A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Waterworks,” coming up just as soon as I call this a fish taco, legally…
“This guy? Any good?” —Jesse
“When I knew him, he was.” —Kim
In a different world, Kim Wexler and Jesse Pinkman should have never met. She was a high-powered civil attorney working for two of Albuquerque’s most prestigious firms; he was Cap’n Cook. In this one, they are linked not only by the fact that she once defended Jesse’s friend Combo(*) in juvenile court, but by their associations with Saul Goodman — associations that eventually destroyed any semblance of the life they had once planned for themselves(**).
(*) RIP, Combo. Gone and often forgotten among Jesse’s crew because he was killed so early in the series, while Badger and Skinny Pete made it to the end and beyond.
(**) Yes, Walter White is ultimately far more to blame for Jesse’s travails. But without Saul pushing them to expand the operation, and eventually introducing them to Gus Fring, it is not hard to envision a reality where Team Heisenberg remained small-time and out of danger until Walt coughed himself to death.
But they are linked in other ways, too. Both are characters for whom their creators had few plans: Vince Gilligan assumed Jesse would die a few episodes into Breaking Bad, while Peter Gould has bluntly said that he and Gilligan didn’t give any deeper thought to developing Kim than deciding that “there should be a woman in Jimmy’s life.” (She only has two lines of dialogue in the Better Call Saul pilot.) And both gradually turned into the hearts of their respective series. It’s only through Jesse that we begin to truly appreciate what a monster Walt is. Kim, for a long time, served the opposite function: Her affection for Jimmy was so palpable that it made both the writers and the audience fall for him, too. And more recently, her reckless, addict-like behavior regarding Howard has put a spotlight on the extreme peril that comes from being around the charming but ultimately weak Jimmy. Jesse was the closest thing to a conscience Walt had; once their partnership dissolved, Walt’s malevolence only grew. And as soon as Kim began packing to leave Jimmy, we jumped straight to him as the remorseless Saul Goodman.
Neither is innocent: Jesse was cooking meth before he ever reconnected with Walt, and by the end of the marriage, Kim was the one ruthlessly pushing the confidence schemes, not Jimmy. But both suffer far worse fates than they could have possibly deserved as a result of their respective partnerships: Jesse by spending months as Todd’s meth slave, Kim by feeling like she had no choice but to quit the career she was so good at and loved so much.
Both eventually get far away — Jesse to Alaska, Kim to central Florida — and both ultimately take responsibility for their actions. One of the final scenes in El Camino is Jesse giving Ed the disappearer a letter to mail to Brock, no doubt explaining why Brock got sick and why Brock’s mother was murdered. (And also that her murderer will never hurt anyone again.) And in “Waterworks,” Gene’s attempt to mock his ex-wife’s suggestion that he turn himself in instead is taken wholly seriously, as she travels back to Albuquerque to tell both the authorities and Howard’s widow Cheryl what really happened to her former boss.
Before that, we get an extended glimpse of Kim’s life as a Catalogs and Brochures specialist for Palm Coast Sprinklers. These scenes are taking place parallel to what her ex has been up to in her home state, so they are shot in the same stark black and white of all the Gene scenes. The cinematography choice is fitting, though, because her life is as bleached of color as Gene’s. She is less of a loner, because she has no need to hide from the authorities. So she has a boyfriend, Glen, and a group of other friends both at home (even if perhaps via Glen and his buddies) and the office. And she is dedicated to the job she does, because Kim Wexler is not built to half-ass anything. But it is a deliberately boring life. Glen is nice but dull (no man should say “yup” that many times during sex, if at all), the friends kind but banal — her lunch group at work seems positively agog at the idea of people using illegal drugs, while Kim once verbally pantsed Lalo Salamanca — the job unchallenging. (Gilligan, writing and directing his final episode of the series, deliberately lingers on random bits of office monotony, like two colleagues sharing a three-hole punch across their cubicle divider.)
It is better than the life she left the Midwest to avoid, but not by a ton: She’s not a cashier at the Hinky Dinky, but her boyfriend brings her Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise from the Winn-Dixie. And it is a very deliberate choice on her part. Even if she was insistent on never returning to the law, there is other work she could have chosen that would take advantage of some of the skills and connections she developed in Albuquerque. She doesn’t want any of that. Perhaps it is penance for Howard, and for whatever role she feels she played in turning Jimmy into Saul. Or perhaps it is a way of white-knuckling her way through her addiction to flimflammery; there are fewer temptations in an existence this vanilla(*).
(*) Even more than returning her hair to its natural dark color and sporting bangs, Kim’s indecisiveness regarding Tammy’s birthday ice cream cake flavor is a mark of how much she has changed. Kim Wexler, attorney at law, tended to make choices quickly and stick to them, even if they wound up harming her or others later.
So by the time we finally get to hear Gene’s fateful phone call with Kim, we understand the life she has and the reasons why. Last week’s episode implied that he didn’t go full Saul until after the call ended so badly. But almost from the start, it’s Saul in that phone booth, ugly and hurt and prepared to hurt Kim for not giving him what he wants out of the conversation. The longer she remains silent, the more he brags about eluding the authorities. When she suggests that he turn himself in, he mocks the very idea as hypocritical, given the role that Kim played in getting Howard killed, and how she has remained silent about it for all these years.
Gene is not wrong about that, but he is wrong about everything that follows. Where he uses the conversation as an excuse to go on a grifting rampage, she uses it as a wake-up call to fly back to Albuquerque and do the right thing. There is probably no legal jeopardy associated with this — as Kim admits to a bitter Cheryl, she will not go to jail for a case where there is no physical evidence(*) and no living witness other than her fugitive ex-husband. But whatever catharsis Kim gets from finally admitting her guilt, and from returning to the life she cost herself, is not enough.
(*) This definitely answers the question of whether the DEA dug up the foundation of the Super Lab after Walt and Jesse burned it down.
Several times in this episode, Gilligan lets the camera linger on Rhea Seehorn’s incredibly expressive face. On the phone with Gene, she looks like a wild animal that’s been cornered and can’t figure a way out, and then she just looks tired of him and all of it, in a manner similar to how she’ll look when she departs Saul’s office in the flashback sequence. And on the rental car shuttle in the 2010 timeline, the camera again just holds on Seehorn as Kim considers everything she has done, and everything it has cost her and the people around her. Kim has so often been in complete command of her own emotions, and the Saul directors have long learned to trust Seehorn’s ability to say crucial things about that character through extremely subtle shifts in expression. This starts out like that, as Kim’s mask of composure cracks ever so slightly. But as the shuttle rolls along, the cracks become bigger and bigger, until finally they burst, and the episode’s titular waterworks — not the sprinkler company, and not the downpour she and Jesse try to avoid — come flowing out of her. It’s all too much for her, and it’s everything this show has built to for her over these six seasons. It’s awful, and it’s incredible — maybe the best scene Seehorn has ever played on this show, which is saying something.
The episode then returns to Omaha to show Gene taking things too far with Mr. Lingk — stealing trophies and preparing to knock out the cancer patient with the urn containing the remains of his beloved dog Rusty — and then for the slapstick of a panicked Jeff crashing his cab into a parked car in front of two police officers who were just on meal break. But then we dial back to the final legal matter of Wexler v. Goodman, as Kim signs the divorce papers, makes a beeline away from the amoral asshole she just ceased to be married to, and finds herself under the strip mall awning next to her spiritual cousin from that other show.
Jesse is only there because his buddy Emilio — a.k.a. Walter White’s first murder victim — has come to Saul seeking legal representation. (In the “Better Call Saul” episode of Breaking Bad, Jesse tells Walt that Saul got Emilio out of trouble on two different occasions, despite the cops having him dead to rights.) Like Kim’s various interactions with Saul and/or Gene in this episode, she says very little, just waiting for the nicotine to kick in and hoping that the rain will stop before she has to listen to too much of this overgrown kid(*) bragging about ways for criminals to evade the justice system. She believed passionately in her work as a public defender, but guys like Jesse, Emilio, and Combo are the dark side of that work — the ones who present an ongoing danger to others each time a lawyer like Kim or Saul gets them off. And she really can’t stand listening to the future Mr. Driscoll praise the legal chicanery of the man she hopes to never see again.
(*) For the second week in a row, the show deliberately puts Aaron Paul in dark lighting with other conditions affecting visibility, and also has him wear a beanie. And for the second week in a row, this only does so much to make him physically look like a guy in his early twenties.
Will she see him again? I would not bet against Kim being in the finale, not after how crucial she has become to the series. While talking with Cheryl, Kim acknowledges that Jimmy/Saul/Gene is the only one who can corroborate her story. These last two episodes have established that he is desperate to see her again, and that he responds to her understandable refusal to do so in the worst possible ways. And this installment concludes with Jeff’s mother Marion ratting Gene out to the authorities(*) in a manner that could well bring him back to the scene of his many crimes. Under those circumstances, would he be willing to put Kim in legal jeopardy just as an excuse to see her again?
(*) As the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote, if you show an elderly woman learning how to find cat videos on the internet in Episode 11, then she has to be able to bust our protagonist via Ask Jeeves in Episode 12.
It’s unclear. The man who could brain Mr. Lingk with Rusty’s ashes, or the one who could harm and tie up a helpless old lady, would almost certainly be game for something that nasty. But Gene is spared the first crime when Lingk falls asleep again, and then he deliberately chooses not to do the second. He has allowed himself to become and do so many terrible things in the years since Kim told him, “I love you, but so what?” But there are apparently limits even to that. Somewhere buried deep beneath that mustache, those glasses, and that wispy hair, there still exists a part of Jimmy McGill, who took such pleasure being around senior citizens, and who once sacrificed an early payday from Sandpiper because he felt guilty about taking away Irene Landry’s friends at the retirement home. There is just enough Jimmy left to hand the LifeAlert fob back to Marion, come what may, and then Saul Goodman is off and running into the snowy daylight, with no one to help him (even if he wanted to call Ed, Robert Forster has passed away) and a whole lot of people eager to bring him to justice.
When Jesse asks Kim if Saul is any good, he is only referring to Mr. Goodman’s legal skills. Those, he has in abundance. It’s everything else he gradually became so bad at.
But now all those bad deeds are catching up to him. When the show established that Kim was from Nebraska, it was easy to hope that she would one day turn up in the Cottonwood Mall for some kind of low-key Happily Ever After. But this dark fictional universe that Gilligan created has something of a moral compass to it. Bad things happen to characters who do not deserve it, but characters who deserve bad things inevitably get what is coming to them. The sins Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler committed together on this show are enough to bar either of them from the pearly gates of this particular cosmology, never mind the ones Jimmy committed as Saul Goodman. If they do wind up occupying the same physical space in next week’s finale, it is unlikely they will find themselves on shared emotional ground.
But so what? We’ve gotten to watch them at their best and at their worst for so many years now, and almost all of it has been riveting, up through and including “Waterworks.”
Some other thoughts:
* I interviewed Vince Gilligan about his Saul swan song, why he would not change anything about Breaking Bad to have made life easier for him and the writers on this show, and why — for now, at least — he considers the Saul series finale to be the end of this fictional universe.
* Gilligan loaded the episode with callbacks to moments from throughout the series. Saul tosses the rubber ball off the wall and tries various trick shots, just like he did as Jimmy while working in the cell phone store that never had customers. Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” plays at Kim’s backyard barbecue, after Jimmy used Holmes as a pretext for filming a commercial at an elementary school with an enormous American flag. At work, Kim places a reflective sun shield on her car’s dashboard that evokes Chuck’s space blankets. When Kim goes back to the courthouse, she passes Mike’s old parking booth — now fully automated — and lingers by the picnic tables where she and Jimmy sat right before their wedding. Gene being trapped in the bedroom when Mr. Lingk wakes up evokes Lalo being stuck in Werner Ziegler’s home office when his widow unexpectedly returned to the house. (And Gene does not possess Lalo’s superhuman jumping abilities, and thus can’t just leap down to the first floor.) Gene peering around a corner of Mr. Lingk’s house is like the famous shot of Jimmy doing that in the courthouse in last season’s “JMM,” only now there’s no reflection to suggest another version of Gene. And when Gene awaits Jeff’s call from the police station, he waves his fingers at the burner phone, magician-style, in the same manner we saw Jimmy do when he was desperate for business back in the show’s earliest days.
* One bit of color appears in the Gene timeline: when Gene sees that Marion has been watching one of the old Saul Goodman commercials, they are reflected in his glasses in all their gaudy color, a splash of his old life coming back to ruin his new one.
* While Gene and Kim are on the phone, he refers to Gus by name as one of the dead people who will no longer endanger them. That he does not bother to explain who he is implies that Kim already knows, and that Gene knows that she knows. Maybe at some point in the Breaking Bad years, he reached out to her to tell her the name of Mike’s mystery employer (a.k.a. the man Kim was once prepared to murder). Or maybe he just assumes that she figured it out because Gus’ name was no doubt publicized in the wake of his own murder, and in all the post-“Ozymandias” news coverage of Walter White’s operation.
* The altered main title sequence gets another wrinkle this week, as it concludes with a half-second, warped glimpse of a shot of Kim standing at the curb at the Albuquerque airport from later in the episode. She doesn’t take over all of “Waterworks” in the way that, say, Mike did back in Season One’s “Five-O.” But it’s a nice, subtle acknowledgment of how important she will be to this hour.
* Not only has Kim abandoned her familiar coiffure, but her wardrobe is night and day from her Albuquerque ensembles. Gone are the tailored suits and stiletto heels, replaced by denim skirts and white sneakers. Even when she goes to her old stomping grounds at the county courthouse, it’s in a pair of sensible pumps with a chunky heel. But as she waits for the elevator, she spots a bright young defense lawyer basically sporting her old wardrobe — and her trademark power ponytail, but in brown — and helping an indigent client get dressed up for court, as we so often saw Kim doing in this show’s later seasons. She screwed everything up for herself, but there are other idealistic defense lawyers out there, at least.
* The divorce paper scene establishes that Kim declined her half of the Sandpiper settlement in the divorce, even though the money arrived while she was still married to Jimmy. She was well-compensated from her brief time at Schweikart & Cokely, and that was likely all she needed to start over and buy that little house in Florida.
* Finally, as Kim is leaving the office, Saul refers to Francesca as “Sweet Cheeks.” This fits with some of the gross nicknames he used for her on Breaking Bad, but doesn’t really match what we saw of the decidedly non-misogynist Jimmy McGill over the bulk of this series. Presented here, though, it starts to make sense, as part of the horrible defense mechanism he has built for himself to cope with the loss of Kim: If she won’t have him, then he will make himself so disgusting to her that she will feel as upset as he does. Poor Francesca is just collateral damage in this unhealthy attempt at self-medicating.