A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Hit and Run,” coming up just as soon as I promise that I won’t move the toilet…
“You think we’re wicked?” —Kim
More than Gus Fring’s arrival, more than the finally-confirmed plan to have Walt and Jesse appear in this final season, there is one intersection between the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul stories that I’ve been eagerly anticipating over all others, and we finally got it here in “Hit and Run.”
I refer, of course, to our glimpse of the first meeting between Jimmy and Spooge.
Wait, what? No. Amusing as it is to see Spooge — who robbed Jesse in Breaking Bad Season Two, then was part of Jesse’s all-day ordeal in that show’s classic episode “Peekaboo” — in slightly better days, the meeting to which I am referring is, of course, Kim Wexler and Mike Ehrmantraut.
Rhea Seehorn and Jonathan Banks have worked near one another for years — she has talked about how helpful she finds it simply to watch him act on days when she’s not filming Kim material — and they have an endearingly gruff dynamic whenever they appear together for any kind of BCS cast Q&A, but they had never shared a scene together before this episode. It’s been a combination that was easy to get excited about for a couple of reasons. The first is that, even more than Kim wandering into a police interrogation room to talk to Lalo, this would permanently glue the series’ two fractured halves back together, because Mike is an important part of Jimmy’s future, whereas Lalo is almost certainly out of the picture by the time Walt and Jesse do their first cook together. The second is that Kim and Mike, like Nacho and Mike, were so obviously kindred spirits that it was a shame they could never hang out together. Both are quietly confident and ultracompetent. It’s not hard to imagine a lower-stakes sitcom spinoff of the show that’s just them meeting for drinks at the El Camino every night to swap stories about Jimmy, for Mike to complain about Gus wanting his mercenaries to also be up to Pollos Hermanos standards, etc.
The two do not exactly get to shoot the breeze here. As is always the case these days when Mike reaches across the dividing line between cartel world and lawyer world, it is an emergency. Lalo is in the wind — not dead, as Kim believed as recently as last week — and the cars that have been following Kim are not from the Salamancas, but from the Fring organization. It is Mike’s guys keeping tabs on anyone Lalo might try to contact as the next phase of his war against the Chicken Man. And by confronting two of said guys, Kim has messed everything up, and placed herself and her husband in greater danger. It is a scene (written, like the rest of the episode, by Ann Cherkis) wracked with tension — look at how Kim has started to shake by the time Mike leaves the restaurant — and yet also understated and lovely in the way you would hope for these two when they finally got to speak(*). Mike is plain-spoken and circumspect like always, but with the gentle tone he saves for people who did not enter this world by choice. When, for instance, Kim oversteps by asking about his employer, he quietly reminds her, “I said I would answer anything I can.” It is all that needs to be said, especially to a smart cookie like Kim Wexler, esq. And when she understandably wonders why Mike has come to her, rather than to the man with whom he has worked off and on for years, he speaks for the Saul fan base and pays her the ultimate Mike compliment: “Because I think you’re made of sterner stuff.”
(*) As an added bonus — especially if, again, you are aware of how much affection exists between the actors in real life — Seehorn got to direct the episode containing this scene. Between Breaking Bad and this show, Vince Gilligan has built a remarkable school of sorts for rookie directors: Both tonally and visually, this one felt and looked very much like an episode helmed by a Saul vet, rather than by someone whose only previous directorial credit on IMDb is a short film called How Not to Buy a Couch.
Perhaps the most striking part of the conversation comes right at the end, when Kim realizes that this is not the first time they’ve met, even if it’s the first such meeting we are privileged to witness. She remembers his stint working in the courthouse parking lot, and says, “You’re the attendant.”
“I was,” Mike replies. Again, it is the minimal number of words necessary to get the point across. It is startling for Kim to realize that this powerful and dangerous man in front of her was once an innocuous guy she said brief hellos to every day on her way into court. But then, the friendly attorney whom the attendant likely nodded back at is not really the person standing in front of Mike Ehrmantraut, fixer for a would-be kingpin. That Kim was a grinder who was perfectly content to work within the larger machine of HHM, who assumed she would spend her career doing corporate banking law, and who certainly wouldn’t be up to half the shady stuff she has been masterminding over these last few seasons.
What was it that Mike’s future business partner said to his chemistry class? Oh, that’s right: “Growth, decay, transformation! It’s fascinating, really.”
Have Kim and Mike transformed from the people introduced in the Saul series premiere? Absolutely. But has it been growth, decay, or some combination of the two? Certainly, both players wield far more power than they did at the start, but that power has come at some cost. Mike has gotten good people killed, and sometimes committed the deed himself. Kim has moved away from everything she seemed to believe about the importance of following the rules. Yes, she can verbally outmaneuver a man like Lalo Salamanca, but how did she get to the point where such a thing would even be necessary?
Kim recognizing Mike as the parking attendant is also notable because of what the episode has to say about the Jimmy McGill from that era versus the ever-so-increasingly Saul Goodman we are watching now. After declining Suzanne Ericsen’s offer to rat on Lalo, Jimmy returns to the courthouse to find that now he is being treated like a rat. He once had the whole building wired, making up in sheer interpersonal skill what he lacked in legal acumen compared to people like Kim or his big brother. Many scenes this week echo things we saw Jimmy doing in that very first episode: trying to charm the court clerk into rescheduling a hearing, or attempting to schmooze with Bill Oakley at the vending machine. But the clerk, Bill, the security guards, and everyone else look at Jimmy with utter contempt. Whatever chicanery he got up to in previous seasons, he was still lovable ol’ Jimmy, who colored outside the lines but was at least attempting to recreate the basic image. You might roll your eyes at him, might scold him, might even complain to a judge or the bar about his behavior, but ultimately, you would grab a beer with him at the end of a long day. That’s just Jimmy, you know? Now, though, he has a different name and has done (to borrow Kim’s phrasing) something unforgivable in brazenly helping a monster like Lalo escape custody. He is a pariah to all the people whose affection and respect he sought for so long.
But when life gives him lemons, Saul Goodman serves cucumber water. Word about the Lalo stunt has spread not only among the courthouse staff, but criminals like Spooge. If Jimmy could get a Salamanca out of jail, imagine what he might be able to do for people much lower on the most wanted list? He is so in demand, so quickly, that his new would-be client base takes up most of the nail salon, much to the displeasure of Mrs. Nguyen. It is, in fact, the last straw for Jimmy’s landlady, who kicks him out of the back office he’s used off and on throughout the series. But this only provides the impetus for Jimmy to finally track down that potential “cathedral of justice” Kim talked about in the season premiere. And wouldn’t you know it, said cathedral happens to be located inside a very familiar-looking strip mall?
We are now getting very close to the Saul Goodman we know. He’s got the suits, he’s got the rep among Albuquerque’s hoodlum demographic, now he has the office. He still needs the slogan that gives this show its title, has to bring Francesca back into the fold, and get the Caddy with the “LWYRUP” vanity plates. (Oh, and Mike for some reason has to decide to moonlight as his investigator.) But Peter Gould and company have basically brought Jimmy up to speed on a professional level. Is he Saul Goodman spiritually, though? Even a couple of episodes ago, he seemed to be turning into the soft touch who wasn’t comfortable with Kim’s ruthless schemes. Here, however, he seems so caught up in the grifter fun-and-games with Howard — which includes Jimmy getting back into the custom-made Howard-style suit (and garish spray tan) he had made for the billboard stunt in Season One — that whatever qualms he had in “Carrot and Stick” seem like distant memories.
And he responds to the legal establishment’s rejection by acting like he never wanted to be part of their club to begin with, and basking in the warm, slightly sticky embrace of Spooge and friends. When he tells Kim about his reception at the courthouse and being evicted by Mrs. Nguyen, she assumes he has had a bad day. But to Jimmy (or Saul?), this was a great day. Jimmy wants to be loved, and can’t stop lashing back at those who would shun him; becoming the hero of Albuquerque’s criminal class is a convenient way to get both. He has become almost everything Chuck once feared he would be, though he does not quite seem like the kind of man who would casually suggest that Walt and Jesse have Badger killed to solve their problems. But it’s getting late early.
Whatever Kim and Mike have transformed into, there is no question that Jimmy is on the path to decay. He has come a long way from the guy who used to sleep at the nail salon, but not exactly in the way he might have liked. He doesn’t have a care in the world, while Kim is now the one looking over her shoulder, mindful of what Mike told her, and the mess they are all now in together.
Some other thoughts:
* Spooge is not the only Breaking Bad alum to resurface here. The latest stage of the Howard plan brings in Jesse’s old friend Wendy the sex worker, who goes for a ride in the Namaste Mobile with the disguised Jimmy so that it will look like Howard is tossing a prostitute out of his car in full view of Cliff Main. It all goes off perfectly — better than planned, in a way. Cliff is so impressed by Kim’s pitch for the pro bono defense firm — which she initially tells him about just as the pretense for their sidewalk cafe meeting — that he offers to open doors for her. She still needs Jimmy’s cut of the Sandpiper settlement to fund the operation, but perhaps she might have been able to pull off a version of her plan without needing to resort to ruining her old boss’s reputation?
* After last week’s extremely cartel-heavy episode, the pendulum here swings back almost entirely to legal world. Gus is hiding out in his civilian identity, though we see that he is so paranoid that he owns a second house in his neighborhood, with an underground tunnel connecting the two. 1213 Jefferson Street (where he will later host Walter White for a meal) is the front, but he conducts business out of the other one, while a middle-aged couple pose as its real owners, bicycling in unison through the neighborhood and behaving very judgmentally about their neighbors’ choices in house paint colors. With Nacho dead, Hector appeased, and Lalo still in the wind, there’s not much for Gus and Mike to do but wait and argue about whether two years as a McDonald’s short-order cook qualifies one to work for Los Pollos Hermanos.
* Finally, Michael Mando is still listed in the main cast credits. It’s possible we could see Nacho again in a flashback, or a dream, but this is fairly standard TV operating procedure for series regulars. It’s the same reason you always see Patrick Fabian’s name even in episodes that don’t feature Howard. (Or, for that matter, why Mando’s name was in every Season One episode, even though he was absent from a lot of them.)