Better Call Saul Reviews: “Rock and Hard Place” (season 6, episode 3)

There are good deaths and there are bad deaths.

A main character has died. Someone who has been with the show from the start is no more. A man who, just a few episodes ago, probably believed he could find a way out now knows that there is no way forward.

His story is over. This was his final chapter. He saw the end closing in on him, and he let it come, because he made all of his decisions long ago and all he’s left with are the consequences.

He only has one decision left to make. There are good deaths and there are bad deaths. He can’t change the end of the story, but he can choose how to punctuate it.

Last week, I spoke about the way in which Better Call Saul often feels like a series of disconnected stories. I wondered if those stories would all be brought together for the show’s climax. I also wondered if, instead, they wouldn’t, and they’d all just resolve themselves separately.

“Rock and Hard Place” proves that the show is willing to let them resolve separately. I presented that as the lesser option, and I stand by that in a broad sense, but if these smaller endings are even half as impactful as “Rock and Hard Place” was, then I concede that Better Call Saul knows what it’s doing, and I am more than content to watch it play out.

Here’s the thing with Nacho: We watched him make nearly all the decisions that brought him to this point. We were there. We didn’t see the start of his drug-dealing journey, but we learned everything that mattered. We watched him get in deeper, we watched him realize he was in too deep, and now we watch him accept responsibility for what he’s done.

He’s there, alone, on his knees in the dirt, hands bound, surrounded by those who will make sure that he does not leave alive. The closest thing he has to a friend in the entire world beat the living shit out of him last night.

He knows he’s finished. He could have made different choices along the way, but all of those are in the past. It’s over, and this is the end of his life, because he made all of the choices that would bring him here and none (or not enough) of the choices that would bring him somewhere else.

And, of course, we keep flipping over to Saul and Kim. We see them continue to make their choices. “Rock and Hard Place” assures us, by sheer virtue of proximity, that their choices bring them closer to this kind of end than another.

Thanks to Breaking Bad, that’s not all we know. We know that Saul makes it to that show and survives it. For how long? That’s a fair question, and it’s still not impossible that he eventually meets a similar, if longer-deferred, end for himself. Kim, though, is another story. Kim’s ending hasn’t been written yet. We’re moving closer to whatever her final chapter is, though, and she’s making her own decisions about how to behave, how deep to get, how much to compromise whatever is left of her conscience.

Nacho showed us what can happen. He led by example. He knew better, and so do Saul and Kim. They’ve still got 10 episodes to get it together. We know at least one of them won’t. Time is running out.

The real choice in this episode, of course, is Saul’s. Some legal minds behind the scenes have figured out that they let Eduardo slip away, and it was thanks to Saul’s handiwork. Kim presents him with an easy way out: He can claim that he didn’t know about Eduardo’s real identity, and he’ll be off the hook in exchange for whatever information he can provide about his ex-client.

Jimmy, almost touchingly, feels lost. It’s such an easy out that it hurts to see him conflicted like this. That faint, possibly final, flicker of Jimmy inside leaves him confused. One choice brings him more money from very wealthy clients. The other choice brings him back onto the correct and safer side of the law.

He turns to Kim, pleading with his eyes for guidance. He already knows the answer, I’m sure, but he needs to hear it.

She replies with another question, but that question is loaded. “Do you want to be a friend of the cartel or do you want to be a rat?” she asks.

Realizing he was near the end of his story, Nacho did what he could to make things right. He confirmed that his father was okay and said, in his own way, his farewell. He bargained with Gus and Mike for the safety of the man. He offered up his own life, knowing that it was the only thing he had left. He allowed himself to be captured, beaten, and humiliated. He willingly stepped into the lions’ den to come face to face with his own killers.

He didn’t make the right choices, but he set the right example. He understood the severity of the situation. He respected the consequences that he brought upon himself. He made sure that nobody else would be hurt, and then he faced those consequences. Nacho accepted responsibility for what he did. Kim, by contrast, is steering Saul away from doing that.

Nacho could have kept running, leaving his father to fend for himself. Kim could have told Saul to give it up, exchanging a bigger payday for a safer life. But that’s not how it happened. When the show started, I don’t think any of us would have been able to predict that Nacho would show us the right way at the same time that Kim showed us the wrong way.

There are good deaths and there are bad deaths. Nacho doesn’t want either of them, but he’s left himself with nothing else. It doesn’t matter how lucrative the drug trade is when you end up dead, alone in the dirt. He knew better, but he gave it a shot anyway. On some level, he understood that it would have to end like this, but he made those decisions anyway, and now he is dead.

He does manage to turn a good death into a better death, at least going out on his own terms. Gus offered him one way out. The Salamancas offer him a worse way out. He found a third option, but that third option still, in the end, looks a lot like the first two. He died with a little more dignity, but what use is dignity when you’re dead?

Kim’s decisions are bringing her — and Saul — closer to a situation in which there’s only one choice left to make, at best. There are good deaths and there are bad deaths. She knows better, but she’s giving it a shot anyway. We’ve seen many characters across this show and Breaking Bad who didn’t even get the luxury of that final choice. If she pisses off the wrong people, she won’t, either.

This is our second week in a row without Eduardo. We know, ultimately, where he’s headed, but it will be interesting to see who he visits first.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Carrot and Stick” (season 6, episode 2)

“Carrot and Stick” didn’t just make me understand “Wine and Roses” better; it was a strong, funny, interesting episode in its own right. I’d have loved this to have been the season opener instead but, for many obvious narrative reasons, that couldn’t have happened.

What it made me understand about “Wine and Roses” is that the increased length of season six (13 episodes compared to 10 in previous seasons) is giving things a little more time to come to a boil.

My assumption, at first, was that those extra episodes would be used to give us a longer boil, when we got to that point. More of an ending as opposed to more of a beginning, basically. I think that that would have been the obvious way to go, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with turning up the temperature more gradually. This was still the stronger episode, but I see now that “Wine and Roses” wasn’t a slow start in a race; it was the show warming up before the race even began.

“Carrot and Stick” also calls back to a couple of things I noticed in that episode, thematically. The more concrete one, perhaps, is that “Wine and Roses” showed us that Kim is working to shape the Saul persona, whereas Saul just sort of goes along with it. She’s the one who pushes him to find the right car and the right office for the character. Saul nods, agrees, and is certainly culpable for everything that that character ends up doing, but it’s Kim who keeps prodding him to do it, defining aspects of Saul’s persona for him.

We see that a few times here, most notably in how they deal with the Kettlemans. Saul takes one approach to the situation — the carrot — only for Kim to sweep in with the stick and all but tell him, “This is how Saul needs to deal with situations.” She is defining the character we knew in Breaking Bad. He plays the part but she writes the dialogue. It’s interesting.

The other callback had to do with Kim’s client from “Wine and Roses,” the kid who ended up serving as a getaway driver after his friend robbed a liquor store. Saul indeed serves as Kim’s getaway driver when leaving the Kettlemans. Like the kid last week, he knew where they were going, but didn’t know what his partner was going to do when they got there.

It was a lovely and at least slightly heartbreaking moment, not least because it proves that there’s still a little bit of Jimmy left in him.

We got a flash of it when he gave the Kettlemans money. As the series winds down, we’re going to get our final flash of Jimmy at some point. It’s possible that this was it. Jimmy is not above manipulating and even hurting people to further his own goals, but he’s not monstrous. Here, knowing he sent the Kettlemans on a wild legal goose chase, he attempts to soothe his conscience and make things at least partially right by paying them for their trouble. Kim doesn’t want that. Kim just wants to scare the shit out of them so that they won’t make trouble of their own.

Jimmy was underhanded, but Saul was cruel. Jimmy was slimy, but Saul was outright destructive. Kim is the one pushing him to make the change.

All of this branches off from Kim’s desire to make Howard seem unreliable to Cliff, taking the form of drug-above suspicions. In the previous episode, Saul hid a baggie of baby powder in Howard’s gym locker so that Cliff would see it fall out. In this episode, Saul ropes the Kettlemens into telling Cliff that Howard is addicted to cocaine.

However that ends up panning out, it won’t be good. For now, though, and satisfyingly, we get to see the path of destruction that Kim is willing to carve on her way to getting what she wants. We don’t have to wait to see what happens to Howard, basically; we can see that she’s more than willing to ruin anyone who stands in her way, and we get to watch that happen before the climax.

Saul won’t always be there to salve the wound with money. And not all wounds will be able to be salved with money. It’s just a matter of time now before things go too far, and we’ve still got 11 episodes left. That’s exciting.

Elsewhere, we get an episode without Eduardo (unless I missed him totally?), but his shadow looms large. Nacho gets into a gunfight and then escapes his motel, intending to make it back into the U.S. on his own. I’m not saying that season openers need gunfights, but I will say that we got a gunfight here and I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the season opener.

Also, Gus correctly intuits that Eduardo survived the attempt on his life, based solely on the fact that Hector was willing to extend a hand to him in peace. Gus knows full well that that can’t be right. I loved that.

Mike is dealing with the emotional fallout of knowing that Nacho is stranded in Mexico without support, be he isn’t able to convince Gus to let him go and rescue the kid. Instead, Gus proposes that they kidnap Nacho’s father, and let the boy return to bargain for his life.

Mike refuses. Tyrus pulls a gun on him. Mike turns around and walks slowly toward the door.

It would have been cool enough if Mike had just left, and that’s what I fully expected him to do, but even after so many years with this character, Mike finds ways to surprise. He doesn’t leave. He closes the door fully, then he locks it, then he walks right back to face the man with the gun and make it very clear that he’s not going to do what he’s being told to do.

Mike is a consistent highlight of Better Call Saul, and even if I didn’t like the show, I think his mere presence would make it worth watching.

Ultimately, “Carrot and Stick” ends before we know exactly what the next step with Nacho is, but it’s very clear that it’s going to go Mike’s way rather than Gus’. Mike’s let his soft heart get him into trouble before. Again, it’s just a matter of time before we see how this crashes down as well.

The show still has a lot of work to do when it comes to bringing all of its characters together so that they can be relevant to whatever climax is in store, but “Carrot and Stick” reassures us that big things can still happen along the way. I never doubted that, but the reassurance after last week is welcome. It’s not just a matter of moving pieces around the board; it’s an opportunity to see them each face smaller conflicts as they draw nearer the center.

Of course, that’s assuming that they do meet in the center. Maybe they don’t. Maybe Mike’s story reaches one climax. Maybe Gus’ reaches another. Maybe Eduardo and Nacho have a third. Maybe Kim and Saul have a fourth. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That would be okay. Many of these characters still haven’t crossed paths at all, let alone been directly important to each other.

Ending multiple separate stories in multiple separate ways wouldn’t be a cheat. It would be perfectly reasonable. But I hope that Better Call Saul has something other than that in mind. There is some artful way to bring all of this together for a single, uniformly satisfying final chapter. The show can, and I hope it figures out how.

It’s got 11 episodes left to do it. “Wine and Roses” didn’t leave me feeling totally optimistic that it would. “Carrot and Stick” has done a lot to win me back over.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Wine and Roses” (season 6, episode 1)

Hey, everybody! It’s me! And Saul! We’re back!

I was hesitant to commit to reviewing season six of Better Call Saul on the grounds that…man, everything is really, really, really, really, really hard. So forgive me if I end up lagging a bit. I’m going to do my best, but I think we can all agree that enough has happened between this and the end of season five to eat up our mental bandwidth. I love this show, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t pretend that I’ve been spending my time waiting for it to come back.

I don’t want my entire review to be a list of things that have kept me distracted over the past two years, but if you’re curious about my experience watching “Wine and Roses,” it was basically me thinking to myself, “Oh, right, that happened.”

That’s not the show’s fault, to be clear. It’s nobody’s fault. There have been more important things going on in the world. Add to that the fact that I haven’t kept up with any information about the show that’s come out since — interviews, podcasts, previews, series recaps, or anything else that AMC put out — and, basically, I ended up watching a show that I struggled to remember. So, hey, forgive me if I get anything wrong in these next few reviews.

Forgive me also if I felt underwhelmed by “Wine and Roses.” That may also not be the show’s fault or my fault. It may just be that I spent most of my time struggling to remember where everything left off. Maybe “Wine and Roses” was brilliant television. Or maybe, as it seemed to me, it was just a relatively low-key debut for a season that is necessarily going to be filled with big developments.

Two things struck me as especially interesting about the episode, from a structural standpoint.

The first and most obvious one is that we didn’t get a Gene scene to open the season. That was as much of a tradition as Better Call Saul has ever had, and I’m sure its absence is meaningful. Could I come up with five reasons we didn’t get one? Yes. Would they all be wrong and make me sound insufferable? Also, yes. The point is that it wasn’t there, and instead we got a flash forward to the tail end of the Breaking Bad era, with the missing Saul’s possessions being hauled off for an estate sale. It was a nice opening. It was cool to see where Saul lived. It seemed impressively opulent and hollow at the same time. I have no additional insight there, but the mere fact that they opened the season with it makes it notable.

The second thing is also related to Breaking Bad: As that show entered its final season, there were fewer plot strands to wrap up. We had multiple characters, obviously, but they all pulled toward a more obvious center. Better Call Saul has always had a lot of narratives at play, sometimes only crossing each other rarely. Its center is broader and looser. As such, we end up having to catch up with a lot of people who are indeed related to each other, but often by several degrees of separation. I suspect that much of season six’s tension will be generated from the fact that these largely disparate elements will be pulled closer into each other’s orbit, and I look forward to that.

For now, though, we have a bunch of characters to catch up with and not much of an idea of how or why they’re going to be relevant to each other at the show’s climax. Does Nacho laying low tie into the assault on Howard’s credibility? Does Gus feigning ignorance about the attack on Eduardo matter to Kim’s desire to snag the Sandpiper money? It’s not a bad thing that some elements of the show lack obvious connection to others, but I find it interesting that Better Call Saul has always had so many plotlines that were so distant from each other that even here, now, as the show winds down, it will still have to work hard to bring most of them together.

Maybe that’s why “Wine and Roses” didn’t feel especially engaging to me. Without knowing how these pieces will connect — and, to be frank, without assurance that they will — it’s just a reminder of how much housekeeping there is left to do. That’s okay, but I can’t pretend that that’s exciting.

The most insightful piece of the episode, for me, was Kim very briefly talking about a new young client of hers. She says that he’s a good kid who made a bad friend. The friend offered to let him drive his car to the liquor store, then robbed the place and her client became a de facto getaway driver. Is that the truth? Unless we find out more later in the season, it doesn’t matter; that’s how Kim describes it, and that’s all we get.

But that led me to think about something later in the conversation: Kim opens up the idea of sinking Howard for the sake of cashing out the Sandpiper settlement from season one. Saul — well, 80% Saul — hesitates and then says, “So we’re…uh…we’re doing that?”

Saul is not and will not be blameless, let me be clear, but it’s interesting that Kim is pushing for this behavior while Saul attempts, however ineffectively, to apply the brakes. Earlier in Better Call Saul, it would have been easy to see Jimmy as the one who robbed the liquor store while Kim got roped into it, the good kid who made a bad friend. By this point, it may be the other way around.

Sure, neither Jimmy nor Saul was a saint, but Kim’s client might not be, either. It’s just that, for simplicity’s sake, we’re meant to see him as one. He’s defined by his contrast with the person who pushes for doing something terrible. I found that interesting, and I love how natural it feels. Jimmy and Kim always brought out the worst in each other. Not in their own relationship (fascinatingly, and impressively) but in their dealings with everybody else. It’s just that we assumed that one was the good kid. Maybe the other was. Ultimately, neither is. But, hey, again, for simplicity’s sake…

I think that the story of her client also reflects what happened to Nacho. He essentially did Gus’s dirty work, taking out Eduardo, but he ends up bring the one to pay for it. Gus even admits that Nacho didn’t have a choice; he was forced to do it, and now he alone will face the consequences. Gus got what he wanted, and Nacho gets the blame.

Of course, Eduardo didn’t die, and by virtue of being the only other survivor of the massacre, Nacho is the prime suspect. Everyone believes Eduardo did die, which is bound to lead to some very rude awakenings but, for now, they’re unaware of what’s coming for them.

Eduardo and Nacho are the wildcards on that side of the story, as we don’t know what happens to them in the brief time remaining before Breaking Bad begins, but I somehow get the sense that it’s going to be more complicated than “the two of them kill each other,” just as I’m sure Kim’s departure will be more complicated than “someone killed her.” I’m especially sure of that now that she’s been revealed as less than squeaky clean.

Kim’s murder would only really have an impact on us, in this show’s context, if she didn’t deserve to die. If it turns out that she’s knowingly dealing with underhanded folks and gets killed as a result, well, sure, that’s fair, but that’s also far too easy an out, narratively. There’s more to it, and I don’t have any guess at all as to what it might be. The show is keeping me guessing, even this late in the game. I give it enormous credit for that.

To be fair, if you’re reading this, you probably already know what happens next; this and episode two aired back to back. I have access to episode two, but I wanted to get my thoughts down about this one before watching it. I’ll try to review that one within the next few days, and then we’ll proceed at, hopefully, a steady clip from there.

I’d love to say that “Wine and Roses” got me excited for season six or kicked things off with a bang, or whatever else, but it didn’t. It was just a competent, quiet start to a season that will probably get very loud very soon.

That’s not such a bad thing. Maybe I’ll appreciate it more once I know where it’s headed.