Review: On ‘Better Call Saul,’ Mike and Kim struggle with half-measures

A review of tonight's Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I lay down my new Welcome mat…

“You knew what you wanted, but I got in the way.” -Kim

For the second week in a row, Jimmy disappears for long stretches of his own show. (Other than his performance of the episode's title song, “Bali Ha'i” from South Pacific, he doesn't appear at all between when he pulls out of the nail salon parking lot and when Kim calls him to announce she has a fish on the line.) And, for the second week in a row, the stories involving Kim and Mike are so compelling that the show does just fine leaving its leading man to suffer off-screen mortification at the hands of Erin.

For the second week in a row, the Mike subplot had me giddily renouncing all previous beliefs that Saul should take its damn time before introducing any more characters from Breaking Bad, this time with the return of Leonel and Marco Salamanca – aka “The Cousins” – as Hector's latest weapons in his campaign to intimidate Mike. The Cousins don't do much, but the image of them glaring down at Mike and Kaylee from an opposing rooftop sent shivers down my spine, and their presence was all Mike needed to realize he had to find a way out of this mess. (What was it he once tried telling Walt about half-measures?) And once Mike started fighting back, Hector was free to drop the harmless old man act and assume the colder and more arrogant persona we remember from his flashbacks in BB seasons 3 and 4.

Kim's life isn't in any danger, but she's nonetheless feeling the squeeze from Howard, who continues to treat her coldly (just check the stony look on his face as they march through the HHM offices, and how easily he turns on the charm as they approach their clients) even after Chuck has negotiated her release from doc review. Like Jimmy, she's struggling to get appreciation from one of the HHM partners. And, like Jimmy, she now has a pretty sweet offer to get on the partner track at another firm(*). And by episode's end, she has finally started to embrace his love of the grift, ending her recent silence by inviting Jimmy to help scam another obnoxious mark. It's at the same restaurant where she had her lunch with Rick Schweikart, but she seems much happier and more at ease there when she's pretending to be Giselle St. Claire than when she was considering the next step of her legal career.

(*) This assumes Rick's offer is on the up-and-up, and not just a very oblique attempt to get opposing counsel intel on Sandpiper by any means necessary. But even if that's his motive, he still has to hire her to get that. 

But is this really the life for her? Jimmy believes it is, wants so desperately for it to be true, and he'd probably even settle for her being an honest lawyer by day and running harmless grifts by night. But there still remains a pretty big gap between tricking some d-bag into paying for your booze, or getting him to write a check you'll never cash, and pulling many of the stunts that we've seen bring Jimmy such joy. Her dismay at hearing the full extent of the squat cobbler story, for instance, wasn't that long ago, and we know he'll get up to much worse once he becomes Saul Goodman.  Is she going to happily slip on down there with him, or is this current compromise going to be yet another half-measure that ends badly for all involved?

After all, when Jimmy is on screen, we see him really chafing at all aspects of his current life: not just answering to Erin, but sleeping in what should be ample luxury at the corporate apartment, and driving around in a much nicer car than his two-toned beater. Instead, he finds he can only sleep back in his old office at the nail salon, and he eventually has to take a tire iron to the company car's cup holder so that the travel mug Kim gave him will fit.

The only question is when Jimmy will feel the need to take a metaphorical tire iron to his entire life with Davis and Main, and whether Kim will still be hanging around with him after he's done with the alterations.

Some other thoughts:

* In case you missed it, AMC officially renewed Saul for season 3 last week. More a formality than anything, but still excellent news.

* One thought on age: where the show has done its best to age down Bob Odenkirk so that he'll look younger than when we met Saul on Breaking Bad, no such effort has been attempted with Jonathan Banks. (“They'll always try to make me look younger, but you can't put a silly wig on in my head,” he told me last year. “I ain't going to look right.”) At the moment, the fact that he's noticeably older is actually working for the character, because Mike so very clearly feels like he's past the point where he should be pistol whipping guys who are hiding in his bedroom, and the weariness and shakiness only adds to the gravity of a scene like the one where he washes his hands (and the gun) after chasing the two goons away. How the show will deal with this if/when we get to a point where Mike is working for Gus is an open question, but Banks is a great enough actor that I imagine he can raise Mike's energy level up just enough to compensate.

* Another thought on age: the Cousins are, like all the other Breaking Bad holdovers, about six years younger than when we met them. On the one hand, it feels like those six years should make them seem markedly different, since they're pretty young compared to a Jimmy or a Mike. On the other, Breaking Bad largely treated Leonel and Marco as monsters out of myth rather than people, so I'm okay with the idea that they were always this cold and collected.

* Michael Slovis, longtime Breaking Bad director of photography – and, along with Vince Gilligan and John Toll (who was DP for the pilot), one of the three people most responsible for the amazing look of that series – pays his first visit to the world of Saul as director of this one (a reunion with Breaking Bad writer Gennifer Hutchison, who wrote several of the BB episodes Slovis directed), which featured a lot of eye-catching compositions, including all of Jimmy's insomnia-driven antics with the balls, and the single take of Mike clearing the rooms of his house upon realizing (thanks to some old-school MacGyvering with the Welcome mat and the contact paper) that some Salamanca soldiers were hiding inside. Over at THR, Fienberg spoke to Slovis about revisiting this universe and what the visual differences are between the two shows.

* We are one step closer to Jimmy naming one of his money laundering funds after Kim's beloved Ice Station Zebra, as that's what they had Dale write the $10,000 check out to.

* Jimmy and Mike's worlds are pretty separate right now, but they're at least linked by late-night infomercials, with Jimmy enjoying a few minutes of the Chia Lion ad when he can't sleep, while Mike distracts Hector's goons with a bit of Billy Mays (RIP). Both are a lot more fun than the replacement Sandpiper ad that Davis and Main commissioned to replace Jimmy's.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at