A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I shrink wrap your cash…
“Perhaps in the future, you will consider working for me.” –Gus
“Could be. That’d depend on the work.” –Mike
As an aside in last week’s review, I wondered why Mike is still working as Saul Goodman’s investigator six years from now when he has a very busy, lucrative, and low-profile job as Gus Fring’s number two man. Would Jimmy/Saul do him such an important favor that Mike would feel indebted to him for years? Would Gus encourage him to maintain the relationship so Mike could be better plugged into what’s happening in Albuquerque’s criminal underbelly? Would Mike need some kind of front job to disguise some of his income? Or does Mike Ehrmantraut, deep down in places he would never, ever admit to, like this guy enough that he’d look for excuses to hang out with him?
Many of those theories are improbable — Mike has a police pension to live on and squirrels his Gus money away for Kaylee, and he’s not a good enough actor to hide his feelings about Jimmy — but “Sabrosito” offers us a more plausible theory:
Mike never really wanted to work for Gus, took the job because the money was just too good, but liked having an opportunity to not feel like a drug kingpin’s enforcer.
We figure this out over the course of a fascinatingly bifurcated episode. For much of its run, Saul has been split into the Jimmy show and the Mike show, with occasional intersections. With “Sabrosito,” it’s the Gus show and the Jimmy show, and there’s barely any cutting back and forth: a half hour with Gus, then a half hour with Jimmy, with Mike popping up in both halves. (There is one Gus/Mike scene in the second half, but it’s brief.) He’s not thrilled to be involved with either man — he refuses to accept the cash(*) that Gus wants to pay him for the sneaker stunt, and is only working for Jimmy again as a quid pro quo for Jimmy doing recon at Los Pollos Hermanos (and barely speaks to him at all while focusing on his diner breakfast) — but going undercover as a handyman at Chuck’s house at least felt closer to policework than when he was robbing drug shipments and playing desert sniper. Plus, the specific undercover role had a bonus: “Nice to fix something, for once.”
(*) It’s a testament to the show’s commitment to detail that, following the flashback of Hector and Juan Bolsa visiting Don Eladio, I began noting how money was packaged throughout the rest of the episode, from the paper bag Victor gives Mike to the check Jimmy has to write covering the cost of both the door and the cassette tape.
Mike is extremely wary of going into business with Gus Fring, and he’s right to, given what we know about how all of this ends for him. But it’s not just about being conservative and safe, but about the fact that, even as someone who went vigilante to kill a pair of dirty cops, he’s still the man who learned a hard lesson about half measures, and still considers himself separate from these drug dealers for whom he does occasional work. That separation is easier when you’re a freelance bodyguard for an amateur like Daniel Wormald, harder when an obvious professional like Gus is trying to bring you into the fold. When Mike spends an evening with Stacey and Kaylee — where he declines their offer of ice cream, no less — even Stacey can see that something is wearing on him. His involvement with Nacho put his family in danger, got a civilian killed, and put him into contact with heavyweights like Hector and Gus. This isn’t the life he seems to want, even if he’s so obviously good at it that the careful Gus would offer him a job after only two meetings.
Watching “Sabrosito” was the first time Mike’s side job as Saul’s investigator started to make sense. This is a situation where the writers are having to reconcile decisions they made long ago without realizing what would happen down the line: Mike only exists in the first place because Bob Odenkirk was busy guest starring on How I Met Your Mother when the Breaking Bad season two finale was being filmed, and somebody had to help Jesse with the immediate aftermath of Jane’s death, and it wasn’t until later that Gilligan and company decided that Mike was also working for (and gave his ultimately loyalty to) Gus. There could still be a more explicit plot explanation for that down the road, whether one of the theories listed above or something none of us has guessed, but if it turns out to be something as simple as Mike needing periodic reminders of what it feels like to not be in the drug game, that fits very well with the man we’ve come to know.
Having Mike appear in both halves of the episode did a better job of unifying the two worlds of Saul even as the episode was so blatantly cleaved down the middle. The Gus half felt more or less like the show that many Breaking Bad die-hards seemed to prefer to a Saul Goodman spinoff when this was first announced: a more straightforward prequel, set firmly in the drug game, with lots of criminal intrigue, a plethora of Walter White villains and henchmen, and a more direct link to the rise and fall of Heisenberg. It’s certainly fun to see Don Eladio and Juan Bolsa again, to see Gus trying to outplay a man like Hector who respects none of the rules of the game, and to see Gus, like Walt, have to protect his secret identity through the elaborate and very sincere-sounding lie he tells his employees after Hector and his men invaded the restaurant the day before.
I would watch The Chicken Man Cometh if there was a full-time version of it, even if just for the telling little moments like Gus tossing the tin foil ball into the trash can. It’s a show-off move he would never even consider if anyone else were around to see it, because it flies against both of his assumed identities as the impeccable and polite restaurateur, and as the colder druglord. That one move suggests that the “real” Gus is someone else entirely, who has been hidden entirely from view of the world because it would be bad for both businesses. I would love to see that unpacked in more detail.
And yet even with all of that, I have to admit to being more excited when Kim popped up midway through, working the phones again as she tried to find the repair company Chuck had contracted to fix the door. That’s how hard I’ve fallen for Jimmy McGill and his world(*). There’s less potential for explosions or magic bullets or decapitated heads on tortoises, but there’s so much life in Jimmy and Kim’s relationship — and the way that they’re essentially playing Viktor and Giselle as they prepare to undo Chuck’s hustle with one of their own — so much electricity in every encounter between the brothers (I’m amazed Jimmy, even playing a role as part of whatever their sting is, didn’t start throwing things at Chuck after he kept bringing up the cassette tape), and so much more room for the series to maneuver overall, because it’s less bound by things we know from Breaking Bad. When Jimmy and Kim marched out of the courthouse together, matching each other stride for stride with the confidence of having successfully baited a hook with Chuck, I felt even more excited than I did when Gus appeared at the edge of the frame while Jimmy was at Los Pollos Hermanos.
(*) Another sign: my first instinct when writing about the character during the Breaking Bad years is to refer to him as “Jimmy.”
It’s easy to understand why Mike doesn’t like Jimmy McGill. But it’s also becoming easier and easier to understand why he might want to keep a toe in this guy’s world even as he takes a different job for Gus. Mike’s a grump, but even he has to see at least some of the appeal we can in being on Jimmy’s side of things.
Some other thoughts:
* So, theories on what exactly Kim and Jimmy’s plan is? The photos Mike took would point to them challenging his competency — perhaps threatening to take away his ability to practice law at the same time he’s doing it to Jimmy — but Kim pushing Chuck to admit there’s more than one tape (and, in fact, that Jimmy destroyed the duplicate) suggests it’s more complicated than that.
* The episode-opening scene brings Don Eladio, Hector, and Juan Bolsa together for the first time since we saw them in the flashback from “Hermanos” where Hector executed Max. Thomas Schnauz (for the first time directing an episode of either series where he didn’t write the script) frames a lot of moments to evoke shots from “Hermanos,” and note that Hector is still convinced that Gus and Max were lovers (Giancarlo Esposito isn’t quite as convinced), dismissively referring to Los Pollos Hermanos as “The Butt Brothers.”
* The fire station Gus is visiting (akin to his glad-handing of the DEA and local law-enforcement on Breaking Bad) is the same one where Walt will leave baby Holly at the end of “Ozymandias.”
* Mike finally meets the other McGill brother, albeit in a circumstance where neither man can take each other’s true measure. I suspect Chuck’s snobbishness would put Mike off in time, though. Now what I’m really hoping for is a meeting between Mike and Kim, because I think he would really like her, given that they share a preference to not say any more than is necessary in a given conversation.
* The show has a strange situation with Michael Mando: He’s a cast regular from the start of the series who was only in four episodes in season one, in seven episodes of season two, but often very briefly, and only makes his first appearance of this season — with only one line of dialogue — in the fourth episode. The producers clearly like Mando, have said they had bigger plans for him in the first season — back when Jimmy was going to become Saul far more quickly — and surely need him around for the future, given that Saul references him (using his given name of Ignacio) in his first Breaking Bad appearance. But it’s still odd to have a cast regular who appears as infrequently as Mando generally has.
* Ximenez, the ice cream driver Hector introduces to Don Eladio, will later be executed for failing to stop Mike from robbing a shipment late in season two.
* Yes, Mike — like Liam Neeson in Taken — has a certain set of skills, but it’s nice to see that he has to read up on them from time to time, like him studying Handyman magazine after doing the repair job on Chuck’s door.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org