Better Call Saul Reviews: “Plan and Execution” (season 6, episode 7)

Howard did everything right. That, I think, is worth keeping in mind.

Whatever else the man might have struggled with, whatever his personal flaws as a human being, whatever his worries and suspicions, he did everything right. He let things slide when he thought Jimmy was just working through grief. He gave Jimmy his way many times over. He extended olive branches. When he understood that he was being targeted in a more serious way, he stooped down to Jimmy’s level, hoping to resolve things physically while still treating him fairly. He hired a private eye to make sure he knew what was coming. And when everything fell down around him, he still drove to his tormentor’s house with a bottle of wine just to ask one question: Why?

Howard was there to start a fight, sure, but not a brawl. Howard just wanted to know. To understand. He wasn’t worried about what would happen next. He’d land on his feet. (He was certain of that.) But he wanted to know why. He’d done his best many times over to resolve this situation, and he’d failed each time, so now he wanted to get to the root of it. He’d been addressing symptoms all along; he wanted, at last, to diagnose the actual sickness.

He didn’t even hold Jimmy — or much more clearly now Saul — responsible; this is just who Chuck’s brother is. Chuck had warned him many, many times about this. None of this is a surprise. All of this was predictable. Howard just wanted to know why.

Why was he the target? And why to this extent? Because Howard had been a dick at times? Because Howard was fun to mess with? Because Howard wouldn’t fight back in any way that might actually hurt anyone? Just…why?

It’s Kim who disappoints Howard far more. And, again, Howard’s right. Kim is smart. Kim has potential. Kim could do anything…so why is she doing this?

Howard did everything right, aside from assuming that he was still dealing with two human beings.

In conversation with a friend, I discussed rewatching this show eventually with a focus on Kim. For most of Better Call Saul, I saw Kim as a stabilizing influence on Jimmy. I saw her as one of the few truly good people in his life. I saw her as being representative of what he could have if he kept himself morally straight and put his talents to productive use, as he often did early in this show.

The fact, of course, was that by the time of Breaking Bad he was no longer this promising young man; he was a full-time piece of shit. Therefore, the easy reading — the trap I fell into as a viewer — was that the birth of Saul was a result of losing Kim, of losing that stabilizing influence, of losing that promise that he could have something better. With Kim gone, and with those things gone, of course he let himself turn into an awful man.

What else was left? Why stop fighting his worst impulses? With Kim gone, he’d let gravity take him, and that would be that.

Easy reading.

The wrong reading, but an easy one.

Now, I’d be interested in rewatching the show knowing that Jimmy doesn’t surrender to gravity and become Saul; Kim pulls him in that direction.

We saw a bit of that last season, and we’re seeing a lot of that this season. I’d be willing to bet that it was seeded much earlier, but I overlooked it. I overlooked it probably for the same reasons Jimmy — and Howard and Chuck and Cliff and others — overlooked it: We like Kim. Kim is smart. Kim is professional. Kim sure is pretty. Kim is an absolute mountain of positive character traits…she just happens to be a fucking appalling human being at the center. Saul, by contrast, was a mountain of negative character traits, and we spent a large part of this show learning that there’s a decent human being at his center. By the time of Breaking Bad that may no longer matter, but watching that decent human being get buried is the most engrossing thing about Better Call Saul…especially now when we realize just how much of the shoveling Kim has been doing.

In “Carrot and Stick,” during Saul’s attempt to convince the Kettlemans that Howard is a drug addict, Betsy Kettleman quickly concludes that he must mean “that awful woman with the ponytail.” It’s a great line. It’s funny. Saul immediately corrects her. But that moment stuck with me. As an outsider, without the time to become enamored with Kim, with Kim’s intelligence, with Kim’s professionalism, with anything else that has made us all fall for Kim, Betsy Kettleman saw her clearly and honestly. Saul tells her she’s wrong — of course he does, and he even believes it — but she’s more correct than anybody else has been. She got a bad feeling about Kim. She’s remembered it all this time. Something about Kim just didn’t feel…right.

She didn’t give Kim the chance to change her mind. As such, she’s got the best possible view of who Kim actually is.

None of this is meant to exonerate Saul, or even Jimmy. We are all culpable for our own actions. But Kim is the explanation for why a man who still has a sense of morality keeps choosing to do the wrong thing. It’s not solely for love of money or other rewards. It’s not solely because the guy loves theatrics. It’s not even because that’s who he’s destined to be. It’s because he has exactly one person in his life who he cares about, and that person keeps tugging him in the wrong direction. That’s who Kim is. Kim is gravity.

And so Howard is gone. Saul’s decisions have resulted in the deaths of an H and an M in HHM. Rather than pull himself up higher, he’s pulled others down. The law firm that gave him his start — albeit a very humble one — is now the irreversible victim of his antics. He’s devoured and then shat out the hand that fed him.

I worried at the start of this season that Better Call Saul had too many pieces on the board, and while it wasn’t impossible for the show to bring all of them together for a satisfying conclusion, I did wonder how likely that would be. “Rock and Hard Place” and now “Plan and Execution” have proven that the show knew full well how difficult it would be to bring all plot threads together and resolve things in a way that felt natural. It’s chosen to go another route. It’s chosen to remove pieces from play in ways that were right, well before the climax.

Sure, both Nacho and Howard feel, in the moment, like abrupt removals, but I think it would be difficult to argue that they also didn’t feel right. The particular circumstances of Nacho’s death were due entirely to the choices he himself had made. He dug his own grave, basically, and eventually the only decision he had left to make was how, exactly, to climb down into it.

Howard’s death is just as right, but from another angle. His decisions did not damn him; Saul and Kim made the decisions that damned him. In most cases, they knew what they were doing. In other cases, they didn’t, but they knew exactly the kinds of dangerous people with whom they were aligning themselves. They knew that somebody would eventually get hurt. On some level, they knew that even the people they cared about were in danger. It would just be a matter of time before one set of their associates crossed over with the other. It’s only natural. It’s inevitable. In “Plan and Execution,” it happened. They set out to ruin Howard’s life in one respect, and then ruined it in another.

It was Saul’s choice to let Eduardo go free. It was Kim’s choice to remain a friend to the cartel rather than explain what happened. These two adults who knew better decided to play with fire. The resulting blaze took an innocent man. Like the best aspects of Breaking Bad, we can trace the chaos, step by step, all the way back through the decisions we’ve been watching our characters make from the start. Better Call Saul didn’t cheat. It didn’t thrust us into a disorienting scene for the sake of shock. It walked us through this journey, choice after choice after choice after choice, and then the door opened and we saw who had come to visit.

There are a few things that I really enjoyed about “Plan and Execution,” beyond the quality of its narrative. I liked how elegantly we learned how Howard and Saul were both working with the same private investigator. We learned exactly the way Howard learned; he reflected on what mistake he could have made to get to that point. That’s it. We never needed to see that phone conversation in a previous episode, because it wasn’t significant to Howard at the time anyway. We just need to hear about it now, as he realizes that it was significant, whether or not he knew it.

And I liked the fact that we essentially sidelined Saul and Kim in favor of just watching the mediation unfold. They called in to the meeting, we’d cut back to them now and then, but, ultimately, the show didn’t contrive a situation in which they were present or involved, keeping the plates spinning. The pair did a good enough job planning everything that Better Call Saul was able to just let the execution play out, minute by minute, without them in the room. I enjoyed that a lot.

“Plan and Execution” could have had Saul and Kim running around madly, scrambling to keep things on track, like we saw at the start of this episode when they needed to reshoot some photographs. The episode could have had more things go wrong that required quick thinking and fast action. Technically, that would have been more exciting. That also would have been more artificial. Simply watching the events play out was, in my opinion, far more engaging.

I do wonder if Eduardo’s reappearance — just then, just there, in just those circumstances — wouldn’t have hit harder and better if we hadn’t already followed the guy overseas and then into the sewers. I’m not convinced that losing Tony Dalton completely between the first and final episode of this half-season would have been the right impulse, but I do at least wonder. Granted, we had to set up whatever he’s going to do next with Gus and the superlab, but without knowing where that goes — or how much information we need in advance — I’m at least curious. That second flicker of the candle as the door opens one more time could potentially have been even more chilling, especially if we’d had enough time to forget that Eduardo were an active threat.

That’s just theoretical nitpicking, however. And I’m not even dissatisfied with how things turned out here, at all. “Axe and Grind” was the setup to a punchline, and “Plan and Execution” was about as strong a punchline as anyone could have asked for. It’s a reminder, and an important one, of the serious damage that Saul Goodman does to those around him. When people deal with Jimmy, they get hurt. When people deal with Saul, they get killed.

We’ve got just half a season to go, and we’re getting much closer to being left with only the characters who make it to Breaking Bad. Of the few questions remaining, not all of them will even need to be resolved. Kim will and Eduardo will. Otherwise, though? We don’t necessarily need to learn what happens to Cliff, or to Saul’s production crew, which is a polite way of saying “they might all survive.”

Better Call Saul has already significantly narrowed its focus for its final stretch of episodes. That’s exciting and worrying. Until recently, it was pretty easy to conclude that the stakes in this show were lower than they were in Breaking Bad, with people’s spirits on the line rather than their lives. After all, this very episode was the terminal point for Saul and Kim’s plan, which essentially boiled down to making Howard look like an idiot and dilating his eyes. Harmless stuff, relatively speaking, and everybody knew the guy would land on his feet.

Instead, we see him land on his face.

But, hey, maybe the stakes are lower, technically. Even so, they feel sky high, and that’s a perfect and impressive way to end this half of the season.

Now we all get to twiddle our thumbs for a month and a half, as the characters figure out what to do with that body and decide what they will let happen next.

Thanks for joining me. Hopefully I’ll see you then.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Axe and Grind” (season 6, episode 6)

“Axe and Grind” — which definitely is not stretching the title gimmick of this batch of episodes no why would you even ask that question — is less of a standalone story than it is the first half of a two-part mid-season finale. That’s okay; that’s not a failing. The breaking point at the end of this episode isn’t the night before the big day; it’s partway into the big day, just as Saul and Kim’s plan shows the first sign of unraveling. We’re brought just far enough around the bend that we can understand that the “unfinished story” aspect of the episode is deliberate. All of that is fine. In fact, I liked a lot about “Axe and Grind.” However, it’s extremely difficult to appraise on its own merits.

Eventually we will all have our Blu-rays or streaming options and we’ll barrel right into “Plan and Execution” after the credits roll here. “Axe and Grind” will only really feel unfinished once, and that’s right now. Such is the nature of serialized television. I can live with that, but damned if I don’t struggle to review it.

Essentially, reviewing “Axe and Grind” is like evaluating the setup to a joke without yet knowing the punchline. There’s room to criticize, certainly, but how much value would there be in doing so? I think that’s why most “reviews” of shows like this — my own included, without question — end up devolving into guesswork about what comes next, or reflections on things we’ve seen weeks ago that we’ve finally had time to digest. Can one review a single chapter in a book? You bet. Will that review feel limited and incomplete? Almost always.

So, what can we do? Poke around the margins, find some stuff we like, find some stuff that confuses us, point it all out, and wait for a week, I suppose. That’s not the fault of “Axe and Grind.” Instead, it’s just what we end up being left with as we wait for the joke to land.

Fortunately, the setup seems quite good. This entire season has been great about keeping Saul and Kim’s plan a secret from the viewer. We’ve seen their little sticky-note schedule, but like the vet this week, they’re smart enough not to record their crimes in plain English. We get symbols and metaphors, which helps us to understand how meticulously these two have planned everything without the show having to tip its hand in advance.

What’s more, the secrecy is clearly deliberate. Better Call Saul is stringing us along, and I mean that in a positive way. We never know quite what these two are planning until we see it happen, and even then we’ve only gotten one small glimpse of the larger scheme. Even now, as that scheme comes to a head at the Sandpiper mediation, as Saul flails because he hired a double for someone he didn’t realize had broken his arm, as Kim swings her car around on the highway to rescue the scheme at the expense of a massive career opportunity, we don’t exactly know what they’ve been building toward.

Again, I could guess. Honestly, I’d rather not. I’d like to let the comedian finish telling the joke.

There are still things we can praise about the episode, though. Specifically, the character work, right down to the actor who played young Kim (who we also saw last season in “Wexler v. Goodman”). She and her mother are both perfect, and I can’t even quite explain it. The first we see of young Kim in this episode is just her foot tapping, and I couldn’t even tell you if we’ve seen present-day Kim tapping her foot like that, but just seeing that sneaker tapping in that rhythm was enough for me to understand immediately that this was Kim.

Both she and her mother nail Rhea Seehorn’s…cadence? I do mean cadence, but I don’t think I just mean that. Kim has a very specific way of speaking. She doesn’t just talk; she clips her words. She measures her pauses. She speaks quickly, but not too quickly, then comes to a full stop before starting at full pace again. There’s some degree of posturing behind everything she says. She’s practiced…like a scam artist. Everything she says feels rehearsed or at least refined, even when it can’t have been. It’s difficult to explain, but not difficult to pick up on. Rhea Seehorn knows precisely who the character is, which, yes, is impressive. For her younger stand-in and her mother, it’s even more impressive. They get something that it isn’t even easy to articulate, and watching it is a delight.

The scene with the vet was great as well. I actually did wonder recently if he would appear again. Not because he’s a favorite character or anything — I like him well enough — but because I wondered where he would have gone before Breaking Bad. It was a question that didn’t need answering, but I wondered about it and, sure enough, we got our answer. The guy is corrupt, yes, absolutely, but he does love his job, and he’s going to leave and get back to what he loves in a new place as a new man, leaving his little black book in the grubby hands of Saul Goodman. Hey, look, another question that didn’t need answering, but which is answered simply and elegantly. It was a good scene.

Also, maybe this was a question that did need to be addressed in some capacity, but I fucking loved seeing Francesca get worn down so quickly by working with Saul Goodman as opposed to Jimmy McGill. It’s a very early sign of how toxic his new persona is, as she’s forced to watch clients stub their cigarettes out on her furniture, relieve themselves in her water features, and even participate in Saul’s dirty dealings, her objections going unheard. Her transformation is played for comedy — rightly so, I think — but my lord did I enjoy it.

It doesn’t stop there. Howard and his wife are on profoundly rocky ground — we got just a hint of this in “Hit and Run” — and those two actors played it almost depressingly well. I could open up here. I will choose not to do that. Suffice it to say, I can’t have been the only one who recognized some real truth in the precise nature of their distance.

Cliff tells Kim that the Jackson-Mercer Foundation is looking to expand, and may be able to make great use of her talents as an advocate for the underrepresented and overprosecuted, giving us what (as of this episode’s conclusion) might have been our final glimpse of a happy ending to Kim’s journey. Even as she plays the old man, he is willing to vouch for her in what could be a life-changing step in her career. It’s one she’d enjoy, it’s one that would help a lot of people, and it’s one that she doesn’t end up pursuing. That’s the real axe in the gut.

And Mike has an astronomy night with his granddaughter, from across the street but a million miles away, in what was probably the sweetest and saddest scene this show has had all season. It was great. It beats Gus cleaning between the shower tiles with a toothbrush, but I guess that doesn’t say much.

Honestly, I think my least favorite part of the entire episode was the Eduardo bit, which is surprising to me because Tony Dalton is such a consistent highlight. Even so, it wasn’t bad…it just felt a bit too much like I could see the wheels turning.

Season five ended with Eduardo surviving an attempt on his life and plowing ahead toward revenge. My guess is that the writing staff then sat down to work on season six and realized that…well…he can’t get that revenge just yet, because there’s still a whole season left. Eduardo’s Excellent Adventure in Germany — especially since it comes after a long stretch of episodes in which he doesn’t appear at all — seems like it’s necessary only to kill time. He can’t confront Gus or Mike or whomever else, because we’re too far from the climax. But he needs to do something, so we’ll ship him overseas to bother some people we’ve never met before.

It’s okay, to be clear. His scenes with Werner’s widow last week were great. His brutality this week — after feigning helplessness — was pretty good, too. It’s not bad television, but it’s inelegant television. Maybe I’ll change my mind after whatever happens next. For now, though, it seems like Eduardo is going through a lot of narrative trouble to justify walking up to Gus and beating the shit out of him. We’ll see.

Overall, “Axe and Grind” was good, but it was still just an hour of getting all the pieces into the necessary places so that the mid-season finale will be able to do everything it needs to do.

That doesn’t make this episode disappointing and it far from makes it a failure. It just makes everything a little tougher to judge for another week.

So let’s regroup then and see which pieces are still on the board.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Black and Blue” (season 6, episode 5)

There’s been a bit of talk in the comments about how much better this show could be if it focused less on the characters we already knew in Breaking Bad. Let me be clear up front that I agree, but I think it might be worth discussing. (It’s also, coincidentally, a discussion that ties right into “Black and Blue.”)

For starters, I have had that exact same thought, going back as far as Tuco’s surprise appearance in the very first episode of this show. I don’t mean to dismiss it as a criticism. It’s a fair one.

However, there’s one thing worth pointing out before we dig in: This is what Better Call Saul is. The folks involved with determining the creative direction of Better Call Saul have decided that we will dig up some Breaking Bad characters and follow them — to varying degrees — through this show as well. We can disagree with that impulse, certainly, but it is the impulse, and if we are going to engage with Better Call Saul, we need to be able to accept that.

If we can’t accept it…well, that’s okay. But at that point, we’re focusing less on what Better Call Saul is doing and more on what we wish it were doing. Again, that’s okay — we can focus on anything we like! — but if the show is one thing, wishing it were a different thing can only get us so far, and doing so is not entirely fair to Better Call Saul.

I’ve said that I wish we’d spend more time with the unique characters and less time with the established ones, but I don’t get to make that decision. I get to decide whether or not I keep watching, but I don’t get to decide what Better Call Saul actually is.

So let’s take a look at the inherited characters from Breaking Bad. Cramming them into this show for no reason would be a poor decision, I think, and it’s sometimes easy to assume that they are crammed in here for no reason. (Other than, of course, recognizability and marketing.) I’ve wrestled with exactly the same suspicion. But how valid is it?

The two biggest ones are Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut. I still maintain my longtime confusion over this show covering two different protagonists in two different stories who only rarely interact with each other. Lest anyone think I’m too forgiving of Better Call Saul, I think that that is a fundamental problem that the show even now, as it nears its final chapters, has never managed to justify or correct. But, again, we don’t get to choose what Better Call Saul is. The show is good enough and engaging enough that I keep watching. That’s my choice, and that’s about as far as my choice goes.

But what about importing them from Breaking Bad? Was that necessary? Sure, it seems obvious that it was, but we need to start somewhere.

I think both of them belong here. Saul, for obvious reasons, has to be here. He’s the focal character, and we are exploring significant aspects of the character’s life that Breaking Bad never covered. We aren’t retreading old ground; we met the essentially brand-new character of Jimmy McGill and we are watching how that character’s story pans out. Easy.

Mike is a little more complicated. In one sense, of course, we are experiencing a part of Mike’s story that we’d never seen before, but is Mike all that much different here than he was in that show? I’d say no, but I’d also say that we are exploring a few of the formative experiences of that man’s life. Did we need to see them? No. Were we able to infer enough about who Mike was from Breaking Bad alone? Yes. But, as I’ve mentioned before, Saul and Mike were the two major characters on Breaking Bad who we never saw in flashback. We never got a peek into who they were before the events of that show kicked off. Exploring both of them here is a fair impulse. It probably should have been handled more smoothly from the start — they’ve crossed paths, what, five or six times in this entire show? — but the fact that they both appear in Better Call Saul is not the problem.

Now we run into some others whose presence here is less clearly justified but still, I’d argue, fair enough.

There’s Hector, about whom we learn little more than we already knew, and the story of how he became disabled isn’t one that needed to be told. However, the time we spent with pre-wheelchair Hector was worth exploring, I think. In many ways, that did feel like a different character. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t, but Hector was able to do and say so much more than he was able to do or say in Breaking Bad. Necessary? No, but certainly welcome, and his fate directly introduced Eduardo, a major and excellent character unique to this show. Hector, then, is justified.

There’s Tuco, who was pretty clearly just a character we already knew. However, he was the mechanism by which the show introduced us to Nacho. Tuco was some brief connective tissue, and while Nacho could have been introduced via any other means, yes, introducing him into a dynamic that we already thought we knew helped to define our new character right off the bat. We know how Tuco interacted with his cronies. To see Nacho occupying a very different space within that dynamic did a lot to characterize him for the purposes of this show. I know Tuco popped up again later, but his purpose in this show was to get us familiar with Nacho, and he accomplished that. Tuco is a large, distinct, memorable character; Nacho was defined by sheer contrast. I’m on board with that. In this case, Better Call Saul relied on our knowledge of Breaking Bad not just to tickle our fond familiarity, but to define a new character. That is the correct reason to bring back a familiar face.

If we keep going, we get to Gus, who doesn’t need to be here at all.

I’m okay with Gus being here — and let’s be totally clear that we may well still be building toward something important for the character — but, really, his presence is justified simply because of one of the stories it led to: Werner and the Germans digging the superlab. That in itself is the correct reason to bring back a familiar face. Gus showed up in order to kick off this tiny little unique Better Call Saul story, and it is still my favorite story that the show has told. Does Gus need to be in this show as frequently and as heavily as he is? Absolutely not but, again, we could well end up somewhere interesting. For now, however, the Werner stuff justifies Gus’ return…even though I concede that that return is pretty darned outsized.

Then we should probably look at Saul Goodman’s hangers-on from Breaking Bad: Francesca, Huell, and (I hope) Kuby. We don’t need to see any of these people (and we still may not see Kuby!), but the mere fact that they were big parts of Saul’s business coupled with the fact that we knew next to nothing about them outside of his business makes them fair game here. Huell is a fun presence, but Francesca has been absolutely wonderful to see again. These aren’t stories that need to be told, but we are already telling Saul’s story, and they are natural parts of it. Completely fair, and they haven’t been overused, so I think we’re still good.

Of course, that’s nowhere near all of the Breaking Bad characters. Even if it were, it might be tough to justify so many, and we have only scratched the surface.

We get Gus’ men, Tyrus and Victor. We might as well since we already have Gus but, again, if Gus often feels unnecessary, are these two necessary? Lydia popped up as well. It was brief and I like Lydia, but did we need to see her?

We’ve got the Salamanca cousins showing up, similarly “just because” we already have the Salamancas here. Not necessary to the story. We have Juan Bolsa as well, who had only a very tiny role in Breaking Bad before he was killed, but is there much reason to explore the character in greater depth? Perhaps, but I haven’t seen the reason yet, and we don’t seem to have made much of an attempt to explore him.

We’ve got Hank and Gomez. Again, briefly, but did they need to exist outside of the fact that we’d recognize them? Spooge showed up last week, seeking legal counsel. We also saw Wendy the prostitute. Gale popped up for a bit. Krazy-8 was here at some point. Walt and Jesse are rumored to show up. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of other familiar faces and cute winks that…well…we don’t need.

It’s fine to see these actors again. They’re all good. They remind us of another show that we like. All of that is fine. But there is a difference between a scattered few well-selected cameos and…what we’ve got here.

I understand the concern with Better Call Saul relying too heavily on Breaking Bad. I’m not dismissing that at all. When you add up all of the recurring characters, it seems ridiculous. When you’re spending time with Hank and Gomez that you could instead be spending with, say, Kim and Howard, that even gets frustrating. And that’s all without my bringing up yet again the fact that Better Call Saul has trouble keeping its own plot threads together most of the time. Maybe if the show used more of its own runtime to focus on its own characters, that wouldn’t be a problem.

But if that’s what Better Call Saul is, so be it. I love the show and I would change a lot about it. (Whether or not that would result in a better show, we can’t know…but it’s a pretty safe bet that whatever “good” I could bring to the creative process wouldn’t even come close to matching the amount of “good” that the current team brings to the creative process.) A lot of other viewers would change things, too, and I can’t disagree.

Also, however, I have to be able to let it go. I have to be able to just accept the fact that Better Call Saul keeps calling back to Breaking Bad and spending lots of time with characters we’ve already explored, because every second that I spend focusing on what I wish the show didn’t do is a second that I’m not focusing on what the show does really well.

Ultimately, I think that’s where a lot of the criticism is coming from, so it’s worth emphasizing: Better Call Saul is very good. If it sucked, it wouldn’t be as frustrating that it keeps relying on Breaking Bad. Instead, we like it. We like what it’s doing. We like its characters. We like watching a flawed man become a terrible person. We like all of that, and we just want to see more of it and spend more time with it. I love Breaking Bad, but I can also watch it any time I feel the need to check in with those characters. I don’t need Better Call Saul to pretend to be a loose collection of deleted scenes.

In the comments of a previous post, Casey Roberson said, “I also hope maybe one episode this season gives the majority of its running time to Saul.” The fact that that could even need to be hoped for speaks to a problem with the show. Saul is our main character. Can you imagine anyone ever having to have asked that an episode of Breaking Bad would focus on Walt?

With Better Call Saul, though, we have to hope for that, because the show isn’t just Saul’s story. It’s also the story of all the new characters in his orbit. It’s also the story of Mike. It’s also the story of Kim. It’s also the story of Gus. It’s also (or was, until recently) the story of Nacho. It’s also Breaking Bad Babies. It’s so many things that we don’t know if we’ll spend a full 10 minutes with Saul in a 50-minute episode of Better Call Saul.

The more time we spend catching up with old friends, the less time we can spend with the new friends we are destined to never see again.

I love Walt and Jesse. I don’t want to see them more than I want to spend a few final moments with Kim or Eduardo. This week, I loved Mike checking in with his men to make sure they’d had time to eat during their ’round-the-clock surveillance, and I wish I could have gotten to know these people and how they interact. When we can spend time exploring Mike’s relationships — as we did with Werner — we can find some truly excellent material. Did we need, instead, to spend time being reminded that Gus is worried that Eduardo will find him? Especially when we were told about it last week, and learned everything we need to know there?

I’m not picking on “Black and Blue.” In fact, I thought that this was an excellent episode but, again, its excellence sheds light on what often makes the rest of the show frustrating.

Eduardo picking old wounds with Werner’s widow was brilliant and tense and wonderful. Howard stepping down to Jimmy’s level to resolve their conflict, or at least try to resolve it, was great and very warranted. Kim continuing to dig herself deeper into unethical behavior is both sad and inevitable. Erin letting slip that the Sandpiper plaintiffs could indeed seek representation of their own led to a great Howard moment, and brought Cliff’s brewing suspicions to a head. And Saul having to win Francesca back over — and convince her to run his law firm from the middle of a room, too close to an abandoned toilet — was one of my favorite scenes this season.

Does that latter bit tie into Breaking Bad? Of course it does, but it isn’t treading familiar ground. That part of Saul’s story is unique to Better Call Saul. That stage of their relationship is unique to Better Call Saul. Hell, that entire part of Saul’s career is unique to Better Call Saul.

And the rest of the great stuff in “Black and Blue” has nothing to do with Breaking Bad. We are spending time with characters who exist in this universe alone, and who should therefore matter to this universe more.

This universe, however, can’t make up its mind. It keeps changing the channel to watch a little more of Breaking Bad. It remembers liking that show. So do I. But not enough that I don’t want to enjoy the time I have left with this one instead.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Hit and Run” (season 6, episode 4)

Last week, I closed out my review of “Rock and Hard Place” with this observation: “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.”

I obviously had no idea that that would be the central question of “Hit and Run,” but I feel pretty darn satisfied that it was! Of course, this is now three weeks without Eduardo showing up, and every second that ticks by only increases the tension for everyone who is waiting for him. In the audience, yes, but also in the show.

I am now wondering if, in “Wine and Roses,” Eduardo telling someone to shave so that he’d resemble him was a slight mislead. I and others were led to believe that Eduardo would use the man as a corpse, tricking people — at least briefly — into thinking that he himself had died.

This ploy would have to fall at numerous hurdles that Better Call Saul (like Breaking Bad) is typically good at navigating, though. The man’s dental records, fingerprints, blood type, DNA and god knows what else would establish that he weren’t Eduardo. Of course, the guy could be burned or killed in some other way that would make him impossible to identify, but then that would defeat the purpose of having matching facial hair.

“Hit and Run” might have shown us what Eduardo’s real plan is. Here, Saul dresses as and makes himself up to resemble Howard just enough for someone to believe it really was Howard in passing, from a distance. Eduardo might have the same idea: Have his doppelganger pop up somewhere, alive, so that word gets around. That would cause Mike or whomever else to start looking for him in the wrong place. Like a magician, he’d direct their attention somewhere, while doing whatever he plans on doing somewhere else.

I don’t know. Maybe the Howard impersonation thing was coincidental. (Side note: Considering this episode’s title and the fact that Saul had access to his car, I was anticipating much more horrific things to go down.) Then again, Gus has a double in this episode as well, so maybe I’m not completely out of my mind. Either way, we’ll find out, but it did make me wonder if that will be our ultimate payoff to that setup.

Speaking of “Wine and Roses,” I’ve been thinking back on the opening sequence to that episode. It is almost certainly meaningful, but I wasn’t quite able to figure out why. It’s got to amount to more than “Saul held on to that bottle stopper all these years.” That does mean something, but I don’t think it’s everything.

Dealing with that first, it at least suggests that he and Kim don’t part on horrendous terms. She could still be killed. Things could still go wrong. Anything could happen…but they don’t part ways as two people who never want to think about each other again. Saul, at the very least, can remember the good times.

And that’s nice to know! But I don’t think it’s everything.

I think the bigger, more important takeaway from that opening was that Jimmy McGill isn’t a man who cares about having a golden toilet.

Right now, by the time of “Hit and Run,” I think we’re in Saul territory, but not firmly. There’s still a little bit of Jimmy in the character. By the time of Breaking Bad, however, there isn’t. Or, at least, there’s not enough of it. Saul is a man who comes home to a golden toilet. Jimmy isn’t that man and wouldn’t ever really care to be. I think that that opening sequence was our reminder that there is still a long journey ahead of this character, even as we open the final season.

It’s not just a question of when one kind of ethically dubious lawyer becomes another; it’s a question of when one set of hopes and dreams gets traded in for some very different ones. It’s a question of when this character becomes a different person; one who wants to come home to a golden toilet.

That’s significant, but also worrying. Part of my disappointment with the final season of Breaking Bad was that we started glossing over things. Walt was somewhere at the start of the season and needed to be somewhere else at the end. Well, sure, that’s how stories work. But without enough chapters to get him there at the same deliberate pace the show had usually maintained, we started skipping things. The show was fast-forwarding itself to the highlights.

Did that ruin the final season? Of course not. But the final few episodes had narrative requirements to fulfill that did not allow Breaking Bad to adhere to its own style of storytelling.

Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul take their time. They let you dwell on both consequences of previous actions and the encroachment of threats to come. We can flash ahead or flash back, but when we return to the present, we are still in the present. There’s no escape from what we have wrought, nor should there be. I think that the entire ethos of both shows is based on that. Skipping steps means skipping the time during which we live with the consequences of what we’ve done. Do that, and it’s not the same show anymore. It can still be good. In theory, it can be even better. (Breaking Bad wasn’t, but it’s possible.) It just won’t be the same.

With Saul still having so long a road to travel, and the show reminding us of how long that road is, I worry a bit that Better Call Saul will accelerate its pace rather than retain its identity.

We’ll see. “Hit and Run” does give us a clear reminder of how one character becomes another: He enjoys becoming other characters. Saul is, himself, a character who Jimmy plays. And Jimmy, however much is left of Jimmy, enjoys it. He enjoys planning, scheming, learning scripts, playing dress up. We’ve seen him do all of these things in this season already. It’s a thrill for him. Even when things go wrong, he gets to go home with a funny anecdote to make Kim laugh.

He likes playing roles. He is intrinsically motivated to keep doing it. He is extrinsically motivated in this episode as well, by the speed with which his counterparts on the right side of the law turn against him.

Jimmy’s environment is shrinking while Saul’s is expanding. One of them, necessarily, will die as the other flourishes. It’s no coincidence that “Hit and Run” sees his career on one side of the justice system gradually close off from him while a new career on the other side opens up massively. Jimmy enjoys playing a role and the universe is telling him, very clearly, to keep playing the role.

In fact, it’s telling him that he doesn’t have a choice, and we watch the many ways in which it tells him, over and over again, that he’s robbed himself of an entire possible future due to his own actions. He is forced to deal with the consequences of what he’s done. We watch him observe, absorb, and process those consequences. Then we watch him find another path for himself…one that leads to familiar territory for us, but which for him represents a world of possibility.

That’s much more effective (and better, and more interesting, and more satisfying) than skipping ahead three months and hearing Saul tell Kim that nobody likes him at the courthouse anymore.

Deliberate storytelling is part of what makes this show work, and it’s part of what made its predecessor work. Breaking Bad fumbled a bit in its endgame. Better Call Saul might not. I sure hope it doesn’t.

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.