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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Better Call Saul goes full Breaking Bad in a desert odyssey directed by Vince Gilligan

 Daniel Moncada as Leonel Salamanca, Luis Moncada as Marco Salamanca
Daniel Moncada as Leonel Salamanca, Luis Moncada as Marco Salamanca
Photo: Greg Lewis (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)
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I know it’s on brand for me, but I can’t help myself. “Bagman” is biblical, through and through. The desert, where almost all the action takes place, is where Moses endured the whining weakness of the Hebrew refugees who followed himjust as Mike endures the whining weakness of this windbag shyster in way over his head. And it’s where Jesus meets Satan. If the cousins aren’t pure evil in Gilligan’s New Mexico, I don’t know what is. Vince Gilligan (who directed this episode) puts the camera right behind Jimmy’s head when he meets them, so they stand on his shoulders, like twin devils who banished the angel from the picture.

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But “biblical” is too specific a reference. This is mythological stuff. Archetypal.

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We’ve all been looking for the moment when Jimmy becomes Saul, and there have been many such moments so far this season, all related decisively to Jimmy making a choicechanging the name on his law license, handing out free phones with his number on speed-dial, playing Kim’s foil in the Acker case, blowing up the meeting with Kevin. And he makes the choice that sends him to the desert, a classic Goodman gamble. Lalo baits him into it by too-blithely letting him off the hook at their jail meeting, cleverly appealing to his greed and his vanity at once. Then Jimmy characteristically overstates the odds in his favor in a devastating scene with Kim, telling her he’ll scram the moment anything looks fishy (yeah, right) and that he’ll practice “security through obscurity.”

But what happens to him in the desert isn’t something he chooses. He gets himself into it, but once the bandits show up, he is simply driven by events, farther and farther from anything he can control. It is a descent into helland it ends with a resurrection. One man dies in the desert, and another emerges from the tomb.

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You could make a cogent argument that Saul drives into the desert, but is gradually chipped away during the long walk until nothing of him is left. The man who wasted some of his water cleaning his shoe now has to save his piss as hydration of last resort. His schemes to relieve himself of the load of the $7 millionbury it, drag it, “work smarter not harder”prove foolish, exposing his bravado to Mike’s laconic certainty. The guy who screamed “Yo soy abrogado!” to deflect automatic rifle fire a day earlier, now walks into the road to draw that same fire, without a word to Mike. Driven beyond his usual craven survival and dominance instincts, he invites death to end the ordeal. And he does it after Mike shuts him up with a speech about what keeps him going: the people he loves. “I do what I do so they can have a better life,” he spits. “When it’s my time to go, I’ll go knowing I did everything I could for them.”

This is the most Breaking Bad-like that BCS has been in a long time. Talking this episode over with Noel Murray after we watched it, I realized that as distinct as it appears, it’s also the culmination of a whole season of setting up character through actionthe defining genius of the Gilligan shows. Mike arrives at his peace with working for Gus because of what happens to him: yelling at Kaylee, picking fights with the street toughs, getting patched up in the desert. That’s what’s behind that whole speech. And Jimmy got here because of the way his actions have boxed him in. When Lalo shows him the door, he literally can’t see how to take it. What’s on the other side, that kind of quasi-legitimacy he’s promised Kim, is the real unknown territory. Getting that starter home is tough when you’re springing hookers who want to pay in kind. Like a lot of con men, he doesn’t dream of stringing along little scores and making a business out of it, but pulling off the big one and rolling around in the cash. The only direction he can see to go, that has a chance of getting him what he wants, is deeper.

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Finally Jimmy seems to accept that he cannot keep Kim quarantined from his work as Saul Goodman, which is looking more midnight black than merely shady. His job in the desert is not to escape a bad dream and return to reality, but to take care of his business so the monsters don’t show up at Kim’s door. When he walks into the road with the space blanket glinting on his head (as if he’s cosplaying Chuck McGill), it’s a sacrifice.

But once that truck flips behind him, the guy who opens his eyes isn’t Jimmy anymore. When he rises to his feet, he’s an outlawstrapping the duffels across his body like bandoliers, swigging his own piss like it’s something he’s been saving for a special occasion. The Jimmy that was trying to skirt along the edge of cartel business has been burned away. The Saul that is going to outlast everyone, “la cucaracha” like Lalo says, is what’s left.

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We’ve been thinking of Saul as a con man, a fast-talking shyster, a man who wields the law like just another scam. But maybe Saul is the iron core of Jimmy McGillthe part that isn’t going to stand for being sidelined and patronized. Saul is the part of Jimmy that won’t play along and take the L. The part that, when pushed far enough, decides to stay and fight rather than save his own skin. The part that hangs up on Ed at Best Quality Vacuum in the flash-forward. And if he believes Mike that Kim’s in the game now (not just “game-adjacent,” as he tries to spin it), that might be the part of him that finds a way to save her.

In other words, for the first time this season, I have a glimmer of hope that Kim might make it. Now that’s a resurrection. Happy Easter, everyone.

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Stray observations

  • Of course, Kim herself will have something to say about that. As we saw at the Mesa Verde conference table, she is not into being saved. Mike imagines her calling the cops, like wives are prone to do, but he doesn’t know her. She does something far more dangerous by going straight to Lalo and trying to gain leverage over him by telling him what she knows — who he really is. Oh, full disclosure. You are a harsh mistress.
  • Kim plays the real honesty card, staring in Jimmy’s face and saying right out: “I don’t like this. I don’t want you to do it.” And he brushes past it. The problem with fake full disclosure is that you can’t insist on the real thing without acknowledging that what you’ve been doing ain’t it.
  • So many unusable containers. The Subaru, full of holes. The World’s Second Best Lawyer (Again) mug, perforated. The jug that the red SUV driver had with him when Mike flipped his car, destroyed. Only the Davis & Main bottle still holds water (or the bodily-fluid equivalent). That, combined with Howard’s interrupted lunch with Clifford Main, makes me think that we have another date coming with that firm before the season is out.
  • Jimmy echoes any number of organized crime figures since 1969: “Big mistake discontinuing the thousand dollar bill. These would have been so much lighter.”
  • Tony Dalton continues to delight. In his scene with Rhea Seehorn, he radiates joy as he diagnoses the situation: “You’re his wife, and you loooove him!” What she has to tell him is secondary to what her coming down there at all tells him: Jimmy’s not going to take the money and run — “not without you.” And when Jimmy, characteristically underestimating how much money is a lot of money to this guy, asks for a hundred grand, he chirps “Done!” and goes back to reading about the Los Pollos Hermanos arson.
  • Jimmy searching for a cell phone signal is a telling moment — Saul’s whole life is based around those phones, and it’s a measure of how far he is from that life that they’re useless. And in a twisted way, the bags of money are the same: useless in the desert, since you can’t eat ‘em or drink ‘em or make a shelter out of them. They do nothing but drag you down. Yet the only way to save yourself is to bring them along.
  • “There has never been more than 50 bucks in an Esteem in the history of Esteems.”
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Donna descends from her ivory tower every year or two to recap any TV show Vince Gilligan decides to set in Albuquerque.

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