Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

What strikes you first is the color. The cold opens so far this season have been black-and-white (the flashforward in “Smoke”), dark (Hector’s hospital room in “Breathe”), sun-bleached (the desert in “Something Beautiful”), and nostalgically muted (Mike’s front lawn in “Talk”). Suddenly the screen is practically giving off radiation: those lipstick-red matchbook covers scattered on the carpet, Saul Goodman’s pimp-purple suit. The ersatz classical touches—an egg-custard version of parchment on the walls, antique white in the felled columns, those faux-aged brass scales—frame the garishness with chintz.

And instantly, shockingly, we’re back in the Albuquerque of the last season of Breaking Bad, when Walter White’s story was gyring rapidly to a close—but it’s like we’re seeing it from the other side of the mirror. Saul’s office, which was a comedy sketch in Breaking Bad, now seems bigger, shot from lower angles, a set he built for his one-man show that now becomes the stage for an improvised tragedy. He stands behind the desk, framed by lopsided pillars, the Constitution backdrop marred by the hole he literally punched through it, finally the center of his own story—exactly at the moment that story has become debris for someone else to hoover up.

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Tonight’s episode, directed by Michael Morris (in his Gilliganverse debut) and written by Ann Cherkis, is a masterwork from start to finish. Building on both themes and styles introduced in the first half of the season, it’s climactic and pivotal, but not simply because of its place in the overall story, and not because it provides clear sight-lines toward what we know must happen. Perhaps the best illustration is Jimmy’s all-nighter at the Dog House, slinging burner phones to the ABQ’s hustlers, squatters, brawlers and punks. He makes a killing, and then the motorcycle gang roars up, and we’re meant to think “uh oh—this is where he gets in over his head.” But the story of Saul Goodman’s creation isn’t a cautionary tale about dangerous people. It’s a story about the dangers of a bottomless craving for respect. When the three kids who sneered at him outside the laundromat end up rolling him at dawn, his takeaway is the same as when success failed to change Chuck’s mind about him: “I’ll show you.”

And how about that centerpiece at the Dog House? Overt nods to Tarantino (“Street Life” as heard in Jackie Brown, the POV shot from inside a car trunk) anchor it in homage, but it’s the montage, piled on with glorious excess atop the foundation laid last week in “Talk,” that propels the sequence. Contrast that smooth disco-jazz soundtrack, unifying hours and hours worth of trips to the trunk, to the disjointed bits of soft rock playing over the CC Mobile speakers while Jimmy waits for his novel marketing idea to bring in the customers (and later while he’s scraping the paint off the windows in disgust). At night we experience the giddiness of watching a plan come together, but by day it’s the fear, nausea, despair, and tedium of the workaday world, where all plans are projects either dictated by invisible bosses or surreptitiously and seditiously carried out under the bosses’ noses.

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Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

The montage is just as wonderous—and played for explosive laughter, besides—in our glimpse of Mike’s job for Gus Fring, wherein he squires foreign engineers to the laundry to assess the job of building an underground meth lab. It’s carefully set up in the first half of the episode, as we follow a Frenchman from the Denver airport to a remote mountain road and then into a hood and the back of a van, all directed by Mike from a burner phone. So the payoff when we see the process repeated toward the end of the hour with the abbreviating language of montage—all jump cuts, no underscoring to soften the sound edits—is both surprising and utterly delightful.

But there’s one more payoff beyond that, just as Jimmy’s story doesn’t end with the first opportunity for a lesson learned or a transformation initiated. The German engineer has none of the technology or the cocky attitude of the Frenchman. How he gets to the laundry is given to us in shorthand, but once he gets there, he takes much more time, and his frank disclosure of the difficulties unfolds in layers. It’s an illustration of the inverse of Jimmy’s lesson: Beware the easy answer and the quick fix. Tedium underlies everything worth doing, because doing things right is tedious.

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Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Kim’s story has delicious montage as well, in a more understated tone. When the deputy district attorney keeps flubbing his chances to take Kim’s deal and having her come back with less and less punishment. When Denise says she can’t go to jail, and with one beautiful cut, we are behind the two of them sitting on the stoop, looking out from her front door, part of her story for a moment. But there’s also an extended static shot in her story that underscores the importance of not cutting: the close-up of her first client’s face as she takes back the tie and tells him she won’t come to his rescue if he blows the chance she’s given him. His expression goes from smug to scared as she speaks just off-camera, and by the time she’s done, his future plans have changed. Kim is making a real difference for these clients, but she’s risking her Mesa Verde meal ticket in the process, and when she promises that she’ll never hang up on her supposedly only client again, we wonder what will happen to the work that’s feeding her soul.

By the time we get to the final sequence, in which Jimmy runs into the shell of Howard Hamlin and decides that psychiatry may not be the answer to his problems, I think we’ve been shaken out of any sense that we know what’s coming. Not because the plot has been scrambled or that the writers have thrown massive twists at us, but because of this episode’s style, which emphasizes discontinuity, pivots, and change. One last big laugh—as the probation officer deadpans “So, lawyer” after Jimmy’s supervillain speech about his plans to show the world what’s what—and the final cut to credits, like the flourish on an artist’s signature. Pardon me while I stand and applaud.

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Stray observations:

  • That cardboard box Saul takes from behind the wall and carefully places in one of his suitcases—is that where Gene gets the videotape in the “Uno” cold open? What we’re seeing here is that Saul Goodman makes a rash move when he activates his escape pod: He takes some souvenirs of his old identity with him. Combined with the close call at the hospital in “Smoke,” this seems to foreshadow how the threat of exposure might play out in the Omaha timeline.
  • Jimmy’s theatricality for his nervous mobile phone customer—fake phone call, stack of boxes with ON HOLD DO NOT SELL sign taped above them—that’s how you close a deal, my friends.
  • Doctor Zhivago isn’t exactly the best omen for Kim and Jimmy’s relationship, with its doomed star-crossed lovers and copious balalaika music.
  • In case you were wondering, it’s about a seven-hour drive from the Denver airport to Albuquerque. Gus Fring is taking zero chances that his engineering candidates will be linked to his business. The winning bidder for the meth lab job sums it up as “dangerous, difficult, very very expensive, not entirely impossible.” Fring’s strategy of allaying suspicion through willingness to go to much greater lengths than anybody would find reasonable continues to impress.
  • I did not know, until researching for this recap, that the version of “Street Life” heard here and in Jackie Brown was not the Crusaders’ 1979 original, but a Doc Severinsen re-recording for the Sharky’s Machine soundtrack (1981), with Randy Crawford reprising her soaring vocals.
  • Francesca (so good to see you, Francesca!) gets another roll of bills for her silence, and she deserves every penny. I’d have demanded one more if Jimmy had insisted on that hug.
  • “Three cheers for morality!” Saul exclaims when he finds the carryall of money still hidden in the drop celling.
  • Jimmy puts the fear of God into the contractor with his description of how the IRS deals with insufficiently careful tax evaders: “One day at a time and place of their choosing? Bam! They bring the hammer down in Chinatown.”
  • Kim blowing on Jimmy’s cut after she dabs it with hydrogen peroxide is the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. “We’re like a Mathew Brady photo,” Jimmy jokes—a historical departure from his usual classic pop culture references.
  • “You have work, I have work, it’s all good, don’t wait up.”

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