A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Black and Blue,” coming up just as soon as you cancel my whole week…
“You’re right: I do have a problem. Just not the problem you think. I have a Jimmy McGill problem.” —Howard
After last week’s historic meeting between Kim and Mike, it would be easy to assume that the legal and cartel halves of Better Call Saul would begin merging more and more in these final episodes. But it’s hard to see that happening to a significant extent, given that Saul does not know Gus circa his introduction on Breaking Bad. The stories may intersect periodically, but I imagine they will largely continue to run in parallel. And this week, they are parallel in theme as much as they are in plot advancement. Specifically, we have Gus Fring and Howard Hamlin, two men unlikely to ever cross paths before Saul concludes, but who spend “Black and Blue” faced with similar problems: Their livelihoods are both being threatened by familiar opponents about whom they can do precious little at the moment.
Gus has known for a while that Lalo is a danger, but these last several episodes have been agonizing for him with their lack of new information. He has already been getting sloppy — recall the broken glass in his office that Nacho eventually made use of — and here we see him paranoid and distracted even while doing the routine business of managing the flagship Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant. Gus Fring is never distracted, least of all when he’s performing his cover job, and it’s a sign of just how rattled he is by the smartest Salamanca’s ongoing absence(*).
(*) Talk about restraint: If you were the creative team of a television show, you had a villain as charismatic and instantly beloved as Lalo, and you had a limited number of hours remaining in which to use Tony Dalton, would you keep him off camera for the better part of four episodes? But the tension in the cartel scenes only works if we, like Gus, are wondering where the hell this guy is and when he’s going to make his move.
Where Mike has assumed Lalo will go after someone in Albuquerque, Lalo instead makes his presence felt in, of all places, Germany. It has been more than four years since the end of Saul Season Four, so you are forgiven if you don’t remember Lalo’s role in the death of Werner, the engineer in charge of the Super Lab excavation. Lalo obviously hasn’t forgotten, and is going through Werner — or, rather, through his widow Margarethe — to find the proof he needs that Gus has been acting against the cartel’s interests. The episode opens with a short film about the creation of a glass trophy with a slide rule inside — the sort of thing the meticulous yet old-school Werner would no doubt have enjoyed — and it closes with a tense scene where Lalo escapes the house with said trophy right before Margarethe finds him. (This is better news for Margarethe than for Lalo, since he simply would have killed her if he couldn’t climb out the second-story window, once again demonstrating near-superhuman agility.) How will this trophy prove Gus’s intentions? We’ll have to wait and see, but we are long past the point where we should doubt any plan this guy sets in motion.
As with many cartel stories on Saul, there is the prequel problem. A few episodes back, for instance, Nacho was literally the only character in the desert scene who was not definitely alive during Breaking Bad, and unsurprisingly, he was the one who died at the end of it. Here, meanwhile, we know that Lalo is doomed to fail, because Juan Bolsa and Don Eladio remain utterly blind to Gus’ true intentions until he has each of them killed during the Heisenberg era. The fun will hopefully be in exactly how Gus triumphs, and here we see that he has discovered the same itch that Lalo is trying to scratch. The Super Lab has been a key part in his plan to overthrow the cartel, and Lalo has for the moment ruined that part of the plan. So Gus has Mike take him to the dig site, less to look for clues than to plant a weapon for what he assumes will be an eventual showdown with Lalo beneath the old laundromat.
Lalo’s specter hangs over the legal world scenes to a degree, too. Kim is up in the middle of the night barricading the apartment door in case the bad man returns. She talked her way out of trouble with him once, but understandably doesn’t believe she can do it a second time. And perhaps more interestingly, she does not want to burden Jimmy with the knowledge that their tormentor is still alive, nor that she has finally met his old friend Mike. Is this a kindness she is doing to her husband? Or does she worry that infecting him with this paranoia will make it more difficult for him to stay on task with Howard? As hard-edged as Kim has become, it could be either one.
Regardless of her motivations, Kim’s plan appears to hit a snag — or does it? — when Cliff Main confronts Howard about all the shady things he’s witnessed over these last few episodes. Howard Hamlin is many things, but dumb is not one of them, and he almost instantly recognizes that Jimmy is behind this scheme to discredit him. As with Lalo-versus-Gus, it’s more fun when both sides of the duel are smart and aware of what’s happening. But in this case, it’s fair to wonder exactly how much of an advantage Howard has just gained. He still doesn’t see that Kim, not Jimmy, is the true architect of his misfortune, for instance. But more importantly, neither Kim nor Jimmy seems all that troubled by the news that he is onto them — as if this was either an expected part of the plan, or even a necessary one. As Howard points out, they did not really bother to cover their tracks: Jimmy already used prostitutes against him, and Kim was Cliff’s coffee date for the incident with Wendy. They had to know this was possible, perhaps even likely, even if they couldn’t guarantee exactly when Cliff might confront Howard(*).
(*) Interestingly, Cliff chooses to do it after witnessing Howard in a moment of professional triumph, heading off a potential uprising from all the Sandpiper clients who are eager to settle the case while they’re still alive to enjoy the money. Cliff notices that Howard is full of nervous energy while watching Erin try and fail to calm the clients, and it’s possible he reads Howard’s performance as something fueled by cocaine as much as by his innate charm.
Howard hires a private investigator to tail Jimmy (from the same agency Chuck used against Jimmy in Season Three), but first he opts to take out his aggression in a more direct way: by luring Jimmy to his boxing gym for a few rounds. It is, on one level, another example of Howard naively trying to appeal to Jimmy’s better nature, hoping that once confronted, the man he once dubbed “Charlie Hustle” will back down from whatever nonsense he’s attempting. Mainly, though, he wants to beat the crap out of his frenemy, and he does just that, in a fight impressive for just how clumsy and unglamorous it is. This is not Rocky vs. Apollo, but two middle-aged men who specialize in brains rather than brawn. But Howard has more training than Jimmy does, and he also has more desire to win, whereas Jimmy only steps into the ring in the first place out of guilt — because, as Kim will later remind him, “You know what’s coming next.” Clearly, there is another layer to the plan beyond what we know, and it has to be a whole lot worse than what we’ve seen so far.
Gus knows Lalo is coming for him, and perhaps even by what route. And he has the weight of franchise history behind him, even if Lalo appears to be in control right now. Howard Hamlin, on the other hand, is one of the few remaining characters to never appear on Breaking Bad. Almost anything could happen to him between now and the series finale, and it does not seem like good things are in store, despite him knowing that Jimmy is scheming against him. Knowledge is power in the Heisenberg-verse, but even knowledge can only take you so far when you’re not the title character and your opponent is.
Some other thoughts:
* Another piece of the Saul Goodman professional puzzle comes into place with the return of Tina Parker as Francesca, Jimmy’s once and future receptionist. Francesca has not been watching the last two seasons of Better Call Saul, and thus is surprised by all the changes: a new office, no Kim, Jimmy is practicing under a new name, and his lovable elder law clients have been replaced by a bunch of sketchy criminal defendants. Yet she is able to turn this uncertain new situation to her advantage, wheedling the maximum possible salary out of Jimmy (plus a “signing bonus” of the cash he has in his wallet) and making sure she has a say in decorating this space once the toilet is gone. We know from Breaking Bad that beneath that sweet demeanor lurks an absolute hustler, and she and her boss remain well-matched. (Bonus points for her rolling up to the strip mall listening to “Release Me” by Wilson Phillips.)
* Longtime Heisenberg-verse producer Melissa Bernstein takes her second turn behind the camera (after last season’s “JMM”), and makes her presence felt with a long oner through the Pollos Hermanos kitchen as Gus struggles to get his head right by focusing on the minutiae of managing the restaurant.
* Finally, the last two seasons for the most part haven’t had to strain to hide Bob Odenkirk’s transformed, post-Nobody physique. But it was hard not to notice what a baggy T-shirt he wore for the boxing scene. In the movie, Odenkirk is meant to be a guy who can understandably win every fight. Jimmy McGill, on the other hand, is a talker and not an action hero, so care has to be taken to maintain the illusion.
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