Tag Archives: Better Call Saul Carrot and Stick analysis

Better Call Saul “Carrot and Stick” (S6E02)

“You know, I was hoping you’d see our dilemma and do the right thing. But I think what we have here now is a carrot-and-stick situation.” – Mike

“Oh yeah? This the stick? Hmm? You coming here, threatening my family? Huh? ‘Cause you’re gonna need a bigger stick, old man.” – Nacho (Season 2 “Cobbler”)

“Carrot and Stick” continues the struggle of characters becoming compelled and repelled with their allies as they navigate shared goals, but also becomes a story about seeing through people or situations for who or what they truly are. It’s only appropriate that this marks the return of Betsy Kettleman because for all her looniness and delusion, she has always been a character who can see through to certain truths about people. “You’re the kind of lawyer only guilty people hire” cut through Jimmy like a rusty sword back in season 1 when he was trying to prove himself otherwise, but we all know he turned out to be the crookety-crook she always saw him as. When Saul manipulates the Kettlemans into believing they have a shot in exonerating Craig from his embezzlement beef because their past defending council was likely impaired from drug addiction, it’s interesting that her first assumption is “that awful woman with the pony tail”.  Back in season 1’s “Bingo”, Kim was on the straight and narrow trying her best to do right by the Kettlemans. Betsy of course would never see it that way, but she’s not exactly wrong about Kim being an unsaintly adversary.

The idea that the Kettle team have a chance to shop Saul’s inside information to different firms (including Cliff’s) where proof of Howard Hamlin’s “dirty dealings” will come out in discovery goes according to plan. It was important that Saul was not taken on as the lawyer on these phony accusations against Howard because that would only bring him into question for orchestrating it, which is why Saul yells to Betsy that the moment they reveal him as a source, he gets a cut of their settlement. Cliff is also compelled and repelled by the Kettleman’s absurd claims, just as planned. It’s enough for Cliff to reject them as clients based on their lack of evidence, but also enough for him to put two and two together that there may very well be truth to their claims. Davis & Main are not only the partnering firm with HHM for the Sandpiper case, but Cliff and Howard are good friends. Going forward with proceedings between them will now prove just as push-and-pull as Kim and Jimmy’s partnership or with Mike and Gus.

Whereas Cliff’s perspective has been tampered with to shed new light on Howard, the transition between Cliff and Gus’ over-the-shoulder shot invites a scene where Gus sees through Hector’s truce offering for what reality actually is. Gus has studied Hector inside and out to the point where it consumes Gus. When Juan and Gus attempt to console Don Hector for political purposes in his moment of grief, Hector offers a handshake. Hector has always been jealous of being second banana to Gus in their line of work. He knows Gus is a calculative bastard so for him to finally have the upperhand with a secret wild card of Lalo’s continued existence up his sleeve, he can’t help but reveal himself to the man he truly loathes. Gus knows Hector would never shake his hand without putting up a fight, especially with the beaming expression Hector has to go with it. Gus has now learned Lalo lives through his classic Spidey sense. This may become a lesson learned for Hector down the line, because whatever Gus does next with the knowledge of Lalo’s survival will be a large contributing factor in Gus getting the last laugh. I imagine Hector Salamanca will grow self-aware of how he gets in his own way and never look Gus in the eye again for a forseeable future. The next time he does, it better count…

Eyes are on everyone in this episode as Nacho discovers he’s being watched by a mysterious party across the motel courtyard. He can see the air conditioner is in use on a boarded up structure and after biding his time, Nacho baits the mystery man into revealing his vantage point. Upon getting the drop on this spy, it’s unclear who he works for as he describes he’s being paid by whoever’s voice is on the other end of a phone. Nacho takes action however and calls Tyrus to make him believe he’s going to bolt out of paranoia that something isn’t right. Tyrus insists he stay put but Nacho hangs up. After Tyrus tries to call Nacho again, it’s the mystery man’s phone which rings next and just like that the mystery is solved. Nacho is being set up and was likely given a gun so he can die in a gunfight while also bloodying up possible Cartel members in the process.

In the cold open, we’re shown Mike and Gus’ men taking over Nacho’s apartment. They predict one of the first procedures the Cartel will conduct is searching the apartment for any clue as to where Nacho may be. Therefore the hidden safe is the most plausible place to hide such info, being the phone number to the motel. It seems Nacho caught on just in time as an entire truck full of baddies show up looking to capture him, including the Salamanca twins. This entire scene feels like Vince Gilligan’s fantasy to direct a classic shootout at the O.K. Corral which is played to perfection, right down to the thug manhandling a damsel in distress (the motel manager) and taking a prat fall over the wooden porch when shot.  Dave Porter’s wild, heart-thumping score sets the mood for this cowboy scenario as gunslingers close in on Nacho from every odd direction. The Salamanca twins are the real threat as they’re willing to kill their own to ensure Nacho’s survival. Marco motioning “C’mere” at Nacho is icing on the cake before Nacho barrels the truck forward while firing blindly through the windshield. He may have escaped unscathed, but the twins manage to shoot out a tire which will not only slow Nacho down as he embarks Mexico’s backroads, but will make him easier to track.

As far as Mike, Gus, and Tyrus know, Nacho has long fleed before any attempt on his life had a chance to be made. It says a lot about Mike that he reluctantly went through with setting up Nacho’s demise in favor of Gus, but he at least pocketed Manuel Varga’s fake ID to make sure Nacho’s father was kept off the game’s board. Upon learning that Nacho’s death by shootout never occurred, Mike pitches to Gus that their best option is for Mike to recruit four of Gus’ men to help him rescue Nacho before the Cartel gets to him first. With Lalo on the loose, Mike also points out that Lalo won’t be able to make a move against Gus until he can obtain proof of who orchestrated the hit on him. Gus is out of his element here as none of his plans seem to be going accordingly. Between him breaking the glass and ordering Nacho’s father be brought to him ala stick over carrot, he’s losing grip of the chess board. It’s not the rashest idea to summon Nacho’s father because it would protect Manuel from being used as a stick under the threat of death by the Cartel after they capture Nacho, but Gus would be no better in kidnapping his father to use as a stick of influence for Nacho to keep his mouth shut.

Gus is a General in war and wars are unspeakably messy, so I don’t think he sees clear to any other way. When Mike refuses to allow Manuel’s involvement to happen, the tension in the room increases and before you know it he’s staring down the barrel of Tyrus’ gun. This standoff is surprising because nobody ever pulls a gun and treats Mike like a man out of line, especially coming from someone who will go on to work with Mike in the future. Gus is at the brink of desperation but after Mike’s ballsy decision to disobey the General in this moment, Gus may be willing to hear him out. Gus is likely aware of his own tunnel vision and he knows Mike is too valuable a soldier to simply do away with. When Nacho calls Mike’s phone requesting a conversation with Gus, Gus agrees to talk. How this conversation plays out and Nacho conducts himself next is irrefutably important. If he calls Gus out for attempting to kill him and comes off adversarial, Gus will only lean further towards unforgiveable methods to keep Nacho quiet. If Gus declines to use Nacho’s father as a weapon against Nacho or the Cartel, then a compromise between the two may be in order. This could be how Gus finally learns to nurture his chess pieces versus using fear as a motivator.

The final ‘carrot and stick’ play in the final season’s second installment is exercised by Jimmy and Kim. Back in season 1’s “Bingo”, Jimmy felt compelled to do the right thing by returning the bribe he took from the Kettleman’s stolen funds in order to turn them in as Kim’s client so Craig can plead guilty and take a shorter sentence. Not only did this hurt Jimmy’s pocket significantly and jeopardize his sympathy for honor among thieves due to the soft spot he felt for them, but it was all to push Kim further away from himself. By ensuring the money is properly returned and the Kettleman case gets handed over to Kim, her future at HHM becomes more cemented over the prospect of the two of them ever pursuing a partnership. Doing the right thing crushed Jimmy in that moment, but now things are different. At this point in the series, JImmy has Kim not only as romantic partner, but as a partner in crime of all things. This is the dream for Jimmy McGill in season 1.  When Jimmy’s attempt to buy the Kettlemans off ala the carrot strategy is rejected by Betsy, she threatens to let it be known far and wide of his attempt to character assassinate Howard. She also plucks the emotional chord with him, guilting Jimmy for having destroyed them in the past.

It’s then Kim, sitting in the back like a coiled snake, who strikes by threatening to report their tax crimes to the IRS, completely unsympathetic and challenging them into learning what losing everything really means. Kim is willing to truly obliterate them and Jimmy is left on the sidelines almost seeming as neutered as Craig is to Betsy. Kim even rolls her eyes as Jimmy hangs back to give them the money out of his own guilt. Jimmy finally has a life with Kim that exceeded his purest desires on every level, but it’s Kim who influences and drags him along into doing the wrong thing, which has now become just as conflicting for him as doing the right. Jimmy thought this relationship would operate the other way around but he’s fallen behind. He’s not fully Saul Goodman. It’s Kim Wexler who is the true gangster positioned to turn Jimmy out. She is on Gustavo Fring’s level right now when it comes to wielding the stick and at the moment there’s no Mike around to talk her down.

Jimmy mutters “wolves and sheep” before taking off with Kim, calling back to the flashback where the grifter took advantage of Jimmy’s father’s generosity when manning the corner store in Cicero. The grifter told young Jimmy that there are wolves and sheep in this world and suggested he figure out which one he chooses to be. Kim is no sheep and neither is he, so this vocal callback could be him coming to terms that he needs to step his game up if he wants to continue to be a member of the pack. Ironically, a mysterious vehicle tails behind them before it cuts to credits, implying that they aren’t the only predators on the prowl and that they are the ones who are hunted. My first thought was Lalo, but it doesn’t make sense for him to be there so soon. When “Wine and Roses” ended, he was heading back South to find proof. Regardless of whether this has anything to do with Kim or Jimmy, I wouldn’t expect Better Call Saul to gloss over the details of what his plan is. It’s too soon for him to have traveled up North into New Mexico, let alone pinpoint Jimmy and Kim’s unique location of wherever the Kettleman’s operation is.

I keep thinking of that transitionary over-the-shoulder shot between Cliff Main and Gustavo Fring. The former has perspective on a misguided belief of Howard having a cocaine problem while Gus is about to learn the actual truth of Lalo’s survival because of the unspoken tell Hector gives away. But what if Cliff’s concern for Howard awakens the truth (like it did for Gus) of Jimmy and Kim’s involvement through the process of connecting the dots? Cliff’s next move as a dear friend of Howard would be to confront him. Howard would rebel against these accusations but also possess the good sense that something is aloof. Between a bag of mock cocaine being planted in his country club locker and then the Kettlemans’ clunky accusation of him having a cocaine problem, Howard’s no dummy to assume that this is a coincidence. He already knows Jimmy is capable of weird behavior like throwing bowling balls at his car and siccing prostitutes on him when at a business lunch, so what other conclusions could he possibly draw from accusations he knows he’s not guilty of?

The first step he can undertake is ask around the country club of whether Jimmy was spotted there as of recent, which Kevin or the tour manager can attest to. He could also track down the Kettleman’s place of business and find out who they’ve been in contact with. Whether it’s Howard in the car or the private investigator Chuck once hired, I think them being seen at the Kettlemans is enough for Howard to know what’s going on. Jimmy has also made it known to Howard in the past that he wanted the Sandpiper case settled, which appropriately Howard called him out on. Back in the season 3 episode “Fall”, he referred to Jimmy as transparent and pathetic and acknowledged his own expectations of Jimmy attempting all kinds of trickery to accelerate the lawsuit’s settlement. Howard also has read Jimmy like a book last season as a man who’s in pain in the aftermath of Chuck’s death. Howard may have his head up his own ass sometimes, but he’s been known to see things for what they are when it matters most.

Lingering thoughts:

-The episode opens with one of Lalo’s girlfriends (who likely suffers from a mental condition) keenly eyeing the domino before allowing them all to topple. The entire episode seems to be about characters competing with one another to see how many dominoes they can forsee falling to work in their favor.  She’s fascinated by what the record may be but sadly these two can’t see passed their own abuse and lack of motivation. There may be hope for them yet though as Mike steers them from Nacho’s orbit.

-The inflatable Statue of Liberty is finally introduced at the Kettleman headquarters. How it gets to Saul Goodman’s office remains a mystery but we can already tell Saul admires it. Does Saul holding possession of it in Breaking Bad mean the Kettlemans meet their downfall? Or is it gifted over to him ala France to the U.S. like the real Statue of Liberty? Say what you want about the Kettleman’s illegal outfit, but they seem to be onto something stylistically which Saul finds alluring.  He’ll even be using that slow patriotic medley for his waiting room in the future.

What did everyone else think?