A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I have two bags of chips for lunch…
“You know, Jimmy has a good heart.” –Chuck
Sometimes, Breaking Bad or Saul teasers reveal what they’re about before the opening credits roll. Others are more abstract, only coming into clear focus later on. “Sunk Cost” begins with one of the latter type, a series of lingering images at a desert road intersection south of the border, where a pair of badly faded old sneakers hangs from a cable, swinging idly above a bullet-riddled Stop/Alto sign, a Los Pollos Hermanos cargo truck passing through right before the sneakers’ laces finally fall apart after a long period of suffering friction and sun damage, sending the shoes floating through the air like Walter White’s khakis. The images are pretty, but in the moment, it makes no more sense than, say, the BB episode that opened with Jesse’s car bouncing up and down outside of Tuco’s hideout, or the one where we saw poor Drew Sharp collecting spiders in the desert.
By episode’s end, the image is more or less complete. The sneakers were thrown up there by Mike(*) as part of a convoluted but smart plan (more on that in a bit) to get one of Hector Salamanca’s trucks stopped at the border, and have simply hung there ever since, long enough for that particular drug route to be taken over by Mike’s new enemy-of-his-enemy Gus Fring. I’m not an expert on how long it would take the sun to inflict that much damage to the shoes, and there’s also the matter of the bullet holes in the Alto sign to be dealt with, but we know that Gus’s empire is still in business around six years from the events of this episode, and we know how the Gus/Hector rivalry ends (and then ends again), if not all of the steps on the way there. The transition from one of Hector’s ice cream trucks to Gus’s chicken trucks is happening, and now we’re getting to watch exactly how that happened.
(*) I asked Saul producer Gennifer Hutchison, who wrote “Sunk Costs,” if this was another roof pizza situation, where Jonathan Banks was able to make that throw on his own. She said this was much more difficult than Bryan Cranston hurling the pizza at the garage, and that the final scene is a mix of Banks in motion, stunt work, and special effects. “Those wires are high!” she says.
With the Mike/Gus half of the show, we have pretty much the entire big picture. All that’s left are the individual details, like when and how Hector winds up in a wheelchair (a chair not much fancier than the one we see in the free clinic where Mike procures the “yea big” package of drugs he needs to pull off the sneaker stunt) and Mike’s rise from Fring organization outsider to Gus’s number two man(*) above the likes of Victor and Tyrus. And it’s a lot of fun to watch, from the way director John Shiban shoots the first meeting between Mike and Gus with as much majesty as the desert outside Albuquerque has to offer, to the way Jonathan Banks keeps being able to deliver entire monologues’ worth of emotional information in the way he flexes his jaw — first when he realizes that Gus has him boxed in on the matter of Hector, then after he has made the tricky shot necessary for the sneaker plan to work. And the sneaker scene isn’t quite as elongated as some of the other Mike process sequences from this season, but it’s a darned clever plan, nonetheless, with Mike’s shots in the air designed to first spook Hector’s men, then convince them they are from nearby hunters, so they won’t even notice the sound when he finally shoots at the sneakers, contaminating the truck enough that the Customs dogs will be alerted.
(*) It occurs to me we’ll also eventually need an explanation for why Mike continues to work as Saul’s investigator, given his discomfort around the man and his busy, high-paying job with Gus. Will Jimmy/Saul do Mike such a great service that he’ll feel indebted to him for years? Will he do it just as a way to maintain the pretense of independence from Gus?
Where the series has more narrative wiggle room — and where, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s at its most dramatically interesting at the moment (the Mike show is fun, but not particularly deep of late) — is in what happens to Jimmy between now and when Walt and Jesse walk into his office. We know a lot, including the fact that Chuck won’t be successful in getting him disbarred, because Jimmy-as-Saul is still practicing law in Albuquerque in incredibly public fashion years after the events of this episode, but there are many ways to get there, and a lot of them involve the state of his relationships with both Chuck and Kim.
I find more ambiguity in Chuck’s behavior than a lot of Saul fans, because he’s ultimately right about what Jimmy will do with a law degree, even if Chuck’s own actions help push him there. But his first scene in this episode is about as odious as he’s ever been: so secure in his victory over Jimmy that he can afford to play the role of the protective older brother, delivering one patronizing theory after another about how Jimmy is much better off this way. He’s feeling his oats so much, in fact, that he doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s standing out in the harsh New Mexico sunlight, with no space blanket to protect him (he’s not even wearing his suit with the space blanket lining), without ill effects of any kind(*), even as Jimmy explains what will happen the next time he has an attack, given their estrangement. For a moment in his conversation with the new prosecutor, it seems Chuck might be softening towards his brother, but it’s all just part of the whole scam, as he nudges her in a direction that would keep Jimmy from serving any prison time, but surely result in his disbarment.
(*) Michael McKean doesn’t like to think about the true nature of Chuck’s condition, because he has to play it like he believes it’s real, but it’s hard not to notice that Chuck’s attacks are often at their worst when he’s most agitated about Jimmy’s behavior and how it reflects back on him. Having secured a seemingly foolproof win, the sun’s rays can do nothing to him.
It’s a chastened Jimmy who sits on the curb, smoking an ancient cigarette while waiting for the police to come; who tells Chuck how he’ll die, not out of spite, but out of sadness that their rift has led to this point, because despite it all, he still cares for his brother far more deeply than Chuck ares for him; who doesn’t want Kim representing him at his arraignment and seems embarrassed to talk to her about it at all. Gone, for the moment, is Gimme Jimmy the showman, or Slippin’ Jimmy the con artist, because he knows how badly he blew this, and how much it can hurt not only himself but the woman he cares about, and Bob Odenkirk does some wonderfully small, calibrated work as Jimmy tries to make this right without troubling anyone further. Even the apologetic speech he gives Kim seems on paper like the kind he’s delivered many times over the years — usually to Chuck, I suspect — but his heart’s not really in it. That Kim is so cool to him — not cruel, but not making any effort at all to engage after being sent away during the arraignment — for most of the episode only seems to increase Jimmy’s mortification.
Kim should, by this point, know better when it comes to Jimmy, but she cares about him too much — and still has a weakness for his shenanigans, as evidenced by the return of their Viktor and Giselle pseudonyms in the closing scene — to let him flail about on his own, even if that’s what he wants. In the episode’s closing scene, she cites the eponymous fallacy of sunk costs, where you keep pouring more and more resources into a mistake rather than admitting failure and moving on(*). But that’s just her covering for her genuine and inescapable feelings for her boyfriend and business semi-partner, and Rhea Seehorn and Odenkirk’s chemistry was particularly palpable in that tender moment.
(*) I’ve best heard it used in sports contexts, where teams are better off benching or outright releasing expensive free agent disappointments, rather than continuing to run them out there because of the size of their contracts. As a Royals fan, Kim would be very familiar with the fallacy, and was likely cursing the name of Storm Davis in her head when she cited it.
That scene concludes with one of the most distinct, lovely, and perhaps very telling images of the entire series so far, as the two amigos appear as only silhouettes up against the glass blocks outside Kim’s office, holding hands in a way that makes their bodies appear to be spelling the letter M. Saul doesn’t do images like that by accident, and that happens to be the first letter of the McGill family name — a name we know our main character will be abandoning sooner or later.
Eventually, we’ll know exactly how Mike helped Gus expand his empire to consume Hector’s, and we’ll see the moment when Saul Goodman leaves his old identity behind. But it’s fun, and fascinating, watching the journey in between.
Some other thoughts:
* Last week’s episode kept Giancarlo Esposito out of the opening credits for the benefit of anyone who hadn’t seen any of the marketing about Gus joining the show. Now that everyone knows he’s back, he gets the “With” penultimate credit slot, surely because Michael McKean’s representatives already secured him the “And” closing slot when the show began.
* He appears only on the edge of frame, slightly out of focus, as the driver of one of the cars for the meet with Mike, but that’s Ray Campbell reprising his Breaking Bad role as Tyrus. Tyrus first appeared pretty late in the Gus era of the parent show, popping up only after Gus killed Victor, but for him to take on so important a role in the operation, he couldn’t have been a newcomer to Gus and Mike, even if he was to the audience.
* Notable songs this week: Little Richard’s “Hurry Sundown” as Jimmy is brought into the jail to be processed, and “Alfonso Muskedunder” by Todd Terje over that terrific little montage of Kim’s morning routine transforming her from groggy mess to perfectly put-together legal warrior.
* As if we didn’t need enough reasons to hate Chuck, he fires Ernie even though Ernie did exactly what he needed him to do for the hustle to work. Yes, on paper Ernie’s loyalties being to Jimmy creates trust issues for Chuck, but HHM is a really big firm; assign the poor guy elsewhere and give him a pass as thanks for the huge favor he unwittingly did you.
* When he asks her to drive him to the car that got left behind at Chuck’s after his arrest, Jimmy assures a worried Francesca it’s not always like this at the office. By the time of Breaking Bad, she’ll be so used to craziness and extra-legal shenanigans that she’ll have no problem at all extorting Walter White for $25,000 even as Saul has bolted to hide out the Walt/Gus war.
* Peter Diseth makes his first appearance since midway through season two as Jimmy’s forlorn counterpart in the DA’s office, Bill Oakley, who here is easily tempted by the bait of Jimmy’s more expensive lunch, but has nothing to offer him in terms of a deal because the case has been assigned to a prosecutor from nearby Belen, Kyra Hay, played by Vice Principals co-star Kimberly Hebert Gregory (fresh off her recent stint on Brooklyn Nine-Nine).
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org