A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I have a large gold nugget traversing my colon…
“You were meant for better things.” -Gus
Early in “Something Beautiful,” Jimmy is stunned to have Mike turn down his offer to steal the Hummel figurine out of Neff’s office. He has no idea that Mike’s laundered drug money makes the reward for a job like this not nearly worth the risk. And he’s too swept up in the thrill of being back in Slippin’ Jimmy territory to see what Mike so clearly can: that this is an unhealthy response to Chuck’s death.
With Mike out of the picture, tonight’s episode — “Something Beautiful” (from the “Chicanery” duo of writer Gordon Smith and director Daniel Sackheim) — turns into something of a Freaky Friday edition of Better Call Saul. For once, it’s Jimmy trying to pull off a heist (albeit doing it in his usual brazen and sloppy way), while Team Gus winds up running the big scam, in a far more ruthless fashion than Jimmy would ever consider. Things are so topsy-turvy this week that it’s not even Mike (who vanishes from the episode after the Jimmy meeting) linking the two halves together, but friendly criminal veterinarian Dr. Caldera, who both introduces Jimmy to backup thief Ira and patches up the wounded Nacho.
Gus was running a long con on the cartel for much of his time on Breaking Bad, so this isn’t wholly new territory for him. But it’s nonetheless fun and fascinating to watch his team deploy this particular short con, which makes it look like a rival cartel murdered Arturo and wounded Nacho. (The latter surviving with only a few bruises might have aroused suspicion from the Cousins and Juan Bolsa, but the gunshot wound absolves him of that, in painful fashion.)
There are only two downsides to the way that story unfolds in the hour. The first is that Victor and Tyrus seem so efficient and thorough already that the organization barely seems to need Mike, though I imagine it won’t be hard when the time comes to demonstrate the many things he still has to teach them. The second is the macro issue with the Mike/Gus half of the show, and the way it’s constrained by what we know of Breaking Bad, and can at times feel less like a story in its own right than a very lavishly-produced Easter Egg. On the one hand, I yelped with delight at the realization that Gale Boetticher — Gale Effing Boetticher! — was about to appear, and singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” no less. On the other, there’s only so much it seems the show can do with the character now, and not just because David Costabile is otherwise busy twirling his mustache on Billions. There’s a timeline for when Gus will build the superlab, when he’ll have the chemist running it, when Gale self-destructively convinces Gus to bring in Walt to run it, etc., etc., etc. All of those events are far enough off in these characters’ future that even Gus seems aware that his visit to Gale’s classroom is a fun diversion that can’t lead to much more at the moment. (Barring a midseason time jump, anyway.)
As has been the case throughout the early stages of this season, it’s left to Nacho (and Michael Mando) to give this story the gravity it needs in order to be more than just a Breaking Bad bonus feature. For us, a lot of this is about filling in the blanks, but for Nacho, it’s his life – a life perpetually in danger because of choices other people keep making for him, going back at least to Mike refusing to assassinate Tuco. Unlike Caldera, he can’t unilaterally declare that he’s done with the cartel, which means he’s likely to continue being a pincushion for Gus, the Cousins and anyone else with more juice than he has in this rising civil war.
While Team Fring is operating like a well-oiled machine, Jimmy’s own return to crime is all too human and fallible. Ira is able to easily bypass security as Jimmy assumed, but Mr. Neff himself is temporarily living at work, fallout from a gift his wife found very insensitive. (It does sound like a swell vacuum cleaner, but his wife makes a good point even when we can’t hear her side of the conversation.) It’s a tense, funny sequence, with Ira doing a better job of staying hidden in such a small space than you’d expect from a man who’s not exactly Pinkman-sized. We know Jimmy has criminal skills beyond grifting (though his previous record of vandalizing automobiles involved going in though the sunroof, not the door), and he’s able to distract Neff long enough for Ira to slip out with the expensive figurine.
It’s an exciting minor triumph for Jimmy – at least, for this version of Jimmy who no longer worries about staying on the straight and narrow to win his older brother’s approval. In a poignant twist, it’s followed by Kim finally giving him the letter from Chuck. It’s not the imperious rebuke she might have feared(*), but in some ways, it’s worse: a letter clearly written during Jimmy’s days in the HHM mailroom, before his law career turned him back into a threat that Chuck felt the need to eradicate. It is, from what we know about the McGill siblings, one of the few times in their lives when they were getting along. But those good feelings were based on a very specific set of circumstances, particularly Chuck’s need to feel superior to his troublemaking kid brother. Jimmy thriving in the mail room was a perfect outcome for Chuck, but an unsatisfying one for Jimmy, and his desire for more than that led to the unraveling of their relationship, and of Chuck’s life.
(*) After I had watched it, a critic pal raised the question of whether we’re actually hearing Chuck’s letter, as opposed to something Kim forged (not hugely likely, even given her protectiveness towards Jimmy) or something Jimmy begins improvising when he realizes how cruel the actual letter is, and how much it would hurt Kim to hear it. The scene doesn’t really tip its hand, and it’s entirely possible it’s fake. But I think it’s emotionally more interesting if it’s the genuine article, and that the deterioration of Chuck’s mental health, and his relationship with Jimmy, kept him from getting around to updating it.
It’s no wonder that Kim is crying by the end of the letter. That Jimmy seems utterly unmoved by it speaks to how swiftly he’s come to compartmentalize all feelings about his brother, and to a degree about the life he was trying to build to impress Chuck. He hasn’t exactly been a Boy Scout across the series to date, but orchestrating a break-in and theft is a line he wouldn’t have crossed a season or two ago. Chuck’s gone, though. In the season premiere, Jimmy briefly felt some guilt about his role in that, then extinguished those feelings altogether in order to function. But if Jimmy was being good at first to please Chuck, and then Kim, in time we saw that he mostly liked doing it. At times, particularly with his eldercare clients, being good made him feel fantastic.
But we’ve also seen, both in flashbacks with Marco and the occasional appearances of “Viktor” and “Giselle,” how much pleasure he takes in separating suckers from their money. He’s incredulous that Mike wouldn’t want to go along on such a simple caper. Jimmy ends the episode standing in a half-open doorway, wanting to go to Kim to offer comfort, but unsure of how to do it. He’s at a personal crossroads. Go one way, and he rides out the suspension, finds a new specialty now that he’s toxic to senior citizens, and he and Kim build a simple but happy life together. Go the other way, and… well, this is one of those situations where our knowledge of where the story is going is both feature and bug. It gives every scene of Jimmy slippin’ into Saul extra dramatic heft, and it makes me sad to watch. Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg will cause far more collateral damage than Jimmy’s into Saul Goodman, but this one is already starting to hurt a lot more, because we know how capable Jimmy is of being the good guy Walter White always mistakenly claimed to be.
Some other thoughts:
* If Ira (played by Franc Ross) looked familiar to you, it’s because later in life he’ll come to own Vamanos Pest, the extermination company Walt, Jesse and Mike buy as a front operation near the end of Breaking Bad. Maybe he used his share of the figurine money to start a front business?
* Another familiar face, albeit without any prior BB experience: Gilmore Girls alum Keiko Agena as Kim’s new paralegal Viola.
* Viola seems eager for more responsibility than Kim initially wants to give her. But after getting a glimpse of Kevin’s expansion plans – in a sequence where the sound momentarily drops out to convey just how alarming she finds all these scale models, and what they represent – Kim seems almost eager to foist some of the work off on Viola. Like Nacho with Gus and the Salamancas, Kim’s starting to realize that this job may never end, and does she really want to devote the rest of her life to it?
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Chicken a la Kingpin
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