Tag Archives: Better Call Saul Bagman Analysis

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 then 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’s 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?