After last week’s “Quite A Ride,” a high point for the season and for the series, a letdown was inevitable. Tonight’s workmanlike episode features one dizzying setpiece, introduces one new shady character, and moves the Jimmy and Kim storylines along for their next acts. It won’t set your television on fire, but the more I thought about what seem on the surface to be rather mechanical character bits, the more impressed I became with how they connected.

“Piñata” structures its narrative around Jimmy’s hunger for the respect, adulation, and sense of accomplishment that lawyering was supposed to provide him. The cold open takes us back to his time with Kim at the bottom of the HHM ladder, roaming the cubicle corridors with their mail carts. But while Jimmy runs an Oscar pool and cracking jokes with the associates, Kim soaks up everything she can learn about the law, the firm, and its cases. She looks with adoration at Chuck, hero of the beach, as he accepts a round of applause after tracking down a corporation that dissolved and reformed to evade its stockholders — and Jimmy knows she’ll never look at him like that, no matter how many inside jokes they share.

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Back at the mobile phone store, Jimmy reminisces about the Sandpiper days when he gets a call from the nephew of Geraldine Strauss (star of his first illicit commercial!), hoping to hire him to clear up a few matters from her estate. “Did Clarence get the Alpine Shepherd Boy? So, he finished college then?” Jimmy asks, utilizing the gift for remembering and using personal information that made him so many temporary friends in the HHM cubicles and retirement-home common rooms. But reluctantly, he has to refer the nephew to HHM’s estate law division and admit that he’s not practicing anymore.

What Jimmy’s holding onto is the re-emergence of Wexler-McGill in just under ten months, the moment his license is returned to him. But Kim wants to temper his expectations that they’ll pick up where they left off, while at the same time making room for herself to do the work that feeds her soul. She’s offered Rich Schweikart the Mesa Verde business, in the form of herself — hired on as partner — to lead a new banking division. That means associates to cover the infinite details of the Mesa Verde expansion and more time for Kim to take on pro bono criminal clients. She thinks she’s letting him down easy, but Jimmy is unnerved; he flees to the kitchen entrance, where the sound of chopping knives at the prep stations drills into his skull, before returning to echo Kim’s own words back at her: “You’ve gotta do what’s best for you.”

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Now that he knows there’s no sense in keeping his nose clean and marking time before the new Wexler-McGill offices open (bigger and better, with a lighted sign the size of a Vegas casino’s), Jimmy starts building his underworld phone business instead — bigger and better, with enforcers the size of Vegas bouncers. He needs the word to get out that the guy selling burners shouldn’t be messed with, and he chooses the three juvies who rolled him to send that message. Working out of his old digs at the nail salon (“Get rich quick schemes never work,” Mrs. Nguyen warns), he takes delivery of a pallet of phones, calls up the vet to connect with muscle and get a venue, and then stages a ritual humiliation of his antagonists.

This is the bravura sequence, cameras inverted to stand the hanging human pinatas upright, edits setting us spinning dizzily from floor to ceiling. Watching those giants emerge from the shadows swinging their bats, I didn’t know any better than the suspended kids whether Jimmy had control of the situation. Not only is it a warning those boys and anyone who hears their story will never forget, it’s a scene viewers will never forget.

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I wish I could say the same about what I found to be the weakest part of the episode, Gus’s monologue in Hector’s hospital room. It’s always awkward to deliver character motivation this way, in what’s basically a soliloquy; televised drama’s tradition of naturalism makes it impossible to deploy this strategy the way it can be done on the stage. Here Gus tells the unconscious Hector a story his childhood, snaring an animal that was stealing fruit from a tree the young Gustavo had nourished. Instead of putting the injured beast out of its misery, he says, “I kept it. It lived for quite some time.” Then he drives the message home: “I believe you will wake, Hector.” Make no mistake, Giancarlo Esposito is as marvelous as ever in this scene, but the material forces him into a no-win situation — explaining directly to us, in essence, motivation in making sure Hector gets the best possible care.

Ben Bella Bohm as Kai
Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

It’s a lot more fun to watch Mike get Werner’s crew settled in their cool new biosphere. Mike’s superpower is his ability to think along with each different perspective in a scenario, and he is categorical about the need to fill the Germans’ workhouse with so many amenities that they’ll hardly notice they’re imprisoned. Sure enough, there’s a troublemaker in the group — Kai, who smirks and sasses back at his bosses. “Keep an eye on this one,” Mike tells the team monitoring the cameras in the trailer outside. I’ll bet we’ll see more from the security cams mounted at the sally port’s two doors, inside and out, before too long.

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That same superpower is what led Mike to peg Henry as a faker at the support group. Henry has a version of it too — but he uses it to exploit what he knows about how others will react. Mike prides himself on playing it straight with what he knows, and he’s disgusted by Henry’s lack of such a code. The problem at the grief group is that he allows himself to be disgusted with Henry’s marks as well — his fellow group members — for being such easy marks. That same contempt drives Jimmy in the opposite direction from Kim when it comes to the law. Either you work the grift or it works you, Jimmy thinks, and he’s done being a sucker. It’s going to make it all the more painful when Jimmy survives into the Albuquerque of Walter White, and Kim, with her yellow folders distracting her with visions of helping people for free … vanishes.


Stray observations:

  • Howard’s End got nine Academy Award nominations in 1993, and won three — art direction, adapted screenplay, and best actress for Emma Thompson (“she’s so pragmatic!”). It’s great! And in case you missed it, the recent Starz miniseries adaptation (Haley Atwell! Kenneth Lonergan!!) is also great.
  • Jimmy seems skeptical of his co-workers’ prognostications (“you think Pacino’s going to hoo-ah his way to Oscar glory, huh?”), and maybe it’s because his tastes, from what we know of them, eschew the middlebrow. He likes the classics and the trash, but not the Oscar-bait. When it comes to an Oscar pool, though, you’re trying to determine what will win, not what’s going to make it to the Sight & Sound list or the New Cult Canon twenty years later. (Pacino won!) Jimmy can think like a mark — that’s what makes him an effective con artist — but he finds it well-nigh impossible to compartmentalize the game from life itself.
  • If you need another example, look at the way Jimmy lectures Howard on his reaction to HHM’s downturn. Yes, he’s throwing Howard’s rhetoric about hustle back in his face. But he’s also refusing to understand why anyone would put their head down and try to get through a tough time by focusing on practical steps (let alone talking to a therapist about their personal pain), rather than making some dramatic take-charge game-changing move. That’s what Jimmy defines as “fighting,” and he interprets Howard’s quietism as a misguided effort to remain dignified.
  • In related news, I feel terrible for Howard now, which is something I never thought I’d say. You got me again, BCS.
  • I love Kim’s smiling response to Jimmy’s joke about “Kim and Jimmy” not being all bad: “Rumors and hearsay.”
  • “You should have taken the deal.”

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