I still hear some people say that nothing ever happens on Better Call Saul, or that the story moves too slowly. It’s true that every episode doesn’t feature fireworks, action, or overt conflict (like people yelling at each other). But how can one claim that the series is too slow when consequence almost always follows directly on action? No Chekhov’s ricin cigarette moldering in the pack for a whole season here. At the end of “Fifi,” Mike makes a spike strip; in tonight’s cold open, he puts it to use. Last episode Jimmy doctors the Mesa Verde documents to sabotage Chuck; tonight that bomb goes off in court.
Granted, in the terms set by this show, both those scenes count as unusually heightened drama. More often the crests of BCS’s storylines are are written on the characters’ faces in reaction shots. But just because the action is internal doesn’t mean nothing’s happening. Realizations, decisions, results, realizations, decisions, results—the pace of the plot is unwavering, and it never dithers or doubles back. Once a character has decided on a course of action, the show commits to it mercilessly.
Look at how Kim reacts to Chuck’s accusations against his brother. She knows they’re likely true. She has put herself on record with Jimmy that she won’t be a part of legal dirty tricks. But she’s also thrown her lot in with him, romantically and professionally, and she doesn’t renege on that promise. Siding with Jimmy against Chuck is her Rubicon; once she does that, her veneer of deniability is paper-thin. And the stakes aren’t just about Kim’s ethical compass. Now a threat to Jimmy is a threat to her. If he’s neglected to cross a T or dot an I in his schemes, she has to nudge him. In other words, positive effort is required on her part to protect Jimmy from the consequences of his decisions. That’s a step over a line this character never expected to cross. But having set herself on this course with the “solo practioners together” and “you’ve got me” decisions, she grits her teeth and sees it through.
Yet submerged beneath the steady current of these critical moments is a different timeline, one that pulls us like a riptide all unknowing, until we realize we haven’t ended up where we thought we were going. Check out Mike’s typically straightforward storyline in this episode. Spike strip, Regalo Halado truck ambush, tire surgery, trunk full of money. Duct-taping the driver’s eyes before removing his mask, driving a different car—Mike’s thought of everything. But it’s not until he meets with Nacho (who deduced the perpetrator from the driver’s continuation among the living) that we find out exactly what revenge on the Salamancas he was trying to exact. His aim was to attract police attention, reveal how the cartel smuggles drugs in and cash out, and give them a prisoner they could lean on for further information. Just as in the Tuco operation, Mike plans to use the police as the instrument to accomplish his goals, keeping his own hands clean. But it doesn’t work; a good Samaritan, instead of calling 911, frees the driver who then calls the Salamancas. They retrieve the truck and the driver, and liquidate the good Samaritan. So much for not getting anybody killed.
Unintended consequences lurk beneath the surface in Jimmy’s decision to humiliate Chuck, too. We don’t have to approve of anything that drives Chuck—his obsession with his professional reputation and disgust at the unlaunderable stain that is Jimmy McGill—to be appalled at the havoc that decision wreaks. Kim extricates Jimmy from Chuck’s accusations by pointing out that Chuck has no hard evidence, only an all-too-plausible circumstantial case. If Jimmy doesn’t know his brother well enough to predict that Chuck will try to get that evidence, Kim does. Jimmy doesn’t get to the copy shop fast enough to beat Ernesto, whom Chuck has sent in to reconnoiter the situation before subjecting his frayed nervous system to the store’s electromagnetic maelstrom. So when Jimmy lays out some cash to persuade Copy Shop Lance to deny seeing him the night of the sabotage, he’s not just covering his tracks. He’s hitting Chuck with a whole new round of gaslighting. Lance said yes to Ernesto, but then stubbornly repeats no to Chuck, whose lifeboat is already awash in a sea of crazy after the 1216 Rozelle debacle and Kim’s refusal to admit the obvious truth. It’s all too much, and as Jimmy watches helplessly from across the street, Chuck collapses, his head ricocheting off the sharp edge of the counter.
“Call 911, come on!” Jimmy seethes at the folks in the shop, who seem not nearly concerned enough about his brother. He can’t help, but he can’t leave until help has arrived. He has set the events in motion, they have spun out of his control, and now he stands in the wings, a spectator. Mike, too. It seems he failed to realize that Nacho would naturally take personal exception to his attempt to sic on the cops on the Salamancas. His self-satisfaction at pulling off the perfect job blinded him to those unintended consequences. Now he’s standing somewhere he didn’t expect to be, subject to forces of which he thought himself the master.
Only Kim seems to be seeing two moves ahead, making decisions in full awareness of where they will take her. She’s crossed a line, but at least she noticed. Jimmy and Mike didn’t watch their wake, and now they find themselves at the mercy of the waves.
- I frequently hear that Spanish-language version of Rockin’ Sidney’s 1984 zydeco hit “My Toot-Toot” at my favorite local Mexican restaurant. It’s “Mi Cucu” (1993) by the Colombian cumbia group La Sonora Dinamita.
- My loudest gasp (of many) during this episode came when Chuck asserts that Kevin and Paige are wrong about the address of their own proposed expansion site (while covering his mic, wincing in pain): “You are mistaken, and with all due respect, you’re muddying the waters.” That’s the moment Chuck’s “victory lap” turns into Jimmy’s triumph instead, as Chuck displays to his colleague and clients the extent of his hubris.
- And just to underscore the fact that Mike still has a ways to go before he is the Mike of Breaking Bad, he indulges in his own lower-key displays of hubris tonight, like buying a round for the bar with a few of those big bills he took from the truck tires. He hasn’t yet learned (or in his pride has allowed himself to forget) that a triumph against the cartel is best enjoyed privately.
- Chuck backs up his (correct) analysis of the 1261 Rozella Drive affair to Kim with a new story about Jimmy’s past: that he has forgery experience, having made fake IDs for his teenage buddies. (“You and Mozart, you both started young.”) Kim’s just as correct when she accuses Chuck of being the one who made Jimmy that way by never believing in him. But if there’s ever a case of two wrongs not being in the same zip code as anything right, this is it.
- As if this episode didn’t have enough Better Call Saul awesomeness, Jimmy trots out some vintage patter to convince two suspicious elementary school employees that he has permission to film in their playground because he’s making a documentary about singer-songwriter/playwright/novelist Rupert Holmes, who was once a student there. Well, not in that building but the one that preceded it. And yes, helpful film student, Holmes is English but “spent his formative years” in Albuquerque. All for one shot of Jimmy posed heroically against the backdrop of a waving flag, the patriotic conclusion of a commercial set to air during a midday airing of Diagnosis: Murder.
- Chuck remembers it was 1216 Rozella in his documents because it was just one after 1215, the year the Magna Carta was signed. His cultural references are quite a bit more Great Books than Jimmy, who’s all about “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and Carnac the Magnificent.
- “Are you going to carry boxes or are you going to gloat?” “Some from column A, some from column B.”