Better Call Saul is finally back for the first half of its sixth and final season. A review of the two-episode season premiere, “Wine and Roses” and “Carrot and Stick,” coming up just as soon as mesothelioma buys me a vacation house…
“Wolves and sheep.” —Jimmy
Every previous Saul season has begun in exactly the same way, with a black-and-white flash-forward to the lonely, paranoid life of Omaha shopping mall Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, a.k.a. Jimmy McGill. Since it’s been more than two years since we last got an episode of this great show, you’re forgiven if you don’t remember that the fifth season premiere opened with Gene — recognized as Saul by Jeff the cab driver — calling Ed the disappearer with the intent of assuming yet another identity. But at the last minute, he told Ed he had changed his mind, and that, “I’m gonna fix it myself.”
If this were just another season, we would no doubt return to see Gene making his move against the threat posed by Jeff. But this is not just another season; it is the conclusion of Better Call Saul, and most likely the conclusion of co-creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan’s time in the Heisenberg-verse. Barring some kind of sequel to El Camino where Mr. Driscoll (a.k.a. Jesse Pinkman) runs into trouble up in Alaska, Gene’s misadventures are the chronological end of the story of this show and of Breaking Bad. So Gould (who wrote “Wine and Roses”) and Gilligan (who directed “Carrot and Stick”) are likely saving our return trip to Omaha for the series finale (or, at least, for sometime in the season’s final half).
But “Carrot and Stick,” the second episode of this twofer, still finds a way to situate us in a post-Breaking Bad world, even if the only glimpses of our title character in it are recreations of his image. We appear to be somewhere within the events of “Granite State,” the penultimate episode of the parent series. Saul Goodman has vanished after his favorite client was publicly outed as the southwest’s top meth distributor, and the authorities have sent a team of movers to catalog and pack up Saul’s house. As Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn like to say whenever someone asks about Kim Wexler’s fate, we never went home with Saul after he provided legal advice for Walt and Jesse, so we had no idea if he had a wife, or about how he was living. Here, we seem to get the answer to both — the latter in particular. Saul was loaded, living in an absurdly decorated mansion filled with suits, ties, shoes, statues, and other expensive pieces of art. Director Michael Morris and longtime Saul director of photography Marshall Adams go to town on a Sunset Boulevard-esque sequence that explores every garish corner of the place, starting with an avalanche of neckties falling in the opening moment (transitioning us from Gene’s usual monochrome look to the glorious color of Saul’s heyday) all the way through Saul inevitably having a golden toilet. (As has been said about a certain famous man of our own world who favors gold fixtures, Saul is living a poor person’s conception of what a rich person must be like.)
So why does the final season begin by showing us all this swag? Maybe it’s a way to continue the flash-forward tradition (including a Season Four episode that also opened with a scene set around this time in Saul’s life) without getting back to Gene until we absolutely have to. Or maybe it’s just about the very last trophy we see before the opening credits, which is also one of the first trophies that Jimmy McGill felt was worth keeping: the Zafiro Añejo tequila bottle cap.
You remember the bottle cap, right? That lovely little objet d’art takes us back to the Saul Season Two premiere: Jimmy has decided to quit the law altogether, and when Kim asks what he will do next, he recruits her to run a short con where Ken Wins will pay for multiple wildly expensive bottles of Zafiro Añejo. Kim is so turned on by the escapade that she and Jimmy sleep together that evening. The next morning, he asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that every night?” Kim, still not understanding the true nature of the man with whom she is falling in love — nor that Jimmy would be perfectly happy to make her his partner in crime — says, “Yes, it would. But we can’t.” At the end of the next episode (after Jimmy has resumed his legal career), Kim is horrified to learn that he manufactured evidence (a “squat cobbler” fetish video) to help Daniel Wormald out of a jam with the cops. When Jimmy compares this to what they did to Ken Wins, Kim insists these are two completely different things: “That had nothing to do with work. We were just screwing around.”
If Better Call Saul began as the story of how a shady but ultimately nice guy devolved into a cold and malevolent criminal/lawyer, it at some point has expanded into the story about how he pulled the love of his life down the moral rabbit hole with him. The Kim who was so mad about the squat cobbler video might not recognize the Kim of last season, who was able to verbally spar with Lalo Salamanca, let alone the ruthless one we see here. In the Season Five finale, Jimmy hoped that Kim was joking about wrecking Howard Hamlin’s reputation in order to force an early Sandpiper settlement, and to use Jimmy’s cut to finance her legal aid practice. This week, she makes clear that it is not at all a joke, and sets about perpetrating all kinds of chicanery, to her husband’s increasing dismay.
The shape of Kim’s plan becomes clear over the course of these two episodes: She and Jimmy will create the illusion that Howard has a drug problem, rendering enough doubt in Clifford Main (whose firm has long been partnered with HHM on Sandpiper) to inspire him to settle the case while he still can. This plays out first, in “Wine and Roses,” with Jimmy sneaking into the locker room at Howard and Cliff’s country club — after making a scene in front of baffled club manager Norm (guest star James Urbaniak, reacting beautifully) — to put a bag of “cocaine” (really just baby powder) into Howard’s locker. The scheme then expands in “Carrot and Stick” to involve Betsy and Craig Kettleman, whom we last saw waaaaaay back in Season One, when their legal troubles over Craig’s embezzlement from a local treasury prompted a war for their business between Jimmy and HHM. They are now running a tax preparation service and bitter about losing their comfortable upper-middle-class life. (Their kids now have to go to public school, Betsy whines to an unsympathetic Jimmy.) Both their desperation and their past association with Howard make them easy marks for the grift, as Jimmy expertly steers them toward Cliff to continue the lie about Howard’s cocaine usage(*).
(*) Jimmy accusing the country club of anti-Semitism — despite not being remotely Jewish, but using a Jewish-sounding name for work — is the most amusing part of either episode. (It’s one of the funniest things the show has given Bob Odenkirk to do in quite some time.) But a surprisingly close second is Julie Ann Emery’s delivery as Betsy mistakenly assumes that Jimmy is talking about Kim: “That awful woman with the ponytail was a cocaine addict?!?”
For all her abundant flaws, Betsy remains a shrewd enough operator to figure out the broad outline of how Jimmy used them and why, which is when the titular carrot and stick come into play. Jimmy is willing to use some of the cash from Lalo to keep the Kettlemans quiet. Kim, though, figures out that they’ve been taking money off the top of all their elderly clients’ tax rewards — once an embezzler, always an embezzler — and threatens to report them to the feds. Betsy caves and agrees to keep her mouth shut, but when Jimmy returns to the car at the end of the episode, she is annoyed to realize that he paid the Kettlemans anyway out of some sense of guilt over what he has done to them over the years.
Earlier, in “Wine and Roses,” we see Kim consider Jimmy’s “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” travel mug with the bullet hole in it. This was a gift she gave him in more innocent times, and now it is something she casually tosses in the trash, a symbol of a life she assumes he is leaving behind. Yet somehow, at the beginning of this series’ home stretch, Jimmy seems further away from truly being Saul Goodman than ever before. He is suddenly the soft touch, while Kim is the hardened con artist. In both the cold open and a later scene at the courthouse — where one of Jimmy’s extra suits passes through the x-ray machine so one of Kim’s clients can wear it — we see Saul’s clothes independent from Jimmy’s body. It is an identity he has put on, but one that doesn’t entirely fit the man we are seeing in the show’s present. If anything, it is almost as if Kim has become the real Saul Goodman, and is using Jimmy as her front man. (Those suits might clash with her power ponytail, anyway.) We hear her describe an ideally garish office for Saul — once again thinking of Jimmy as Saul, and only correcting herself after — that is more or less exactly like the one we see him using on Breaking Bad. She is building the legend, and he is reluctantly along for the ride.
Shortly before Kim tells Jimmy about her plans for this “cathedral of justice,” he sees her speaking with a client and his mother, and lights up at the sight of her being so dedicated and compassionate. (Bob Odenkirk: great dramatic actor!) This is the woman he fell in love with, and once upon a time it seemed as if she had fallen for the idealized version of Jimmy who was always slightly out of reach of the well-meaning but flawed real guy. Now, though, she seems all-in on Saul as the guy for her, both as a lover and an aspirational figure, even as she is still able to compartmentalize the part of herself that cares so much about her clients. (Rhea Seehorn: also a great dramatic actor!)
And here is the really scary thing to consider if you care as much about these two characters as the show has asked you to over the previous five seasons: There are only 11 episodes left after these, and Jimmy is nowhere near being Saul Goodman for real. He seemed close at times, but now he is backtracking, both because of his experiences with Lalo and what he has witnessed of the influence he has had on Kim. For him to emotionally get from this point to the guy who built a garish mansion on drug profits and explosive homicides is going to require something incredibly bad to happen either to or with Kim to get him there — even worse than might have seemed necessary a season or two ago.
That tequila bottle cap we see in the cold open was once a treasured memory of a great night a man and a woman had together on the road to becoming a couple. Now it’s just so much trash lying against the curb, and perhaps a symbol of the moment when Jimmy McGill began to ruin Kim Wexler’s life as much as his own.
Though the Jimmy and Mike halves of the show intersected a lot in the later episodes of Season Five, they are largely separate here, other than perhaps the glimpse of a car following Jimmy and Kim as they leave the Kettlemans’ office at the end of “Carrot and Stick.” So we are temporarily back not only to two separate shows, but to the lawyer half being more compelling — or perhaps just easier to follow — than the cartel half.
We pick up only hours after the failed hit on Lalo at his compound. Both Nacho and Lalo are in the wind — Nacho trying to escape his obvious involvement in the assassination attempt, Lalo pretending to be dead while he figures out how to prove his suspicion that Gus was behind his latest brush with death. For Nacho, this means spending most of these episodes hiding out at a cheap Mexican motel connected to Gus’ operation, justifiably paranoid that both sides want him dead. For Lalo, this means killing anyone who gets a good look at him, including innocent husband and wife Mateo and Sylvia, who have the bad fortune to provide shelter to their beloved patron(*), and some obnoxious coyotes who decline Lalo’s “Be nice” suggestion and refuse to refund his money once he realizes that the answers he seeks may be south of the border rather than north.
(*) “Wine and Roses” opts for discretion when it comes to Mateo and Sylvia’s murders, allowing both to happen off camera, even though that is clearly what is happening. (Right before he is killed, poor Mateo even shaves his beard to more closely resemble Lalo!)
As is often the case this early in a Saul season, the plot moves very slowly. It feels like the show devotes half of these two episodes just to Nacho exploring his motel room and watching for people watching him. And then there’s yet another long montage of Mike tearing apart someone’s home (Nacho’s, in this case) looking for useful clues. But in many ways, both this show and Breaking Bad are procedurals about people figuring their way out of impossible situations, and they tell those stories as well as they do by following every step along the path to escape. So we have to understand the geography of that motel and its parking lot to appreciate Nacho’s ability to get out of it, and to best follow the shootout he gets into with the Cousins(*). And a “Mike dismantles things” montage is never less than incredibly watchable.
(*) Two Cousin echoes here: First, Leonel and Marco themselves went to America in a coyote truck back in Breaking Bad Season Three, and also left bodies in their wake. And second, Nacho attempts to drive his stolen truck in reverse at them, just as Hank used his SUV as a weapon in the legendary “One Minute” shootout; Hank’s vehicular aim proved better than Nacho’s does here.
At the same time, it’s difficult to keep up with all the moves and countermoves at times, in part because Mike’s agenda is not in lockstep with Gus’. Mike likes Nacho, and feels bad that Gus has placed the kid in such a difficult position, while Gus has nothing but contempt for Ignacio Varga. Both men, though, do not want Nacho to become a live prisoner of the Salamancas, knowing that he would reveal their role in the botched assassination attempt. Mike replaces Nacho’s safe with an identical one, and plants falsified evidence of a Peruvian wire transfer to draw attention away from Gus, along with details about the motel. (Mike also removes all traces of Nacho’s dad, understanding that Mr. Varga is a complete innocent in all of this.) His hope is that Nacho will simply get away, perhaps with his help, while understanding that death seems more likely. And Gus just wants Nacho dead as quickly as possible, and thus has arranged for Nacho to be placed in a second-floor room with no exit, and to have Tyrus monitoring the situation from afar until the Cousins arrive. The whole thing is deliberately messy — we even see the meticulous Gustavo Fring knock over a glass in one scene — but it’s a lot to keep track of, especially now that Hector is feeling mentally strong enough to assist his nephews in all of this.
Early in “Carrot and Stick,” Jimmy is proposing a way to have a fake client approach Cliff Main. Just as Walter White once questioned every detail of Jesse’s plan to shoot Tuco, Kim picks this story apart as unworkable, insisting that they have to find a sweet spot where Cliff will take the meeting with their phony client, but not that client’s bogus legal case. Similarly, Better Call Saul has to find a way at the start of every season to have things move relatively slowly, but never so that it’s boring. Though there are some bumps regarding Nacho’s perilous circumstances, for the most part the double feature finds the same kind of sweet spot that the Kettlemans ultimately serve for Kim’s plan. Goddamn, it’s good to have this show back. But boy, will it be hard to see it go later this year — especially if things end badly for Kim.
Some other thoughts:
* Kim describing her plans for Jimmy’s office is both a Breaking Bad Easter egg and a valuable piece of character development, for what it says about Kim in this moment. On the other hand, Jimmy seeing that the Kettlemans have a Statue of Liberty inflatable like the one he’ll eventually use at that office (and perhaps the exact one) feels more like all those bits in Solo where the action kept stopping so the film could explain every little piece of Han Solo backstory that really required no explaining at all. It’s a very narrow road to walk, and hopefully Saul will be careful about exactly which remaining blanks it chooses to fill in, and how.
* In addition to the returns of the Kettlemans, Cliff Main, and Mesa Verde boss Kevin Wachtell (whose disdain for Jimmy inspires the “gold star” outburst at the country club), we also see the return of Jessie Ennis as Erin Brill, the Davis and Main associate who learned to hate Jimmy during his brief tenure at the firm. How many more curtain calls are we going to get this season? Did Mark Proksch have enough time between What We Do in the Shadows seasons, for instance, to fly to Albuquerque for one last glimpse at Daniel Wormald?
* I look forward to someone giving the “Wine and Roses” cold open the Zapruder film treatment in an attempt to identify every trophy and Easter egg. Besides the bottle cap, the one that most struck me was a paperback copy of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which we see again on Jimmy’s nightstand in “Carrot and Stick.”
* Also of note in the cold open: There is a pink thong dangling by the tub, which could very well have been Saul’s (don’t kink-shame!), but just as easily could have belonged to a woman in his life. We don’t see any other women’s clothing, however, suggesting that neither Kim nor anyone else was living with him at the time he fled the authorities for a life in the food service industry.
* Vince Gilligan tends to be this show’s most visually adventurous director, but Michael Morris outdid him this week, teaming with Marshall Adams and the rest of the crew to compose one stunning, painterly shot after another, whether it was the extreme close-up of the hand of one of Lalo’s victims with every ridge of the fingerprints visible, or the John Ford tribute image of Mike standing at the entrance to Gus’ trailer, his distinctive head framed by the doorway and the desert vista surrounding Pollos Hermanos HQ.
* Finally, we get a couple of different Jesse Pinkman nods: Jimmy meets Kim at the El Camino Dining Room, and later Kim uses magnets as a metaphor for how to play the Howard scam. Even if the latter wasn’t meant as a direct Jesse homage, we all remember how much the man loved magnets.