A review of the Better Call Saul mid-season finale, “Plan and Execution,” coming up just as soon as I represent the views of the equipment center…
“You’re perfect for each other. You have a piece missing.” —Howard
Early in “Plan and Execution,” a young HHM associate named Cary is so startled to find Howard Hamlin in the conference room well ahead of the planned mediation with the Sandpiper defense team that he spills part of a tray of soda cans. Howard points out to his anxious employee that the dropped cans are at risk of exploding, but teaches him a simple trick to calm them down: Simply place each can on a table and rotate it along its axis, and the centrifugal force will make the pernicious bubbles go away.
Howard is, we know, a meticulous person bordering on control freak. This notion of being able to contain something you know is supposed to explode is very much him. For that matter, it is very much Chuck McGill, whom Howard explains taught him this particular hack. But life is not something as easily controlled a soda can, as Chuck tragically learned in his later years, his legacy so forgotten that a kid like Cary has never even heard of the man who put the M into HHM.
Chuck thought he could control everything until he couldn’t, and then kept trying even after that, until his brother ruthlessly showed him otherwise. Similarly, when the Sandpiper mediation blows up in Howard’s face as a result of Kim and Jimmy’s chicanery, Howard still thinks he can get all the fizzy contents back into the can, even as Cliff Main keeps explaining that this mess has already spilled all over their case, and that their only choice is to settle with Rich Schweikart.
As this is happening, “Plan and Execution” has faked us into thinking that the can that is Lalo will not explode during this hour. The episode begins with a sequence detailing Lalo’s elaborate yet invisible method for spying on the laundry atop the Super Lab dig site. After that, though, we are in legal world for a very long time — or in the cracked-mirror version of legal world that we get to periodically glimpse whenever chicanery is afoot from Jimmy and/or Kim. It takes so long to return to Lalo that a viewer would not be blamed for forgetting the character had even been in the teaser — or, at least, for assuming that his latest maneuver against Gus would remain in the background while the primary focus stayed on the conclusion of this elaborate Sandpiper con.
But once shaken up, cartel world can’t keep itself from exploding any more than a soda can. And in this case, the half-season concludes with cartel world spraying itself all over legal world — or, to be blunt, with Howard’s brains spraying themselves all over the wall and rug in Kim and Jimmy’s apartment.
But this is all part of the short con that “Plan and Execution” is playing on its audience. Though Lalo returns to Albuquerque in the teaser, for a long time it seems as if the episode is just going to concern itself with D-Day for Jimmy, Kim, and Howard. It is all fun and games, with Dave Porter conjuring up some of his jauntiest caper music of the series’ entire run, Jimmy and Kim both running around a lot, the revelation that Howard’s “private eye,” Genidowski, has really been working for Jimmy this whole time. TV writers like to refer to overly complicated jokes or story ideas as “sweaty.” Between Jimmy and Kim’s sprinting and Howard suffering the effects of Dr. Caldera’s drug, the whole scheme is both figuratively and literally sweaty, even though it all works out as planned. Howard swallows the bait about Jimmy bribing Judge Casimiro and makes an embarrassing scene during the mediation, and the contact high he received from the tainted photos only makes things look worse. It’s to the creative team’s credit that they treat Howard as smart enough to recognize every single move Kim and Jimmy made after the fact, but as an exasperated Cliff points out, it’s too late to matter. The damage is done, and they have to take Rich’s deal ASAP.
If you’re a fan of Jimmy and Kim schemes, if you’re eager to see a smug rich guy like Howard taken down a peg, and/or if you’re rooting for Sandpiper plaintiffs like Irene (Jimmy’s very first elder law client from early in Season One) to get paid while they’re still alive to enjoy the money, then this all plays out incredibly well. If, on the other hand, you are concerned about the state of Jimmy’s soul — and even more about Kim’s — then there’s not a lot of pleasure to be taken from seeing the con go so smoothly.
When Jimmy points out to Kim that she still has time to make it to the lunch in Santa Fe if she drives really fast, she replies, “Jimmy, this is where I need to be.” Getting her criminal defense practice up and running — the alleged reason for this whole complicated and cruel plan — is no longer even a thought in her head. As Howard will point out later, in one of the most cogent and pointed moments of his too-brief life, she is doing it for fun, and boy is she having some here.
This late in the series, though, there is no time for simple, consequence-free fun and games. There has to be a cost, just like Walt and Jesse couldn’t pull off the train heist in the “Dead Freight” episode of the final Breaking Bad season without Todd killing Drew Sharp. (Both Drew and Howard die for the same sin: being in the wrong place at the wrongest possible time.) It has seemed for a while like the cost would be Kim’s dream of providing high-value defenses to low-income clients, and that may still be collateral damage. Kim may simply look at the Sandpiper money as too tainted by the result of her actions, since Howard never would have been in her apartment that night if she hadn’t humiliated him to the point where he needed to confront her and Jimmy. But Howard himself is a cost: a human being who was not without his own foibles, but who was also generous and open-minded enough to encourage both Kim and Jimmy in their quests to transcend their backgrounds and become attorneys. All of this happened because Howard attempted to be kind, in his own way, to both of them: offering Jimmy a new job with HHM, and warning Kim that her husband would get her into trouble down the road. He never could have imagined that the former action would result in bowling balls being tossed at his car, never mind that the latter would so deeply offend Kim that it would inspire this entire plot against him. When Kim first pitched the idea to Jimmy, she suggested that they would have to make it look like Howard had done “something unforgivable,” but in the end, she is the one who did exactly that. There is no undoing any of this — no bringing back Howard’s life, forget about his reputation — and she and Jimmy will have to live with the bloody memories of what they set in motion. What we see of Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad suggests that his only way to cope moving forward was to compartmentalize and essentially turn off the part of his brain that would be troubled by something like this(*).
(*) The utterly raw horror with which Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn play the closing minutes, particularly after Lalo shoots Howard, is quite something. Would you believe that Bob has never won an Emmy for his role, and Rhea has never so much as been nominated for hers?
Can Kim do the same? Would she even want to? Howard verbally cuts both of them down to size before Lalo shows up. If he’s too judgmental in certain areas — Jimmy is not soulless, but bad luck and the skepticism of people like Chuck have repeatedly nudged his worst instincts to the surface — he’s right with the notion that there is no justifying what they did, especially when their primary goal was not the money, but the high of pulling it off. We see how tense they are while listening into the conference call, but by the time Casimiro has walked out, Rich has reduced his offer, and Cliff is trying to make the settlement sound like a good thing to the plaintiffs on the phone, Jimmy and Kim are already fooling around on his office couch. This has all been a huge turn-on for them, the collateral damage not even worth considering.
Shortly after the office make-out session, we are witness to a rare sight: Lalo Salamanca totally losing his cool. He has called Hector to check in and update him on the plan to expose the Super Lab site to Don Eladio, only to realize that Gus’ people have the nursing home phones bugged. Everything he has carefully worked on since surviving the assassination attempt has just gone up in flames, and he well and truly throws a tantrum down there in his little home away from home in the sewer. By the time he arrives in the apartment, though — a gust of wind ominously rattling a candle each time there is movement in the place — he is back to being the cool, lethal cucumber we know so well, while Jimmy and Kim are the terrified ones, and Howard is confused and then scared, but not scared enough to do anything. (Nine times out of 10, Lalo is able to kill people because they couldn’t possibly conceive of him attempting to do so.)
It is an incredibly dark note to end this half-season on. We are clearly not yet ready to jump to the events of Breaking Bad, not with so much Lalo-versus-Gus maneuvering still to resolve. Lalo has ensnared Jimmy and Kim yet again, and they will be mixed up in cartel business to some degree (and more than was perhaps implied by what Saul told Walt and Jesse back in the day). We know Lalo can’t win, though I wouldn’t put it past these writers to devise a solution where he does not die. Kim’s fate is very much up in the air, as is Gene’s in Omaha.
Howard Hamlin, though? Howard spent his whole life looking perfect, even though he felt anything but. When Cary is envious of Howard describing Chuck as the best legal mind he ever knew, Howard admits that maybe there are more important things in life. Like Chuck, Howard thought he could outwit Slippin’ Jimmy. And like Chuck, Howard’s life instead ended in dire, stupid fashion. He should not have been in that apartment, should never have had to cross paths with Lalo Salamanca. (No main character on this show seemed further removed from cartel world than him.) But he was, and he did, and now he’s gone.
If you’re a Heisenberg-verse obsessive, you may recall that the writers sometimes like to have fun with the episode titles for a given season. The titles for the Breaking Bad Season Two episodes featuring flash-forwards to the plane explosion spell out the phrase “Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ,” while all but one of the Saul Season One episode titles ended with the letter O. (And the one deviation was due to a trademark issue.) With this half-season, each episode has used a familiar compound title format: “Wine and Roses,” “Carrot and Stick,” etc. In this case, the familiar phrase turns out to have a double meaning. Jimmy and Kim have their plan, and they execute it flawlessly even with the last-minute hiccup. But Lalo has his plan, too, and when he realizes it’s not going to work out, he goes to the apartment and winds up executing Howard Hamlin.
RIP, Howard. And to keep the rest of you up at night between now and when the season resumes on July 11, I share this cheery thought: This is a franchise that tends to have a high body count, yet the only major characters remaining whom we do not know for sure are alive during the events of Breaking Bad are Lalo… and Kim.
See you in six weeks. Try not to let your anxiety bubble up so much that you explode before then.
Some other thoughts:
* While it might be fun symmetry for the truck stop where Lalo cleans up in the teaser to be the same one where Jimmy and Mike went after escaping the desert, they are different locations, in both reality and within the world of Saul. (The truck stop from last season would have been much farther south, near the Mexico border.)
* Also, while Lalo is not a mountain of a man like Jack Reacher, he does share Reacher’s ability to wake himself from a nap exactly when he needs to, not even waiting for the kitchen timer to go off in his car.
* The members of Jimmy’s favorite film crew still do not have names, but we get to know a bit more about them: The camera operator runs the equipment center for the film program at a local college, the make-up artist is acting in a live-action musical tribute to The Dark Crystal, and the sound guy is… a jogger? Or participating in some kind of athletic endeavor that requires old-school wristbands and a headband.
* In the context of the camera operator’s condescending lecture to his students, it’s funny to see Lalo doing so much fancy camerawork in the sewer with his more basic camcorder — or, at least, to recognize Saul director of photography Marshall Adams is making it seem as if that continuous shot is all being made by said camcorder.
* Finally, Thomas Schnauz, in his fifth Saul go-around as both writer and director (he has also done only one of those jobs or the other on several more episodes), has a lot of fun with the last-minute photoshoot, which is about improvisational filmmaking and features a lot of carefully choreographed filmmaking, including the sequence where the camera keeps twirling around Jimmy and the crew. It’s the usual bang-up job from Schnauz, though a part of me wishes he could have traded directorial slots with Rhea Seehorn for the meta aspect of her directing a scene where Kim directs a film crew. (On the other hand, Schnauz has now directed two dynamite scenes where Lalo visits the apartment, going back to “Bad Choice Road” last season.)