A review of tonight's Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I tune into Diagnosis: Murder sometime this morning between 11:18 and 11:35…
“But you're the one who made him this way.” -Kim
Walter White has yet to appear on Better Call Saul, and the most the show would likely be able to do with him is a brief (and likely more distracting than it's worth) cameo where one of the show's supporting characters bumps into an aggrieved local high school science teacher. But if Walt's doesn't particularly belong on this show, his spirit very much hangs over it – not only because we know that Jimmy and Mike are both doomed to get tangled up in his business, but because we keep seeing them make mistakes we know all too well from our days watching Breaking Bad.
This is particularly apparent in season 2's penultimate chapter, “Nailed,” where Jimmy and Mike stage crimes that each man believes will bring harm only to the guilty, but that instead blow back and do grave harm – definitely fatal in one case (the good Samaritan who gets killed helping the trucker Mike robbed), possibly fatal in another (Chuck taking a very bad blow to the head while collapsing in the copy shop), and emotionally brutal to a third (Kim discovering what Jimmy did to steal Mesa Verde back for her) – to three innocents. Walt's criminal turn was predicated on the idea that he could do it without hurting anyone (other than the end users of his product, and he could rationalize them away as lost causes who would otherwise just buy from someone else), but it didn't take long for his naivete to drown in the blood of his many victims. Here, two of his future partners learn the same nauseating lesson.
Let's start with Mike, the truck, and the dead Samaritan. For much of this episode, this is peak Ehrmantraut: ruthlessly efficient as he takes down the Salamanca truck all by his lonesome, in a way that's stunning to Nacho but makes perfect sense to those of us who know him better. The cash is nice – less for him than for Kaylee and Stacey – but it's clear by the end that his main goal was to hurt the man who would dare to threaten his beloved granddaughter, not only by stealing a quarter million from him, but by putting law-enforcement on to the whole operation. But just as refusing to assassinate Tuco had the unintended consequence of bringing the full weight of House Salamanca down on him, Mike's reluctance to kill the truck driver results in a civilian's death instead. It doesn't matter that we never so much as see this person; Mike's response to learning the fatal consequence of another half-measure is all we need for it to hit incredibly hard.
We'll find out next week just how bad Chuck's injury is, especially since no one at the copy shop seems in a rush to call 911 (and Jimmy can't do it from his cell phone or risk confirming Chuck's suspicions about his illegal Mesa Verde shenanigans). But even if the head wound is less serious than it seemed – that was a bad sound effect when his skull hit the edge of the table – there's still the matter of Chuck having a very public meltdown in front of both witnesses and a co-worker, after already having melted down in front of the regulatory commission, both of which were entirely Jimmy's fault. Chuck has his ego, and will go to extremes to prove that he's right… but he was 100% right at the copy shop, and the only reason he was wrong in front of Paige and the commission was because Jimmy had phonied up the documents while Chuck was too ill to notice. At a minimum, I could see this ending in a long, involuntary hospital stay. And if that sound effect wasn't misleading? Then that'll be two family members Jimmy may have hustled into an early grave. As much as the show has successfully turned our sympathies against Chuck this season – for reasons articulated very well by Kim during the argument at his house – both of those scenes were stomach-churning, because our hero had put his mentally ill brother in a position to at least be embarrassed in public, if not worse. And if Chuck dies because Jimmy goaded him into this tantrum – and, worse, didn't call for help to stay out of trouble? Well, remember that time Walter White went to wake up Jesse and inadvertently rolled Jane onto her back?
As for Kim, she's physically okay, but you can see none of this is sitting well with her. She played ignorant and loyal in the confrontation with Chuck – and it's a credit to Rhea Seehorn's continued spectacular work this season that you could tell she believed every word Chuck was saying even as she was ripping them all to shreds – to keep Jimmy from going to jail, but she's not happy about getting the business back this way, nor about having her career and life tied to someone who keeps casually breaking the law even as he promises her that he won't. At first it seemed like Jimmy was getting off lightly with that punch in the arm, but her warning to him about Chuck was clearly delivered out of a desire to keep Jimmy from sleeping soundly after all the grief he'd put her through.
But first by covering for Jimmy, then fanning the flames of his own paranoia, Kim inadvertently put him in a position to drive Chuck past the boiling point. If she connects all the dots, regardless of Chuck's condition next week, will Jimmy and Kim's relationship be one more unintended casualty from this week's crimes?
It shouldn't be surprising at this point that this show, from these creators, can build so slowly and carefully towards the kinds of devastating payoffs that we got here in “Nailed.” But because it's so much fun to watch both Jimmy and Mike do what they do best, it can still sneak up on me how many bad things can happen when they're operating at peak capacity.
Not unlike their future collaborator.
Some other thoughts:
* While Mike is watching the ice cream joint, he sees Hector so full of rage that he seems on the verge of having a stroke. He takes a pill to calm the symptoms, but given what we know of Tio Hector's future, an incident is coming where his meds can't help (or perhaps won't be available.)
* We've now got snippets of two different TV ads for Jimmy, or possibly elements of one big spot. Either way, it's hitting on the kind of patriotic themes that were a Saul Goodman hallmark. As of now, he's still targeting senior citizens, so it may not be that big a deal if criminal attorney Saul Goodman has the same advertising style – and face – as eldercare attorney Jimmy McGill. But I do wonder if the name change might be coming a whole lot sooner than expected.
* Where Peter Gould got to write and direct last season's finale, this year it's Vince Gilligan's turn to do both (co-writing it with Heather Marion), which put Gould in the penultimate spot. Like most of the longtime Breaking Bad writers who eventually got chances to direct, Gould has turned out to have a knack for this, not only getting the usual great performances from everyone, but really driving home the disorienting (if psychosomatic) nature of Chuck's condition when it's flaring up, and setting up several gorgeous shots, including Jimmy and his film crew crossing the street single-file like The Beatles on the Abbey Road cover, or Mike in his car while the windshield reflects the latticework of the roof in a way that makes it look like he's behind bars for getting a civilian killed.
* “Sometimes, I go number two and I don't flush.” If you don't believe him, just go ask Clifford Main!
* At the start of the season, I asked Gould if there was going to be some kind of hidden pattern to the episode titles, since they weren't mostly ending in O like in season 1. He declined to comment if there were any secret clues like in Breaking Bad season 2. Now that we know all the titles (the finale is called “Klick”), I'm not seeing any kind of pattern, and most of them very directly refer to something from that episode (“Switch” to the mysterious switch in Jimmy's office, “Bali Ha'i” to Jimmy's answering machine serenade of Kim, “Cobbler” to… well, you know. But if someone wants to set up a conspiracy board to figure out a deeper meaning, go for it.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org