Top 7 Simpsons Episodes of Season 3

Ah,  season 3.

The debut for showrunners Al Jean & Mike Reiss churning out 24 glorious episodes spanning from September 19th, 1991 to August 27th, 1992.  It’s a crime to dismiss the rest of the season’s installments.  So many series favorites come to mind and may very well only be excluded due to writer’s block.  If it were up to me, I’d rank and review the entire season, but sometimes we must kill our darlings in order to make a random Top 7 list.  Enjoy!

7. “Lisa’s Pony” (Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss)

It’s every little girl’s dream to have her own pony.  At least that’s how the generalization goes, but what if The Simpsons took that cliche’ and ran with it to explore the physical and economical toll it would have on the father providing for it?  Lisa, starved of the support of a present father figure is disappointed once again when Homer fails to retrieve a saxaphone reed in time for her recital.   Her cynicism however is flipped to pure childhood bliss when she’s given a pony as a grand apologetic gesture.  The premise is ‘out there’ for so early in the show’s run, but its the emotional resonance which keeps it glued together.  What seems like a quick fix exercise in parenting from Homer, becomes an extraordinary example of the commitment he’s willing to endure (working a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart) just to uphold his daughter’s happiness.  In the end, it’s Lisa who meets Homer’s sense of willpower by admitting “there’s a big, dumb animal I love even more than that horse…”

“Oh no, what is it, a hippopotamus?” – Homer

*This episode won Dan Castellaneta the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Voice-Over Performance’

6. “Dog of Death” (Written by John Swartzwelder)

Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for dogs like anyone else, but out of all of season 3’s episodes, this one always jumps out at me.  The Simpsons family dog, getting his key introduction in the pilot “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, became a gleaming symbol for the love and gratitude shared as the family continued to live paycheck to paycheck with a colorful, down-but-not-out optimism.  If the pilot was about being grateful for the riches you have or find in life, season 3’s “Dog of Death” is a story of how complacent we can get when carrying that appreciation forward.  The best aspect to this episode as Santa’s Little Helper faces imminent death is the balance between cynicism and sincere emotion.

Writer John Swartzwelder holds back no punches whether it’s Mr. Burns literally bopping SLH in the face to make him a fiercer attack dog or if Bart, SLH’s number one defender, calls his beloved pet a “dumb dog” with utter contempt due to the misfortune brought on the family in the effort to pay for the dog’s surgery.  This is not a fluff piece on whether or not the dog will survive by episode’s end, but of what happens if he did survive after considerable sacrifice.  That said, there are moments found in this episode that are quite special and real for anyone who has had to deal with a dying pet and one I’ve found especially reassuring after losing my childhood wheaten terrier, Mickey.

5. “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” (Written by Jon Vitti)

Many people refer to this episode as the one that gave us the famous ‘Land of Chocolate’ sequence, as it should, but for me, the first associative image I have is what shortly follows: A can of carrot cat food whizzing miserably as it rotates slowly in an electric can opener, followed by Marge walking through the kitchen door with her beehive hairdo split in two.  The ‘Land of Chocolate’ fantasy helps to enhance this moment as it whisks both Homer and the audience into a playful fantasy before completely gutting you when Homer is fired from the nuclear plant and the family is forced to improvise their penny pinching (back when Homer being fired actually had some punch).  This is a result from Mr. Burns’ depression which leads him to sell the plant to a snug and friendly consortium of German businessmen, whom despite their easy-going nature, find no use for Homer’s continued employment as safety inspector.  Not to mention the extra sting that prior to this, Homer impulsively sold his company stock for a measly $25 (spent on beer) unaware it was set to skyrocket to $5,200.

What ties “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” together in a very interesting way is that Homer’s termination happens for all the right reasons and him losing money on the stock is completely derived from his own carelessness, but also his naivety.  You still feel immense sympathy for him and yet, you also feel bad for Burns when Homer, Bart, and Moe’s barflies throw Burns’ depression back into his face, taunting “Nobody loves you” and reiterating how money doesn’t bring you happiness.  Sure, Mr. Burns is an entitled, filthy rich man who only wants to open new opportunities to raise terror in his fellow man, but he absorbs every blow in this moment, considerably, with absolute defeat.

It’s amazing how Homer and Mr. Burns couldn’t be any more repelled from one another as characters, yet they oddly need each other.  This is an episode I believe winks as a potential set-up for an idea that could have been in a future final Simpsons season, as Burns buys the plant back and vows to employ the man who sassed him in the bar, only to make him feel safe and secure throughout the years, before bringing the hammer down when it’s least expected.  If it wasn’t for Burns’ increased senility and forgetfulness over the show’s run, I have no doubt Burns would follow through.

4. “Bart the Murderer” (Written by John Swartzwelder)

“Fat Tony is a cancer on this fair city.  He is the cancer and I am the…uh…what cures cancer?” – Chief Wiggum

Stupid cops.  Stupid criminals.  Stupid everybody.  “Bart the Murderer” is once again a Swartzwelder jamboree of thrilling absurdism, being one of the earlier installments to really test the foundations of the Simpsons universe’s flexibility.  It’s the introduction of Fat Tony’s mafia and a humorous exhibition of Springfield’s criminal underbelly with Bart caught in the center.  The very heart of its comedy derives from Bart’s routine day-to-day serving as comic foil, doing no favors in steering him towards any hopeful direction regardless of his relentless optimism.  The first act break shows him falling face first into a mafia syndicate’s headquarters and the second act demonstrates, through his own obliviousness, how much Bart fits into this dark world as he mixes drinks, busses tables, and helps confine their operation. 

As the police and opposing mob members tighten the noose on Fat Tony, Principal Skinner proves to be another problem on the mafia’s laundry list by keeping Bart late after school.  It’s when Skinner goes missing where Bart must come to terms with the bizarre company he keeps.  This episode helps us see that it’s Bart’s own guilty conscience instilled by his day-to-day upbringing which may some day save him regardless of where the monotonous chicanery of Springfield Elementary or the incompetence of lawful authority pushes or pulls him.  And if Bart were to find himself before a court on trial for murder, Skinner himself may come busting through the door to tell the most pathetic story imaginable on how a lifetime of exercising seemingly useless knowledge and mundane patience can be the very key to one’s freedom.

3. “Black Widower” (Written by Sam Simon & Thomas Chastain)

Depending on how you look at it, the best Sideshow Bob episodes tend to be the ones where he’s at his most unpredictable.  “Black Widower” is exactly that while pushing Bob’s innocent facade to the absolute edge regardless of whether you share Bart’s mistrust towards him or not.  Bart keeps the audience’s guard constantly up yet any suspicion of ill intent on Bob’s account in becoming smitten with Aunt Selma is squashed almost immediately when he admits in full transparency the disdain he felt for the little boy who got him incarcerated.  Any obvious endeavor to do harm towards Bart is shrugged off with flattering dinner party banter.

“Bart, if I wanted to kill you, I’d have choked you like a chicken as soon as I walked in that door.  But then what kind of a guest would I have been?”

The conflict seems to solely be that Bart doesn’t like how Krusty’s treacherous sidekick is marrying into the family.  Keep in mind this is the first Sideshow Bob episode to air after Krusty was framed for armed robbery in season 1 so there never was any inkling that Bob was anything more than a TV clown’s begrudging sidekick who got locked away.  His return is shocking but the rest of the episode does a pretty good job at establishing his spiritual turn-around and lulling us into the minutiae of Bob and Selma’s developing relationship and wedding preparation satire.  It’s what’s in the smaller details of Bob and Selma’s domestic life where the mystery lies, perhaps being more complex than what Bart was tasked to deduce in “Krusty Gets Busted” and is brashly realized in what I’d consider the best climax a Bob episode ever pulled off.

2. “Lisa the Greek” (Written by Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky)

The episode where Lisa and Homer make bets on pro football is one of those stories where I wish I could have been in the same room when the idea was conceived and/or pitched to showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.  Out of all the Homer/Lisa episodes which delves into their unique, sometimes rocky relationship, “Lisa the Greek” is the most surprising every step of the way, offers the most seamless balance of emotional conflict with levity, and arrives at quite possibly the most inspired resolution to a character conflict in the show’s 31+ year history.

Usually these episodes follow the general direction where Homer is falling short to embrace Lisa’s interests and as a result he’s left picking up the pieces.  This installment goes the opposite route by having Lisa take the initiative to get closer to her father by joining him on the couch for Sunday night football.  At first glance, Homer is uncomfortable with her “invading” upon his down-time and you’re just waiting for Lisa to give up and write the sport off as mindless or barbaric.  However, she grows to not only appreciate the intelligence and art of the game, but they both grow to enjoy each other’s company.  The conditional glue of Homer and Lisa becoming an undefeated team of gamblers and their mutual agreement to let it be their own little secret, helps bring them closer, but also suggests that conflict is on the horizon once the football season is over while the illegality of gambling remains an overlooked fly in the soup.  All of that in mind, the story pulls off this lovely feat where their time together plays so enjoyably in-the-moment that you don’t care if conflict is creeping around the corner.

An episode about weekend-daddy-daughter bonding actually feels like it’s on ‘Sunday drive’ and the smaller moments become magnified because of it.  Even Bart’s small subplot of getting dragged to go clothes shopping with Marge helps feed into the main plot’s tone of simplicity and casual pacing.  A completely character-driven script where its conflict raises the question if Homer and Lisa’s relationship would crumble once conditions are removed is best resolved by what the episode has already been bathed in throughout:  Their chemistry.  Is it based on love despite Lisa proving to be a beneficial asset in helping Homer win money?

“Lisa the Greek” dives into these questions when Lisa realizes how shallow Homer comes off when he only seems to care about her winning predictions for the superbowl after already voicing disappointing plans to post-pone their weekly time together until next football season.  The lack of reciprocation is incredibly thoughtless and inconsiderate on Homer’s part, but is it just a misstep in how he ascertains the value of the time they spend together?  Do they still love each other?  Lisa unenthusiastically tells Homer who she believes will win the superbowl, but notes that if she’s wrong, it’s most likely due to her subconscious wanting Homer to lose.  The outcome of the game has now become less about money and more about where they stand with each other as father and daughter.  It’s one of those final acts that makes you realize how the psychological and poetic framework of The Simpsons runs much deeper than its technical, moving parts because this resolution only works when the art of the show speaks for itself.

*This episode also won Yeardley Smith the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Voice-Over Performance’.  That’s two Homer/Lisa episodes this season (“Lisa’s Pony” and “Lisa the Greek”) where Dan and Yeardley won respectively.

1. “Homer at the Bat” (Written by John Swartzwelder)

In one of John Swartzwelder’s earlier pushes for the The Simpsons to embrace the absurdist humor it so expertly seemed destined for, “Homer at the Bat” is a master stroke in having fun with a ‘far out’ idea without straying too far from the central character’s headspace.  Homer’s humble desire to become a team hero in the eyes of his friends and family by playing for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s company softball team is the pathos to the mock-up of the entire episode.  He builds up his secret weapon to his co-workers and son by revealing ‘Wonder Bat’, a homemade baseball bat he made from scratch.  It’s a very down-to-earth origin story, born from a lightning storm and Homer’s naivety, being two strong forces of nature which are arguably beyond you or me.  Homer is persistent to follow with the dream of molding the “magic piece of wood” into something special.  It’s treated like an extension of himself and he feeds a deep mythology into the bat, believing it will garner him the most homeruns.  It’s a symbol of turning his dumb luck at the face of danger into an opportunity to count his blessings and achieve something great.  Homer may be dumb and lazy on most occasions but when passionate he works hard towards his goals.

Lenny and Carl may mock and undercut the reveal of the bat during their first game, but Homer transcends their disbelief by hitting his first home run on the first pitch.  There’s hope for Homer’s rising success but it’s here where the higher operating powers of Mr. Burns and his million dollar bet with Shelbyville will swiftly marginalize the well-trodden zero-to-hero story with an even zanier premise.  Mr. Burns’ plan to recruit major league ringers on the team serves as an antithesis which happens to be so overwhelmingly fun and hilarious to the point where you laugh rather than cry when Roger Clemens destroys Homer’s homemade bat immediately with a 100 mph+ fastball.  Many shows that attempt to make an extensive band of guest stars the focal point of an episode usually run the risk of the final product falling flat.  An episode can come screeching to a halt if celebrities are shoe-horned in with lame jokes or scenes that are written solely to highlight the vanity of their presence.  “Homer at the Bat” avoids this (with sports guest stars no less!) which is a much more impressive feat given their inexperience in voice acting or any theatrical performance work on TV.

What helps is the self-awareness on the Simpsons staff of what exactly they could expect out of this unique guest cast.  While the jokes that are written around them are wildly bizarre (Ozzie Smith falls into another dimension, Steve Sax gets arrested and charged for every unsolved murder in New York City, etc.), the dialogue is written with each player in mind and they are all well-directed in the parts they have to play.  It’s almost as if Swartzwelder, Al Jean, and Mike Reiss knew that some of the dead-pan deliveries of the lines would only add to the comedy.  Not lessen it.  And some of the performances actually come as a fun surprise like Roger Clemens being completely game to cluck like a chicken or Wade Boggs getting increasingly fed up with Barney over their Pitt the Elder vs. Lord Palmerston debate.

Not only does the inclusion of MLB guest stars benefit the episode as a comedic piece, but narratively it harkens back to Homer’s talents being smothered by something much more uncontrolled and systematic.  Homer can’t compete with Mr. Burns’ wealth and resources in generating an all-star softball team, but can he prevail? For an episode that’s subversive in favor of a comedic sandbox, it’s important for Homer to remain the sympathetic lens for what ensues.  ‘Wonder Bat’ may have been built up only to be obliterated in a quick throwaway gag, but “Homer at the Bat” doesn’t lose sight of Homer’s desires amidst the chaotic hi-jinx that continuously makes him seem largely irrelevant to Mr. Burns’ desire to win.  One of the small marvels of the episode is how Homer doesn’t even question the absurdity of what unfolds like Darryl Strawberry soaring into the sky to rob his pop-fly catch or the sheer luxury of getting to share a spot on the team with these MLB legends to begin with.  The episode may have become a loony circus for comedy but Homer’s still feeling down and out over the conventions of his own personal crisis.  The balance of that with say, Ken Griffey Jr. becoming monstrously deformed due to an obsession with Brain & Nerve tonic, is nothing short of genius.

Overall, “Homer at the Bat” is a gold mine, being rich in reference and astounding in its casting while remaining true to what makes The Simpsons great by carrying its story’s intentions out from beginning to end with lovable characters and a fun, experimental universe.  It’s definitely required viewing if you call yourself a fan of baseball and television alike.  Also, the closing song “Talkin’ Softball” is a parody of Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball” (1981) and is sung by Terry Cashman himself.  It’s the episode that keeps on giving!

Thanks for reading! What are your favorites?

Better Call Saul “Bad Choice Road” (S5E09)

“You don’t save me. I save me.” – Kim (Season 2’s “Gloves Off”)

You know all those great anti-hero dramas where the male protagonist must keep his secret life separate from his family or love interest?  Or even when the wife is aware of their husband’s misdeeds, they still has little to no power over combating the situation? Carmela Soprano actively turned a blind eye to Tony’s role as mob boss and struggled with the morality of standing by him.  Skyler White became an accomplice to Walter’s meth empire which turned her into a hostage in her own home.  It’s not to say they weren’t strong characters but between shows like The Sopranos, The ShieldDexterMad Men, or Breaking Bad, the female supporting roles always had to duck and dodge the fallout from the misbehavior of the male lead.

To Jimmy McGill’s credit, he clues Kim in on his “extracurricular” activities to a much more alarming degree than male anti-heroes usually do.  The reason being is he absolutely values upholding a romance he finds more real and genuine than that of any conventional marriage.  Kim continues to surprise Jimmy with how willing she is to make their relationship work so he’s been willing to experiment with how translucent he can be with her.  The only pitfall that makes Jimmy no different from any other male anti-hero is his desire for Kim Wexler to fall in line as the wife who’s protected from serving as collateral damage. When the pursuit of his wrong-doings blows back in his face, he needs to keep her as far away as possible, especially after the traumatic carnage he experienced in the desert.

The penultimate episode of season 5 opens with a split-screen montage of Jimmy and Kim.  It’s a humming follow-up to Lola Marsh and Carson Park’s rendition of “Something Stupid”, a song which appropriately opened last season’s episode of the same title.  Where the montage in season 4’s “Something Stupid” aimed to express how much Jimmy and Kim were drifting apart despite still technically being together, the cold open in “Bad Choice Road” shows the difference in physical distance and turmoil between the two, while reinforcing how strongly united they are through that same hardship.  Jimmy and Mike, having overcome an attempt on their lives by a Columbian gang, wander the desert in search of any beacon of hope to their survival.  Kim, having revealed herself to Lalo to get information on Jimmy’s whereabouts and coming up with nothing, is forced to helplessly pace her apartment, blindly awaiting her husband’s return.  This cold open sets herself up as the helpless wife who has to occupy the nest, worried sick over whether Jimmy is dead or alive.  It’s a story we’ve seen play out many times in the anti-hero drama. When Jimmy finally gets a call through to her, she breaks down into tears.  This is not the state either character wishes to be in.

After delivering Lalo’s $7 million to the bail bond agency, Jimmy must get his story straight with Lalo as to why it took him so long.  He shares the half-truth of his car trouble and spins a tale of refusing to hitch-hike because of the risk of losing the precious cargo.  It’s here where he learns that Kim came to visit Lalo and becomes terrified of the very thing Mike warned him about, being that Kim is a part of the game.  When Kim draws an oatmeal bath for a battered Jimmy, he calls her out and makes her promise to stay away from people like Lalo regardless of what she feels compelled to do for his safety.  He refuses to accept that she’s in the game and sets out to push her as far away from the dangerous world he’s mistakenly got himself into.  Kim clearly sees how distraught and shaken Jimmy is, so she honors his wish.

Trying to guide Jimmy towards the lesson to be learned, Kim asks him if this was all worth it.  Jimmy counters with the ultimate answer to wash her of any worries by directing her to the dufflebag containing $100,000 in the living room, completely forgetful of the destroyed ‘World’s 2nd Best Lawyer (Again)’ mug that’s hidden beneath the money.  Kim now knows that he is withholding the entire truth from her, one that is likely owed to something more horribly violent than what he’s lead her on to believe. The next morning, Jimmy’s trauma becomes more apparent to her when he physically recoils and spills his cereal after a juicer mishap.  “It’s just my stomach’s just not ready for this yet,” Jimmy blurts out.  Kim not only has the idea that he hasn’t told her the truth, but she’s bearing witness to the strange impact of his misadventure that’s staring her in the face.

The notion of having a quiet moment at home together doesn’t sit well with Jimmy as it only leaves him to suffer from his post-traumatic stress.  When a client calls for his service, his first impulse is to post-pone but the next second he’s jumping at the idea of helping.  Jimmy is trying to accelerate his PTSD by masking it with the normalcy of his daily routine.  We’ve seen this before back in season 1 when he hustled around the courthouse doing pro bono work after his altercation with Tuco in the desert.  As horrible as watching the skater twins get their legs broken, no mass murder took place and Jimmy managed to have more control over that situation compared to the events in “Bagman”.  As he’s ready to bolt, Kim takes this opportunity to reveal her suspicions of Jimmy’s lies without making it about him not holding up his end of their deal of full disclosure or forcing him to tell the truth.  She just wants him to know that she’s here for him and wants him to feel comfortable telling her whats wrong, promising that she can handle it without judgment.  Jimmy shares the humility of having to drink his own urine as an attempted diversion that doesn’t work on Kim.  He continues to push her further away from the terror he’s endured, but by doing so Kim takes stock of what’s important and only feels more determined to close the gap.

This dictates her next big decision as she’s left pouring legal mumbo jumbo into her recording device and realizes how trivial her work is for Mesa Verde at S&C compared to her marriage to a partner she was convinced might have ended up dead.  A life she’s most happiest and fulfilled with is the one built between her and Jimmy and helping people who desperately need it.  Jimmy and her pro-bono clients go hand and hand with what matters most and she realizes this after he thankfully turned up alive yet psychologically broken.  She wants to fix him but she can only do so if she can get closer.  Although this is danced around, after Jimmy’s big score, money isn’t really a problem as she can still make enough to support them with the work she actually cares about.  Taking all of this into account, giving up Mesa Verde and resigning from S&C is a surprising yet easy choice to make which has been a long time coming.  It’s what she feels is right for her.

Season 5 began with Kim flabbergasted with a man who was fast becoming a stranger to her.  She was fully aware that this Saul Goodman guy was going down a road she had no conceivable plan to be on.  Throughout the season, she made the tough choice of recruiting Saul to help her with Mr. Acker.  Later, she arrived at the shocking decision to marry Jimmy after he went against her wishes to scam Mesa Verde and turned her, again, into a sucker.  Now, after realizing how deeply traumatized Jimmy is after an event she has no detailed knowledge of, she’s willing to commit to him as a partner even further.  The enigmatic transformation of Kim in this show has been impalpable at times, but every beat of it, when taken into consideration, has made sense.  It’s subversive to what we would expect as an audience, considering we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in regards to why she’s not shown in Breaking Bad.  The writers have had multiple opportunities as to why she would leave Jimmy, but they keep pushing her continued involvement in his life.  You’re only left to wonder what’s the next hurdle that will out-perform itself as the reason for her off-screen exit without it resulting in her death or something against her will.

When Jimmy hears the news of her resignation and the explanation behind it, he’s just as dumbfounded as she was when he decided to change his name to Saul.  Jimmy began the season with clarity as to where the trajectory of his life was heading.  For him, it was the clear cut road from failure to success.  However, with the journey to success came danger.  Now that he’s long reached the point of no return on the road his choices lead him down, but he still wants off.  It brought him to a bad place where he’s in way over his head.  He knew the choices were right for him, but he did not foresee the destination those choices would take him and while we know he’ll find himself right back on the ‘bad choice road’, he needs to be rid of the psychological setbacks for the next time he inevitably is.

Kim is also blind to her destination and is now making choices that puts her on the same road as him.  By putting herself in a position that commits herself closer to Jimmy, she’s closer to ‘the game’ than she ever was.  If a guy like Fred from TravelWire can be outside the game without ever making any conscious choice in his life to be senselessly murdered, Kim’s odds of survival are worse.  Her direct association with Jimmy makes this especially true the longer Jimmy is involved with helping a monster like Lalo roam free.  Lalo is somebody who always needs to know the truth but plans to work with a deceptive Saul in the future.  Kim being attached to that world is no good and it’s here where the aforementioned hurdle that is likely to force her exit beyond her will presents itself.

It was only a matter of time before Lalo came to realize that something was fishy about Saul’s story.  Surprisingly, there was never any immediate repercussion to having learned that Saul disclosed Lalo’s true identity to Kim.  Perhaps he realized it wouldn’t matter as long as the impressive amount of bail money came through to ensure his freedom.  Perhaps as long as Saul’s story of going above and beyond for him made sense, he can swallow Kim’s argument of spousal privilege and let bygones be bygones.  After all, Saul was still looking after him by explaining how the bail money and alias Jorge de Guzman will now be investigated by law enforcement.  Still, with Saul’s conveniently obtained information to get Lalo off with bail and the idea that Saul would discuss Lalo in any context to a third party makes it enough to nag at the subconscious and deduce foul play.

Just when you think Lalo is out of the picture as Nacho gives him a ride to meet Tuco’s cousins, you wonder if his suspicions are going to sway towards Nacho or Saul. Keep in mind, there’s still the question as to how Lalo got ambushed by police when Nacho was the last person to be with him.  Jimmy’s story doesn’t add up though as his abandoned Suzuki Esteem is found nowhere in sight within the vicinity of where Jimmy told Lalo the car broke down.  When Lalo finds the car upturned in a ditch with bullet holes on the side, his incessant need to learn the truth becomes as vibrant as it did back when Werner Ziegler swiftly bit the dust.

And just like that, the horror movie plays out.  Darkness has fallen and Kim arrives home by taxi. The camera pushes in close as she approaches the stairs leading to her apartment, fueling the audience with paranoia.  When arriving, we’re shown red car keys in the bowl of the foyer, signifying danger especially since she seems thrown off at the sight of them.  She calls out to the shadowy figure who waits lying on the bed.  It’s Jimmy and from here the scene plays out to feed into Jimmy and the audience’s fear that Kim has made a wildly bad choice that will only put her into the same realm of danger he suffers in.  Watching her leave S&C prior to this could have been interpreted as the writers wrapping her character up and giving her a shred of finality on her own terms before any unfortunate act transpires against her.

Before we know it, Lalo is knocking on the door and Mike is instructing Jimmy to leave his phone on and out of sight so Mike can have access to the impending interrogation.  Lalo forces an exhausted, traumatized Jimmy to retell the story of what happened in the desert.  He makes Jimmy repeat it over and over until the truth is finally revealed.  Intermittently, Jimmy requests if Kim can leave the room as a hopeless, last ditch effort to relieve her of ‘the game’, but we know that’s not going to happen.  Everything in this episode and overall season has built up to the tension of this moment.  Mike also has the crosshairs of his sniper rifle pointed through the window of Jimmy and Kim’s apartment ala ‘deus ex machina’ depending on how the intense confrontation unfolds.

What makes the scene even more nail-biting than the notion of Kim’s survival or that the grisly assassination of Lalo might take place in their apartment, is that Mike is under Gus’ orders not to kill Lalo.  If Jimmy reveals the truth of his involvement with a third party, Lalo will have to be killed and war between the North and South side of the border will break out.  So much is at stake in this scene, but here lies the ground-breaking twist.  The closing scene turns the question of Kim’s fate on its head.  It becomes less about what happens to her in Breaking Bad and more about what would have happened to Breaking Bad without Kim.  Because by stepping up to the plate to defend Jimmy’s story and boldly pointing out the flaws in the Salamanca operation, Kim transcends the well trodden spousal role of helpless victim or proven, capable asset to the male anti-hero.  She not only becomes essential to Saul’s survival but the savior to the entire Breaking Bad universe the ‘bad choice road’ lead him down.  Without Kim, everything’s left in shambles and the story of Walter White would have played out much more differently on a grand scale.

Even Mike in last episode’s “Bagman” underestimated Kim as a frightened little bird who might go to the police.  For Mike to bear witness to her bravery and loyalty, she now has an abundance of credibility in this world.  How she proceeds from here is anyone’s guess.  Jimmy will certainly have no choice but to explain what really happened in the desert and she will reveal how she was already clued into the truth by the destroyed mug.  On the bright side, full disclosure of Jimmy’s trauma with Kim might be exactly what he needs.  He got a good pep talk with Mike, but justifying the bloodshed of those men and the unbalanced world he’s now a part of is too much for him to have a vague no-nonsense discussion with Mike over.  As Jimmy puts it, “I can’t believe there’s like over a billion people on this planet and the only person I have to talk about this to is you.”   The question now is whether Kim can truly accept what Jimmy’s been a part of without turning her back on him. She’s not out of the woods yet in terms of life or death either because now that Lalo has the idea in his head that his operation is out of order, his suspicions will fall on Nacho.

Kim made Lalo see clear as to how little he trusts his men and the hints of Nacho’s betrayal are there for him to figure out.  If Nacho reveals the entire truth when held at gunpoint, Jimmy will certainly be revealed in playing a part in the betrayal.  Mike and Gus still have limited room to work with in terms of figuring out what to do with Lalo once he learns what’s going on, but speculation on the ‘how’ is awfully hazy.  They have to do away with him but in a way that doesn’t raise any suspicion with the players down South.  It’s a big game of chess and pawns are definitely subject to take a hit.  All I know is there has never been a season finale to Better Call Saul where someone hasn’t died and we’re too far into the series for the show not to rise up to the occasion.  Nacho is the most cornered piece in the game as Gus refuses to set him free even when Mike takes it upon himself to speak on Nacho’s behalf.  Mike makes a good point that setting Nacho free will put a worthy dent in the Salamanca operation, but Gus not only values Nacho as a disciplined asset but he doesn’t trust him as a runaway.  The distrust is so strong, he’s willing to kill Nacho for it.

Other thoughts:

Despite how horrible they are, the saddest part for Lalo is how he knew full well exactly what Kim told him in regards to his men.  When Lalo visits Hector and reassures him that things will continue to run smoothly as he lays low down South, he can barely believe his own words.  Tuco will be out in eleven months but he’ll be right back to his hot-headed, drug abusing self.  Lalo knows he can’t trust anybody and the final shot of him watching Hector wheeled against his will to celebrate a senior resident’s birthday only further breaks his heart.  The Salamanca family is dwindling and he hates to see it.

Jimmy loses a softball case to Bill Oakley and is mocked for it.  The hustle in the courthouse to mask his PTSD isn’t working and Bill buzzing triumphantly in his ear doesn’t help. Interesting foreshadowing by Bill that Saul will probably have to change his name again.

Juan Bolsa was confirmed as being the one responsible for the ambush on Jimmy in the desert.  His goal was to make sure Lalo stayed in jail as a way to help Gus, not knowing the deeper intentions Gus has in trying to free Lalo.  Scary stuff.

That leap by Lalo off the cliff and onto Jimmy’s overturned car was awesomely surreal, just as much as it was when Lalo fell from the ceiling at TravelWire.   Saul Goodman’s ultimate nemesis.  Someone who has GREAT knees.

What did everyone else think? Ready for the penultimate seasons’ season finale!?

Better Call Saul “Bagman” (S5E08)

“What is it for?” – Jimmy McGill

At the end of last episode, Jimmy declared himself a God in human’s clothing who travels in worlds you can’t imagine.  In “Bagman”, Jimmy travels to a grim reality he was never prepared for; one fraught with violence, murder, and the notion of our lead character’s own susceptibility and mortality.  Jimmy wasn’t only warned by a frightened Kim not to go forth with driving near the U.S./Mexican border to collect $7 million of cartel money for Lalo’s bail, but even Jimmy knew he needed to get out of this deadly fetch quest.  Lalo of all people, relieved him of this duty when sensing his insecurity, as he remained completely satisfied with Saul Goodman’s services as a lawyer.  But it’s almost as if the Saul part of Jimmy couldn’t help but gamble with his own future by impulsively throwing a figure of $100,000 up in the air.  Money, as the episode will go on to prove, is what drives Jimmy but is it also what weighs down and confounds him?

Jimmy once tried to reject Betsy Kettleman’s bribe of $30,000 and ultimately returned it to her after taking it, because he was unwilling to accept the fact that he was the crooked man people saw him as.  By naming his price to Lalo, he’s finally willing to determine exactly what his worth is as that crooked man.  The universe always told him who he was and he ignored it in the efforts to change and improve. Chuck and higher establishment fought back to keep Jimmy in place.  They sealed his fate from ever changing by shutting him out regardless of what he did to correct his past mistakes.  Take that and Chuck’s last sentiments being “You never mattered all that much to me,” and you have a man who’s willing to embrace being a criminal lawyer to the max and rise to the top at all costs.  It’s no wonder why Jimmy is willing to transcend the law by picking up Lalo’s money, especially after selling an innocent, grieving family down the river.  At this point, he needs the right financial return to make up for that, but how far will he go to test his limits before becoming rattled to his core?

The episode opens with two young men vigorously scrubbing two front car seats which are heavily blood-stained.  It’s evocative of Breaking Bad season 2’s black-and-white teasers, particularly in the episode “Over” where two body bags were found on Walter White’s driveway.  The first question we’re intended to ask when seeing this blood is “who might it belong to?”, but then we’re shown Tuco’s cousins arriving to collect the money for Lalo’s bail.  Nothing dire has happened to our characters yet, but this is the world Saul Goodman toys with.  A world where something horrific can and will happen.  It’s not so much who’s blood is on the car seats but what does this specific shot forebode? Is it symbolic towards the end of Jimmy and Kim’s relationship? The destructive fate of Jimmy brought on by the undying and unfurled war between him and his brother?  Or of the harrowing trials and tribulations Jimmy and Mike are actually about to endure in this hour?  Something sideways is certainly about to go down as we’re shown one of the head guys of the autobody shop making a suspiciously discreet call regarding the money the cousins are about to deliver.

One of the gaps between the Saul Goodman of both shows is the Saul we meet in Breaking Bad possesses an insensitivity towards murder and violence as a viable option to his problems.  That’s not to say he’s completely desensitized, but he’s more numb to the idea of it than any pre-existing rebellious character traits can give him credit for.  When Saul gets hijacked by cartel thugs who are ready to execute him without hesitation, he’s immediately faced with something traumatic he’s never experienced.  As his captors get picked off one by one and he goes into shock, this ordeal becomes a terrifying wake-up call.  He’s not as high and mighty as he believed himself to be and in the blink of an eye, he realizes it can be all over for him.  Even when finding a handgun he can use to protect himself, he tosses it aside because being a killer is not who he is.  He has limits and this disturbs Jimmy because the inner-turmoil from his brother’s death and the trajectory of the person he’s becoming because of it, demands more from him.  The world he strives to inhabit is proving much more fierce than the battle that brews within him.

Another important achievement from “Bagman” is uniting Jimmy and Mike as characters beyond occasional business acquaintances.  In Breaking Bad, before Mike threatens to break Saul’s legs, they are introduced with a closer business arrangement than you would expect, given their mostly parallel narratives in this prequel series.  By having Mike and Jimmy weather the harshest elements of the desert together while evading the killers who hunt them, a profound history we never knew between the two has developed.  It begins to explain why Mike would serve as Saul’s P.I. despite simultaneously working as Gus’ soldier.  It’s also oddly relieving to see Mike catch Jimmy with his pants down (figuratively compared to last episode), but in a more serious, concerning manner than that of the silly antics Mike is usually accustomed to dealing with.  The last time Mike truly saw Jimmy as someone more deeply troubled than the jester act that’s usually performed, is when he learned of Chuck’s grisly passing. Up until then, Jimmy was a shallow acquaintance who from time to time proved to be someone of use, but because Jimmy carries on with an indifference towards his brother’s death, Mike is aware that there’s a more rounded, tortured human being behind Jimmy facade.

This is one of those episodes that plays on Jimmy’s vulnerability and while it was never necessarily expected that the writers would provide a survival story where Mike and Jimmy meet eye to eye on a more budding, spiritual level, it’s still a catharsis the audience has been unconsciously starved for.  It’s also an experiment with edge-of-your-seat tension which obviously is not derived from whether they survive the hour, but drawn out from how they survive it.  The ‘how’ factor of Better Call Saul has essentially always been the secret sauce as to why the show as a prequel is so compelling and “Bagman” dares to take that one step further by following the two main characters we know will outlive the better part of both series.  How they survive isn’t the only source of tension, but how they interact and play off one another for an extended duration.  It’s fulfilling to see them on the same page, mulling over their options to maintain their health, well-being, and will-power.  The more Jimmy slips off that page and is seemingly ready to give up or protest Mike’s guidance, their camaraderie is in jeopardy.

The Suzuki Esteem. The World’s 2nd Best Lawyer mug. The urine-filled Davis & Main bottle. The space blanket. The money. The sniper rifle.  These are the six most notable symbolic objects to the episode.  Jimmy’s old car getting tossed over the edge into a ditch is the end of an era.  It’s Jimmy being forced to leave his scrappy upstart ‘Charlie Hustle’ persona behind.  Unless Gene Takovic can prove otherwise, Jimmy is never getting back to the guy who once thought he can turn his life around from the Slippin’ Jimmy days.  If he wants to come out the other side from this desert nightmare, the Esteem is no more, but the money must go on.  The money is representative of the Saul Goodman counterpart.  A part that’s always existed and fueled Jimmy but was always concealed the best he could before his relationship with his brother got out of hand.  The better part of Jimmy, who’s fast coming to his senses, is willing to leave the money behind.  He comes up with a smart idea to bury the money and come back for it later, but Mike advises that they will lose it in the vast desert landscape regardless of how sure they are of distinguishable landmarks.  By having no choice but to carry the money, it again solidifies the idea that Saul Goodman must move forward whether Jimmy likes it or not.

When Jimmy and Mike settle down for the night, Jimmy shares that his wife is aware of what he’s doing and how him not coming home is going to make her worried sick.  Surprised that Jimmy would clue his wife (i.e. Kim) in on his dangerous pursuits, Mike states, plain and simple, that his wife is in the game now, in which Jimmy refuses to accept.  Jimmy can count his lucky stars that he turned down Kim’s insistence to join him on this deadly trip, as she surely would have been just as likely to die as he almost was.  That said, as alluded by the bullet-riddled World’s 2nd Best Lawyer mug which Jimmy hoped to save (a gift given to him by Kim in season 2’s “Cobbler”), Kim is indeed in the game and is prone to collateral damage regardless if she stays home or not.  The final salt in Jimmy’s wounds to this unfortunate epiphany is when Mike wraps himself in a space blanket, evoking memories of his older, wiser, and judgmental brother.  It’s as if Chuck has risen beyond the grave, smugly rubbing Jimmy’s nose in the validation of his screw-ups.  When Mike offers Jimmy a spare blanket to keep him warm, Jimmy refuses, because he can’t give Chuck the satisfaction of the hole he’s dug himself in.

Kim might not physically be in the thick of it with Jimmy and Mike, but she does make the grave decision to masquerade as part of Lalo’s legal team in order to meet to him face to face and get possible answers as to where Jimmy is. You can’t blame Kim for going to Lalo. She knows Jimmy is doing something awfully dangerous and he hasn’t come home in a day. If you love someone and deduce 80% the reason they are missing is because they’re in danger (possibly dead), wouldn’t you do anything you could? Even if it means making yourself known to a dangerous figure who has a better idea where your spouse is than anyone? Many might try the police but Kim can’t just reveal to law enforcement what Jimmy is doing. It was a bad decision to go to Lalo but I don’t think it was a stupid one. For her specific situation with Jimmy and because of who Kim is, she’s compelled to play the game because as Mike points out, she’s unquestionably in it.  Chuck warned Jimmy that he would hurt those around him because it’s what he does.  Now Kim is directly in harm’s way by making herself known to the most horrible person Jimmy has ever involved himself with.

Let’s not forget that Lalo is likely stewing over the strange revelation that the key witness in his murder case was manipulated to get him imprisoned and that Saul conveniently obtained this information to get him off with bail.  Lalo must have come to the conclusion that something’s aloof, regardless to how Saul ties into it, but now that Lalo has learned of Saul’s big mouth, revealing Lalo’s true identity to his wife, he has further reason to question Saul’s loyalty.  He’s now more likely to discover that Saul is just as influenced by Gus’ intentions as he is by Lalo’s and that can only lead to bad things, especially now that Kim’s life can be used as leverage.  Kim holds her own against Lalo in this scene, arguing spousal privilege and swatting down the thought that Jimmy might have run off with Lalo’s money.  She at least has made it clear that Jimmy isn’t foolish, and that her proposal to cooperate with Lalo is sincere.  Still, it’s hard to watch a scene with Kim where she’s outmatched and doesn’t come out of a negotiation with what she hoped to gain.  She’s left helpless and it’s because of Jimmy that she’s in this rut, but it’s also just as much her own doing by having married the guy she knows can’t help himself.

Jimmy’s faculties are wearing down.  He’s overheated, dehydrated, and losing grip on what’s pushing him forward.  When one of the bags of money tears, he’s left stumbling around, trying to collect the loose cash that’s fallen out.  He trips and gets his foot impaled by the barb of a cactus.  The unforgiving world he’s forced to trench onward through is too much and he melts into the sand declaring his surrender.  Jimmy is now willing for death to consume him similar to Mike’s defeated decision to take on the street gang earlier in the season.  The spite and resentment Jimmy holds for his brother does not exceed his will to survive and with that, the Saul Goodman shell crumbles and we’re shown nothing but the inner-pain and suffering Jimmy McGill is willing to put an end to. This walkabout is the long-awaited therapy he seeked to avoid and he’s ready to end the session sooner rather than later.  If the money can’t be carried, then there is no Saul Goodman to push Jimmy forward and therefore he’s left with the true form he can’t bear.

Mike explains to Jimmy what keeps him moving, being the people who wait and rely on him.  Mike is ready for death just the same but only if he’s certain he did everything he could to get his family what they need.  This seeps into Jimmy as Mike notifies that the men who aim to kill them have returned, and Jimmy’s reminded that he also has someone he cares about whose waiting for him.  Kim is the light at the end of his tunnel but if he’s to get through it, he needs to face his demons. The moment Jimmy encloses himself in the reflective space blanket, he’s not just playing bait to allow the universe to decide his fate, but he’s coming to terms with Chuck’s judgment of him, channeling his last moments with a suicide mission.  He’ll continue to carry the money even in the face of death regardless what Chuck thinks.  Jimmy is prepared to own up to the man he’s become and when he vocally tempts fate to do with him with what it will, it’s not just the men in the red truck who he’s referring to as an “asshole” and a “dickhead”.  He’s speaking to his brother.  “Yes Chuck, you’re right about me.  Let me show you how right you are to the bitter end.”

The urine in the Davis & Main bottle is equivalent to Jimmy not willing to accept the circumstances he’s brought upon himself.  Davis & Main was the straight-and-narrow opportunity that might have redeemed himself in Chuck’s eyes if he didn’t feel so hurt and betrayed by Chuck sabotaging his chances to join HHM.  Sure, there’s a lot of back and forth to be argued over the constant corners Jimmy cut in the past and would continue to cut, but the Davis & Main job was a position he pissed away nonetheless, pun intended.  By finally guzzling the urine down at the end, it’s again Jimmy coming to terms with the world that’s been thrust upon him mostly from his own doing.  He doesn’t need to rise above it like a Greek god, but he can no longer sugarcoat and pretend that this isn’t the life he’s chosen to lead.  The real baggage that was weighing Jimmy down wasn’t the money, but Chuck’s judgment of him.  The final shot of the space blanket being left behind, whisking away into the wind, shows that Jimmy can overcome Chuck no matter the odds.

And the sniper rifle? I’ve said it in past reviews but notice how Mike’s sniper rifle has never actually been used to kill anyone?  The first time it was introduced was when Nacho recruited Mike to solve the Tuco situation in season 2’s “Gloves Off” (like “Bagman”, also written by Gordon Smith).  Mike considered the assassination but quickly changed his mind, never even purchasing the gun for use.  In the season 2 finale, “Klick” (like “Bagman”, also directed by Vince Gilligan), Mike had every intention to use the sniper rifle on Hector Salamanca but never went through with it because of Gus’ protest not to.  Then in season 3’s “Sunk Costs”, Mike actually fired the sniper rifle but only to hit a shoe filled with cocaine in order to get Hector’s drug mules in trouble with the border patrol, and in turn to hurt Hector’s business.  “Bagman” is the first episode where Mike savagely eliminates his targets with this weapon.  It’s more or less the ricin that never gets used on anyone until the end of Breaking Bad’s run.  It preeminently serves to map out how far Mike has come from the guy who was willing to get pummeled in the face to land Tuco in jail rather than being the guy who pulls the trigger.  Werner Ziegler was an important character in getting Mike to this moment.

Other thoughts:

“Bagman” is more “4 Days Out” than “Fly”, but it undoubtedly joins the ranks as one of the universe’s most therapeutic examinations of two characters’ relationships and a wonderful exercise in building to a climactic sense of tension.  It’s already bubbling as one of the more controversial episodes as a vocal portion of the fanbase is already chalking it up as a slow, meandering piece with a lot of walking.  Me, personally it’s one of the greatest examples of meditative character exploration that’s filled with actual dread and well-choreographed action.  You couldn’t ask for anything better.  This will certainly go down as one of the best installments Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad ever put out.  It’s right up there with “Pimento”, “Nailed, “Chicanery”, or “Winner” in terms of masterful turning point episodes.

Lalo quickly selling Saul on how much he’s going to love his cousins, describing them as good boys is one of the funniest line deliveries in the hour. He says it as if they’re all going to share a laugh and grab a beer together.  It just goes to show how much you shouldn’t take Lalo’s word for anything.  It was also wonderfully pathetic how Jimmy botches his greeting “Yo soy abogado” (I am a lawyer) on the first attempt after practicing it repeatedly before the cousins show up to give them the money.  He is no way prepared for what’s in store for him.  You’ll also note that he wastes water to clean a dirty spot on his shoe unaware of how much he’ll cherish each drop of it later on.

The song that plays during the beautiful desert roaming montage was “I Got The…” by Labi Siffre (1975).  I too am guilty of thinking it was an orchestrated rendition of Eminem’s “My Name Is”, never having realized that Eminem sampled the beat from this pre-existing source material.  The song has become my new go-to whenever being tasked to press on with something difficult like many of us are dealing with during this COVID-19 crisis which has been growing worse and worse as Better Call Saul season 5 airs.

What did everyone else think?

 

Better Call Saul “JMM” (S5E07)

“Is my flower in danger of speedy disappearance? Certainly it is.” – The Little Prince

Jimmy is faced with his most morally-compromising decision yet in regards to something which hits closer to home than he’s willing to admit.  All in good or perhaps horrible timing, as Kim takes the next step closer to Jimmy with an acquired marriage license and a rushed wedding ceremony at the downtown courthouse.  The notion of maintaining their relationship with more freedom to disclose anything and everything will now be protected. Married couples can’t be compelled to testify against each other in court.  It also prevents them (but mostly Kim) from getting caught off guard with their respective partner’s actions.  The stipulations of transparency going forward with their relationship isn’t fool-proof, but it’s a thoughtful effort when it comes to nurturing the bond they cherish with one another.  That said, Kim is now pursuing a life with a man who’s getting into more dangerous trouble with every passing day, regardless of how much she’s in the know.

While their relationship is more protected, legally and intimately, the pressure of Jimmy’s wrong-doings has now become heavier.  Jimmy’s conflicted.  He’s flattered with the lengths Kim is willing to go to stick by him even if  it’s at the sacrifice of the ideal wedding a younger Kim might have dreamed of.  At the same time, he’s getting absorbed into the more deplorable world of the cartel, which means Kim is along for that ride and her acceptance of him will continue to be tested.  Jimmy loves Kim and he’s always questioning her desire to be with him (for better or worse), but lines are being presented to him that even he is unsure he’s willing to cross.

The most relieving moment during the wedding ceremony for Jimmy is when the judge replies “okey-dokey” in regards to there being no rings involved, in which Kim smirk-laughs in response.  The long-standing practice of wedding rings is a tradition emblematic to the love and devotion a married couple shares. Society has instilled rings as something that should be exchanged, but Jimmy doesn’t always live in the ‘should’, even if he’s mindful of the value it might hold for a self-respecting woman like Kim.  When she playfully smirks, it’s an expression of joy and a loving reminder as to why he’s drawn to her to begin with.  As considerate as Kim is of the impact of meaning towards things, she’s willing to toss that aside if it means they can get a little more distance towards being together.  For Kim, that’s all that matters.

Rings bring a sense of hope and security in a marriage so while it’s sweet that Kim is fine with that convention falling by the wayside, it’s still worrying in the long term.  The declination of exchanging rings stays more honest to the uniquely paradoxical nature of their connection, but is also an affirmation that their marriage is more of an experiment in short-term preservation than one that’s meant to last. Their love for one another is real but they’re expecting extremely complicated bridges of conflict ahead and are only willing to cross them when they come to it.  As Lalo (or Jorge de Guzman) becomes more demanding of Saul Goodman’s services, those bridges might as well be wired with explosives.

When Lalo asks Jimmy what the JMM stands for on his briefcase, Jimmy recites the same bumbling acronym he tries to pass off to Kim as his motto in the season premiere: “Justice Matters Most”.  Lalo scoffs, being someone perceptive enough to see Jimmy for the crooked guy he is, just as many characters have in the past.  Even Jimmy knows the motto is a crock, but it’s a better answer than sharing his original name to a cold-blooded, high profile member of the cartel. Going forward, Lalo doesn’t want to cut a deal with the prosecutor for the murder at TravelWire or have his case go to trial, but he wants Saul to get him off with bail.  It’s a hefty, nearly impossible request which Jimmy sheepishly tries to explain away, but Lalo hits him with an unexpected offer of becoming a “friend of the cartel”.

In other words, if Saul Goodman wants to get the job done and make a boat-load of money to boot, he needs to do away with a motto he doesn’t even practice and “Just Make Money”.  Better Call Saul has emphasized Jimmy valuing money over all else ever since the pilot in his first scene with Chuck (“Money IS the point!”) and that theme has rang true ever since.  It’s what got him on the Lalo train to begin with when a meager $8,000 was dangled before him to rat out Gus’ operation.  Lalo knows money is Jimmy’s carrot and if given enough, even the deepest core of Jimmy’s morality will have trouble saying no. This is especially true considering what’s left of Jimmy morality is infected with spite against his brother and a world that’s always tried to put a lid on him. Imagine that? An innocent, hard-working, young citizen getting murdered and disposed of through arson, leaving a family in ruin wondering how such a horrific thing can even happen.  It’s not the same as what Jimmy had experienced with his brother’s suicide, but the fire aspect must bring up some empathy for their grief.  The idea that Jimmy needs to defend the evil responsible for something like that so he can reap the financial reward is incredibly gruesome.

Jimmy despises every second he needs to play the antagonist to a grieving family and more notably, he despises that the spite he holds towards his brother has pushed him this far over the edge.  He can’t stop himself.  The events that lead him here were set in motion long before he could take back control.  That’s not to say he doesn’t feel bad for the family who now have to live with an uneven outcome in the case against their son’s murder.  After all, Jorge de Guzman has bail set at $7 million, which he can afford.  Jimmy’s remorse is clearly demonstrated as he peers behind the courthouse wall like the snake he’s become, but what is he to do with that sense of regret?  This is a feeling Chuck challenged him to do away with. When Howard, (who has served as Jimmy’s stealth punching bag all season and remains an associative reminder of Chuck’s judgement towards him) shows up to not only call out the injustices inflicted on him by Jimmy, but the true reason behind it being derived from the pain and suffering of Chuck’s death, it sets Jimmy off.  Not to mention, while he’s caught at his most vulnerable.

Beforehand, Jimmy tried projecting his own state of unbalance onto Howard, calling him unhinged despite the hypocrisy that Howard’s accusations towards Jimmy are true.  Howard doesn’t give him an inch and continues to rightfully pity him, not as an adversary but as a friend willing to help. This only makes Jimmy angrier because with his current situation, he’s long passed from being helped.  He doubles down on the delusion that Howard is responsible for Chuck’s death and reinforces his stance on being above everything, including remorse.  He hates the fact that Howard has become so clear-headed and doesn’t have to live in the same nightmare as he does.  The more Howard doesn’t give in to Jimmy’s vitriol, the more ferocious Jimmy becomes, and therefore the more prepared he is to not consider the next morally right thing to do.  It’s in this very moment, that Jimmy remembers why his alter-ego exists.  Jimmy’s contempt for the establishment that kept him down helps clear his conscience from anyone who bears Saul’s wrath.  It’s a momentary resurgence of intensity that helps Saul Goodman ascend and for Jimmy to move on.

Jimmy had the option to turn back but it was never going to happen.  To his credit, he shared his plight with Kim, who is appropriately concerned, but surprisingly open to what he decides to do going forward.  “Do you want to be a friend of the cartel?” she asks, in which Jimmy, almost half-confidently, tells her no.  Kim doesn’t rebel against this news as much as she should, most likely because it’s the first bad news Jimmy has shared with her since they established their agreement to disclose everything.  She might be more relieved that he’s honored the agreement to the extent of sharing the most concerning news possible to the point where she’s willing to accept it as their first bridge to cross.

Kim has no idea how devouring and intricately connected Jimmy’s client is to the Breaking Bad world, let alone the destruction that awaits from it, but she needs to meet Jimmy halfway over an agreement she proposed.  If Jimmy’s “Just Make Money” motto is what puts him to the test, Kim’s test above all else is her relationship with Jimmy mattering most. (“Just Maintain Marriage”).  Clumsy acronyms notwithstanding, the point is she’ll brush potential danger aside, as long as she’s not alone and can pursue the fallacy of sunk costs with the man she knows. Plus, she’s no stranger to envying a richer life going all the way back to dreaming of a house in the country back in season 2’s “Cobbler”.

The thing is, while we have never seen Kim held at gunpoint or going head to head with a criminal adversary out in the desert, we know she can hold her own against the big wigs, regardless from what side of the law.  When Kim and Rich take the brunt of their failure in defending Mesa Verde against Saul, they apologize for not taking better control of the situation, but Kim marches bravely back into Kevin Wachtell’s office to shift the blame back onto him.  She’s right in pointing out that he ignored their legal advice several steps along the way, which helped lead to the mess they got in. They did their job but getting the job done requires both attorney and client to cooperate and that failed cooperation lands more on Kevin’s end.  It takes a lot of guts for her to lay that truth out for him, but it’s this exact level of honesty from a great lawyer that Kevin admires.

For Kim to revive Kevin’s faith in her after the fallout of Saul’s actions, it says a lot. Sure, it’s not the same thing as dealing with murderous drug kingpins and their cronies, but if a stammering Jimmy can use his lawyer skills to prevent a hot-headed Tuco from skinning the skater twins alive, Kim’s chances are a little more promising.   Fearlessness combined with a more studied ability to argue and a greater awareness of her limited options when put in a tight spot, proves that given the day, Kim has some serious metal at her disposal.  That day nears closer and closer as Mike takes it upon himself to wait for her to leave the apartment before showing up to give Jimmy vital information in helping Lalo get off with bail.  Like Mike’s decision to work for Gus, Kim has decided to play the cards the universe has dealt her so when the day comes of her possibly meeting someone in that world, it will be because of the choices she made along the way that lead her there, just as much as it was Jimmy’s.

Nacho is getting restless and demands Mike help him with his father now that Lalo is seemingly out of the picture.  Nacho wants out but when he tells Mike that Lalo has ordered him to burn down Los Pollos Hermanos, Mike angrily reinstates that Lalo’s not out of the picture.  It’s at this point that Gus realizes that Lalo must be dealt with in a more nuanced way that doesn’t attract suspicion.  He can’t be killed in prison as Lydia suggests (foreshadowing of her own form of problem solving) because any murder committed against a Salamanca on the North side of the border will only point more fingers towards Gus, leading to a chaotic war.  In the meantime, he must allow the destruction of his restaurant to lull Lalo in a false sense of control.  Thankfully, for Gus’ sake, Saul Goodman was able to get Lalo out with bail, but with Jimmy being caught in the middle of this tug of war, it can only get more messy from here.  Jimmy might be more of a cog in this dangerous game of manipulation but it doesn’t guarantee his or anyone else’s safety.

Gus meets with Madrigal Electromotive’s subsidiary companies and pitches his new product line to Breaking Bad’s Peter Schuler, the man who funds his operation and ultimately the man who will commit suicide once Gus and his operation collapses. It’s here where we learn more about their history and bond as Gus visits him in his hotel suite. Mr. Schuler is growing paranoid and doesn’t appreciate how hot their situation is with Lalo but Gus serves as a calming presence and most likely the only confident figure standing between Peter and a defibrillator.  It’s possible Lydia is fueling Peter’s paranoia with her own and using Peter as the catalyst for Madrigal Electromotive’s disengagement from business with Gus.  Lydia almost feels like an invasive third wheel to this party and you can tell Gus isn’t happy about it.

What’s most interesting about this scene is how Gus reminds Peter of the strong man he was back when their backs were against the wall in Chile. Once again, the show nods to Gus’ past like it did earlier in the season when Lalo expressed resentment over what happened in Santiago, the country’s capital.  It’s rare when we get to see Gus in this form, free of the false facade as smiling owner of Los Pollos Hermanos or the brutal, dead-eyed composure when driven by the death of his partner, Max.  Peter comes off more than just another asset Gus can take a liking to, but there’s a deeper connection here, that pre-exists his quest for revenge.  It’s a connection Gus values most genuinely and it’s because of something Peter did that Gus isn’t willing to forget.  We’re at a point where Better Call Saul is either creeping closer to uncovering the bigger picture to a mystery that has existed since Breaking Bad or the show is seeing how much bread crumbs it can leave us without revealing anything.  It’s quite an intriguing balance between being too coy and leaving viewers with enough to form their own theories.

Some tidbits:

Jimmy’s previous two marriages are established here, explaining away the conflicting throwaway line used in Breaking Bad before Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould knew they would be exploring Saul Goodman’s character with a spinoff series.  One of his marriages was mentioned back in season 1’s “Marco” when Jimmy tells the story of the “Chicago Sunroof”.  It’s good to know that Kim is not one of his wives that Jimmy catches sleeping with his step-dad as that would have never made sense.

Kim has no middle name which the judge finds interesting.  It seems like more of a quirk, given how much emphasis the show has on character identity.  There’s probably nothing to it, but it evokes intrigue to an audience who is always trained to question “why?” and “who are these people, really?”

Speaking of names, Lalo seems confident that his false alias Jorge de Guzman won’t get found out.  Does Lalo know Ed the Disappearer?  Also, now that Lalo is aware that the key witness in his case has been manipulated to ensure his imprisonment, it wouldn’t be too far off to expect he’ll be looking into that.  He definitely must know Gus and Mike are behind this.  The main question Lalo should be asking is how did anyone know where he was if Nacho was the last guy to know Lalo’s whereabouts?.  And how did Saul learn this information without being contacted by those responsible? The line of deception is about to break.

Last episode gave us a closing scene that Rhea Seehorn knocked out of the park.  Now Bob Odenkirk gives one of his best explosive performances as he unleashes on Howard.  What more do Emmy voters want?

Your thoughts?

Better Call Saul “Wexler v. Goodman” (S5E06)

“You never listen!” – Kim’s mother

How does Kim go from a teenager who knows better than to get in the car with her intoxicated mom, to present day Kim proposing marriage to Saul after he betrays her by turning her into a sucker (once again) along with Mesa Verde? Nine times out of ten, Kim knows what’s best. She knew she was better off upping Mr. Acker’s settlement to $75,000 and pay the difference out of pocket from Mesa Verde’s share.  For her, it’s better to take the financial hit and put this mess behind her rather than risk her career and reputation over a scam that entails dragging her most depended client through the mud.  Best case scenario, the scam makes her feel good that Mr. Acker keeps his home and Jimmy feel good for working his magic as a con man.

From the beginning of the episode, Kim comes to the conclusion that the thrill is not worth it and musters up the courage to call it off, despite Jimmy’s much expected disappointment.  She has good reason, considering her boss Rich Schweikart has already declared his suspicions of what’s truly going on.  Jimmy argues that nobody will ever find out they’re in cahoots but he knows he’s at a loss.  As much as he hates to see a walk-off homerun dribble foul, he agrees to call off the scam.  He does this, guilting Kim in the process by stressing how deflated the student film crew will be after how hard they worked in preparation. Jimmy is a tad manipulative here, similar to Walter White making Skyler feel like the party pooper when she orders him to take Walt Jr.’s Dodge Challenger back to the dealership to avoid suspicions.  Jimmy honors Kim’s wishes, but only until he can turn her words of caution and reasoning into an invitation to go against them.

The question for Jimmy here is…why?  What drives Jimmy’s need to go forward with the scam to the point where he figures using Kim’s genuine surprise and anger as a means to clear Rich of any suspicion is in any way excusable to the act of steamrolling her to begin with?  Is he this desperate to mask his grief with Chuck by getting a rise out of screwing people over, even if it includes deceiving someone he cares about?  By not going forward with defaming Mesa Verde and accusing them of every absurd, scandalous offense under the sun (including a claim of copyright infringement which would actually hold water), Jimmy’s goal to turn the world upside-down would result in an anti-climax.  Anti-climax is the exact thing Jimmy strives to avoid because under Chuck’s watch, it’s all Jimmy was ever advised to endure.

Jimmy is gun-ho to put his talents to use on his own terms.  He doesn’t want to hear reasons not to, no matter how valid or sound, because he’s eager to prove that his way of doing things was always the way they should have been done long ago.  Perhaps he feels an incessant need to go through with it because he’s been held back for so long and needs to make up for the lost time of making choices for him and him alone.  It’s something Chuck never allowed him to do as it causes a fallout of damage at the expense of others.  Problem is, Jimmy still cares for Kim and wants to be a couple, therefore his needs are going to clash and the consequences of his actions still need to be considered if he wants to maintain the relationship.  But what does Kim actually want? Because one episode she’s mocking the air of arrogance and greed Kevin Wachtell carries and the next she’s come to her logical senses, arguing not to bat the beehive.

As I go on to explore Kim’s mindset in this episode’s review, I discover that I already hit most of the nail on the head back in last season’s “Coushatta” write-up.  The same analysis applies:

“If the proceedings for Mesa Verde weren’t such a drag for Kim, she probably would never make this worrisome choice. I think back to the younger, eager version of herself in the cold open of “Pinata” where she’s Jimmy’s #1 buddy but her admiration for Chuck and aspiration for becoming the rockstar lawyer is her real draw. You have to consider what happened to her along the way where Howard locked her in doc review and Chuck proved to be more of a disappointing role model. Even though she never achieved Mesa Verde properly (because of Jimmy), she still owned it through her hard work, but even that pales in comparison to what Jimmy has always consistently offered her in which Howard, Chuck, and even Kevin Wachtell have failed to. And that’s the rockstar, home run moment. Between her scamming ‘Ken Wins’ out of buying the most expensive tequila, fighting in Jimmy’s corner in the case against Chuck, or pulling off a Hail Mary in getting Huell no jail time, Jimmy has always been the guy that granted her the rewarding satisfaction of winning.

There’s always been a corruptible blot on Kim’s x-ray and she’s overcome that with the firm belief that working within the lines of legitimacy was her ticket for gratification. She wore this like a badge of honor to the point where she even warned Jimmy in season 2 that fabricating evidence in his cobbler scheme was not worth sacrificing the more lucrative, straight and narrow road he’s built for himself. However, Jimmy has proved time and time again that through the same willpower in which Kim possesses, he can run each side of the law like a ski slalom in his favor. It’s that exhilarating feeling of coming out on top that triumphs over the lawful standards Chuck reveled in, where currently for her it’s all tunnel and no light. That said, I don’t think Kim is stupid. By telling Jimmy “Let’s do it again”, it’s not that she’s willing to unnecessarily bend the law when there’s no present hurdle giving them a reason to, but a message to Jimmy that she’s willing to fight dirty in his corner when the next situation calls for it. It’s too much of a stretch that she would join Jimmy as a criminal partner (she still has higher morals), but she certainly seems eager to be a disciplined asset to him.”

Everything transpiring this season leading up to “Wexler v. Goodman” expands on this line of thinking with new information and developments.  It’s not so much that Kim is bored with helping Mesa Verde’s campaign to expand their territories but the corporate evil to the process that’s impeding on the lives of unsuspecting citizens is wearing on her.  She’s learned that the law isn’t her neat and tidy road to salvation and in fact, by following it she’ll continue to be the loser who’s ordered around by Kevin and who’s made to look like a chump by Jimmy.  Jimmy called Kim out in last season’s episode “Wiedersehen”, addressing how she always has her feet in both camps when it comes to embracing and rejecting him as a partner.  He’s always been hurt by this even if he always kept it to himself.  It’s probably what drove him to reject Kim’s wishes not to go forward with blackmailing Mesa Verde here.  By doing it, he kills two birds with one stone.  One stone sets to prove that his colorful way of doing things goes off without a hitch and therefore Kim should have trusted Jimmy, while the other punishes her as the added sucker for not listening.

Obviously there’s a level of delusion at play there when it comes to justifying the act of sideswiping her and believing his original con with Rich’s suspicions in tow, to be such a shoe-in, but this is essentially his way of putting his foot down.  This is who Jimmy is and if Kim doesn’t want to continue to be made the sucker picking up the pieces, then it’s time for her to finally make the choice she’s been dreading all season.  She can either wash her hands of Jimmy and leave him (which is what she acknowledges in the episode’s closing scene) or commit to him fully as a partner.  Both feet in one camp. It sounds crazy when you consider how much sense Kim possesses, but this choice is derived from a much more complicated, existential dilemma than most logical reasoning can sway.  It’s about living.  Not just surviving and playing it safe while the rest of the world gets the better of you, but living on the edge.  I think Kim would rather live a riskier life that works in her and her partner’s favor, as well as the moral favor of others (Mr. Acker being the prime example), than to tow the line, get pushed around, and lose someone she loves over reservations of the legal right and wrong.  She put the law and the act of ‘going about things the right way’ on a pedestal all her life and it’s been known to fail her.

Young Kim knew that the right decision to make when her mom showed up late and under the influence of alcohol, was that she shouldn’t get in the car with her.  She was put in a position to reject her mother’s offer to drive her home, no matter how much context Kim may have (that we don’t) as to why her mom drinks.  We don’t know how hard Kim’s mom has it other than their family growing up poor to the point of dodging payments with multiple landlords.  For all we know, Kim’s mother means well and although struggles with certain vices, ultimately aims to give Kim the best upbringing she possibly can.  You can see on her mom’s face that she isn’t proud of her problem or lying to her daughter to reassure her safety, but the last thing she wants is her kid walking three miles home by herself carrying a cello.  That said, she drives off nearly insulted that Kim doesn’t believe her despite Kim being in the right.  It’s a tough scene, but it brings up the notion of possible abandonment issues that Kim holds towards her mom.  Not so much that Kim’s mother might have abandoned her, but that Kim might have pushed her mother further and further away in favor of doing what’s right.

It’s possible that this became a pattern of choices Kim dedicated herself to which would have resulted in a wider divide between mother and daughter.  There’s no telling what may have resulted from that but perhaps whatever unfolded is the very thing Kim doesn’t want to repeat at all cost when it comes to Jimmy.  The difference between Jimmy’s hang-ups and lies compared to Kim’s mother’s, is Kim has undergone deeper understanding and sympathy as to why Jimmy is the way he is.  Being a kid, she may never have had a chance to give her mom the same consideration.  “You never listen!” might be the guilty echo of her mother’s words that still bounces in Kim’s head.  A haunting mantra she could redeem herself from in the case of her relationship with Jimmy.

 

By proposing that they get married, it’s her way of saying “I’m going to listen, embrace you, and live life.” If it means Kim can be on the same team with Jimmy going forward and not get caught off guard in the whirlwind of his actions, then that’s a life decision she might find more important and valuable than anything else.  Even if it’s the more dangerous route that could result in a horrible wreck like getting in the car with her mom, a life with Saul promises something richer than the life she currently leads. Not just money or even winning, but maintaining the smaller things in life that she pushed away from her mom like splitting a box of McNuggets, seeing what’s on TV, and embracing the warmth of two people who love each other.  She’ll take that at the risk of losing someone over walking alone again in the cold. Because what is Kim’s life without Jimmy and what has it already become from estranging herself from her mom and family?  This breaking point pushes her closer to her role as a criminal partner, rather than just a disciplined asset to Jimmy.  Kim still has her morals but at what point do they become further compromised after fully committing to Saul Goodman? Will those morals deteriorate along with his or does she come to another breaking point?

Mike has also committed himself to a partner in Gus despite the moral conflict that may come from it. Gus apparently has sold Mike on an empathetic life pursuit of revenge made more preferable than the dead-end path Mike’s grief was taking him.  As one of Gus’ right-hand men, Mike is now tasked with getting Lalo out of Gus’ hair for good.  According to Nacho, Lalo plans to do whatever it takes to hurt Gus, such as hitting their supply trucks, getting their customers sick, or cutting off power before eventually damaging Gus’ operation enough where his connection down South is severed.  Lalo already has Krazy 8 informing on Gus’ men, in which Gus responds they get replaced with low-level dealers or new hires in order to protect their most essential members.  The war has started and Mike is going along for the ride but it’s Nacho who remains the moral compass who tries to persuade Mike of how evil the people he’s getting involved with, are.  Mike doesn’t want to hear it until Nacho informs him of his father’s life being on the line depending on whether Nacho follows Gus’ orders or not.  It’s reassuring to see there’s still a line Mike draws with what’s okay and what’s not, but he tells Nacho once they solve the Lalo issue, he’ll get back to him on that topic.

This is the most hopeful moment for Nacho in a long time as he finally has someone on the inside of Gus’ operation who could possibly help free him from his enslavement and save his father’s life, but there’s something off about the scene as well.  For one, it’s very glaring that Nacho was unaware or forgetful of Mike’s initial warning to be careful of higher figures being at risk of being affected if Nacho is to go forward with swapping Hector’s pills.  This far in, it’s the lack of reflection over the fact that he got into this mess with both eyes open that makes me, as part of the audience, worried of what else he can’t see. When or if death comes for him, which is more likely than anything, will he be ready to avoid it?  Nacho is in very deep right now and he’s not without options just yet, but I at least hope he’s ready for whatever happens in the end, regardless if it’s death or not.  When we first meet Lalo, he hands Nacho a meal he prepared, promising, “You’re gonna die,” and Nacho replies “No, thank you”.  His fate remains ambiguous, but Nacho is definitely closer to his than anyone in this show.

A close second would be Kim after the leap of faith she’s prepared to take with Saul and the fact that we know she’s not, to our knowledge, in the picture of Breaking Bad. We may be seeing the beginning of a possible explanation as to Kim’s future absence when Mike (under the false identity Detective Dave Clark as used in the former show) speeds up the investigation of who’s responsible to the arson and murder at TravelWire by convincing a witness to “remember” Lalo’s car being at the scene.  It’s the same car that would match the hit and run that happened within the vicinity and timeline of the fateful events at TravelWire.  Mike even goes through the trouble of blending in at the APD to ensure the developing information gets to the desk of Breaking Bad’s Detective Tim Roberts.  The final nail in the sabotage of Lalo is to masquerade as a police officer who has spotted the make and model of Lalo’s Chevy Monte Carlo. Nacho informs Mike on Lalo’s whereabouts and Mike relays this over the police squad radio.  As four patrol cars surround Lalo and order him to take his keys from the ignition and drop them out the window, he begrudgingly surrenders.

We can fully expect what happens next (now that a violent shootout is off the table) is Lalo will be calling the guy with the mouth, Saul Goodman, to work any angle he can to save him.  Knowing what Lalo is capable of, he’s going to expect freedom at any cost and if that doesn’t work out, what dangers await and for who?  Everyone’s connected now in this dangerous line of hellfire.  If Lalo isn’t the reason for Kim or Nacho’s absence, it could be Gus or Mike or law enforcement or Saul.  Anyone! There’s no telling what tricks the writers have up their sleeve, but there’s no denying we’re entering the end times before the final season.  There’s no way the connection of both the show’s parallel worlds can maintain itself safely now that it’s merged.  Not all characters will be coming out the other side by the time its over. Even the souls of the characters we know survive are at risk depending on what transpires.  At a certain point, the plot was going to catch up to a show that is intriguingly based on character-driven choices, and that plot can only end badly.  We can only hope that these characters stand by or understand the choices that lead them to the conclusions they face.

Lingering thoughts:

“Freedom. Freedom to ride. Freedom to explore. Freedom to bank the way you want to”.  The old commercial for Mesa Verde seems to be selling more than just a bank but the exact thing Kim desires in life.  To live free of principle and explore new horizons without restriction or limitations.  By proposing to Jimmy, she’s banking on a life she can lead on her own terms, full of thrills.  “Let our family help find your freedom at Mesa Verde!” (Mesa Verde being the catalyst to her decision to embrace Jimmy).  On an unrelated note, Kevin’s father, Don Wachtell is played by Mr. Show alum Jay Johnston.  It’s more than appropriate that the scene he gets involves a Mr. Show-esque edit as it’s turned into a classic Saul Goodman commercial.  It even features the old phone number used in Breaking Bad.

Kim apologizes to Rich and Rich reassures her it’s okay to call him out on something but to never do it in front of the troops, as it affects morale and confidence.  Rich inviting Kim to walk with him out to lunch so as to show the office that they’re back on good terms was a sweet moment between them before everything goes to hell.  It felt very Twin Peaks in regards to the show’s ability to lighten itself up amidst all the doom and gloom that lies in wait.  I admire how Rich, like Howard, was initially presented as an antagonist to the audience in season 1, but has proven to be one of the more gracious and endearing characters in the show.

Saul unleashes two prostitutes on Howard making them embarrass him publicly in front of Cliff Main, acting like Howard owes them for some dirty sex arrangement.  This show doesn’t do anything by accident which is why last week we saw Howard call Jimmy again regarding his offer to join HHM.  The more Howard can’t take a hint, the more Jimmy is willing to destroy him.  It’s funny but it’s hard to watch and I can’t imagine Howard isn’t going to have suspicions as to what might be going on now.  The vandalism against his car could have been chalked up to the workings of no-good punk teens, but prostitutes being sent to the hotspot restaurant the lawyer community is known to congregate at is way too specific for a second sabotage.  Howard isn’t that dumb.  He’ll narrow down the suspects to who’s behind this.

Also it’s important to note that Jimmy finally giving in to the prostitutes services was meant to lead us on to the possibility of Jimmy betraying Kim.  He doesn’t cheat on her, but he does indeed betray her when going ahead to call Olivia Bitsui (the owner of the photo that inspired the Mesa Verde logo) in the same scene where he’s enjoying the sabotage of Howard.

Finally, I’m a sucker for the long Kubrick-esque zoom-in on Kevin fuming in silence as everyone tries to get a handle on the situation in the aftermath of Jimmy’s blackmail.  Wonderful directing by Michael Morris.

What’s everyone else’s thoughts?