Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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It’s easier at the end of a serialized season to reflect on that batch of episodes as a whole than to reflect only on that chapter.

That’s because we’ve reached the end, at least temporarily, and as threads are tied up and pieces shuffled into place for the eventual season four, what we’re really left with is perspective. We talked a bit last week about how an ending can define a journey. And, frankly, I think last week’s episode was more than enough proof of that fact.

So leave it to “Lantern” to illustrate it even better.

More than ever before: spoiler warning.

“Lantern” ends with Chuck burning himself alive in his living room. Of course, if you don’t see a body, the best you can do is assume. But, two points about that. First, neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul have been in the habit of false deaths or surprise resurrections. If you’re led to believe something, it’s nearly always because it actually happened. You may well be missing some necessary context, but the end result doesn’t change. And second, we’re clearly led to believe that this final.

There are ways out of this. Maybe Jimmy is parked across the street, sees the fire, and rushes in to save his brother. Maybe Chuck has second thoughts and crawls out onto the lawn. Maybe Walter White falls through a time portal and resets the universe. So, yes, no matter what, season four can do whatever it wants to do. There’d even be a minor precedent for it: in the first episode of season two, Jimmy walked back the decision he made at the end of season one.

But I don’t get the feeling that’s what the show will do here. At least, I hope it doesn’t. Better Call Saul is very much a show about consequences. About dealing with fallout, both expected and unexpected. About doors closing on you and finding fewer and fewer of them left open with each passing day. Undoing this would help very little, and wouldn’t really seem to be within the intentions of the show. Especially since “Lantern” brings so many other decisions to a head, and forces the characters to face their consequences.

Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about Chuck. The ending of “Lantern” positions him as the emotional centerpiece of season three. We opened with him having one kind of breakdown, and close with him having another, very different one. He started off (in flashback) feigning new depths of his illness, and ended experiencing them for real. The notable difference between the two is that when he was only playing, he was simply a confused and batty old man. Here he’s unhinged and, ultimately, suicidal.

To go from one to the other requires a journey. The slip from being so in control of a situation that you can fake your symptoms to being so helpless that you’re at the mercy of them is significant, and season three as a whole describes that transition.

Chuck rose and fell and then rose and fell again throughout the course of these ten episodes. He got the upper hand over his brother with a surreptitious recording, and was then exposed and humiliated in a courtroom. That experience placed him on a genuine road to recovery that saw him make significant progress and start to get his life back together, just for it all to come crashing down. Likely for good.

He played his hand tonight against Howard, and lost. “You won,” Howard says, and I know he believes it. After all, nine million dollars of Howard’s own money and loans in his name were promised to Chuck just to get him to shut up. But for Chuck, it was his last way back in the door at HHM, and it closed instead. Howard would rather be millions of dollars in debt than work with Chuck for another day. That stings.

And it makes his eventual breakdown that much more believable. In that meeting with HHM’s key stakeholders, Chuck was acting and speaking as though he were in control. The reality was very different. When it hit him, he was left literally speechless. His former colleagues gathered to applaud him…but he left the building alone. It was over.

For Chuck to die here…it would make a perfect kind of sense for the character. To Chuck, power was important. He was an intelligent man. A gifted lawyer. A savvy judge of character. He had knowledge and abilities that nobody else had. He stood out in his field. He was respected. He built a massive, successful firm from the ground up, and he did it through hard work and tenacity.

But doors close on you. We watched it happen.

Chuck’s death would also make a perfect kind of sense for Jimmy’s character. His older brother told him, point blank, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” For that to be the last thing he ever hears from his brother…well, that would obviously be meaningful. And would be a completely understandable shove forward on the road to becoming Saul Goodman.

Chuck’s snipe also punctuates a lecture to Jimmy — the latest and possibly last — about how Jimmy is doomed to hurt those around him. Why regret anything? The cycle begins anew. People get hurt. Jimmy feels bad, sure, but if people get hurt again…what does that say about Jimmy?

I think I know what it says about Jimmy, and it’s not what Chuck thinks it says. You each have your own feelings as well. But the fact is that this is coming from somebody Jimmy admires, cares about, and loves. For him to hear that Chuck believes others would be better off staying far away from him…that’s painful. That’s cruel. And that’s bound to lead to some soul searching. Where, ultimately, he’s going to decide that his soul isn’t worth much at all.

To Jimmy’s immense credit, he does his best to undo much of the damage he caused. He’s correct that he can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but if he can get some old ladies to be friends again — even at the cost of his reputation — he’ll do it. It’s similar to what he did for Chuck in “Klick” last season; he confesses to his own wrongdoing just to help somebody else feel better. He’ll set himself back to pull somebody else forward. That’s Jimmy…not Saul.

But at some point, he stops doing that. At some point he starts putting himself above others. At some point he doesn’t have the twinge of conscience that makes him do the right thing.

Doors close on you.

I will add that I really liked seeing Erin playing along to help things work out…even if she wasn’t “playing” all that much. She’s a great character and one I was glad to see again. Hopefully it won’t be the last time we see her…or Francesca. We know that the latter plays a big part in Saul’s life, but for now, she’s let go. Just because she hitched her wagon to a dual practice that wasn’t fated to last. Another great character kicking around the universe, looking for a path forward.

Elsewhere Nacho deals with the consequences of his own actions…which endanger his father almost immediately. I mentioned before that Nacho is the one true wildcard in that section of the story. We know exactly what becomes of Hector, Tuco, Gus, Victor, et al. But Nacho’s fate is unknown, which means he’s the one character that can unexpectedly die. I still don’t think we care about him anywhere near as much as we cared about Jesse Pinkman, for instance, or Hank, or even Gayle, but if Better Call Saul chooses to develop the character further, we could be in for some real heartache in the future.

Oh, hey, I might as well bring this up since I see people talking about it elsewhere: Yes, Saul mentions Ignacio when he meets Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad, and we’ve been told that he’s referring to Nacho. Some folks have taken that to mean that Nacho is alive at that point in time…but that isn’t true at all. All it means is that Saul doesn’t have knowledge of his death. He could be lying in a shallow desert grave at that point. The only thing it proves is that the lawyer believes he’s still alive.

Okay, sorry, just wanted to clear that up. Nacho’s fate is very much in flux, and possibly in jeopardy. His gambit with the pills pays off this week, and he even gets the opportunity to cover his tracks as everyone else scatters, but Gus gives the boy a knowing glance. This is either good news or bad news for Nacho. Gus does a fantastic job of keeping that uncertain.

Then there’s Kim…who takes some well deserved time off. I don’t have much to say about her at this point, except that I’m very curious to see where the character goes next.

None of our major figures are in the same place now as they were when season two began. Howard is in debt without a partner, Francesca’s been let go, Kim is on indefinite leave, Jimmy’s no longer practicing, Chuck’s on fire…

Season three began with such promise for everyone. Season four will begin with so little left clearly ahead for any of them.

Doors close on you.

Notably absent in the finale was Mike. Which was an odd choice. I’m sure it wouldn’t have fit so I’m not complaining, but ideally I would have put his short scene with Lydia in this episode instead, just to give him an ending as well.

Instead it just feels odd not to check in with our deuteragonist. Then again, Mike’s been pretty…underutilized this season. Both seasons one and two had a lot for him to do, but here he spent several episodes just following a trail. Sure, it led him to Gus…but aside from that, did Mike really have a story? Or did he just jog around the map for a bit?

I expect season four to rectify this. Now he’s on the payroll, and he can get up to all manner of shenanigans with those wacky chicken slingers. But season three seemed like an awful lot of effort to move him incrementally forward.

I still think Better Call Saul is at its best when it’s not setting a place at the table for Breaking Bad. We’ve seen that show. We know that show. We can watch that show any time.

I want Better Call Saul to be about Jimmy. About who he is. About how he changes. About what matters to him and why he’s doomed to lose it.

So far, Gus, Hector, Tuco, and even Mike don’t factor into that much, if at all. It’s a separate story competing for airtime, shouldering Better Call Saul out of the way to make room for characters that won’t matter to this series as much as they mattered to one that’s already off the air.

That’s my wish as season three ends. Better Call Saul is so good that I want to spend more time with it, and I want to know that the time I am spending — all of it — serves this show and not its smarter, more popular, more admired older brother. Gus and Hector and all the rest of those crazy kids can pop up all they like…but they need to be a part of Jimmy’s story. They can’t be an irregular distraction from it.

For now, though…that’s it. The door has closed on season three, and I appreciate you taking the time to watch along with me. I know these reviews don’t get as many comments, but a lot of people seem to read them. I can only hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am.

Oh, and if you’re curious what song was playing when Jimmy went to visit Chuck, here you go. It’s one of my favorites, and one of the saddest compositions I’ve ever heard. It was used to incredible effect here. The perfect soundtrack to the last time Jimmy would ever see his brother alive. Or, as Thomas Pynchon put it in Gravity’s Rainbow, “Certainly not the first time a man has passed his brother by, at the edge of the evening, often forever, without knowing it.”

See you in a year for season four.

There are a number of television episodes that are made — nearly or entirely — by their endings. “Abyssinia, Henry” from M*A*S*H. “Time Keeps on Slippin'” from Futurama. “The Best Christmas Ever” from Moral Orel. Hell, even ALF‘s “Alone Again, Naturally.” Or, to be more relevant to the matter at hand, “Dead Freight” from Breaking Bad.

I’m not arguing that these are bad episodes if viewed in isolation from their endings. I am arguing, however, that they are enhanced, enriched, and defined by those endings. Take away the final punch and you’ll probably still have something good, but you’ll also have something extremely different.

Those endings provide the context. They’re filters we don’t get until just before the credits roll, but through which we’re meant to view the entire episode. They’re reveals that provide the tools for understanding what it is we just watched. And, in each of the above cases, we don’t even realize we need those tools along the way. We believe we’re watching one thing. It’s rolling along. We’re enjoying the ride. We have a solid idea of where we’re going.

And then…

Crash.

The journey is the story, but the destination defines the journey. Where we end up — or fail to end up — redefines the steps we took along the way.

So Lt. Col. Henry Blake never makes it home. Fry’s grand gesture goes unseen. Orel’s prayer goes unanswered. ALF catches a fleeting glimpse that may have actually just been wishful thinking. An innocent child is murdered to protect a group of criminals.

And Kim drives off the road.

I love Rhea Seehorn. I believe strongly that Kim Wexler is one of the best things on television right now. She’s a rich, believable, important character that regularly pushes Better Call Saul over the line into greatness.

But I’ve wondered about the character before, both within and without these reviews. I’ve wondered if she isn’t too good. If Better Call Saul needed a love interest for Jimmy to work his way through fairly quickly, but who turned out to be too good to let go.

So the question for me — as much time as we spend with her, as well-spent as that time is — was always how long we had left with her. She departs before Breaking Bad begins, and that’s a deadline that seems to approach more rapidly with every episode. What’s more, though: we know* that Jimmy and/or Saul gets married and divorced several times before meeting Walter White, and so, presumably, we’ll also need time to work through those relationships post-Kim.

Kim’s time is necessarily abbreviated, and then abbreviated again. Eventually she and Jimmy will split up for good. Does she leave him for a better opportunity? Does his increasingly seedy behavior drive her away? Is she collateral damage in the fallout of some criminal activity Jimmy or Mike gets up to?

“Fall” doesn’t definitively provide an answer, but it provides another possibility: she becomes a danger to herself.

That’s something I never guessed. Kim’s so collected. So capable. So…great. Surely her destruction would have to come from an external force.

But “Fall” ends by suggesting that it may not.

The funny thing is that it could have, if that were the lesson “Fall” wanted us to pull from it. All the show would have had to do is have her take a shot with Jimmy before rushing off. Have her dawdle for another five minutes and drive 60 instead of 55. Have her explain the situation to her oblivious partner rather than rush out.

Any of those simple, natural responses would have passively reinforced Jimmy as the destructive presence in her life.

But none of that happens. She takes command. She leaves.

She crashes.

And the camera pulls out so that we can survey the damage right along with her.

Of course, it’s worth rewinding. The reason Kim took an additional client at all is due to the fact that Jimmy wasn’t financially pulling his weight. She knew she’d need to make up the difference, so she broke her vow of exclusivity with Mesa Verde to work on an oil rights dispute. That does, in fact, shift the indirect blame back onto Jimmy.

Right?

Well…as much as I can’t fault Kim for planning ahead, the fact is that Jimmy has been pulling his weight. Not in the best or most ethical or most reliable ways, but he’s been paying up on schedule…and springing for dinner. What’s more, he was even celebrating by episode’s end the fact that money would no longer be a concern for him. He’d covered his debt to her.

Thinking through the problem and being responsible, is what led to her downfall. Had she taken a mindset similar to Jimmy’s (a vague “That is tomorrow-talk,” as he claimed in “Off Brand”), she’d be fine right now. She wouldn’t have taken another client. She wouldn’t have had to pull extra all-nighters. She wouldn’t have nodded off behind the wheel.

Instead, she rightly identified that Jimmy was unreliable and took steps to fix the problem on her end.

That was the smartest possible thing to do in her situation. And that was her problem.

As much as we love Jimmy and Kim together, I think we all wanted to count on the fact that he’d be the damaging influence in her life. I don’t think any of us wanted to see her as her own problem. I don’t think anyone wanted to have to look a second time at her admirable qualities and see them as flaws. I don’t think anyone wanted Kim to be…human.

We want to believe that our troubles aren’t our own. That we could be so much more than we are, so much happier, so much healthier, so much richer, so much more popular if it weren’t for…something. Something beyond our control. Our looks. Our place of birth. Our parents. Our dead-end career. That dumbass we wasted too many years with. If it weren’t for…something, we’d be okay.

And part of growing up — truly growing up — is realizing that, with very few exceptions, it’s not something. It’s us. It’s our habits and patterns and thought processes. It’s our hangups and fears and anxieties. It’s who we are that holds us back. It’s the monster in the mirror.

Poor Kim faces the monster at the end of “Fall.” And this, I feel, positions her for the most important emotional arc of the season. I could be wrong, of course, but the rest of “Fall” doesn’t feel like it’s moving its characters toward their final positions before being placed back in the box.

Chuck and Howard clash. Mike makes things official with Gus. Hector takes his pills. Nacho tries to protect — if not exactly save — his father. Jimmy does right by his old Sandpiper clients in an unexpectedly callous way.

It’s not as though things are stagnant. The pieces are moving. They’re interacting. They’re making progress.

But throughout the episode I had to keep reminding myself that there was only one more left this season, because nothing felt like it was approaching any kind of terminal point.

And then Kim crashed.

“Fall” deposited her in a situation that leaves her with no more room for blindness. Unless, of course, she chooses wilful blindness.

Kim Wexler is positioned for a change. Nothing felt as though it was headed for the finish line but, suddenly, immediately, in the blink of an eye, that’s exactly where she ended up.

The destination defined the journey.

—–
* It’s possible that he lied to Walt about this for…some reason, but so far “eh, he lied” has never been this show’s answer to any bit of backstory, and I don’t believe they’d start pulling that crap with something so significant.

Better Call Saul skipped a week to avoid airing a new episode on Memorial Day. That’s something we all feel here and now, but it won’t matter for those who are binging the show on Netflix or DVD in the future.

And…you know what? I think I’m glad we had a silent week between episodes. I think that extra, empty space actually helped. I think it made a few things matter a bit more than they would have otherwise. Or, at least, it helped to make it feel as though they were landing at different times.

That empty space, I’m sure, was unintentional. It certainly wasn’t part of the pitch sessions, it wasn’t in mind when the scripts were being written, and it was of no concern to the editors working day and night to package up the footage. But it worked. It was a bit of accidental, passive worldbuilding. An intermission during which we didn’t see the characters, but they kept moving.

It’s reflected in a few of the stories, I feel. Howard, unseen, has been meeting with clients to protect the reputation of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. The guitar shop, unseen, has aired and reaped the benefits of Jimmy’s commercial. Chuck, unseen, has been coming to grips with his mental health issue, which with impressive speed he seems to accept completely as being a mental health issue. Nacho, unseen, has been rehearsing, detail by detail, his plot to switch Hector’s pills.

Alright, yes, “unseen” isn’t strictly true in any of those cases. We see a snatch of each. (Presque vu, as Chaplain Tappman might put it.) But those snatches are meant to orient us. The passage of time, on the other hand…the expanse of time…the loose ticking of the clock in the background as the characters make more, more, more progress toward what they want…

That we don’t see. That’s what the empty space last week provides. That’s why I believe more in the progress we see here than I might have otherwise.

When Nacho drops the pills into Hector’s pocket, he wasn’t lucky. He was rehearsed. We’re seeing the evidence of empty space. Of early-morning hours spent practicing in the dark. Of repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, not until he could do it but until he could do it any time, from any angle, without thinking, without having to think, without having to focus, without missing ever again, because he knows he will only get one chance, because he knows he will be sweaty, because he knows his hand will shake, because he knows this is the only opportunity he will ever have and a mistake — any mistake — will get him killed.

That’s how Nacho filled his empty space.

Each of the characters filled theirs.

It was surprising to see Chuck pulling his life together rather than wallowing or resisting, but it does make sense. Chuck never realized he was broken. He needed to be shattered completely before he was aware enough to fix anything. Now…he’s trying, bless him. He wants to do better. And as much as I am on Jimmy’s side at this point, Chuck does deserve to live a better life than the one he created for himself. He’s taking steps to get there. Small steps, but he’s doing it.

And as Chuck begins his rise, Jimmy takes a fall. Literally, yes, but there’s also the fact that he regresses to his broken state: that of Slippin’ Jimmy. It’s a desperate act, but it’s one he knows he can rely on. And it works. No, I didn’t want to see him get reduced to that again — after all we’ve learned about him, after all he’s grown, after all he’s proven he’s capable of — but I can’t really blame him.

Jimmy’s tried multiple times to make a fair (if not entirely honest) living. Whether he’s tracking the Kettlemans down in the woods, digging through dumpsters for evidence, writing and producing a commercial for his firm, or funneling customers into a guitar shop, his good deeds get him nowhere. He falls back to the ground. He proves his worth, and it might even be acknowledged in some superficial way, but he’s slapped down where he belongs.

That’s what he gets for his trouble, his effort, his dedication. He gets reminded of his place in the universe, as he was here by the brothers who owned the guitar shop and realized they could cheat him out of their arrangement.

So he slips.

Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he knows it works. It’s not his fault. The universe left him with no other choice. He can work his ass off to climb some temporary step or two…or he can slip on a drumstick. Morally, he should do the former. Rationally, the nature of the universe in Better Call Saul insists he do the latter.

Jimmy’s competency bites him. It always has. He’s good at what he applies himself to, but where does playing by the rules get him? Where did it get his father? It’s no coincidence that we opened tonight’s episode in the sunk McGill family business. Where would it get Nacho’s father? (Well, hopefully we won’t have to find that out.)

The Better Call Saul universe — like this one — rewards bad behavior. Not exclusively, but easily enough that it’s a viable option, and often enough that it might be the smarter option.

It’s not sustainable (we all know how Breaking Bad ended for each character involved, and we know without question that Jimmy loses Kim, his career, and his identity), but who’s worried about sustainability?

I have bills to pay at the end of the month. The judge said I have to finish my community service this week. I need to find a client and produce a commercial to air tomorrow.

Sustainability?

We’re just trying to make it through the day.

We’ve tried to do things the right way, and it hasn’t worked. You can’t blame us, now and then, for trying the wrong way, just to see what happens.

And when that’s what works…over and over, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, why wouldn’t we keep it up?

We’ve learned our lesson.

It’s not our fault the universe decided to teach us that one.

“Expenses” may be the bleakest episode of Better Call Saul yet, which makes it a worthwhile point of comparison with Breaking Bad. See, that show was pretty bleak as well. On the whole, I’d say the agreed-upon bleakest episode is “Ozymandias,” and I’d have a difficult time putting forth any other forerunner.

But what made “Ozymandias” bleak?

Well, there were the deaths of major characters: Hank and Gomez. There was the kidnapping of our second lead, Jesse, as a result of our actual lead selling him out. There was the sudden empowerment of the show’s villains, who then seized the money Walt hid in the desert…the money that was, indeed, the root of all of Walt’s evil. There was the clear and unavoidable distinction between the desperate Walt who opened the series and the cruel, mindlessly vindictive Walt we had now. There was sharp betrayal with fatal consequence that left families irreparably broken.

It was bleak. And even if you’d finger a different episode as your particular “bleakest,” your reasons would probably be similar to everything I said above. The specifics would change, but the broad strokes would not. Breaking Bad had a kind of bleakness that lent itself to being explored in primarily those ways.

And now we have Better Call Saul‘s equivalent.

With no death.

With no betrayal.

With no shifts in power.

With no beloved characters in danger.

Better Call Saul lives in the shadow of Breaking Bad, and God knows its marketing team is comfortable with it remaining there for the rest of time. But the contrast between the way the two shows explore rock bottom — and what they each consider to be rock bottom — is an important and instructive one. It’s where we find each show’s soul. It’s where we see illustrated most clearly the difference between right and wrong. And, in each case, it’s illustrated by the characters choosing incorrectly.

We find Better Call Saul plumbing its own depths in a quiet episode that, ironically, covers a lot of ground without digging deeply into any of it. “Expenses” is decidedly superficial, sketching out the vague points of a tragedy and letting its own silence — and ours — fill the space in between.

The result is…bleak.

And it’s a bleakness that actually works very well with my recurring concern about the show…while asking me to reconsider it.

See, I want Better Call Saul to stand on its own merits. It will necessarily provide backstory for characters we knew in Breaking Bad, and I’m more than happy for the old familiar faces to pop up now and again, but I’ve wanted Jimmy McGill’s story to be…well…a story. Not a preamble, not a prelude, not the long-lost Book One. I want Better Call Saul to be one thing, and Breaking Bad to be a related but distinct other.

And yet, that might be unfair. I don’t know that Better Call Saul ever was promised to us in that way. Maybe Better Call Saul is exactly what it seems like it would be: not the story of Jimmy McGill, but the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman.

I wanted the former, and for a good while I thought that that’s what I’d get, but if the show is really about the latter…if it’s less about transformation than it is about that one particular transformation…then, well, I can’t complain.

And “Expenses” suggests that Better Call Saul is something other than what I’d hoped it would be. Fortunately, it also suggests that that’s not a bad thing.

“Expenses” functions as it does — as bleakly as it does — entirely because we already know Breaking Bad. Seeing these characters hit the floor is only as effective as it is because we know what’s to come. We know that while it’s not the end of their story, it may be the end of their relatively safe times. We know that as each of these characters is faced with a chance to extract him or herself from what is clearly a bad situation, they won’t.

The episode doesn’t end by telling us they won’t, because it doesn’t have to. The episode knows that we already know.

And so the bleakness of “Expenses.” A question is raised, but it’s not the deliberation we focus on. It’s the impending doom on the horizon. The knowledge that however many episodes may pass before decisions are made official, the characters are already doomed.

I wasn’t exaggerating up there, either; each of these characters does face a chance to extract themselves. Here. In this one episode. All of them independently of everyone else. What’s more, it’s handled so effortlessly that you may not even recognize the fact that they’re all facing the exact same decision at the exact same time. It’s good writing, as it nearly always is, and it’s so natural as to be invisible.

The most obvious example might (might) be Kim, who snaps rudely during a meeting with her client. She takes it back — and all seems fine — but then blurts her regret about piling on Chuck the way she did. She’s openly having second thoughts, and Rhea Seehorn put forth some of the best physical acting I’ve ever seen on television in that scene. Her voice remains steady, but the inner turmoil is conveyed through her breathing. If you’ve ever seen somebody pop in real life and then stuff it right back down, you’ll know what to look for. And you’ll find it right there.

Then there’s Mike, who keeps good on his unwitting promise to build a new playground for the church. While there he bonds with another parishioner, and we see a side of him we’ve never seen before, on either show: Mike with a real friend.

Prior to this, I think the closest friend we’ve ever known him to have was Jesse Pinkman, and that relationship — as important and genuine as it was — also involved a clear and necessary distance. Here he lets her help pour concrete, and later listens intently to her story of her missing husband. He opens himself up to her — and to the church — in an unexpectedly warm way. He lets his guard down. He accepts help. He accepts…others.

It’s a different Mike. It’s a Mike he might even like being.

But it’s not the Mike we lose in Breaking Bad. We know he pushes it away.

Then there’s our old cobbler-sitting, card-collecting friend Pryce, who finds himself seduced back into the game by the promise of $20,000 for easy work. Mike specifically cautions him against getting involved. In fact, he tells him not to and instructs him to come up with an excuse. This is Pryce’s chance to break free as well as a reminder that he’s lucky to have made it out alive the first time. Needless to say, he doesn’t listen, either.

And that’s not all. There’s Nacho, whose plot against Hector has holes poked in it, and who is also cautioned against proceeding. We can say with confidence that — while he may or may not succeed — he certainly won’t put the breaks on.

Centrally, though, there’s Jimmy, whose conclusion is the most foregone.

This is his chance to extract himself, too. To admit defeat. To swallow the loss on his airtime and malpractice insurance, to knock out his community service, and to find a job that brings in more money than he spends.

But he doesn’t do any of that. He sinks more time and money into his commercial gambit, and lies about its actual performance to Kim. (Several times over.) He uses his failed appeal to his insurance agent as an opportunity to kick Chuck even harder while he’s down. He digs his heels into a venture that isn’t — in any sense of the word — working, refusing to find another professional and ethical direction for himself even when, it has to be said, that would be the much easier option right now.

Every one of those characters has a chance to take a deep breath, think about where they are, and take a step toward getting, instead, where they’d like to be.

But they each grit their teeth and decide against their own better judgment to stay where they are. Each of them is a failure raging against an opportunity to succeed.

And that’s pretty remarkable characterization to pull off five times in succession in a single episode.

I’m interested in the Jimmy we see in “Expenses,” because I think we’re about halfway toward him truly becoming Saul. Certainly there’s a balance between his two incarnations here, and we can feel it teetering.

He still has a heart, and is still a largely decent human being, refusing to take money back from one of his film crew, even when he clearly needs it. Yet he schemes to get Chuck’s insurance rates raised with a cruel crybaby act.

He still takes Kim out (and treats her) because he knows she needs a break, but their usual, playful scamming turns darkly sinister as he seems to realize, in that moment, that he could genuinely break one potential target just for the fun of it. (A moment that clearly worries Kim, but doesn’t scare her off; yet another illustration of the balance.)

I wanted Better Call Saul to be something that I’m increasingly coming to believe it isn’t.

But it is something great. Something that’s grown on its own terms, feeding on our love for Breaking Bad, yes, but giving us a deeply engrossing and elegantly handled transformation story along the way.

Only three episodes in the season remain. And the fact that we already know no character will make wise use of them only makes them more compelling.

Well, that was an unexpectedly busy episode. And a surprisingly good one.

I had pretty strongly expected “Off Brand” to be quiet. Probably reflective. Coming off of the massive, important clash of last week’s “Chicanery,” this was a chance for the characters — and for Better Call Saul — to pause. To consider. To look forward and determine, carefully, what to do next. For comparison, think back to the stretch of episodes in Breaking Bad‘s third season when Walt successfully (though temporarily) extracts himself from the drug trade.

A crossroads has been reached. We may know here even better than we knew there that our hero will gravitate back toward darkness, but that silent moment during which the ball hangs suspended in the air is rife with tension. It’s a gift to the writers. It’s a chance to explore what remains after the bomb has gone off. A chance to breathe before everything comes crashing down again.

And Better Call Saul doesn’t breathe. It barrels forward. I’m surprised by that, but based on “Off Brand” I couldn’t possibly say it was a bad idea.

We pick up more or less where last week left off. Everyone’s aware of Chuck’s mental illness, but the characters are each handling it in their own ways. Rebecca is overcome with concern. Howard invites him to see this as a new beginning. Chuck himself calls his old doctor (I’m guessing a therapist), which may or may not be a larger turning point for him than the fact that he leaves the house alone. And Jimmy…well, Jimmy hits him with an indirect — but long overdue — fuck you when he refuses to check in on him.

Rebecca was right…I’ll grant her that much. Chuck is mentally ill. Chuck does need help.

But it’s not that Jimmy won’t help. It’s that he already did. For too long. And he’s seen what it’s gotten him.

Every man has his limit, and, if anything, Jimmy reached his two seasons too late. He sips champagne again. Chuck is in trouble, but this time he can deal with it alone.

Jimmy’s champagne comes at a cost, though. He wasn’t disbarred, but he was suspended for twelve months. He promises Kim that he’ll be able to pull his weight financially during that time, but by the end of “Off Brand” we don’t have a definitive answer as to how he intends to do that. Mainly, though, Jimmy isn’t taking the defeat lying down. He’s working. He’s finding direction. And as the commercial he produces suggests, he’s finding himself.

Yes, Saul Goodman is here at last. That’s an alias from the Slippin’ Jimmy days, but it’s probably important to note that he’s not using it to scam anybody. In fact, his offer is legitimate: in order to offset the sunk costs of his “Gimme Jimmy” campaign, he’s selling his commercial production services. His clients, so far as we can tell, will get exactly what they’re promised for exactly the cost he’s asking.

It’s not entirely on the up and up, however; Jimmy’s contract explicitly forbids him from selling his airtime. So…he’s not. He’s giving it away, with the purchase of his services. He’s found a loophole.

It’s a victimless crime…but one suspects that he’s on a slippery slope.

I like this. I’m pretty sure everyone watching this show expected him to adopt the Saul Goodman moniker in order to continue practicing law after getting in some kind of trouble under the name James McGill, and that’s certainly still possible. But, for now, it’s introduced in a completely unexpected — yet totally organic — way. The obvious answer wasn’t the answer, but what we get fits just as well. That’s pretty good writing.

Some more good writing comes from the way in which Nacho takes over for the incarcerated Tuco. Most interesting is the way it recontextualizes the job he hired Mike for (which came to a head in “Gloves Off”). Was he really afraid of Tuco and worried for his safety? It was certainly easy to believe, as we’d seen Tuco unhinged many times over. But the ease with which he slips into Tuco’s old role — and the quickness with which he’s compelled to solve a problem with violence — might imply something else. It might imply that he wanted Tuco out of the way for a different reason. He might have just wanted to climb up the chain.

This would make sense, as Hector being in power meant that Nacho would never be able to position himself above Tuco; family is important to Hector, and Nacho’s just a hired hand. But take Tuco out of the picture, and Nacho might start to shine a little brighter in the old man’s eye. Certainly Hector was impressed by the fact that Nacho had a gun to his head in this episode…and still came away with what he wanted.

Of course, we now also see Nacho at a crossroads. He’s perfectly happy to treat his dealers well, and he enjoys occupying Tuco’s seat. But then Hector pushes him a little further, and he’s almost as happy to lay a savage beating upon Krazy-8. He’s rattled by it — and injures himself with a sewing machine while reflecting on what he’s done — but if that’s what it takes to survive in Hector’s gang, that’s what he’ll do.

What he won’t do — at least immediately — is involve his family. We saw way back in “Cobbler” that Nacho’s uncle is an honest man who runs a bodyshop. Here we see that his father is just as honest, making and repairing upholstery. In short, Nacho is from a respectable background of hard workers. When Hector (ahem) hectors him into roping his father into the business, he pushes back.

We don’t get a definitive answer — Nacho is saved by Bell Telephone — but the reluctance is clear. And part of me wonders if Hector’s eventual crippling comes as a result of another arrangement between Nacho and Mike. When he wanted Tuco out of the way, he got it. If he decides he needs Hector out of the way as well…we’ll see.

I’ll be interested to find out what he does with the pill he stole from Hector. I doubt a missing pill will be enough to set Hector down an irreversible road toward infirmity, but perhaps Nacho will figure out what that medication is meant to be treating, and work out a plan from there.

So, yes, the big reveal this week was Saul Goodman…but that’s not the only connection reestablished with Breaking Bad. Gus tours the laundry facility that will come to house his superlab (which hopefully means we’ll be meeting Gayle soon), and then he gets into the car with…

…Lydia!

And that’s a character I really didn’t expect to see again. Foolish me.

I loved Lydia on Breaking Bad. She was a late game addition that worked so well within that universe and managed to feel more important to it than her abbreviated run would suggest. Having her back is wonderful, because it means we’ll get to spend more time with her, yes. But also because it allows her to interact with Gus, and that’s a relationship we never saw on Breaking Bad as she wasn’t introduced until he was out of the way.

I actually did a double take when I saw Laura Fraser, and I’m pretty sure it was the biggest smile any Breaking Bad carryover got out of me.

And so Better Call Saul wastes no time in moving forward, and no time in drawing nearer its parent series.

Which is a kind of crossroads in itself.

Does the show rush forward, filling in the remaining blanks and drawing us toward its known point of termination?

Or does it spend a little more time with itself, building its own universe and asserting itself as an important TV drama in its own right?

You know my answer. But at least now I know that if the show pulls the other way, we still have episodes like this to look forward to.

And I’ll take a page out of Jimmy’s book on that one; it’s technically a loss, but it’s a loss worth celebrating.

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