A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I tell you the plot of The Verdict…
“All wrapped up in your sad little stories, and feeding off each other’s misery.” -Mike
Even by Heisenberg-verse standards, the advancement of plot in Saul Season Four has been pretty slow. Gus made a bunch of moves in the aftermath of Hector’s stroke, and Kim did give Jimmy the Chuck letter(*) only one episode after receiving it. But on the whole, all our major characters have been in more of a stasis state than usual. Jimmy is looking to fill the time until his suspension ends, while also trying to realign his moral compass in the wake of Chuck’s death. Kim isn’t sure what she wants to do when she grows up, but is pretty sure it’s not overseeing Mesa Verde’s perpetual expansion. Mike has been content playing grandpa, doing the crossword and making occasional spot checks on Madrigal facilities. Even Nacho, caught up in the plot-heaviest corner of the season so far, is pretty much stuck in narrative quicksand, struggling to get while gradually sinking deeper into the spot that Gus and the Salamancas put him in.
(*) Or a letter, if you continue to believe it was a fake, despite this episode solving the mystery of her unscheduled court visit from “Something Beautiful” as something wholly unrelated to Chuck.
Team Saul has long been great at making scenes where nothing seems to be happening into something fascinating to watch. Case in point: Jimmy trying to keep himself busy and entertained managing a store with no customers. The sequence couldn’t be more explicitly about tedium, but because it’s put together with such care, and because we know McGill so well and are invested in him, the mere act of him bouncing a CC Mobile ball against the front window becomes fun and interesting.
But we’re also reaching the point in the season when even well-crafted depictions of boredom risk making the entire show boring, or at least frustrating. We don’t need Walt and Skyler to wander into the cell phone store (at this point, I think a Walt cameo might do more harm than good). We do need something, however,to be happening in the here-and-now for these characters.
Fortunately, this week’s episode — “Talk” — isn’t only about the way everyone is stuck in neutral. It also starts to get them going again.
Kim is probably the furthest away from whatever her next move is, but her visit to Judge Munsinger‘s courtroom at least makes clear that she wants a next move, because Mesa Verde just isn’t doing it for her anymore. Ethan Phillips expertly plays Munsinger’s reaction to her mid-life crisis, making it clear even before he says it that she is far from the first lawyer to wander into his courtroom looking for a renewed sense of purpose. The bit about the plot of The Verdict neatly cuts two ways. It illustrates how unreasonable Kim is being in looking for a grand case to rekindle her love of the law, even as that lesson is also being delivered by a man who shares a fictional universe with Gus Fring, Walter White and the man who would be Saul Goodman. Both of these shows manage to have their cake and eat it, too, in this way: depicting the tedious, step-by-step nature of various jobs, legal or otherwise, but using those steps to get to larger-than-life plot points. That Kim goes back into Munsinger’s courtroom even after his threat to assign her public defender cases speaks to how desperate she is for non-banking business. It suggests that the Saul writers are probably going to give her the kind of eventful case that the judge claims doesn’t exist.
Jimmy, meanwhile, continues to run from things more than he’s running to anything. He doesn’t want the CC Mobile job, but he takes it just as an excuse to put off Kim’s attempt to put him in therapy. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a decent way to kill time for the remaining 10 months of his suspension, since Jimmy’s a natural salesman who enjoys interacting with strangers. But the store is so dead, he could probably turn it into a meth cookhouse without anyone noticing (even Robbie from corporate). A meeting with Ira to divvy up the proceeds from the Bavarian Boy sale provides him with more cash than he was expecting, as well as an inspiration to drum up business at the store by targeting criminals in constant need of a new phone number. This is a wink at Saul Goodman’s drawer full of cellphones(*), but it’s also an excuse to have Jimmy interacting even more frequently with Albuquerque’s criminal element. Emotionally, he’s already perilously close to being Saul Goodman, though the logistics of how he’ll get into that field of law and build up such a big client base haven’t come into focus yet. This starts to do that.
(*) Usually, it feels like each episode is rotating through the different opening credits sequences at random. In this case, though, the glimpse of Saul’s phones couldn’t have been more perfectly tied to the hour that followed.
Nacho seemingly makes a lot of progress this week. He hasn’t healed much from his injuries yet, as he has to operate a gun one-handed (racking the slide by wedging the pistol between his legs) and keeps falling down from the sheer effort of standing and moving. Yet he’s able to help Leonel and Marco when those maniacs decide to wage a two-man assault on the Espinosas’ motel fortress in broad daylight, without a plan.
(The incredulous look on Michael Mando’s face as Nacho realizes what they’re doing is a thing of beauty, as is the choice to show most of the raid from his POV outside the fence. It’s a way to save time and money, sure, but it also adds to the mythos of the Cousins as these unstoppable killing machines, leaving much of the specifics to Nacho’s imagination, and ours.)
The massacre is a success, but so high-profile that the Cousins have to head back to Mexico to lay low for a while, freeing Ignacio for the moment of his two most terrifying babysitters. And his ability to put the pieces together about Gus staging this whole scam in order to take over the Espinosas’ territory winds up impressing the Chicken Man, who speaks in tender, paternal fashion to him after, rather than the imperious tone he had previously taken. But among the sentiments expressed in that gentler voice is that Nacho has more work to do, which is enough to send our man over to his father’s shop to ask for help. Seeing the sorry physical state of his son is enough to finally thaw Mr. Varga’s cold demeanor. It still feels like a sad and hopeless circumstance for both.
And then there’s Mike Ehrmantraut, who bookends the episode after being largely absent from the last two. We open with a lovely but bittersweet pastoral flashback to Matty as a little boy watching a young Mike lay cement (which we’ve seen him do on Saul before), as rapt in watching his daddy do a basic task as we’ve become. (Matty would be an ideal viewer of this show.) That’s followed by what seems a jarring glimpse of Mike in the grief support group, everyone much too aghast if we assume he’s just told them the story about the cement. It’s not until late in the hour that we realize that moment is from another part of the episode, in the aftermath of him exposing Henry as a fabulist who has invented a dead wife so he can be part of the group. The fixer then attacks Anita and the others as narcissistic wallowers who can’t see what’s obviously right in front of them.
It’s a cruel, sad moment. Mike may not have enjoyed the group itself, but he cares deeply for Stacey, and we see earlier in the hour how close he’s grown to Anita. (She’s such a regular during Mike’s coffee shop visits that the waitress knows her name and what her usual order is.) Mike is mostly happy in retirement, and the laundered drug money is enough to cover Stacey and Kaylee’s needs. This would be a fine life for him, certainly more than the one we know Breaking Bad has in store for him. But the thing about the peaceful life is that it’s so much easier to think about Matty’s death, and about Mike’s failure to prevent it. There’s an extraordinary moment before Henry enters the group meeting where Stacey talks about how much it hurt her to realize she went through a whole day without thinking about her late husband. She’s the one talking, and crying, but the camera is rightly focused on Mike, his nostrils flaring, his lip twitching, his eyes getting subtly but unmistakably redder. We’re reminded of just how much pain he carries with him all the time (perhaps he’s flashing on the memory of Matty writing his name in the cement right then?), especially when he’s forced to confront it directly.(*) What had been a fun game with Anita earlier in the day becomes salt in the gaping wound in Mike’s heart, as Henry’s invented wife and fake grief turn into an insult he cannot tolerate in this moment. It’s a bad thing Henry is doing, but also something of a victimless crime, and in exposing him, Mike lashes out at a roomful of people who are experiencing genuine grief just like he is. It’s hard to imagine him going back to that place, or even sharing another meal with Anita, who under other circumstances could have been an outstanding companion.
(*) Jimmy and Mike are incredibly different people in most ways, but both demonstrate a clear aversion to therapy this week.
Gus calls him during one of his Madrigal inspections, and pretends when they meet that he’s upset Mike concealed his past history with Nacho. But the security consultant, like Nacho, can see through Fring’s bluster to what the meeting is really about: a job. And at this moment in his life, Mr. Ehrmantraut could very much use a job to take his mind off his dead son and how empty his life feels without him.
It is significant narrative progress for Mike — and for Season Four as a whole. Emotionally, though, it’s a bad direction for him to be going, and that would be obvious even if we didn’t know where this partnership will eventually lead him.
But that’s the no-win scenario of this show, isn’t it? The faster the story moves, the closer we are to terrible things befalling almost everyone, other than perhaps Kim. Her fate remains the one great mystery on a series where we know most of what happens to everyone else. Her future is wide open, and could involve everything from an ugly breakup to death … or to being the wife Saul Goodman wisely never spoke about to his many criminal associates. If everyone else’s path is destined to get darker and darker, however, we can hope that Kim is on a course towards the light. Maybe her visits to the courthouse will take her away from Jimmy by her own healthy choice, rather than through the terrible deeds we know he’ll soon be enabling.
Some other thoughts:
* Ethan Phillips is probably best known for playing Neelix on Star Trek: Voyager, or, years before, Governor Gatling’s press secretary Pete on Benson. More recently, he played the boyfriend of Hannah’s dad on Girls. If Henry looked familiar, it’s because Marc Evan Jackson has guested on half the comedies on TV right now, particularly shows made by Mike Schur, where he’s been a lawyer on Parks and Recreation, Captain Holt’s husband Kevin on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and boss Shawn on The Good Place.
* At the time, the evening visit to the Espinosas’ motel just seemed like an impressive visual flourish from director (and Breaking Bad alum) John Shiban as we got a glimpse of all the chaos and consumption happening in there. In hindsight, it makes an excellent visual primer for the Cousins’ rampage: we know how the place is laid out, so we can follow the action even when we and Nacho can’t see it.
* The shame of Jimmy working in a cell phone store circa 2003 is that the technology’s not advanced enough for him to entertain himself in the absence of customers. If the place was stocked with smartphones, he’d be playing Candy Crush or streaming classic movies all day.
* Time for my periodic, pedantic reminder that if you call 911, the operator is legally required to send someone to your house, even if you claim you misdialed or the situation resolved itself while you were calling.
* Anita works at Cradock Marine Bank, which has popped up a few times on both Breaking Bad (it’s where money was deposited for Kaylee and Mike’s guys) and Better Call Saul. The name goes back to some X-Files episodes Vince Gilligan wrote; Fox Mulder has an account with them.
* On this week’s Extra Hot Great podcast, my pal Sarah D. Bunting brought into focus something that had been on the edge of my awareness all season: Because Kim is essentially one-handed at the moment, she can’t pull off her trademark power ponytail. She still does a pretty good job, all things considered, but the fact that her hair isn’t perfect contributes just as much as the sling and the facial bruises to making clear how off she’s been since the accident. As with so many things about this show, the power is in the tiny details.
* The Verdict is available right now via HBO’s various digital and On Demand services. It features one of the greatest performances of Paul Newman’s career, and better than the one that actually got him the Oscar in The Color of Money.
* Though next Monday is Labor Day, there will be a new episode, so make your viewing plans accordingly.
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Dead Letter Office