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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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