Better Call Saul Reviews: “JMM” (season 5, episode 7)

Last week I alluded to the fact that if they did indeed get married, Kim would be Saul’s first wife. Only, y’know, that wasn’t a fact at all.

Commenter Meister Eder referred me back to a scene in season one’s “Marco,” in which Jimmy rants about a number of things during his bingo-night meltdown. One of those things is an ex-wife.

Watching the clip he provided in isolation was a strange experience. I’d seen that episode, obviously, and if you had asked me about that scene I’d have told you I remembered it pretty well. But while I was paying attention to one thing — Jimmy, overcome with frustration, gradually losing control — I missed another.

It’s sort of like that video of the basketball players. You watch it and try to count the number of times they pass the basketball to each other. Afterward you watch the same video again and you see a man walk across the scene in a gorilla suit — even pausing to pose for the camera — which you didn’t notice the first time because you were focused on something else.

In short, Better Call Saul did in an early episode what I thought it hadn’t done yet as the show nears its end. The existence of multiple ex-wives for Saul was one of the few bits of history Breaking Bad gave us about the character, and Better Call Saul has more or less gone down the list of everything we knew about the man, proving each of them true in turn. (For a shyster, that Saul Goodman sure was honest!)

None of that is to say that Better Call Saul would have done anything wrong by giving Saul his first wife this late in the game, but it would have been a rather puzzling choice; it would mean the show would either need to cram several wives in as it neared its conclusion, or it would have had to leave space between this show and Breaking Bad for more wives to come and go.

To be clear, I was wrong that we hadn’t heard tell of a previous marriage. Period. But even if I had been right, “JMM” does something the show always had every right to do: It shuffles an ex-wife into the deck.

While Kim and Jimmy are applying for a marriage license, Jimmy is asked to provide documentation of his “two previous dissolutions.” I missed the first ex-wife, but I think this is the first we’re hearing of a second one. This makes Kim number three, and she could well be his last. We’ve hit an appropriate number of ex-wives for Saul Goodman.

Which, of course, is this episode’s biggest development by far. (It also provides the episode’s biggest laugh, as Jimmy pays for their marriage license as though he’s paying for dinner.)

Elsewhere, “JMM” doesn’t do much other than shift some pieces around. Eduardo is in jail, but by the end of the episode every party involved has an interest in getting him out. Nacho confronts Mike about helping him get out of the business, but it’s not time yet. Gus learns that the Salamancas want to burn down one of his restaurants, so he does it for them. Things happen, but only two of them feel like serious developments. One is toward the episode’s beginning, and one is toward the end.

The one toward the end happens during Eduardo’s hearing. Jimmy has some of his trademark theatrics up his sleeve, bringing along a fake family to earn sympathy for Eduardo from the judge. Also in the courtroom, though, is the actual, grieving family of Eduardo’s murder victim.

Jimmy dwells silently on them both during and after the hearing, and he’s at a kind of ethical crossroads. Yes, he has to defend his client…but what next? He could continue down this path — becoming a friend of the cartel — or he could pull back a little bit and help the people who are suffering rather than those who make them suffer. It’s a dilemma explored in silence…until Howard shows up.

All of Jimmy’s internal frustrations come out again, in a setting even more inappropriate than bingo night, and he unloads mercilessly into Howard…the living embodiment of a better path forward. We know that Jimmy’s choice is between HHM and an office in a strip mall, and we know which decision he ultimately makes. But he doesn’t make that decision with a clear head; he makes that decision because he’s angry and frustrated, at least partially because he’s facing this dilemma at all.

Why would the cartel offer him “Ranch in Montana kind of money”? Don’t they know that that makes it much more difficult for him to do the right thing?

Why would Howard offer him a huge step forward professionally? Doesn’t he know that that makes it much more difficult for him to do the wrong thing?

Why does he have to make a choice? Why does he have to be responsible for his actions? Can’t he just do what he does and not have to be aware that things could have gone a different way?

He berates the one man attempting to help him make the right choice. He leans into his own unjustifiable behavior. You’re damn right I smashed your car with bowling balls; that’s who I am and you can fuck off.

Early in the episode, Huell asks Jimmy if Kim will be McGill or Goodman. He replies simply and clearly that she’ll be Wexler.

Late in the episode, Howard asks Jimmy if he will be McGill or Goodman. His reply is by no means simple, but it’s every bit as clear.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Wexler v. Goodman” (season 5, episode 6)

Well, that was a rollercoaster ride, for sure. It’s just that I don’t know if it crashed us directly into a brick wall or launched us into space. I guess we’ll find out where we land next week.

Shortly before this season began, the episode titles were revealed. This one, of course, was immediately intriguing. We know that by the time of Breaking Bad, Kim is out of the picture. Better Call Saul would, at some point, have to drive that wedge. “Wexler v. Goodman” was obviously a title suggesting direct conflict. (Likely, thanks to the v. instead of a vs., in a legal setting.)

But then we had “Dedicado a Max” last week, which reassured us. We had no reason to worry; that Wexler v. Goodman case would all be for show. Kim and Jimmy would be working together toward the same end, and they’d only seem to be in opposition. Whew! A complete release of tension and we could breathe for another week.

And yet here we are, and I can’t be the only one who emphatically was not breathing through much of this episode.

Almost as soon as Jimmy sets his plan to strongarm Mesa Verde into settling on behalf of his client, Kim gets cold feet. She’s woken up — just a bit later than usual — with clarity of mind.

She asks him calmly to back off. Jimmy confirms that this is what she wants, and then agrees. There will be no strongarming. They will settle this as quickly and as cleanly as possible.

We’ve discussed Kim’s morning-after clarity and the fact that Jimmy doesn’t share it a few times this season. Now it ties directly into something else we’ve discussed, and which Nacho made clear to Jimmy in “The Guy for This”: There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Kim, after all, got Jimmy to agree that the plan was off. She got no such agreement from Saul Goodman. The wheels were already in motion.

The centerpiece of the episode is sheer emotional brutality. It reminded me of Jimmy steamrolling Chuck in season three’s “Chicanery,” but in that episode we saw little flashes of Jimmy feeling bad about what he was doing. He knew it was wrong and he did it anyway, but he had enough humanity that it hurt him to do it.

Here, there are no such flashes of humanity. There is no Jimmy in that scene. It’s Saul getting what he wants, and not caring about who he hurts. He’s dimly aware of what he’s putting Kim through, but only because her suffering is part of his scheme. He does not regret his actions. Far from it. He suggests they celebrate them.

And it ends with an even more difficult scene when Kim returns home to him that night and says “fuck you” and breaks down and nearly ends their relationship as she chokes back tears…

…before suggesting that maybe they get married instead.

And that’s the brick wall. Or the derailment of the roller coaster. I don’t know. I suspect I won’t know for a while.

I’m not entirely convinced by this. I have enough faith in Better Call Saul that we’ll retroactively justify her leap here, but as of right now it feels like someone decided the episode needed to end with that line before “Wexler v. Goodman” was written. And so it’s just sort of there, stranded at the end of a story that — to be blunt — does not build to it.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s a more fitting punctuation to the episode than I realize. I’m very much open to disagreement here, because I’d love to know what I’m missing.

It seems like some attempt was made to tie her suggestion into what’s happening, if only because we open the episode with a flashback to Kim as a little girl. The young actor perfectly nailed Kim’s cadence and the actor playing her mother sounded almost exactly like Rhea Seehorn, so even if it tied to nothing that would have been a really great diversion…but, narratively, I don’t know what I’m supposed to take from it. Is it just that Kim has bad decisions in her blood? Maybe it’s that her father was a deadbeat and she’s repeating the mistakes her mother made?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s nothing at all.

One of the most difficult things for Better Call Saul to rectify with its slow pace is the fact that Saul Goodman by the time of Breaking Bad had been married and divorced several times. Yes, it’s certainly possible he lied to Walter about that detail, but firstly, that’s not something he had any reason to lie about, and secondly, many other things that this show could have waved away as “Saul was lying” have been revealed by Better Call Saul to be true.

And so here we are, past the halfway point of the penultimate season, and Saul hasn’t been married. The show has flirted a number of times with Kim being one of his ex-wives, but that’s all it was…flirtation.

Now we’re here, it’s been brought up, and the scene that could potentially have explained why Kim is no longer around is instead explaining Jimmy’s first marriage.

At least, potentially.

Maybe it’s a brick wall. Maybe we’re soaring through the sky.

Elsewhere, Nacho and Mike reconnect just briefly enough to suggest why Nacho is no longer around by the time of Breaking Bad; Mike may well help the boy get out of the business. Being as we’re this close to the end of the show, it’s good that this possibility is being raised.

Of course, that can’t happen until Eduardo is out of the picture. (Mike even explicitly says this to Nacho.) We end with Gus’ crew using the police against Eduardo’s, just as Eduardo was doing against Gus. It’s an interesting complication but we don’t get much of a sense of what it will come to.

Still, bringing the police into this gangland power struggle is a good reminder of the overlapping doublecrossing of “The Guy for This.” It’s a strategy Saul employs in his meeting with Mesa Verde, with different parties believing they are getting different things for different reasons.

Ultimately, though, as Kim says, Jimmy is the only one who really got what he wanted.

That would have been a great sentiment to leave ringing in our ears until the next episode.

Instead, the script said that Kim should suggest marriage. So that’s what she did. And the rollercoaster either crashed or sent us soaring.

I think it’s one, but I’m hoping it’s the other.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Dedicado a Max” (season 5, episode 5)

“Dedicado a Max” does a few things, but doesn’t finish any of them. As we’ve discussed before, it’s what we’d call a middle chapter.

We know this because it spends its time following two stories closely, paying only lip service (if anything) to other threads and characters. It advances both stories just far enough that the second half of the season can make full use of them. And, really, that’s about it.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not entertaining, especially because of the second thing “Dedicado a Max” does: It reminds us that Better Call Saul is a comedy.

Not exclusively, no. The show is often dramatic, sometimes harrowing, frequently insightful, but we are supposed to be laughing, too. The past few episodes have been pretty heavy, with many of the characters either at low points or actively self-destructing. We’ve gotten a few smiles here and there, but “Dedicado a Max” gives us actual, sustained comedy.

There’s Jimmy delaying Mesa Verde’s construction project day by day. There’s the “private eye” Jimmy and Kim hire who suggests throwing a bag over Kim’s client and hauling him out to the desert. There’s the fucking incredible scene during which Kim impersonates Kevin and Jimmy impersonates Kim…which is so funny and adorable and real that it’s very easy to remember why these two people are in love.

They shouldn’t be in love, and I’m sure they are each going to regret being in love, but in this moment, probably along with them, we remember how they got there.

And then there’s the phone conversation between Jimmy and Mike.

JIMMY: I’m sorry, I’m getting some kind of reverb or something. Are you in a tunnel, or…
MIKE: Yes.
JIMMY: What’s that?
MIKE: Yes, I’m in a tunnel.
JIMMY: Okay… Anyway…

Bob Odenkirk is a gifted comic actor; nobody needs to be told that. But playing him against someone as steely as Jonathan Banks — someone who is doing everything but rising to the comedy routine — makes everything that much funnier.

That phone conversation is also the third thing “Dedicado a Max” does.

I’ve written many times about how strange it is that Better Call Saul has two decidedly separate protagonists who only rarely overlap and who — to date — haven’t played any significant role in the other’s story.

Narratively, this is frustrating. I love this show, and I love these characters, but if I were writing a book or making a film in which two protagonists had totally isolated, rarely overlapping adventures that didn’t even share the same tones or themes, I’d have to step back and really wonder if both stories needed to be told at the same time.

As we’ve discussed before, there is one reason Better Call Saul has these two protagonists: Breaking Bad. We already know these characters from that show, where they shared the connective tissue of Walter White. But on its own merits, how do their dueling storylines benefit Better Call Saul?

I’ve wondered what it would be like for someone with zero knowledge of Breaking Bad to watch Better Call Saul. Would they be confused about why these two separate stories are being followed at the same time? Would they assume things will eventually come together and we’ll understand it in retrospect? I don’t know and can’t know, but I wonder.

That phone conversation — with Jimmy inviting Mike (once again) to join him for chicanery — reminds us that Better Call Saul knows how weird this is. Mike refuses (once again), and that’s that. Both stories are given a chance to overlap, and then they both shrug and decide to do other things instead.

Better Call Saul has guts, I’ll give it that.

The fourth thing “Dedicado a Max” does is that it lets Kim establish herself as the architect of her own misfortune. We’ve also talked about how easily Kim lets herself get dragged around by Jimmy’s poor impulses, and last week we discussed the fact that she wakes up in the morning with a clear head (however we’d like to define “in the morning”) and Jimmy does not.

Here, for what I think was the first time, we saw Jimmy trying to apply the breaks. Kim’s unethical manipulation of her own client is a damned fun adventure for Jimmy, but eventually the sun comes up and he realizes it’s time to move on.

This time, it’s Kim who refuses. Jimmy is dragged back in (just as easily as he usually drags Kim), a decision that’s guaranteed to seal a number of fates.

The fifth thing that “Dedicado a Max” does is let us know — to some degree — why Mike would willingly walk back into Gus’ employment. After he put his foot down and tried in his own ways to cope with what happened with Werner, why would he return to the life that caused him so much pain? Money isn’t the answer; Mike made that clear the moment he told Gus to stuff it.

We find out the answer here: “Revenge.”

But I’m not sure that that’s the full answer. At the very least, I’d have difficulty accepting it as one.

Revenge makes sense for Gus; Hector killed Max. So, yeah, by all means, ruin that fucker’s life, Gus. Your opposition to the Salamancas is justified.

Mike, though? There was the situation with Matty, and we saw how Mike got his revenge in season one. More recently there was the situation with Werner, which had nothing at all to do with the Salamancas. (The argument could much more easily be made that Mike’s “revenge” should be against Gus.)

Gus is on to something, I am certain. But I don’t think it’s as easily summed up as that one episode-ending word would have us believe.

There’s something else there. There’s more to the story.

Of course there is.

“Dedicado a Max” is a middle chapter.

Announcing: Rule of Three 2020!

Hoo boy. Ready?

For this year’s Rule of Three — a series in which I review three related comedy films beginning April 1 — I am focusing on the works of Rudy Ray Moore.

I have a few reasons for doing this. Moore is a massively interesting figure, and a culturally important one as well. He’s a funny guy whose films I enjoy. His movies are ones I think are worth paying attention to. The recent biopic Dolemite is My Name got me interested in revisiting his work. I could continue, but let me instead give you something that emphatically is not a reason for doing this: I am not doing this because I have any business doing so.

It’s important to me that I make that clear up front, because for many people Rudy Ray Moore represents something that he cannot represent to me in the same way. He is a crucial data point in the history of black entertainment. Does that mean I can’t write about him? Of course not. Does that mean I have any right to speak about the importance of his work with authority? Of course not.

I’ve hesitated to cover with any thoroughness works about the black experience. Whether it’s The Boondocks or Get Out or, now, Rudy Ray Moore, these are things that I love…but I love them as a member of the audience, which is much different from understanding them from experience. I have the right to discuss (and the interest in discussing) them from the former perspective, but when something is so clearly charged (racially, politically, sexually, etc.) it feels like I would be doing the work a disservice to not view them through the appropriate lens.

I’ve linked to this before, and I’ll link to it again. It does a better job of explaining why I do not intend to rise to meet that challenge than I ever could.

I am going to cover Moore this year, but know that I do so with the full knowledge and with the direct confession that I am not the man to give these films their due. I will view them through the lens of a guy who loves watching and writing about movies. If you think these films deserve more than that, you are correct. They do. And I’d be behaving disrespectfully if I even pretended to be able to give them more.

I hope you enjoy the reviews — well, duh — but I also hope I get to hear from folks in the comments or elsewhere about what I’m missing, what I’m getting wrong, what I’ve been raised to overlook and to ignore. For anything you can learn from me, there are 10 things I could learn from you.

Here is the posting schedule. Dolemite, as I write this, is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You’ve got two weeks to check it out before my review goes live. Also, watch Dolemite is My Name on Netflix. I’m sure I’ll reference it but the main reason you should watch it is that it’s excellent.

April 1: Dolemite (1975)
April 8: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)
April 15: Disco Godfather (1979)

And with that decidedly serious introduction to movies about kung-fu-fighting prostitutes, magical pimp canes, and freshly roasted babies, I look forward to seeing how this particular experiment goes.

I’ll see you April 1.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Namaste” (season 5, episode 4)

I’ve been wondering to myself for a while when I’d reach an inevitable point. Specifically, the point at which I stop referring to our protagonist as Jimmy and start referring to him as Saul.

We’ve mentioned Saul, of course, and we’ve discussed things Jimmy has done as Saul, but until we hit that point, they would be distinct characters. One exists in this show, and the other existed in Breaking Bad. At some point, tragically, they would overlap, and I think it’s safe to say they’d never detach again. (Gene seems to have much more in common with Saul than he does with Jimmy, as least from what little we’ve seen.)

I hit that point last week. I didn’t bring it up then because I had other things to say, but that’s the first time I saw our protagonist in this show and thought, “That’s Saul Goodman.”

The sequence that did it for me was the one in which he agrees that his client will provide information to the feds…information that he knows isn’t what they’re looking for, but which will satisfy them anyway. It was something Jimmy McGill probably had the wiles to pull off, but Saul Goodman did it for him instead.

This is spelled out in this episode, as well, when Howard takes Jimmy to lunch. He asks about what this “Saul Goodman” persona is doing. Couldn’t Jimmy McGill do it instead?

Jimmy thinks for a moment, and replies, “Maybe he could, but Saul Goodman is.”

There’s a reason Jimmy doesn’t say what Saul Goodman is doing; it’s more than enough to end the sentence on the fact that “Saul Goodman is.

That doesn’t mean we no longer have Jimmy — read on — but it does mean we’ve hit the point at which Saul Goodman, as we knew him so long ago, exists. It’s fitting that that happened to occur in an episode that also included Nacho telling him that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. “Once you’re in,” he tells the lawyer, “you’re in.”

The conversation with Howard is a crucial one, so we’ll return to it in a bit. For now, though, I’d like to discuss something I’m finally able to articulate about Kim.

Throughout the entire run of the show, we’ve seen her drift into and then pull away from Jimmy’s negative influence, and I’ve never been quite sure how to understand that.

It never registered as false — I want to make that very clear — but just because I understood her behavior didn’t mean I understood what was happening in her mind. I think “Namaste” reveals it; we ended the previous episode with she and Jimmy pitching bottles off of their balcony. Early in this episode, she sees the glass and realizes what she’s done. Jimmy tells her somebody else will take care of it.

In that moment, I understand more fully their dynamic. Kim slips into Jimmy’s bad behavior because she enjoys it. It’s fun. It brings some excitement and danger into her life. They have a lot in common in that regard. The difference between them, however, is that she wakes up with a clearer head. Jimmy does not.

In the moment, Kim is suggestible. Willingly so. But the moment ends, and Jimmy keeps going. Kim doesn’t. She sees the broken glass and feels bad. She sweeps it up herself. The revelry she shares with Jimmy is part of who she is, but it isn’t a part of who she wants to be. It’s fascinating, and I don’t think I ever truly understood it until this episode.

We see Saul — not Jimmy — at work several times during “Namaste.” At the beginning he works his magic on the two hoodlums from “50% Off,” and there’s no Jimmy McGill to be seen. Ditto his later theatrics in the courtroom, during which he replaces his client with a lookalike to make a point.

Unquestionably his gambit will be stricken from the record, but film buff Jimmy must have seen Anatomy of a Murder many times. In it, another Jimmy — Stewart, there — plays a lawyer who knowingly initiates a line of questioning the judge will halt. Sure enough, that happens, and the jury is told to disregard what Jimmy Stewart has said.

“How can a jury disregard what it has already heard?” he’s asked in private.

His answer is simple: “They can’t.”

Saul knows his shenanigans will not be admissible as evidence. That doesn’t matter, because he already got the jury to believe what he needed them to believe.

Kim witnesses the spectacle, and while it’s clear she isn’t a fan of the underhandedness, it’s equally clear that she understands its usefulness. She drafts him to represent the man she failed to win over to Mesa Verde last week, pulling herself into yet another unethical situation. But, hey, at least she might regret it in the morning.

Elsewhere Gus and Mike have their own adventures that won’t pay off until next week at the soonest, so we’ll hold off on discussing those for now, and circle back around to good old Howard.

When Howard asks Jimmy to describe the work that Saul does, we still hear a bit of Jimmy’s hesitancy in the response. When Saul speaks, he speaks with confidence. Jimmy, however, has a little more humanity, and it shines through even when he’s given a platform to let Saul shine. That’s our proof that Saul isn’t going to take over in one big rush; it’s just that Jimmy eventually drowns.

We saw Saul without Jimmy a third time, which I haven’t mentioned yet.

In “50% Off,” Howard requested some time with Jimmy, obviously interested in (at least potentially) taking him on at HHM. Jimmy brushed him off, something I saw at the time as a way to gain leverage. Surely Jimmy would listen to an opportunity like that; he just needs to play the game.

Howard probably would have agreed with me, and he probably expected — as I did — that he would make easier inroads with Jimmy over lunch. He doesn’t, but that’s okay; he tells Jimmy to think about it and get back to him.

But it isn’t Jimmy who pays him a visit as the episode ends. It’s Saul, pitching bowling balls onto Howard’s car.

There’s no reason for it. Jimmy can turn Howard down. Jimmy can say anything he wants to say to Howard as he does so. Jimmy can twist the knife as much as he pleases. Instead, though, he has Saul smash up his car just to be a dick.

It’s a kind of conscious sourness I don’t think we’ve ever seen from Jimmy before, and it’s evidence of how much he’s changed from season one. For an impressively long time, we were able to see Jimmy McGill as an inherently good person who dabbled where he shouldn’t have.

But an inherently good person doesn’t wreck somebody’s car with bowling balls, peeking over the wall just to appreciate the damage he’s done, pitching another one just for the hell of it.

It’s about the cruelty of the gesture. Howard will be fine; insurance will cover the damage and the worst that will happen is that he’ll get stuck with a loaner car for a few days. But it’s what Saul chose to do that matters, not the tangible consequence we face today.

Chuck described his brother as a chimp with a machine gun, referencing of course the damage he’d be capable of without knowing what he’s doing.

Saul Goodman is aware of what he’s doing. Saul Goodman is causing damage.

Saul Goodman is.