murder is much different than the violent goons who were in the cartel game.  I think there’s still a significant amount of story left to tell here because Gus and Mike are not on the even ground we’re accustomed to in the other show.  Mike is going to have to seriously figure himself out after this.

Other things to note:

  • No Nacho this episode.  He just becomes absorbed into the Gus/Lalo war that’s starting to brew.  There’s something unsettling about that.  At a certain point, Nacho’s secret plan of escaping to Canada with his father under false identities is going to become a reality.  Gus and Lalo pulling him back and forth to do their bidding is eventually not going to end well.
  • I was hoping the show would check back in on Howard and I’m happy that he’s looking healthier and that HHM is recovering from its setbacks. Earlier on in my write-ups, I compared Howard to Werner in that they were both willing to see the hurdles ahead of them for what they are.  Howard got his hands dirty and seeked therapy over Chuck’s death, while Werner approached the construction of the superlab as the dangerous and difficult operation that it was.  I’m glad for Howard’s sake that symmetry went for opposition here in terms of where they ended up.
  • Mike choosing the gum in his glove box over the gun (wordplay) lead to another clever way to shake Lalo from tailing him.  Better Call Saul never runs out of brilliant ideas for these characters to get themselves out of a jam.  It’s too bad there was nothing as inspired in the glove box to relieve Werner from his fateful predicament.

That’s a wrap on season 4! It was another great one.

 

 

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie Review

“Everything I think I know is just static on the radio…”

Could I have gone on happily with my life without ever having seen El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie? Considering how tightly wrapped up Breaking Bad was as a series, of course that’s true.  I’m always grateful for what’s already been given. But does a film focusing on Jesse Pinkman’s quest for freedom following Breaking Bad’s finale a necessary venture regardless?  Most people would tell you no, yet they liked or loved the movie anyway (as did I), but I’m going to go out on a limb and argue a solid “kind of, maybe, yeah” in regard to its necessity.

A little under a year ago when the film was first announced, I went into great depth listing my concerns for what I feel would help it succeed from a critical standpoint.  Avoiding these pitfalls doesn’t guarantee a brilliant movie, but it’s a template I thought would help nonetheless.  Long story, short, the bullet points were as follows:

  • No Walter White (Unless the story dictates).
  • The events of Breaking Bad do not need to be explained.
  • Preserve the Breaking Bad finale’s small shred of open-endedness.
  • The film needs to prove its worth.
  • Remember, Jesse’s in the driver’s seat now.  Not shotgun.

Going forward with this film, conceptually, was a monumental task.  The opening frame, being a signature wide and closed shot of Jesse staring across a lake at a mountain, isn’t just symbolic to the giant hurdle Jesse would have to overcome in achieving the fresh start he desires (or the chance to put things right, which Mike firmly tells him is the one thing he can never do).  It’s also a self-aware, metaphorical nod to the difficult task ahead for Vince Gilligan to land Jesse’s proper conclusion without it stepping on the toes of the former series or proving to be a pointless endeavor.  And when I say proper conclusion, I don’t mean a love letter to the fans for what they might giddily hope to see, but something of value that Vince sincerely felt he should tell.  In the series finale, Jesse’s story ended on an ambiguously conclusive note which was fitting, but it was just a note.  Not a conclusion for a character who earned the role of co-lead (regardless if the show was intended primarily for Walt) and who proved to be just as essential in light of the pawn/plot device he becomes towards the end of the show’s run in larger service to Walt’s story.  Jesse Pinkman has always been a special appendage to Breaking Bad’s journey and El Camino sets out to remind you that.

There’s no question Jesse will carry physical and psychic wounds brought on by Walt’s destructive actions for the better part of his life, so whether or not Walt made an appearance here, his spiritual presence would have inevitably hung over El Camino in a dark, ominous manner.  That said, I’m glad we got little snippets of context through news reports of who this Walter White guy is without taking any focus away from Jesse Pinkman’s present trauma and conflict.  This is what helped give Walter White’s unceremonious turn down the hotel hallway so much dramatic weight.  Here, in a flashback scene taking place directly after being stranded in the desert from season 2’s “4 Days Out”, Walter couldn’t appear any more harmless or vulnerable.  It’s a moment in the series when both characters were sort of at peace that this might be their final cook together, pending confirmation that Walt’s lung cancer hasn’t grown significantly worse.  For standalone movie-goers, this is the same Mr. White who’s been dubbed a drug kingpin and has apparently claimed the lives of many people, stirring up a nationwide manhunt.  The same guy being one who gives such poignant, albeit hopeful advice that Jesse is lucky to have so much time to do something special with his life.

This is shortly followed after a scene where Walt puts Jesse’s intelligence on the spot, trying to measure what he’s capable of and what the future may hold for him.  Walt, being as self-involved as he is, completely forgets Jesse achieved his high school diploma (“Yo you were standing right on the stage when they handed it to me”).  Jesse shows a hint of interest towards maybe pursuing a field in sports medicine if he were to attend college and Walt entertains that idea for about a nanosecond before suggesting a business degree.  For all of Walter White’s intellectual superiority and experience, you have to wonder what the hell does he even really know after all the terrible choices he made towards the end? Who is he to tell Jesse what to do with his life?

It’s at this point where I need to direct your attention to the film’s ending song (“Static on the Radio” by Jim White, featuring Aimee Mann) because I feel it’s immensely important to understanding the film’s underlying themes and use of flashbacks throughout.  It’s dreary, wondrous, and simply beautiful. Listen carefully:

Please also read this superbly written and concise analysis of “Static on the Radio’s” meaning I came across from music blog series The Delete Bin (credit to Rob Jones, thedeletebin.com) as it definitely gave me a deeper appreciation for the song’s use in the film.  Keep in mind, this was written long before the movie. 

Let’s consider the lyrics:

And I know (it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead)
And I know (it’s a crime to weave your wishes into what they said)
And I know (only fools venture where them spirits tread)
‘Cause I know (every word, every sound bouncing ’round my head)

You might have noticed that in every flashback scene, Jesse is recalling some nugget of advice a now deceased character (or spirit) has relayed to him:

  • Mike says, “Only you can decide what’s best for you. Not him (Walter), not me,” while also finishing the scene stating, based from his experience, that ‘putting things right’ is the one thing you can never do.
  • Todd says, “You know Uncle Jack says…life’s what you make it.”
  • Walt says, “You’re really lucky, you know that?.  You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
  • Jane says “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life.  It’s better to make those decisions yourself.”

And I know (the blind will sometimes lead the blind)
And I know (through shadowlands and troubled times)
And I know (forsaking love, we see it’s a sign)
And I know (of truths forever hid behind)

Regardless of who’s behind the phrase and whether or not any person in question has affected Jesse’s life in a positive or negative way, it’s all generally good, if not vague words of wisdom that can be spun in any direction he sees fit.  It all sounds nice and it may be exactly what Jesse needs to hear but is life not more complex?  Some of the people sharing their well-intended existential philosophy may be hypocritical, deluded, complicit, morally ambiguous (more good or evil), or complacent when you stop to think what road their motto of philosophy may or may not have lead them.  It goes to show that people in our lives can be just as lost as Jesse, you, or I when it comes to finding the right way to live.  Words to live by can be interpreted in a number of ways so it’s up to you for how to make it work.

‘Cause I know (dreams are for those who are asleep in bed)
And I know (it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead)
‘Cause I know (for all my ruminations I can’t change a thing)
Still I hope (there’s others out there who are listening)

In the beginning of El Camino, Mike plants the idea for Jesse to take up a life in Alaska which is what he ends up striving towards.  He also tells Jesse he won’t be able to correct the unfortunate events of the past and yet, by the end of the film, Jesse still feels the need to make an effort for young Brock, an innocent victim of Jesse’s circumstance, by sending a letter most likely explaining and apologizing for why Brock’s mother was senselessly murdered by Jesse’s captors.  By doing this, Jesse can at least hope to bring some peace to Brock if the boy is willing to hear it.  It doesn’t correct what’s already happened but it’s the best Jesse can possibly hope to do for him.

For me, what I got out of this film is you are who you are and you’ve done what you’ve done.  If you can accept and take responsibility for that, you can begin to move forward, be better, and be content with the life you’ve paved for yourself since the beginning and until the end.  Anyone who crosses your path telling you how life could be spent otherwise is something you need to pick and choose for yourself as you grow.  Because life is not as certain or simple as any fortune cookie slice of philosophy could suggest.  In the end, everyone’s figuring it out as they get older and everything you think you know may very well slip away.  It’s all static on the radio.  You pick up and apply what you know in incremental drips and drabs and the best you can hope for is what good may come from truly acknowledging life’s complexities as you live the life you call your own.

I actually liked that El Camino (spanish for ‘the road’ or ‘the way’) was more meditative, not just in a spiritual sense but mechanically because that’s exactly what made Breaking Bad so special to begin with (something the series finale did away with by having Walt randomly appear in places and magically get things done). The in-between minutiae of conflict that you rarely witness in crime stories is what this show, for the better part of its run, absolutely excelled at. It’s that compelling ‘one foot forward and two steps back’ form of storytelling that drew me to the show in the first place. By the end of Breaking Bad, Walt became such a despicable character and was so far gone from any shred of sympathy, that the show conceptually stripped that narrative structure away from the viewer. Long are the days of taking three episodes to dispose of bodies, an entire episode trying to get the RV’s battery to start, or spending an entire season figuring out how to get rid of Gus.  A Breaking Bad film about the more empathetic Jesse makes sense to bring that methodical pace back, especially considering he’s a character who (while proven to hold his own and has grown to be sharper as an individual) doesn’t possess the same magic, intelligence and bravado that Walt had.

Any other film about a fugitive on the run would have gone all in for the non-stop, action-packed thrill of the lead character racing against the odds to outrun the cops, much like El Camino seemed to be hinting at before Skinny Pete and Badger’s video game fakeout. This film offers that tension but it’s more cleverly derived from its smaller, character-driven moments. Figuring out a plan and saying goodbye to Skinny Pete and Badger instead of bolting out of there is more real and believable to me than the film serving as some vicarious ‘what would I really be doing in this situation’ type of story.  Like sure, not shaving would be an ideal way to come off unrecognizable to law enforcement, but Jesse is his own person with his own exclusive experiences and trauma.

The same goes for Jesse deciding to give Todd back his gun for the chance to have some pepperoni pizza and beer rather than a possible escape. It’s especially a more psychological, helpless moment like that which makes Jesse Pinkman a uniquely interesting and deserving character to follow. Spending a significant chunk of the film with Jesse poking around in Todd’s apartment (the last space he wants to occupy) and further exploring the hell that Jesse had to go through rather than glossing over it with mere implications of his torture and imprisonment helps make the road to renewing his sense of self and humanity all the more richer. I like that there are so many unexpected, trivial hang-ups that prevent Jesse from moving on as simply as getting in a car and driving away.  Instead he has to work backwards, wrack his brain over where Todd may have hid his money, and stew in the memories of his enslavement like a bad nightmare while simultaneously proceeding onward like a dream where it takes forever to get to where you want to go (if reached at all before waking).

*By the way, Jesse Plemons’ performance as Todd was a striking reminder of how twisted and unconventional he was at playing the sociopathic villain in those final two years.  He’s definitely one of the more redeeming additions to the series so late into its life cycle and I’m happy Vince seized the opportunity to give him a significant role for him to shine with here.

Another familiar touchstone of Breaking Bad is celebrated thusly with the script’s daring ability to write itself into corners and then write itself out in the most earned, uncompromised manner.  Old Joe wiping the El Camino off the face of the planet (free of charge) would have been just as convenient (ala deus ex machina) as the coincidence of the LoJack’s tracking system being initiated the moment Joe was scanning the car.  The feds are homing in fast but Skinny Pete saves the day with an inspired, improvised plan B by having Badger drive Skinny’s car to the Mexico border while keeping the El Camino right where it is.  It’s the perfect diversion while Jesse drives North in Badger’s car.  Much better than the lazier direction of a typical hollywood car chase.

The creme de la creme though is later when Jesse is literally backed into a corner as two “police officers” search Todd’s apartment with Jesse inside and he’s forced to crawl his way out, guns drawn.  He actually disarms the first man before getting into a stand-off with the other who was wise enough to know his partner was in trouble.  Every beat of this is a master class in tension-building because before you know it, Jesse’s laying flat on his stomach, presumably in custody, but (twist) the two men are actually associates of Uncle Jack who are just looking to score some loot from the recently deceased Todd.  Even with Jesse utterly defenseless, the story finds a natural way to proceed without resorting to any cop-outs.  Seriously, so much good comes from Vince Gilligan deciding to devote Todd’s apartment as the film’s centerpiece. It’s something I initially felt uneasy about but from the moment it was creepily established in flashbacks to its urgent destruction through staple Breaking Bad-esque montage, and then the pay-off with Neil and Casey serving as antagonists, it accomplishes so much with unwavering execution.

The inclusion of new characters like Neil Kandy, the welder who fixed the meth lab’s dog chain with full complicity to Jesse’s imprisonment and torture, and his spoiled partner Casey, is an audacious, yet beneficial decision on Vince’s part because 1) Jesse needed to overcome some baddies (Walt can’t be the complete “hero” to Jesse’s story) and 2) the catharsis he achieved in the series finale to withdraw from the drama brought on by his own demons (revenge, ridding the world of every evil) needed to be challenged.  The scene of Jesse being forced to run back and forth so Kenny and Neil can bet on whether the chain will break is one of the most unthinkably upsetting moments in the film.  It sets the viewer up to be furious and wanting to see these characters ripped limb from limb.  They don’t just serve as additional antagonists, but they stand in for Uncle Jack’s crew (Jesse strolling in their place of business mirroring Walt’s final act of violence at the neo-nazi clubhouse) and it helps that they remain a colorful, distinguished duo in their own right.

All of that said, Jesse’s approach to the situation is different.  He respectfully asks for a measly $1,800 and to never be seen again, being a modest request from someone who allowed Neil to take the majority of Todd’s money. Neil, if circumstances played out differently, seems prepared to shruggingly grant this plea.  However, he’s been drinking, just snorted cocaine, and feels on top of the world after partying with hookers.  Add to the fact that Casey is buzzing in his ear incessantly about how emasculating it is that Neil even gave Pinkman a cut to begin with.  I believe to the fullest extent that if given the money, Jesse would have been the bigger man to walk out of there and close the door on those goons forever.  Neil, on the other hand, represents the Jesse Pinkman of the past in some ways by giving in to the manipulations of his partner, the needless urge to initiate a shootout (“Half Measures” ending), and the naivety in what it means to feel on top.

I don’t think Neil wants a gunfight but is too weak not to upset his buddies.  Jesse doesn’t need to prove something so petty and childish, but if he’s going to get money from anywhere, it’s not going to be from his parents or some random robbery, it’s going to be from those he knows will deserve what they get, worse comes to worse.  Vince Gilligan intelligently places the audience’s (and most definitely Jesse’s) itching desire to do away with Neil as a last resort insurance plan, but it’s not something Jesse feels needs to happen.  This is who Jesse Pinkman is.  Not willing to kill, but capable when he has to.

As an audience who has followed this character for an entire series, we may have a bias in terms of the strong empathy we hold for Jesse.  He’s committed terrible acts but we understand on an emotional level, beat by beat, what drove him to those acts, and we especially know how much punishment he’s faced for it, if not by the world, then by himself.  In El Camino, the universe is indifferent to his torment as it always was.  When Ed, the disappearer turns Jesse away for coming up short with his payment, Jesse tries to win him over with sympathy of his life story (most specifically, events of recent), in which Ed responds by saying he should try his ability to pull on heartstrings with the police if he’s so certain it will work on him.  Ed says, “From where I sit, you made your own luck. As did your former partner.  As did your lawyer.”

This is what I was hoping the film would address because it goes back to what everyone in the flashbacks were more or less expressing.  Life is what you make it.  You need to face the life you’ve made for yourself and stop running from it.  It’s why Jesse endearingly tells his parents they aren’t to blame and they did the best they could with him because this isn’t so much a getaway movie as it is a story of self-realization as one catches and owns up to their current state of being.  Whereas Walt’s motto was twisted in that of New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”, Jesse is in pursuit for Alaska’s “The Last Frontier”, his last chance to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made.

I found El Camino to be a more profound and effective stopping place for Breaking Bad’s story than that of “Felina” as it has left me reflecting on it just as intensely but with its more methodical return to form.  After “Ozymandias”, I didn’t go into El Camino expecting it to be anything more climactic than simply giving Jesse a proper conclusion as his story dwindles down and yet, it was an enjoyable movie on its own which I welcome into the series canon with open arms.  It checked off everything I hoped it would avoid and accomplish.  It used Walter White appropriately, it didn’t feel pre-occupied with explaining anything (Walter White’s death confirmation is more to sting the fan theorists and to witness Jesse’s reaction), and it used Jesse’s catharsis of valuing freedom and peace of mind as a sly source of tension.  It also leaves the appropriate questions from “Felina” still up in the air.  Following up on where Skyler, Marie, or Junior are at with incoming “donated” money or court proceedings would have been too much information that would have defeated the point that Walt left his family in ruins regardless of what he thinks he might have made up for.  Plus, that’s not a part of Jesse’s world to begin with.

The most important question though is still preserved.  Is Jesse (or Mr. Driscoll) really okay now that he’s driving towards an isolated future?  He’s definitely better off than the manic, screaming state we saw him at the end of the series and beginning of this film, but the juxtaposed, quiet drive into Haines, Alaska makes you wonder.  Will he continue to appreciate his slice of secluded freedom or will he increasingly crack under the pressure of solitude like Gene seems to with every Better Call Saul opener?  I like to think he’ll be better at it, but like the mountain in the opening shot or the entire range surrounded him when burying Todd’s housekeeper, is life not full of conflicting and problematic hurdles to overcome?  The final image of mountains is a gorgeous wide shot showing them snow-capped just beyond the trees, suggesting that external conflict and inner-struggle will exist as long as you live.  Life’s complexities can either overwhelm or stand as a majesty to marvel at and cherish.  You can take it for what you will.