A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Bad Choice Road,” coming up just as soon as I leave the Yankees to play amateur ring toss…
“Oh, Jesus, what have I got myself involved with here?” —Jimmy
So, do we need to start referring to Kim Wexler as The One Who Mocks?
“Bad Choice Road” begins with a sequel to the great montage from last season’s “Something Stupid.” Again, a cover of the Sinatra song plays as we see Jimmy and Kim in split screen. In that earlier episode, the device was used to illustrate the growing emotional distance between them; here, it’s emphasizing the physical distance, as Jimmy and Mike finish the desert trek they began in “Bagman,” while Kim frets back in the apartment. Occasionally, the couple’s movements are in sync, but in wildly different circumstances, like when she enjoys a clean glass of water from the kitchen sink while he has to swallow more of his own piss. The original montage concluded with its separate images merging back together, even as Jimmy and Kim’s lives kept drifting farther apart. Here, the image is never whole, because our leads are in separate locations. But by the end of this fantastic episode, the two halves of Better Call Saul itself, long held separate, finally merge into one thrilling, terrifying story.
Jimmy and Kim have separately met with Lalo at the jail in past episodes (and Jimmy a few times before that, when helping with the Krazy-8 problem), but when he enters their home, armed with a gun and a smile, any distinction between the cartel and civilian aspects of the show has ceased to exist. Earlier in the episode, Kim quits Schweikart and Cokely, and Mesa Verde, because banking law now bores her; in the process, it feels as if the series has left behind nearly all interest in non-criminal life. Mike warns Jimmy about the bad road he has gone down, and how impossible it will be to get off it. Jimmy will later mangle the lesson in attempting to convince Kim that she’s made a terrible mistake by quitting her lucrative job, but it’s already too late for her, and him, and Better Call Saul. Everyone’s gone down Bad Choice Road now, and there’s no turning back.
Where “Bagman” was focused almost entirely on Jimmy and Mike’s painful desert odyssey, “Bad Choice Road” is a pretty traditionally structured episode until that long climactic sequence in and around the apartment. We catch up with nearly all the cast (save Howard, who these days exists as a symbol of the life that Jimmy and the series are both leaving behind) and advance various subplots. Gus figures out that the bandits were hired by Juan Bolsa, who seems very displeased by the thought of Lalo getting out of jail and returning to Mexico to interfere in his business. Mike tries to negotiate Nacho’s release from Gus’ control — or, failing that, for the safety of Mr. Varga — but the Chicken Man is unyielding in his belief that Nacho is too treacherous to be managed through anything but fear(*). Lalo says goodbye to Hector, trying to assure the frail and bitter old man that he’ll be back once the heat dies down, but his final gaze at his uncle (who is participating silently in a nursing home birthday celebration, looking ridiculous and sad in a party hat) suggests he knows this is the last they’ll see each other. Kim quits the firm, and Jimmy even appears in court on behalf of a client, though the only thing we see is the awkward aftermath, as Bill Oakley taunts him for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
(*) Looking back on things, Gus has a point. Nacho previously asked Mike to kill Tuco, then poisoned Hector. Trying to murder difficult bosses is his go-to move.
Jimmy’s off his game because he’s understandably traumatized by what he did and saw in the desert. He’s moving slower due to the severe sunburn, but he also seems to be thinking slower. Familiar sounds like Kim running the juicer now remind him of gunshots and explosions. He’s lying to Kim about what really happened, unaware that she’s already seen the bullet hole in the travel mug she gave him. He is dismayed to realize that the only person he can talk to about it is Mike. When he sits in Mike’s sedan, he seems genuinely shaken by the thought of those dead men, even after Mike argues that it was a kill-or-be-killed situation. Memories of Fred Whalen’s murder trouble him further, and even Mike’s hints that Lalo will soon be taken care of upset him. This is as far removed as it’s possible to imagine Jimmy McGill being from Saul Goodman(*), who in his very first appearance was advising Walter White to murder an underling.
(*) What a three-episode stretch this has been for Bob Odenkirk, from the manic Saul Goodman vitriol of “JMM” to the raw physicality of “Bagman” to the intense vulnerability of Jimmy throughout this one. He’s always great in this role, but the versatility required to play these three very different iterations of what is still clearly the same character is impressive even by the standards he’s set in previous seasons. I’d love to see Saul have a huge night at this year’s Emmys (even if they wind up being held virtually), but Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in particular really ought to be the winners in their categories.
Mike assures Jimmy that he will move past this trauma in time, and with Lalo heading toward a permanent end, it seems to Jimmy for a moment that he has a chance to return his world to something resembling normal. But some combination of fate, Kim, and Lalo have other plans for him. Like Mike says, once you go down the road, you’re on that road, no matter how hard you try to turn off it.
Lalo again proves much smarter than anyone wants him to be, realizing that he and Nacho didn’t pass Jimmy’s broken-down car on the drive down to the well to meet the Cousins. He orders Nacho to take him north in search of the thing, and is observant enough to notice the tracks Mike and Jimmy left when they pushed it into the ravine. Lalo seems damn near superhuman in this sequence, even making a heroically casual leap from the ravine’s edge onto the overturned vehicle below. In that moment, I couldn’t help wishing that we had gotten to see this guy face Saul Goodman’s most infamous client, because it’s like he has all the most dangerous qualities of Walt’s enemies — the physical threat of Tuco or the Cousins, plus a perceptiveness and grasp of strategy that can be Fring-esque, without being as blinded by revenge or as Gus or Hector can be — wrapped in one grinning, tenacious package. That won’t come to pass, though it’s possible he is still alive during the events of Breaking Bad. (Saul initially thinks that Lalo sent Walt and Jesse after him, though he could very well be out of the loop on all things cartel by then.)
Instead, we get something even more marvelous, and largely unexpected: Lalo getting verbally pantsed by our heroine, our adored, great Kim Wexler.
When Jimmy finds out that Kim has quit her job, he assumes she’s overreacting to his near-death experience. His desert adventure did influence her decision, but not in the way he thinks. While she’s alarmed by the possibility of him dying out there (and finally lets herself cry when he calls to say he’s alive), it feels more like she could have taken a day and a half off from work for a more mundane reason and still felt the same lack of connection and interest upon returning. She doesn’t want to be this person anymore, and hasn’t for most of this season. The gamesmanship about Everett Acker’s house was as much Kim subconsciously trying to escape a job she had grown to hate as it was her trying to do right by this cranky old man.
That said, Jimmy’s peril, and the ensuing lies he tells her about it, puts her on an emotional journey that perhaps helps ready her for Lalo’s arrival at the apartment door. She knows Jimmy is lying to her about what really happened, and even confronts him about it. But news that Lalo met his wife rightly terrifies Jimmy and makes him keep lying, even when she assures him she won’t judge him. At another point in their relationship, this would drive a wedge between them, but the fight that led to her marriage proposal fundamentally changed — or maybe just broke — something in Kim. Now, she just wants Jimmy, and will keep making concessions to allow the relationship to continue. Even knowing that someone shot at him, and that he won’t tell her about it, seems like something she quickly learns to compartmentalize. When they finally fight in their apartment, it’s not over what happened in the desert, but about Jimmy’s response to her leaving the firm.
They don’t get to take that argument to its conclusion, though, because suddenly Mike is making a frantic call to Jimmy, and Lalo is standing in their doorway, as unnervingly relaxed and chipper as usual. (“Hey, guys!” he declares, as if he came over for a Trading Spaces marathon with chips and dip.) They have no choice but to let him in, and as he crosses the threshold, Kim unequivocally passes over into the world that’s home to Mike, Gus, the Cousins, and, eventually, Heisenberg.
Between the argument about the law firm and Lalo’s pop-in, the apartment sequence runs about 16 minutes. That’s an eternity for a single television scene, even a bifurcated one like this. (The episode’s other acts are deliberately shorter to allow this one to run uninterrupted for those watching live.) On the one hand, it feels endless, because Lalo as usual is a dog with a bone, and keeps making Jimmy tell the story again and again, teasing out new details each time even as he doesn’t believe his attorney. The longer it goes, the tenser everything feels, as does the sheer wrongness of Kim being present for it.
But on the other hand, the sequence — like every other scene of this episode, written and directed by BB/BCS vet Thomas Schnauz — somehow also seems to fly by, because it’s so exciting and sharp. Soon, we are cutting between the apartment itself and the view through Mike’s sniper scope on the roof of another building in the development. Before Mike has to decide whether to take the shot, then deal with the messy clean-up such an act would entail, Kim literally steps in his path and saves the goddamn day, scolding Lalo as if he were just another annoying, mercurial client like Kevin from Mesa Verde. She raises reasonable doubt about the bullet holes by ascribing them to local vandals, then points out how shaky Lalo’s operation must be if he has to trust Saul Goodman with transporting this amount of money. She makes this big, scary man briefly feel very small.
“If you don’t trust your men with your money,” she tells him, summing up the simple but firm closing argument, “you have bigger problems than if you trust Saul Goodman.” Then she advises him, “Jesus, get your shit together!” Whether or not Lalo believes Jimmy, Kim successfully refocuses his anger towards a target south of the border. He leaves, allowing her, Jimmy, and Mike to exhale, even though none are particularly at ease with what just happened — and what almost happened next.
It’s a knockout performance (by both Kim and Rhea Seehorn), and one suggesting Kim could do just fine working on Jimmy’s side of the street if she wanted to. Earlier, Jimmy had admonished her for visiting Lalo: “You don’t see Lalo. I see Lalo, OK? I’m in the game. You’re not in the game.” We don’t want her in the game, because we know how the game ends for everybody in this world, Jimmy/Saul/Gene included. But protective as I am of Kim, that amazing scene had me hoping she keeps playing for a while.
Some other thoughts:
* Continuing our ongoing discussion of exactly what Saul knew about the Gus Fring operation prior to telling Walt, “I know a guy who knows a guy who… knows another guy,” here we see him ride in an SUV with both Victor and Tyrese. We’re nearing the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Saul really knew Gus the whole time, and also knew that Mike was really Gus’ employee, and that the bulk of his relationship with Walt and Jesse (after the fortuitousness of Walt hiring him to represent Badger) was all a case of Gus playing puppeteer.
* If you listen carefully to the movie Jimmy attempts to watch with Kim, it’s the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell/Howard Hawks classic His Girl Friday, which is about a woman who keeps returning to a relationship she knows is deeply unhealthy for her, with a man whose charm and wild professional lifestyle she ultimately can’t resist. And now I would very much enjoy seeing a version starring Odenkirk and Seehorn as Walter and Hildy. Or, I would if we weren’t already getting it.
* On her way out of the S&C offices, Kim makes sure to grab the fancy tequila bottle from the time she and Jimmy scammed Ken Wins into paying for it — the symbol of the attraction Kim can’t quite shed to the criminal life.
* A stuntman did the jump onto the Suzuki Esteem, even though Tony Dalton kept asking if he could. He has experience with crazy stunts, having spent some time earlier in his career as co-host of a Jackass-style Mexican show called No Te Equivoques. Here’s a young Lalo being a reckless idiot while bubble wrapped. Enjoy.
* Lalo tells Hector that Tuco will be a free man again in 11 months. Tuco’s first appearance on Breaking Bad doesn’t say how long it’s been since he got out of prison (which is where Skinny Pete met him), but it’s June 2004 on Saul right now, and Breaking Bad starts in September 2008. So either Tuco was out much longer than it seemed in “Crazy Handful of Nothin'” (where, from Jesse’s perspective, he has only just taken over distribution from the late Krazy-8), or he may have some additional incarceration in his future. But Lalo’s suggestion that someone needs to keep an eye on Tuco provides us with a possible explanation for why Hector is living in squalor with Tuco circa BB Season Two rather than staying in the nursing home. Depending on what happens to Nacho, Hector may be the only trusted person left in the crew by the time Tuco gets paroled.
* Finally, when Kim hands over her company car keys to her baffled assistant Marcie, that leaves both spouses temporarily vehicle-free.