After a brief midseason hiatus, Better Call Saul is back for the home stretch of its final season. A review of this week’s episode, “Point and Shoot,” coming up just as soon as you get me a new fridge…
“Big talk. You done?” —Lalo
“No. Not yet.” —Gus
Both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad have well-deserved reputations for their narrative patience. Major events tend not to happen until the creative team has slowly but surely laid all the groundwork necessary for these events to make sense and have the maximum possible emotional impact. But the shows do not always take their time with this kind of thing. Tuco Salamanca, who seemed like he would be the main villain of Breaking Bad Season Two, instead died in that season’s second episode(*). Nacho Varga killed himself only three chapters into this season, when it seemed at one point like he might be a significant part of the series’ endgame.
(*) This was a case of outside forces conspiring against the show, since Raymond Cruz was on loan from TNT’s The Closer and got called back to his day job sooner than expected. But given how volatile Tuco was, it’s easy to imagine Vince Gilligan and company realizing within another episode or two that they needed to replace him with a less erratic big bad.
And now Lalo Salamanca — who certainly seemed like he would be the story engine for most of this final season — is dead and buried with five episodes still to go.
Why would Better Call Saul do this now? Why get rid of the absurdly charismatic Tony Dalton — who was already absent from a good chunk of the season while Lalo was lying low and pursuing a new angle against Gus — with multiple episodes remaining, and no real chance for him to play the role again? Why eliminate the last significant plot point of the cartel half of the show, since there are few outstanding questions about what happens to Gus and Mike between now and when they’re introduced on the parent series?
The answer seems to come down to what kind of story Peter Gould and Gilligan feel Better Call Saul is ultimately telling, and how much of the remaining time they need to tell it.
If Saul is primarily a show about filling in historical gaps from Breaking Bad, and/or one that’s most interested in the cartel — or even equally interested in cartel world and lawyer world — then killing Lalo so early seems an odd choice. If, on the other hand, the show is primarily about the emotional journey of its title character — how, at this stage of the story, he gets from the man horrified to see Howard Hamlin’s corpse being loaded into his fridge to the man who blithely suggests that Walt and Jesse just murder Badger — then it makes all the sense in the world. Because as great an addition to the Heisenberg-verse as Lalo turned out to be, he was ultimately a tool for that journey, and not someone who had to be around through the end of it.
And either way, there’s the math. There are five episodes left, so work your way backwards. Figure the show needs at least a full episode, if not two of them, to resolve the Gene Takovic timeline and give us closure on this character and the franchise as a whole. We know Cranston and Paul will be reprising Walt and Jesse, and it seems much more likely that we’ll be seeing those characters in some kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-style approach to the Breaking Bad era than that they’ll appear as nightmare visions to poor Gene from Cinnabon. So assume one episode, if not two, will be devoted to showing us what Saul was really up to in those years, since this show, and this episode, have made clear that he knew a lot more about Gus and Mike’s business than he ever let on to Walt. (More on that in a bit.) And the show absolutely needs at least one episode, if not more, for Jimmy and Kim to deal with the emotional aftermath of their role in Howard’s death, with their own future as a couple, with the state of Jimmy/Saul’s soul, etc.
It is eminently possible that every prediction in the above paragraph is wrong — that Cranston and Paul have the briefest of cameos; that the remaining episodes either skip over the Heisenberg era or stop in it only for a scene or two; that the Gene resolution is quick and dirty; and that we will mostly just be dealing with how Jimmy and Kim feel about what they did to Howard and what it means for their respective futures. But I suspect at least some of those guesses are right — if nothing else, there is a lot to untangle in the nature of the Saul/Mike/Gus relationship at the time Saul first became Walt’s advisor — and for Better Call Saul to deal with at least some of that material meant that Lalo Salamanca simply ran out of road. Funny as he was, scary as he was, entertaining as hell as he was, he was unfortunately a character who could not survive the events of this series, because the things Gus does on Breaking Bad would be impossible with Lalo still in any way in the picture. So he had to go, and earlier than we might have assumed.
And regardless of the timing, “Point and Shoot” was a pretty spectacular episode of television. Lalo did not go quietly, and Better Call Saul treated his demise with the respect he had earned.
“Point and Shoot” presents the immediate aftermath of Lalo coldly murdering Howard Hamlin in front of Jimmy and Kim, but only after a flash-forward shows how Mike and his guys have staged things to make it look like Howard drowned in the Pacific Ocean while high, his body never to be recovered. It is, like so many Vince Gilligan-directed teasers, simultaneously beautiful and cruel, the surf looking gorgeous and peaceful even as one of Howard’s shoes floats in it, the sand looking calm even amid the footprints, the trademark “NAMAST3” license plate taunting us with the implication of how and why this scene has been created by Mike.
From there, we are right back in the apartment, only seconds after we left our favorite legal married couple cowering in horror, fear, and self-loathing from the sight of Lalo putting a bullet in Howard’s head. Throughout his tenure on the show, one of Lalo’s defining traits has been his ability to keep his head when all around him are losing theirs. Rarely has that contrast between predator and prey been more stark than in this scene. Lalo is usually dealing either with completely oblivious innocents who aren’t aware of the threat he poses until it’s far too late, or with hardened criminals who simply underestimate his tenacity. Jimmy and Kim are neither. Both knew Lalo well enough to be terrified of him long before he murdered Howard. Both fancy themselves cold and calculating grifters, but are not prepared to play on the level at which Lalo and Mike exist. They know enough to know that Lalo could kill either or both of them at any moment, even as he converses with them like he barely has a care in the world. It’s an acting clinic from all three performers, but especially from Rhea Seehorn, who is practically vibrating throughout the sequence as Kim tries to reassemble all the shattered pieces of the person she thought she was for her entire life minus the preceding five minutes. (There’s also the riveting sequence where Kim is stopped at a red light beside an Albuquerque PD patrol car, simultaneously afraid the cops will notice her and desperate to ask them for help, which director Gilligan and director of photography Paul Donachie shoot with Seehorn out of focus, trusting that her body language will read even as the shot is centered on the two officers.)
One of the best choices Gordon Smith’s script makes is to let both Lalo and Gus be exceedingly clever without needing them to spell it out to anyone who might be listening. As Lalo explains that he wants Jimmy to walk up to Gus’ house and shoot him, a viewer could be forgiven for assuming Lalo is taking the longest of long shots and sending in a shooter who would never arouse Gus’ suspicions, and whose potential death wouldn’t trouble him at all. Maybe you understand in that moment that Lalo is using Jimmy — and then Kim, when Jimmy convinces Lalo to send her instead in hopes of saving her life — to draw Mike’s forces away for the laundromat. But even if you only understand it once we see Lalo parked across the street from the Super Lab site, it is intensely satisfying to recognize his tactical smarts at work. The same goes for Gus’ phone conversation with Kim after Mike inevitably foils her half-hearted assassination attempt. When Gus is dumbstruck to hear that Jimmy talked Lalo out of his original plan, it could briefly play as if he is impressed that anyone has the ability to change Lalo’s mind about anything, and that he perhaps wishes to enlist Jimmy’s help in defeating his rival. Instead, it’s Gus thinking through the real meaning of Kim’s words, recognizing that not even Slippin’ Jimmy McGill — about whom Mike must have told him so much by now — could actually talk Lalo into deviating from a plan. He realizes that Lalo must have agreed because the would-be hit was not the plan at all, but a distraction from the real plan. And because he has assumed for a while that Lalo would find his way to the Super Lab dig site, he immediately understands what his foe’s real goal must be.
In terms of the things that happen, this is a relatively simple episode of Saul, with most of the action taking place within the span of a couple of hours. Lalo sends Kim to shoot Gus, breaks into the laundromat while most of Mike’s guys are away, takes Gus prisoner, shoots footage of the Super Lab to show Don Eladio, then finally gets shot with the pistol Gus hid in the treads of the digger. But the tension throughout is agonizing and exquisite, as are the performances by a group of actors who have to say much more with their expressions and body language than they do with dialogue.
Gus shooting Lalo is perhaps the one point at which the episode falters. In general, Gilligan and the series’ other directors have used Saul as a masterclass of how to film scenes in darkness — say, any of Jimmy’s visits to Chuck’s candlelit home, or Mike killing Werner out in the desert at night — that are nonetheless easy to see and understand. This sequence is not one of the better examples of that: Watched on the best TV in my home, it was mostly clear, while on a middling screen it was nearly as black as the Game of Thrones episode where the White Walkers came to Winterfell.
But the sequences immediately before and after Gus went for his hidden pistol more than made up for any visual muddiness or plausibility questions about Gus’ aim with a small gun in pitch-blackness(*). The sheer joy that Lalo takes as he parades Gus through the Super Lab, sure that he has won the war and will return to Mexico in triumph, is a fitting final example of Lalo the irrepressible showman. And that, in turn, prompts a vicious and flowery monologue from Gus about how he really feels about Don Eladio and the rest of the cartel. When Gus finally gets to complete his master plan by poisoning Don Eladio in the Breaking Bad episode “Salud,” there is no opportunity for him to express such sentiments; he’s too busy vomiting up his share of the poisoned drink. So even though it is for a recording that none of its intended audience will ever see, it nonetheless feels emotionally satisfying to Gus, and to us in the real-life audience watching, that he gets to open up for once and say what’s on his mind. The show has struggled to make the Gus of this period feel as vital and surprising a character as the slightly younger Jimmy and Mike have turned out to be, and his scenes sometimes have the feel of the writers checking items off a list to appease the continuity nerds. But this was an instance where filling in a historical gap of sorts — what would Gus have said in his moment of triumph if his master plan had not briefly disabled him? — also brilliantly serves the dramatic arc of the character. Just a great, in many ways long overdue, moment for Giancarlo Esposito.
(*) I’ve generally not been that interested in the leftover Breaking Bad questions about what Gus did under the Pinochet government in Chile, and why that insulated him from being murdered when Don Eladio had Max killed. But the implication that he did some kind of horrible work for Pinochet helps justify moments throughout both series when he proves more physically capable than you might expect from a calculating businessman type. He could have intensive military training for all we know, which is why he also doesn’t flinch when faced with automatic weapons fire.
And after Gus flicks on some emergency lights and goes to confirm that his shots rang true, Lalo Salamanca dies laughing. Of course he does. Perhaps he is laughing at himself for finally underestimating an opponent. Perhaps he finds some humor in the improbable manner and location of his death. Perhaps his mind is completely elsewhere, his colorful life flashing before his eyes as blood oozes out of his chest and throat. Whatever the reason, it is the right note on which to say goodbye to a man who was so often amused by the situations in which he found himself, and by the people he met along the way. Hell, maybe now that he knows he has lost to Gus, and that Gus will likely carry out the rest of his scheme against his oblivious bosses, Lalo can finally take some perverse pleasure in having gotten to spend time in the company of such a skilled and smart adversary.
Or maybe as he passes through the veil that separates this world from whatever comes after it, Lalo gets a glimpse of the dark joke that concludes the episode. After showing the four surviving main characters in the aftermath — Gus being stitched up and calmly placing Lyle in charge of the Los Pollos Hermanos flagship restaurant for a few days, and Mike giving Jimmy and Kim their marching orders while his guys clean up the bloody mess Lalo left in their apartment — we see Mike and Tyrus back at the Super Lab site, Tyrus using the digger to create a hole deep enough to bury the bodies of both Lalo and poor Howard. The dead men will be there together for years, maybe forever. It’s unclear whether the DEA would dig up the Lab’s foundation after it’s burned down by Walt and Jesse, but at minimum the protagonists of Breaking Bad get up to a lot of wacky and sometimes violent antics directly above Lalo and Howard’s corpses. (The next time anyone watches the classic and divisive episode where Walt and Jesse chase the fly around the Lab, good luck not thinking about what’s right beneath their feet.) Howard was not Lalo’s final victim — several of Gus and Mike’s soldiers are killed at the laundromat — but he is the last victim in whom we have any investment, and there’s an odd poetry in seeing these two avatars of cartel world and lawyer world laid to rest together, the two halves of Better Call Saul forever joined.
At the apartment, Mike has told Jimmy and Kim to simply go back to their lives and act like everything is normal. But can they? Jimmy has been more directly connected to violence in the past, and demonstrated the ability to cut himself off from feelings of trauma and guilt. The whole feud with Howard, after all, only started as Jimmy’s way of displacing the shame he felt for his role in Chuck’s death. We know he can move on from this because we’ve seen him do it in his past, and we’ve seen him do it in his future: The Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad seems completely disconnected from any emotion beyond the joy he takes from the life he’s built for himself.
Kim, though? The good news — if such a thing is possible this late in the game for a show from this franchise — is that the odds of Kim dying before the series ends just plummeted. It is not impossible, but Lalo was really the last significant character remaining who seemed like he could kill her. However blithe and amoral Saul Goodman may act on the other show, it’s hard to imagine him having any sort of business relationship with Mike and/or his employer if he suspected they played a role in the death of his wife. There could still be some random act of violence, or an accident, or a guilt-ravaged Kim deciding — like Jimmy’s brother once did in the throes of his mental illness — that she simply can’t live in this world anymore. But the more likely path at this point seems to be either Kim and Jimmy going their separate ways — whether she understandably leaves him or he understandably pushes her away to protect her from the man he is becoming — or else her learning to compartmentalize, too, and simply hiding in the wings during the events of Breaking Bad.
The bad news, though, is that this franchise has taught us that death is not the worst fate that can befall a character — that having to live with what you’ve done can feel far worse than getting shot by one of the Cousins. Even if Kim learns to move on from this without moving on from her husband, she will not emerge from this tragedy unchanged. The woman we saw throughout this episode is one who knows she took things too far, who knows how deadly Jimmy’s world can get, but who was nonetheless prepared to shoot a total stranger if it meant keeping Jimmy alive. This is not someone whom the Kim Wexler at the start of the series would tolerate, let alone recognize. How much of that Kim is left in this one, and how much longer will this Kim be able to accept who and what she has become?
As much fun as it was to watch Lalo stalk his way around town over the last few seasons, all the important questions that need to be answered in this final season revolve around Jimmy and Kim, and what happens to them in both body and spirit. Lalo Salamanca is dead, but Better Call Saul still has plenty of story left to tell across these remaining five hours.
Some other thoughts:
* OK, let’s attempt to connect many Saul Goodman dots here. As you may recall, when Walt and Jesse take him out into the desert in the “Better Call Saul” episode of Breaking Bad, Saul first tries to use Nacho as his patsy, literally using the same phrasing — “It wasn’t me, it was Ignacio!” — that Jimmy deploys when Lalo mentions their mutual friend here. (This conversation also seems to park Nacho’s given name in Jimmy/Saul’s skull.) And in that same desert scene, Saul seems relieved to learn that his kidnappers were not sent by Lalo. Jimmy at this point in Saul does not know that Nacho is dead, and may have just hung onto him as an easy fall guy for future cartel shenanigans. The Lalo point is trickier to parse, since Mike implicitly tells him here that Lalo is dead and will never trouble him or Kim again. Now, Mike basically said this to Jimmy once before and was proven wrong, so it’s entirely possible that Jimmy goes forward never fully able to accept that his tormentor is gone for good. If not that, then what? If it’s a performance, it’s to an audience whom he just realized does not know Lalo, and thus would be unmoved by Jimmy acting relieved to know they weren’t sent by the bogeyman.
* The remaining episodes very much have to address the gap between what Saul seems to know about Gus and Mike on Breaking Bad versus what he obviously already knows here. In hindsight, there are Breaking Bad moments that can be read as Saul knowing the truth, like when Mike confronts him in “Full Measure” for information on Walt and Jesse, and suggests that Saul knows exactly what Mike is doing there. A few minutes later, Saul will vent to Walt about being threatened by “my own PI,” but we know he knows that Mike is so much more than that. So if/when we get to the Heisenberg years, will we discover that Gus, through Mike, was puppeteering most of Saul’s early interactions with Walter White? How many events of the parent series will be revealed as one last Slippin’ Jimmy con game?
* I discussed the above two topics and a lot more — including the timing of Lalo’s death, and why Gus’ speech may have been less about Don Eladio than Nacho Varga — with Gordon Smith, who wrote his final episode of this series a dozen years after he began working as an assistant on Breaking Bad.
* One of the reasons I’m assuming — and hoping — there will be one or more full episodes set in those years is that Gus’ and Mike’s arcs have otherwise wrapped up. The Gus who sits down with Walt in BB Season Two is the exact man — in both personality and reputation within the cartel — who is being stitched up at the end of this episode. Mike is slightly more of a mystery, though even the question of why he pretends to be Saul’s investigator can be explained away by a line of dialogue where Gus orders him to keep his eye on Jimmy/Saul, just in case. We know everything we need to know. Perhaps Mike can be used some more as Kim and/or Jimmy struggle with the emotional fallout of Howard and Lalo, but there’s not much else to do with them in this time period that won’t be rehashing familiar details.
* While I didn’t love the blackness of the final shootout, Gilligan and Donachie pulled off several other cinematic marvels this week, notably the way so much of the Super Lab sequence is presented as being filmed by Lalo’s camcorder. I imagine Tony Dalton got a lot of coaching on what kinds of shots they wanted, because it all looked great. Definitely more happening here visually than the point-and-shoot of the episode’s title.
* Finally, I would put no criminal task beyond the capabilities of Mike Ehrmantraut, but I’m nonetheless curious about how he staged things at the beach so that there would only be the one set of footprints going into the Pacific and not any additional sets coming back out. Did he have a goon who conveniently had the same shoe size as Howard? Was Mike waiting in the water with a rowboat to ferry the fake Howard far enough down the beach that authorities would never even notice additional footprints there, never mind link them to the apparent crime scene? Was he flying overhead in a helicopter with a rope ladder that the fake Howard climbed up?