A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Bagman,” coming up just as soon as my strip steak is marinating in a secret blend of herbs and spices I call Old El Paso…
“That’s the price.” —Jimmy
If last week’s “JMM” gave us the Better Call Saul equivalent of Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks!” speech, then “Bagman” is a spiritual prequel to one of the most beloved Breaking Bad episodes of all, Season Two’s “4 Days Out.” Once again, we have the show’s two male leads in a fight for survival in the desert after unexpected circumstances knock their vehicle out of commission, getting on each other’s nerves along the way. The context is very different, as is the degree of danger, since Jimmy and Mike are not only battling the elements, but trying to evade the one bandit who survived Mike’s sniper fire. But in each case, our antihero saves the day by playing to his mental strengths. For Walter White, it’s his knowledge of science; for Jimmy McGill, it’s his facility with a con and his utter belief that he can scam anybody.
I often point to “4 Days Out” as the episode you can show a non-Breaking Bad viewer, because it’s as standalone as a drama like that is capable of being. Saul pops up early on to discuss the state of Walt’s finances, and potentially bad new developments with Walt’s cancer hang over the whole hour, but for the most part it is a wild, fun, gorgeously shot self-contained adventure that showcases the enormous chemistry between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. It doesn’t get too deep into the darkness that ultimately characterized that series (though Walt’s response to the cancer being in remission provides a taste of it), but in some ways it’s an even better sales tool for the uninitiated than the pilot episode.
“Bagman” wouldn’t work nearly as cleanly for someone who had never watched Better Call Saul. But this is a feature, not a bug(*). While it’s thrilling and scary and at times darkly hilarious to watch Jimmy and Mike attempt to get out of the desert alive with all of Lalo’s cash intact, the episode’s power ultimately comes from where it exists in the story of Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman, from the already precarious state of his marriage to Kim, and from our knowledge of what the space blanket truly means. It’s not as instantly quotable as “4 Days Out” — though the sight of Jimmy drinking his own urine will surely inspire fan jokes and memes for years to come — but it is a more emotionally potent experience.
(*) Though now I’m wondering what the Saul equivalent of “Fly” would be. An entire episode set in the nail salon?
It’s also the latest and clearest piece of evidence in an argument I’ve been building in my head for a while: Breaking Bad tells the more fundamentally interesting (or, at least, more exciting) story, but Gould, Gilligan, and company are at this moment better at telling stories in this world after so much time doing it. Saul can get hemmed in by the demands of being a prequel, particularly on the drug side of things (which has of late become the majority of the show), but its individual moments can feel even deeper and more artfully crafted. Which is not something I could have imagined when this show started. (Nor, as they’ve admitted, could Gilligan and Gould.)
Event-wise, “Bagman” is a pretty simple episode. Jimmy goes to pick up the money, he gets attacked by bandits, Mike saves him, and then the two have to find a way to make it back to civilization without being killed by the guy who got away. The only characters of note are Jimmy, Mike, Kim, and Lalo, with both the bandits and the Cousins (who bring Jimmy the cash and then leave) functioning as plot devices. There are no subplots, no check-ins with Mesa Verde or Nacho’s dad or how Lyle feels about his workplace exploding. Once Jimmy and Mike’s odyssey begins, we only leave the desert to see Kim asking Lalo for help finding her husband. It is this story and only this story being told. It’s just being told at a staggering level of execution.
Vince Gilligan has stepped back from this series the last few years to make El Camino and work on other projects, but he still helps develop each season’s story arcs, and he still directs one episode per season. It was luck of the draw that he got “Bagman,” as episodes are sometimes assigned to writers and directors before anyone knows what will be in them. So it’s kismet that the franchise’s best director of desert scenes(*) wound up with the chance to shoot the hell out of an hour set almost entirely in the harsh, bright, dusty terrain. Gilligan and director of photography Marshall Adams have never worked better together, with one spectacular composition after another. Even before the true misadventure begins, we have Jimmy’s legs framing the arrival of the Cousins’ car, followed by his head as a mirror of sorts to show how Leonel and Marco move in unison on either side of it. There is that stunning god’s-eye-view shot of Mike walking around the bodies of the men he has killed to save Jimmy and the cash. “JMM” ended with Jimmy telling Howard about the lightning bolts he can shoot from his fingertips; that shot reveals him for the tiny, powerless speck he is in this world. Even when the screen isn’t shimmering from the heat, Gilligan and Adams make you feel the discomfort in every minute of every scene. And I haven’t even gotten to the jaw-dropping sequence in the climax, where Jimmy stands in the middle of a road as the bandit’s truck flips over and over towards him in the aftermath of Mike’s sniper shot. Where Gus or the Cousins might have kept walking without flinching in such a circumstance, Jimmy is rooted to that spot, too exhausted and terrified to move, flinching as he waits to see if this thing falls on top of him in spite of Mike’s best efforts. It’s incredible.
(*) It’s Gilligan or Michelle MacLaren (who joined Breaking Bad with “4 Days Out”), and the desert sequence in El Camino probably puts him in the lead. These rankings are subject to change if she or (if the stars improbably align) Rian Johnson helm an episode in the final season.
But Gilligan has always been just as good with character as with visuals, and he and Gordon Smith(*) do a masterful job of making this not just a physical trial, but an emotional one. If the real Saul Goodman finally bubbled up to the surface in “JMM,” then the desert heat and the indignities that accompany it go a long way towards forging him into a permanent, unyielding shape.
(*) Smith started out on Breaking Bad as Gilligan’s assistant, and is now one of this show’s best writers. But because Gilligan directs so infrequently, this is the first time mentor and protégé have been directly teamed on the same episode.
After a teaser where the Cousins gather the bail money from a Salamanca warehouse, we cut to Lalo in an interview room at the jail, his bare feet propped up as he enjoys reading a news account of the destruction of Los Pollos Hermanos. (He’s oblivious to the fact that both the restaurant’s fiery end and his impending bail are the result of Gus Fring’s plan to erase him from the planet.) He then explains to Jimmy how to find the well where the Cousins will hand over the cash — that he knows the exact mileage along the dirt road is a telling reminder that this is a smarter and more detail-oriented Salamanca — and explains that his lawyer’s anonymity in the drug game makes him the ideal courier for such a valuable package. Jimmy’s alarm bells rightly go off about this, and he’s on the verge of walking away, but two things seem to stop him. The first is Lalo’s indifferent, almost chipper tone, which suggests that the cartel can just as easily find another friend if this is too much trouble for Saul Goodman, Esq. The second is an impulse that we’ve seen drive Jimmy in the past under various names: There is money to be had — big money — and he’d be a fool not to try for it. So where he drastically undervalued himself the first time Lalo employed his services, here Jimmy asks for a cool $100,000 commission. We know from seeing the warehouse vault that Lalo could easily pay Jimmy 20 percent, or 100, without putting an appreciable crimp in his operating funds, but it’s nonetheless a number that makes it worth our man’s while.
“That’s the price,” he tells Lalo, unaware of just how big a price he in turn will pay for that $100,000.
We then come home to Kim and Jimmy’s apartment, where he springs the Friend of the Cartel news she’s been bracing for, only it’s worse because of the insane thing he’s doing in order to achieve that status. Jimmy tries downplaying the risk, but Kim isn’t one of Jimmy’s marks, and the only times he’s ever been able to fool her (like with his speech about Chuck to get his suspension lifted) have been when she wanted to be fooled. Not here. Not now. This development rightly terrifies her, and she lays out her feelings as plainly as she can: “I don’t like this. I don’t want you to do it.” Every word of that second sentence bursts out of her in a pained staccato, sounding as much like the lonely 12-year-old girl with the cello and the alcoholic mom as the grown woman who has made a new family with a different kind of addict. He hugs her and assures her that things will be fine, but she’s no longer listening as she starts to realize how this story will likely end for both of them.
From there, we’re in the desert, for the aforementioned handoff with the Cousins (which begins with a gorgeous shot from underneath the water in the well), followed by Jimmy driving north as he sings a variation of “99 Bottles of Beer” about the fortune in his trunk. That’s when the ambush happens, followed by the counter-ambush of Mike the sniper. The scene at first keeps secret the identity of Jimmy’s savior, but who else could it be? This is Mike finally operating at the level of power we witnessed a few times on Breaking Bad, taking out a half-dozen heavily armed men all by himself. But as he will later admit to Jimmy, he should’ve brought more guys to run surveillance. His overconfidence results in the destruction of his truck and the escape of one of the bandits, and puts Mike and a shell-shocked Jimmy in the front seat of Jimmy’s bullet-riddled car, trying and failing to get back to civilization before it dies on them.
Though Saul Goodman drove a Cadillac on Breaking Bad, the Suzuki Esteem has been Jimmy McGill’s signature vehicle — an ugly, mismatched old junker that causes people to underrate its driver. In helping Mike push the inoperable car into a ravine — and realizing that a stray round destroyed the World’s 2nd Best Lawyer Again travel mug Kim gave him — he’s saying goodbye to a part of himself. He can get a much nicer car with part of the commission — or perhaps Lalo will gift him that Cadillac we see being washed of blood in the teaser — but, bit by bit, the things that clearly delineated Jimmy from Saul are falling away from him.
From there, we’re into a full-on endurance challenge for our two unlikely partners, with Mike forcing Jimmy to carry both bags of money. Jimmy is still too stunned from almost dying, and Mike too taciturn as always, for it to be the gabfest Walt and Jesse had under similar conditions. Still, the two go through a lot together over the course of these two days, in a manner that would seem to fly in the face of their relationship on Breaking Bad. For that matter, the Jimmy/Saul who makes himself bait in the episode’s climax seems far removed from the cowardly Saul who was pleading for his life and blaming Ignacio when Walt and Jesse took him into the desert in his first appearance.
Or maybe it all fits together. When I interviewed Peter Gould at the end of Season Four, he said this of what he had in mind when he wrote that original desert scene where Saul mentioned both Lalo and Ignacio:
We wanted to indicate that Saul Goodman had been in life and death situations before, and he had left a trail of people who were angry at him, who maybe he’s done wrong. And also that he might have some cartel connections, which of course becomes important on Breaking Bad.
The “life and death situations” part of that quote is the more interesting one to me. (As I wrote last week, there’s still plenty of time for Jimmy’s relationship with the cartel to conclude abruptly and leave him desperate for a new White whale.) We’ve seen him in danger before on this show, going all the way back to another Salamanca-inspired trip to the desert in the second episode ever. He kept a cool head then, and he mostly does throughout “Bagman,” understanding right away that he needs to give these bandits access to his trunk, and eventually figuring out that the only way to get their pursuer off their tail is to play bait so Mike can kill the guy. Our man is an actor, and he could very easily have been playing a role for Walt and Jesse.
As for Mike, remember that he was introduced in the Breaking Bad Season Two finale only because Bob Odenkirk was busy that week taping an episode of How I Met Your Mother, and no one on the writing staff knew until early the next season that Saul’s investigator/fixer secretly had a more powerful employer. The question of why Gus Fring’s right-hand man would have a side job working for a shyster he doesn’t even seem to like is one of the few lingering Breaking Bad mysteries that Saul has yet to solve. It may be that things will prove more complicated down the road — perhaps involving Gus’s early intel about the science teacher cooking pure blue meth — but “Bagman” suggests a simpler explanation. Mike, as we know, is a man who believes in paying karmic debts he owes. He’s the one who puppeteered Jimmy into arranging bail for Lalo, and Jimmy goes through a horrible ordeal as a result. At the same time, Mike is witness to Jimmy’s unexpected burst of bravery with the space blanket, and surely has to be impressed by that. Maybe it’s as simple as Mike developing a grudging respect for the guy, while also feeling like he owes Jimmy for putting him in danger — and for whatever blowback is to come with Kim.
This is more of a transformative episode for Jimmy than for Mike, but Mike still gets one of its most emotional scenes, where he explains to his traveling companion why he is still trying to get home, and why he has associated himself with such deadly criminals. “I have people waiting for me,” he says. “They don’t know what I do, they never will. They’re protected. But I do what I do so they can have a better life. And if I live or if I die, it really doesn’t make a difference to me, as long as they have what they need. So when it is my time to go, I will go knowing I did everything I could for them.” It’s a great speech, delivered with gravity but also vulnerability by Jonathan Banks, and made all the more poignant by us knowing how badly Mike will fail Kaylee and Stacey in the end(*). And thanks in part to Jimmy, Mike will get to make it home to them again.
(*) Speeches like that are the reason I tell people that if they’re coming to the franchise fresh and intend to watch both series, to start with Breaking Bad. Things on this show often mean more because we know what happens later. Some of the reverse may be true if you watch in Saul first, but because of the order in which the two were written, and how much more everybody knows now than they did from 2007 to 2013, the impact sure seems greater this way.
Earlier, Mike is dismayed to learn that Jimmy has told Kim about the money pickup, fearing that she will tell the police, or at least a friend or a relative, and then he’ll have another loose end to reluctantly tie up. He, of course, has never met Kim, and doesn’t know her like Jimmy does. She has no one else — no family to whom she’s still connected, no friends we’ve ever met, and no coworkers she would trust with this information — and is smart enough to know how badly things would go if she spoke to law enforcement. So her only option, once Jimmy fails to come home that night, is to go see the man who sent him on the trip. And as Lalo re-enters the interview room to find this impressive woman waiting for him, the final barrier between the Jimmy show and the Mike show crumbles for good. In that moment, I was more afraid for her than I was for Jimmy during the ambush. It’s not just that I know he will survive for years to come, but that he chose this path, where Kim has been reluctantly dragged along. This is not her world, and she has much more to lose by entering it than Slippin’ Jimmy does. And she doesn’t even get anything out of this risk, since Lalo refuses to tell her where to look for her husband. “If he’s alive, he’ll show,” Lalo reasons. Kim starts to complete the thought for him by saying, “And if he’s… ” but it hurts too much to ponder, and her voice is already shattered on the “he’s.” For the moment, she gets nothing out of the encounter but more pain and fear. But now Lalo Salamanca knows she exists, and that she’s also a lawyer, and I can’t imagine this is the last time the two will be linked in some way, dammit.
While Mike and Jimmy are discussing Kim and making camp, Mike takes out a space blanket to keep warm in the desert’s midnight chill. He offers Jimmy a spare, not realizing the meaning the object has to the brother of the late Chuck McGill. For Jimmy, that thing practically is Chuck: a shiny symbol of all his brother tried to deny him, and of the folly of trying to live as a straight arrow. He’d rather shiver against a rock than find physical comfort in that accursed sheet of mylar.
Eventually, the weight of the duffel bags and the physical impact of being out in the heat with so little hydration seems too much for Jimmy to take. Mike only talks about his family to encourage a collapsed, defeated Jimmy to stand up and keep moving. Instead, it’s the return of the bandit’s truck that does the job. Jimmy rises, gathers the space blanket around his shoulders, and starts trudging toward the road. At first, it seems as if he is now following Chuck’s lead, wrapping himself in that ridiculous looking thing before committing suicide. Instead, he surprises Mike by telling him to have his rifle ready, and we realize he’s using a con man’s favorite trick: misdirection. Because when civilized thought and alternators and travel mugs and everything in his life have failed him, Jimmy McGill still knows how to put on a good hustle, and still believes he can outwit any opponent.
And he does. Mike makes the shot on the second try, the truck rolls off the road before it gets close to Jimmy, and our heroes live to bicker another day. Jimmy sits in the road with his head in his hands, clearly on the verge of tears if only his body was capable of producing liquid after two days under the sun’s anvil. Then Saul takes a long, defiant swig of his own pee — a mortification for being stupid enough to come out here as much as it is a life-preserving means of rehydrating — stands up and gets moving, not even pausing to let Mike take the lead. He is a Friend of the Cartel now. He has paid one hell of a price to accomplish that, but he is alive, and his chapped lips and other injuries will heal right along with his wounded ego. He is Saul Goodman, dammit, and if the lightning isn’t quite at his fingertips yet, he still has other powers at his command.
What an hour from everyone involved, but especially from Bob Odenkirk. These last few episodes have been huge in terms of the series’ primary character arc, and he’s been more than up to that challenge. We’ve long passed the point where his gifts as a dramatic actor are surprising, but the raw physicality of what he does here seems beyond anything he’s done in the past, even at what seemed like his very best.
The episode’s final shot could be read as one more Breaking Bad callback, or as something uniquely Better Call Saul. As Jimmy resumes his march up the road, the space blanket flutters away. Is this an homage to the khakis Walter White lost in his very first episode? Or is it meant to be one of the last remnants of James Morgan McGill floating off into the unknown, no longer a concern of Saul Goodman’s? Or, is it just the latest example of Better Call Saul managing to do fan service and exquisite character work at the same time?
It’s not fair to compare an episode from the stretch run of a series’ penultimate season to one from another series that hadn’t fully figured itself out yet. (Breaking Bad Season Two is great, but it wasn’t until the following year that it was a clear inner circle Hall of Famer.) And “4 Days Out” and “Bagman” are ultimately trying to accomplish different things in terms of tone and characterization. But the former episode has long been one of my favorite episodes of any drama, ever. For “Bagman” to cover similar terrain and come out the other side seeming so much richer is not a thing I would have expected before this series began. Hell, it’s not necessarily something I was expecting before this month.
Yet here we are. What a pisser.
Some other thoughts:
* It may get lost in the shuffle of how strong Odenkirk, Banks, and Rhea Seehorn all are this week, but Tony Dalton has been really impressive of late as Lalo. It would be very easy to go over the top with a character who is this flamboyant and pleased with himself, but Dalton has a tight enough reign on his performance that Lalo’s control of any room he enters is all the more believable as a result.
* The song playing over the montage of Jimmy and Mike walking through the desert on their second day is Labi Siffre’s 1975 tune “I Got The.” If the instrumentals sound familiar, that’s because the song has been heavily sampled by many rappers, most famously Eminem with “My Name Is,” but also Jay-Z and even, if you consider him a rapper, Shaquille O’Neal.
* How did Mike keep tabs on Jimmy’s location while staying out of sight in an environment where it would be impossible to go unnoticed by tailing him directly? We get our answer as they remove identifying details from the Esteem, including the gasoline cap. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Fring organization implant tracking devices in gas caps, but, like most of the tradecraft on this show and Breaking Bad, once you teach the audience how it works, it’s easy to return to it with shorthand later.
* When the Cousins went into the vault to gather Lalo’s bail money, I couldn’t help making a note about “Chekhov’s Gatling Gun” regarding one of the other items in the room. Maybe we’ll see that monster get used later in the series, but for the moment the Chekhov’s Gun that finally gets fired is the sniper rifle Mike bought from Lawson back in Season Two.
* Finally, the Esteem’s destruction brought to mind the last time in this series Jimmy went without it, when Davis & Main gave him a Mercedes as his company car. So it’s a nice touch that the water bottle he uses throughout this trip is one piece of Davis & Main-branded swag he kept from his brief time there.