A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I’ve got crawdads in my pants…
“Let’s do it again.” -Kim
Prequels are not generally designed to feature big mysteries. With this one, we know exactly what Jimmy McGill will become, and how the stories of Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring and most of the other cartel characters will end.
But then there’s Kim Wexler.
Kim’s not the only Better Call Saul character whose ultimate fate we don’t know. But with all due respect to Nacho and Howard and Dr. Caldera, she’s special. For all the initial fan enthusiasm to spend more time with Mike, to get more quickly from Jimmy to Saul, etc., Kim has become perhaps the most universally-beloved character across either this show or Breaking Bad(*). The question of what would become of Chuck was fascinating, but it was never nearly as fraught, because everybody hated Chuck, even as they appreciated his importance to Jimmy’s story. Kim, even more than McGill himself, is the reason no one’s been in a hurry to get to Saul Goodman. The assumption is that his Breaking Bad version has no room in his life for someone like Kim Wexler. So the show keeps kicking Jimmy’s transformation, and what it will do to their relationship, down the road. And we all go along with it because we don’t want to lose Kim, and don’t want the mystery of where she is during Breaking Bad to be solved.
(*) Jesse Pinkman’s the only other real contender for someone this prominent to either narrative. And even he was a much more morally grey character than Kim is. She’s not a saint, as this episode illustrates, but she’s as close as a grownup can get while being a major player in this world. And she feels incredibly likable on top of being a mostly good person.
For a while, Season Four seemed ready to answer the uncomfortable question in about as painless a manner as was possible. Kim would not die, it looked like, nor anything else too awful. Rather, we were being set up to expect, her career and personality would evolve in a way that would prove incompatible with the man we know Jimmy will become. Sad, but not a crushing tragedy. I’d made my peace with this apparent destination weeks ago. It was the best of a universally bad group of potential outcomes.
So leave it to this week’s installment, “Coushatta,” to reverse field on what Kim wants — and, in the process, reopen all sorts of frightening possibilities for what could happen to her.
When the episode begins, Jimmy and Kim are operating as they have for most of the season: together in practical terms, apart in emotional ones. She drops him off at the bus station for the long trip to the eponymous Louisiana community, and she acts like he’s a semi-estranged friend she has reluctantly agreed to drive to the airport. She’s more comfortable working alone to the sounds of Stereolab on her headphones than she is talking to him about the plan. Even Jimmy, who has a weakness for buying into his own bullshit some of the time, can recognize that this marriage — as Mrs. Nguyen mistakes the relationship for — is on the rocks, and it’s his own fault. He and we are both prepped for the idea that Kim will bail Jimmy and Huell out of one last mess, and then rightfully get on with her life as a responsible, mostly law-abiding adult.
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Fortunately for Jimmy — and unfortunately for Kim — this is not at all what happens.
Instead, she is so caught up in the thrill of running a masterful short con on Suzanne from the DA’s office that her regular job in banking law starts to feel even more painfully dull than before. She’s zoning out in meetings with Kevin and Paige, and trying to chase that feeling by admiring that fancy tequila bottle cap souvenir of her days as Giselle Saint Claire. Earlier, when Suzanne caves and offers Huell a plea deal with no prison time attached, Kim practically tackles Jimmy with her kiss, she’s so turned on by it all(*). And when Jimmy is busy checking out another potential office space — this time in a strip mall, but not the strip mall that will one day be home to Saul, Francesca, and the inflatable Statue of Liberty — Kim shows up unannounced to express her desire to do this again.
(*) For the people who complained even before this season that Jimmy and Kim too often seemed like roommates because they were so rarely physical with one another, this is why. A moment like that kiss, and the acknowledgment afterwards that they had celebratory sex, has so much more impact if it was rare even when times were relatively good between these two.
This is a very far cry from the fun-loving but ultimately sensible woman who enjoyed scamming Ken Wins out of a big bar tab, but who was aghast to learn that Jimmy manufactured evidence of Daniel Wormald doing the Hoboken Squat Cobbler. That crybaby squat video wasn’t a patch on all the laws Jimmy broke in the process of convincing Suzanne that Huell had an entire community rallying to his defense. (Gordon Smith’s script even makes a point of having Jimmy list most of them right before that kiss, so we can understand the stakes involved.) Yet instead of turning her off even more, this one excites her — at first for sex, and then for the prospect of the next hustle.
This is incredibly dangerous territory for the writers to have Kim visit. It would be bad enough if she was doing this out of some kind of misplaced but understandable loyalty to Jimmy: I love him, and if I want us to stay together, I have to become more like him. It’s very clearly not that. She does care for him, but she’s developed a thirst for the con itself, not just the con man who taught her how to run a grift. She needs Jimmy to make these stunts work, and it does add spice to their relationship, but it’s the victory itself, and the method by which it was achieved, that’s pulling at her most strongly.
Already this season, we’ve seen Kim endanger her most important professional relationship because she was distracted by a pro bono client. That would be bad but ultimately salvageable, since she ultimately wouldn’t miss Mesa Verde anywhere but in her wallet. (And Kim has never come across as particularly money-conscious, beyond making sure bills get paid.) But if she’s redeveloped a taste for cons — and, in particular, cons that tie into her work as a representative of the New Mexico bar — then that has the potential to blow up in spectacularly ugly fashion. We’re talking reputation-ruining, career-ending fashion.
If that happens, it will be because of Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, but it will also be of her own choosing. That feels like a bigger, more painful tragedy than if she were to become an innocent victim of a Saul Goodman scheme, or even if she were to somehow become collateral damage of Saul’s time working with drug dealers. (More on that in the bullet points below.)
There’s always the chance, I suppose, that Saul and Kim are a happy couple during the events of Breaking Bad. Maybe “Let’s do it again” is the first step towards them fully accepting one another for who they are and what they love to do, and they will somehow make it work despite being on wildly different professional tracks. Maybe, as Bob Odenkirk has suggested, we didn’t know Saul had a girlfriend or wife because he was smart enough not to bring her up in front of his dangerous clients. It doesn’t seem likely, though, because the Saul who was fleeing Albquerque in “Granite State” (and in the flashbacks from this show’s “Quite a Ride”) did not act like a man who was leaving someone important behind.
So Kim has to be out of the picture eventually, which has long been the biggest mystery Better Call Saul has to offer. And I fear we’re now closer to solving that than I ever wanted to be.
Some other thoughts:
* The episode rightly lets the Huell con play out at a leisurely, Ehrmantraut-y pace. We get a clear sense of just how much time and effort Jimmy put into forging all those letters (with eventual help from other bus passengers along the route), we see the trouble he goes into to set up all the burner phones, and to recruit his old film crew to act as the various concerned citizens of Coushatta. And we watch poor Suzanne read enough letters and make enough calls to appreciate just why she caves after all this time. Bob Odenkirk’s wonderfully terrible Cajun accent alone deserves all the time it got. This show is always best when it’s showing process, like how Jimmy keeps changing his grip on each writing implement to make the handwriting appear different from letter to letter.
* That we spend so much time on the con would, in an ideal world, make this into another “Chicanery,” with Jimmy and Kim’s latest gambit taking up an entire episode. (In particular, the episode should have ended on the Jimmy/Kim scene.) But it’s pretty late in the season, and the drug cartel stories need tending. So instead we get a super-sized installment to make room for checking in with the recently-absent Nacho and the increasingly homesick German construction crew.
* The Nacho material feels more necessary at this stage, lest he become completely forgotten after some really compelling material earlier in the season. As we catch up with him post-time jump, we see that he is now running the old Salamanca crew (with Domingo filling his old spot at the restaurant), and even living in a fancy house with two eager-to-please female junkies. But it’s all a facade as he saves cash (whether earned or skimmed) and prepares to skip town with his father and a pair of fake IDs. The arrival of Lalo, yet another Salamanca who claims to be good with keeping track of figures, throws a wrench in that — and not just because Saul Goodman name-checked both Lalo and Nacho in his first appearance in Breaking Bad Season Two.
* For those who haven’t watched Better Call Saul in a long time, Saul tells his fake kidnappers that Ignacio (Nacho’s real name) is to blame for whatever they’re mad about, and then assumes — with terror in his voice — that they work for Lalo. As Breaking Bad references go, he’s a pretty deep cut: when Vince Gilligan announced plans to introduce Lalo at a press event in the summer, the reporters present were mostly puzzled. Saul’s comments to Walt and Jesse suggest that both Nacho and Lalo will be in play by the time this story catches up with that one (or else Nacho is Saul’s dead or absent buddy who becomes an easy fall guy). Tony Dalton (a Texas-born actor who’s worked a lot in Mexican TV) makes a solid first impression in the role, so hopefully this will turn out to be more than filling in a blank most viewers had long since forgotten existed.
* Not only is Domingo’s personality so much more mild here compared to when he becomes Krazy-8 (Domingo::Krazy-8 as Jimmy::Saul), but he’s presumably operating as an independent on Breaking Bad, since Jesse knows him well and only knows of Tuco because Skinny Pete did time with him. (That, or Jesse was just oblivious about how drug crews worked back then.) So in addition to explaining more about Saul’s relationships with Lalo and Nacho, the remainder of this series may have to explore how Domingo falls out of favor with the Salamancas without getting killed.
* As for Werner and friends, that’s definitely the part of the episode that could have been most easily trimmed, if not cut altogether. (Its importance varies depending on whether the German foreman makes the same mistake again and gets punished for it.) Rainer Bock has been a great addition to the recurring cast, and I love the bond Werner and Mike have developed. None of these scenes were bad, and the episode without commercials isn’t any longer than an installment of an HBO or Showtime drama. No creative team in the business has more leeway than this one to go long if necessary, since even the intentionally slow stuff doesn’t tend to drag. But the Kim/Jimmy material was so much fun, and so relevant to the most emotionally compelling parts of the series, that I’d have preferred deviations from it be minimized this time out.
* The fake church website that Jimmy sets up has, like Saul’s suggested SaveWalterWhite.com money-laundering scam, been made into a real website by the people who work on the show. (If you click the donate link, it takes you to the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana.) On the other hand, the phone number Suzanne leaves in a voicemail message for one of the fake Coushatta letter-writers is a fake, rather than one that will allow you to talk to Rhea Seehorn or the writers room or what have you.
* This is your periodic reminder that the writing staff chose not to name the members of Jimmy’ film crew, who are referred to in scripts only as Make-Up Girl, Camera Guy and Sound Guy.
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Something Stupid
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