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Better Call Saul traps its characters and sends them scrambling for escape

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The writers on Breaking Bad, it’s said, used to maneuver their characters into an impossible position — stuck in the desert, trapped inside an RV surrounded by DEA agents, that kind of thing. Then they’d write their way out. The jaw dropping pace and unpredictability of that show came from the absence of a fixed plan. Problem-solving on the fly, like their characters, gave that writers’ room a giddy spontaneity that bled onto the screen in some of the show’s best episodes.

Better Call Saul is a different kind of show. But there still magic to be made by backing the characters into a corner and seeing what they do. Trap Jimmy in a deserted cell phone store, and he’ll find the hustle his job is begging to be. But when Kim realizes that Mesa Verde lawyering is a gilded cage — an endless spiral of money for money-making’s sake — she goes in search of the law she used to love, among powerless people hauled before the bench. Staring down a dead end, they show who they are. And the results diverge in a way that has to make us wonder how long they can hang together.


This is the first episode this season where all of the major characters have each gotten their own bravura sequence. Nacho’s storyline is a standout for tense action — but it also ratchets up his desperation and isolation. Gus’s lieutenants deliver a duffel bag of drugs to the abandoned Westward Ho motel, the headquarters of the Salamanca distribution branch run by the Espinozas. Then Nacho leads the Cousins there and identifies the car supposedly used in the staged hit on Arturo in the desert. He thinks they’ll come back with numbers to take the place down, but instead the Cousins grab bags of guns and blaze their way inside to exact retribution on the traitors. Michael Mando does amazing work in this scene, portraying Nacho’s alarm, pain, and ultimately desperate decision to act when a pickup truck full of Espinozas shows up and follows the Cousins inside. Covering the Cousins’ six, alone and bleeding from the gutshot they delivered, forced to hold his gun between his knees to cock it because of his wounded shoulder, Nacho kills enough of the new assailants to allow one of the Cousins to work his way behind the invaders and take out the rest. Later at the warehouse, Victor reports on the operation to Gus: Framing the Espinozas for double-crossing the cartel leaves their territory up for grabs, and Gus is the logical person to whom Bolsa should hand it. Nacho is paying dearly for Gus’s ambition, and his only reward is the promise of more work on the boss’s behalf. His plea to rest a little at his dad’s shop is heartbreaking, the naked and vulnerable question of a child looking for a moment of safety.

Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

The most intriguing sequence — equal parts energizing and grimly humorous — belongs to Kim, who heads off to the courthouse and parks herself in the gallery of one Judge Munsinger, watching the parade of low-level offenders make do without adequate counsel. Munsinger thinks he knows what’s up, and over an uninspiring Tupperware container of eggplant and okra, he tries to warn her off her missionary impulses by telling her about a potential case she might like: the family of a young woman left comatose after medical malpractice. “This is the plot of The Verdict,” she interrupts, and the judge wearily confirms that there will be no once-in-a-lifetime movie-magic, “save-the-lawyer cases” for her in the Albuquerque courthouse. But when he climbs back up to the bench, she’s back in her seat, daring him to make good on his promise to put her to work.


After Jimmy turned down Neff Copiers (then swapped their Hummel out, truly a victimless crime), I thought he was done looking for a day job. And sure enough, when CC Mobile’s perky middle manager Robby calls while Kim’s in the shower, Jimmy turns down a position at their uptown branch. But to evade Kim’s suggestion that he see a shrink, he tells her that he’s gotten a job (“I’m a shift supervisor, be very impressed!”). Gainful employment for the remainder of his license suspension — ten months — “and then poof! I’m a lawyer again!” Turns out that uptown branch is a tiny store in a sad strip mall, completely uncontaminated by customers, and Jimmy in his yellow CC Mobile vest is soon climbing the walls. A call to Robby reassures him that he can duck out without consequences, so he ditches the vest, flips the sign to “Back in a jiff!” and goes to meet Caldera’s Hummel-thieving associate at his day job stocking soda machines. Jimmy’s share of the cash is more than they discussed; turns out there was quite the bidding war for Bavarian Boy among the seniors at the expo. If a similar opportunity comes along, the soda guy says, Jimmy should call the vet, not him — “new job, new phone.” Cue the sequence of Jimmy painting the CC Mobile windows with a new sales pitch: “IS THE MAN LISTENING? PRIVACY IS HERE.” It’s Jimmy’s curse to find himself exactly where the slightly shady business opportunities sing their siren song, and his gift to know exactly how to take full advantage.

Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Mike too is fed up with pretenses, politeness, and procedure. In my opinion, the cold open is the first noticeable misstep of this season; the momentary flash-forward to something we see in full a few acts later feels like a gimmick, jarring for effect, rather than a revelation. And that’s too bad, because the flashback of Mike in his younger days pouring a concrete pad and letting Matty write his name in it unfolds so beautifully. But the full scene of Mike at the grief group is simply wonderful: his unease and near panic at his own emotion while Stacey talks about her fears of forgetting Matty turning into a disgust that’s almost gleeful because he’s so comfortable with it. This kind of cynicism is right in his wheelhouse. He destroys Henry (Marc Evan Jackson), who’s been getting hits of sympathy from the group for a dead wife that Mike knows never existed, makes some poor Madrigal employee’s life miserable, then stands up to Gus’s anger that he didn’t drop a dime on Nacho’s plan to assassinate Hector. “Why don’t you just tell me about the job,” he snarls.

Next week we ought to find out what poor lost soul Kim will represent, what job Gus has for Mike, and who shows up to buy burners from Jimmy. And maybe we’ll get a sense of how fast their flight paths, as they try to escape from their personal prisons, will collide with each other.


Stray observations:

  • Hey, Anita’s back! The budding romance we saw in “Expenses” last season appears to have become a semi-regular thing, with her inviting him to come out to a show and promising they can ditch the rest of the grief group. If you’ve been watching AMC’s Dietland, you’ve seen a lot more of Tamara Tunie this year — she’s a main cast player. But given the business with the crossword clue for Esmerelda, I’m afraid that being close to Mike might not be good for her health.
  • Kim’s brusque “yes” when Judge Munsinger asks if she hurt her arm may be my favorite thing in the entire episode. Rhea Seahorn, you are the best.
  • The low, buzzy tone of the rubber ball hitting the CC Mobile front window is a beautiful piece of sound design; I especially love that it’s still going when we come back to Jimmy in the next act. And that particular game of bounce-wall-catch underscores the prison motif as a reference to Steve McQueen’s pastime in The Great Escape.

  • Gif: tenor.com (tenor.com)
  • Jimmy just missed inventory week (“there’s a line out the door”) at CC Mobile. “Just bring a book,” Robby tells him.
  • “He knew you wouldn’t notice, and you didn’t. All wrapped up in your sad little stories, feeding off each other’s misery.”

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About the author

Donna Bowman

Donna descends from her ivory tower every year or two to recap any TV show Vince Gilligan decides to set in Albuquerque.