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.

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.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “The Guy for This” (season 5, episode 3)

One thing Better Call Saul has always been good at is keeping things interesting even when very little is happening. That’s a hell of a skill, and it’s especially important in a prequel series such as this one, when we know that certain big moments simply cannot happen until later. “The Guy for This” is a great example of how this show manages to make even its connective tissue so compelling.

I have zero insight into the writing process, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this episode was intentionally packed so full of small things to make up for its lack of big things. “The Guy for This,” structurally, needs to set up a few elements that the rest of the season can play with, and that’s fine. Not every episode of a serialized show can (or should) be explosive. Delaying the big moments is part of the fun.

But what do you do in the spaces between those big moments? In the case of “The Guy for This,” you string together a lot of wonderful tiny moments. You make an episode worth watching not because anything crucial happens, but because so many things of smaller significance happen.

Which, I admit, is partially my way of admitting I’m not sure how to talk about this episode. That happens. (It doesn’t shut me up, but it happens!) I don’t always know where things are headed, especially in the cases of characters unique to this show. Our understanding of what eventually happened to Hector, to Mike, to Tuco, to Gale, and of course to Saul, informs the way we interpret their actions and decisions here.

To put it another way, knowing Saul’s terminal point lends a very specific, knowable weight to every step Jimmy takes toward it. That isn’t to say the steps taken by Kim or Nacho or now Eduardo have no weight…it’s just that we don’t know specifically what they are walking toward. Theirs are journeys we will only truly be able to understand in hindsight.

One character whose terminal point we know all too well — being the victim of the first deliberate murder by Walter White — is Krazy-8, and yet it somehow escaped me that by the time of Breaking Bad, he was a DEA informant. I remembered it, but for whatever reason I didn’t connect it. I never looked at him and wondered how close we were to him taking that particular step toward being held captive in a basement and, ultimately, strangled by a chemistry teacher.

The sequence in which he does turn informant — sort of, in a way — is so misleadingly simple that the wider complexity only really hit me later. Krazy-8 is stuck in a way that reflects most of the characters at this point in Better Call Saul. He has no choice but to play along, by rules that are made for him, often by conflicting parties.

And so he agrees to provide the DEA with information in exchange for his freedom. Something Saul wants him to do, though the attorney makes a big show about not wanting him to do it. A show so artificial that Hank and Gomez see through it immediately and call bullshit. Which in turn is a bluff of their own, so that they can press harder on Krazy-8 and Saul, demanding that the information had better lead to arrests, or Krazy-8 is staying behind bars.

Which is a big problem, because Eduardo and Nacho hired Saul to feed Krazy-8 a load of hooey that he was then to feed to the feds; if there need to be arrests, that’s not going to make Saul’s ultimate employers very happy.

Except that that’s exactly what Saul and Krazy-8 wanted…arrests…and their further bluff was making Hank and Gomez think it was their idea. Eduardo and Nacho didn’t have Saul feed Krazy-8 hooey after all; Krazy-8 was providing actual, demonstrably true information about very real drug deals and how they are being pulled off. Hank and Gomez will verify this. Krazy-8 gave them what they wanted.

…except that the information wasn’t about Krazy-8’s crew at all and was instead about Gus’ crew, and what he actually did was sic the DEA on Gus’ operation instead. Something the DEA likely won’t realize, and they’ll keep Krazy-8 on as an informant, ultimately providing Eduardo and Nacho with a direct line to the feds any time they want to bring the hammer down on Gus.

Which is further complicated by the fact that Nacho is also serving two masters here, ingratiating himself with Eduardo to keep himself and his family safe while keeping Gus abreast of everything that’s happening and following his instructions as well.

It’s an incredible juggling act told with almost miraculous narrative simplicity. Nobody ever sits down and says, “Now let me get this straight…” We just get a few long scenes and are allowed to let them settle into place. A few quiet conversations — nobody even raises their voice — is all it takes to set true chaos into motion.

And that’s not the end of the juggling. Nacho further juggles an attempt to get someone to buy his father out of the family business so that the man will retire; a buy-out financed by Nacho himself. Nacho’s father sees through this, and says that he always felt he were saving the business for Nacho…which is interesting as it is actually Nacho attempting to secretly purchase it through a third party. Better Call Saul might be spinning its wheels, but there are wheels within those wheels.

Similarly, Jimmy is juggling his life and Saul’s, being at least somewhat successful at switching between the two when necessary but also letting them draw more closely together. He’s juggling his relationship with Kim and how much to tell her about what’s really happening. He used to be open with her about his quasi-legal dealings, and she’d (usually) call him out on them. Now he just says Saul Goodman had, financially speaking, his best day yet. “Good for Saul,” she replies.

Then there’s Mike, who seems to be tired of juggling his double life, and is instead leaning into the darkness. He gets aggressive with a bartender and then escalates a conflict with some street thugs, seemingly just because he can. It probably feels freeing to no longer have to be a nice guy to anyone. Not good, no…but freeing.

All of these lives, all of these imperfect reflections in fragile mirrors.

We even learn more about who Kim is — who she really is — when it’s revealed that she’s desperate to want to be seen as a good person. The funny thing (not funny ha-ha) is that she is a good person, at least at heart. She’s flawed. She allows herself to drift closer to Jimmy’s dark side than she should. But she’s capable, competent, and compassionate. Period.

God forbid, though, somebody doesn’t share that view. Kim might be the only character that I’d honestly believe could literally kill someone with kindness.

Her positive qualities aren’t fake. They represent who she really is. But they are what she wants people to recognize and appreciate. She has negative qualities as well, because she’s a human being and has a job to do, but those are not what she wants to be known for. She’s both things. Not equally, but equally validly. Her desperate juggle is one of prominence. She wants the good stuff up front, always and exclusively. Acknowledging anything she keeps in the back (ponytail included) needles her more than she can stand.

At the end of the episode, Jimmy plays a little game with a beer bottle. He holds it by its lip, drops it, catches it before it falls to the parking lot below. A small, recreational juggle to keep his mind off of his larger, professional ones.

He gets bored of it quickly. Kim doesn’t even pretend to play along. She throws her bottle into the parking lot. Jimmy throws another. Kim throws another. Together they throw the rest of them into the parking lot below, shattering the silence but still not talking. That must be pretty freeing, too.

After all, the more things you juggle, the more that will come crashing down when gravity reasserts itself. It’s inevitable. What goes up must come down.

Might as well smash some of it up yourself. Destruction is a kind of control.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “50% Off” (season 5, episode 2)

Hey everyone, let’s talk some more about El Camino!

See, Breaking Bad had an extremely good hook in the fact that no viewer could ever be certain what would happen to the characters next. Death (and worse) was a very real threat. Foreshadowing and misleads were interchangeable until the moment when, suddenly, finally, they were not. Part of what kept viewers tuning in was the desire to know what might happen next.

El Camino could have had a similar effect on viewers, if it weren’t for the fact that “Where does Jesse go now?” isn’t all that intriguing a question. The film, I think, did realize that, which is why it spent so much time in the past.

The problem with those scenes set in the past, of course, is that we know Jesse escapes the Nazi compound. There’s very little opportunity to wonder what happens next. We’ve seen it. And we’ve seen that he’s already moving on to new adventures.

Why do I bring this up now? Because Better Call Saul had to find a solution to the same problem. Every time we encounter a Breaking Bad character on this show, up to and including Saul himself, we know exactly where they end up. So, really, where’s the narrative tension?

In El Camino, it’s nowhere. In Better Call Saul, it’s everywhere.

El Camino had to deal with the fact that we knew Jesse escaped along with the fact that no reasonable human being would have been emotionally invested in the Nazis. We know they eventually get gunned down by Walt, and that’s all we need to know.

The film therefore decided to slip another antagonist into Jesse’s ordeal: the welder who built the track that kept him chained up while he cooked meth. If we can’t worry about the guy we sympathize with, we can at least give him a nemesis that outlived the bloodbath that ended Breaking Bad. Jesse gets to find him and exact revenge.

Except that that’s only kind of what happens. Jesse bumps into him more out of coincidence than anything. He doesn’t even recognize him. And after he does, we still don’t know who he is. Then later he goes to the guy’s workshop and shoots him because he needs money. The revenge is incidental. The one thing we could have narratively been invested in is something the movie essentially glosses over, because it thinks the more important thing is where the vehicle parks when it sets Jesse free.

Better Call Saul has been infinitely savvier about sustaining tension when we already know the ending. We’ve talked many times about how this show isn’t really about Saul; it’s about Jimmy McGill and the gradual shaving away of his soul. It’s a different character from the one we knew in Breaking Bad. It’s a character with different hopes and dreams and intentions…and we watch him get slowly crushed (and slowly crush himself) into the lowlife criminal lawyer he is destined to become.

The tension of course comes in part from the turmoil within Jimmy, but it also comes from the others in his life. Chuck, Howard, Kim. They’re all unique to this show. We didn’t know their endings going in. We just got to watch as Jimmy’s transformation affected their own lives, and as we came to care about them, we also came to worry. To fret. To hope against hope that they’ll escape his gravity.

Then there’s Nacho, was briefly in Jimmy’s orbit and who ends “50% Off” screaming into it again. We don’t know what happens to him, except that he isn’t around by the time Breaking Bad begins.

Nacho isn’t a bad person, really. He’s a criminal, yes, and he’s made some extraordinarily foolish career choices, but there’s an honest core to him that means if he eventually gets executed in a parking lot, it’s going to hit hard.

The tension there is obvious; we care about him (to some degree) and don’t know his ultimate fate. The show has toyed with us in regard to his fate a few times, sticking him under Tuco and then Hector, two dangerous men who represented such a threat to him (and his family) that he had to take each of them out of the equation. Now Hector is replaced by Eduardo, someone who is already threatening to be more dangerous and less predictable than his two predecessors, and Nacho is still trapped.

What’s more? Gus is now threatening Nacho’s family, too, and insisting that the boy get closer to Eduardo rather than further away. It’s an extremely cruel twist that works perfectly to ratchet up the tension, even as the stakes remain exactly the same.

But intermittently Better Call Saul turns into a show about Mike, and I can’t say enough about how well this show has been handling his particular emotional journey.

I wrote in the previous review that I expected the Werner stuff to stay put in the previous season. Mike would be affected by it, as he must, but he’d carry it with him silently and it would be up to us to read into whatever came next.

I was wrong, and it continues now. Werner’s name is still spoken aloud. Mike is still struggling. In the previous episode I felt genuinely bad when he punched Kai. That poor guy was just trying to reach out and make Mike feel better. In this episode, I was positively heartbroken when he yelled at Kaylee. In fact, I can’t imagine a single more heartbreaking thing for Mike to do than snap at his own granddaughter.

We watch the entire exchange come unglued, with Mike moving from adorably teaching her multiplication to giving shorter and shorter answers to yelling at her for something she probably still doesn’t understand.

She brings up Mike’s son. Another of the good men who isn’t around anymore because Mike failed them. And it upsets him. Which is understandable. But he doesn’t realize in that moment that Matty was the girl’s father, and that talking about him is important to her. He’s a figure she doesn’t remember. Learning about him makes her happy; talking about him makes Mike angry. For perhaps the only time, Mike puts his own emotions before Kaylee’s.

And it’s positively brutal.

What makes all of this interesting isn’t the fact that Mike is dealing with emotional fallout we never knew about prior to Better Call Saul, but that he’s doing it at a point that coincides with his disentanglement from Gus.

Last week, Gus was willing to pay him to (essentially) do nothing until they could start up again. Mike told him to shove it, which was understandable, but we know he eventually goes back.

What happens? What gets a broken Mike plagued with guilt to walk willingly back into an arrangement he knows can only cause more misery?

We don’t know. We can’t know. All we know is that something is happening. Better Call Saul has taken a character whose end we already know and gave us a reason to wonder what happens next.

That’s even more impressive now that El Camino has showed us just how hard it is to do.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Magic Man” (season 5, episode 1) & El Camino

I promised a review of El Camino, but that was before I saw it. It’s not that I have nothing to say about the film; it’s more the fact that anything I could say about it would be informed by my feelings about Better Call Saul.

Of course, I’ll explain.

El Camino is a sequel film to Breaking Bad. It’s on Netflix, so go watch it if you haven’t. It follows Jesse Pinkman through the aftermath of “Felina,” which sounds like a great concept. Except, really, the aftermath doesn’t end up being worth following anyone through.

Walt’s world and the horrors with which he ravaged it felt huge in Breaking Bad. Of course they did; they were the focus of the show. The characters that came into his life and the ways in which they changed (or had change visited upon them) would certainly agree that the reign of Heisenberg was enormous, impactful, and cataclysmic.

With just a little bit of distance, though, the events of Breaking Bad were what David Byrne might refer to as a tiny apocalypse. Visiting a post-Walt Albuquerque in El Camino reveals a world that is far from shattered, or even really upset. Some characters are dead, some news reports dot the airwaves, some buildings are crime scenes.

That’s it, and that’s okay. There’s a kind of story one can tell with that kind of insight. But that was not the story of El Camino. Revealing the events of Breaking Bad to have had precious little effect on the town in which it took place could have been interesting, but that revelation is a side effect of a story too light to have its own gravity.

Here’s the thing: I liked every single individual component of El Camino. The writing, acting, and directing were fantastic, which honestly should go without saying at this point. The jokes were funny. The drama was strong. The tension was masterful.

But somehow they assembled into a movie I honestly can’t say I liked.

It felt inconsequential. Unimportant. When Jesse sped away from Breaking Bad, it was easy to assume that he’d find some kind of normalcy. Clearly it would not be an easy one. Clearly he would have to work hard to find any kind of future for himself. Clearly there was no going home.

That’s all we knew, and there was room to tell us more. Instead, that’s all El Camino really did tell us. It told its story well, but did we really need to know — specifically — where Jesse went and how he got there? Or to put it another way, now that we do know…does it change anything at all?

If you like, you could comb through Breaking Bad and find chapters that, ultimately, came to nothing. Plot threads left hanging. Setups without payoff. Ideas raised before different, better ideas seized control. I get it. El Camino is not unique in being an unnecessary stretch of Breaking Bad.

The difference, though, is that we came back for El Camino. Breaking Bad was an ongoing, evolving work of fiction. It was published by the chapter. As the story went on, certain things the writers thought would be crucial were rendered vestigial. That’s what happens. That’s okay.

But El Camino wasn’t an organic part of the story. It was something tacked on to the end of the story after everything had been brought to a conclusion. To bring it back is to say louder than literally any previous episode had ever said, “I have something to say.”

El Camino really didn’t have much to say. We got some funny scenes with Old Joe and the vacuum salesman. We got to see Mike and Walt again, in happier times, unaware of their looming fates. And while I can’t say I ever wanted to see Todd again, the body disposal scenes felt like they could have been lifted directly from a final-season episode of Breaking Bad. They fit, they worked, and they would have been a great way to kill some time as the show approached its terminal point.

But we shouldn’t bring the show back just to kill that time. Why, really, would we even do that?

What does this have to do with Better Call Saul? Saul doesn’t even appear in El Camino, which was a genuine shock to me as we’re already filling in unseen bits of Jimmy’s history and might as well toss in a Breaking Bad-era scene or two, right?

Well, see, I’ve joked a few times in these reviews about the story of how Saul came to like money, or the story of how Gus dug a big hole, and the fact that these stories never, ever needed to have been told. Period. We didn’t need them. The world was no poorer for not knowing the answers to these non-mysteries.

And yet Better Call Saul made (and makes) those stories matter. Nobody should have cared, but the show worked hard to make us care. It showed us important things where we couldn’t rightly have expected to find them.

El Camino tells the story of where Jesse went after Breaking Bad. Another story that didn’t need to be told. But it was also a story that, by its end, didn’t convince me otherwise. El Camino was exactly what I worried Better Call Saul was going to be: unnecessary.

Which brings us to “Magic Man.” It’s recently been confirmed that Better Call Saul will end with season six, meaning we are in this show’s endgame and the writers know it. And yet they are still, as we bid our final farewells to Jimmy McGill, finding new ways to explore and understand these characters.

El Camino didn’t provide us, at all, with any new insight into Jesse Pinkman. But throughout “Magic Man” we learn a lot about characters we already thought we knew from Breaking Bad.

Jimmy’s circus-tent cellphone giveaway is the big one, of course, showing us the precise moment when the character’s shrewd sense of showmanship crystallizes into shysterism. (His desperate floundering when he runs out of phones results in him promising a 50% discount to any clients who commit nonviolent felonies within the next two weeks, illustrating the point of no return that much more quickly. It began as a tasteless joke with Kim, and is then made foolish reality.)

There’s Gus’ relationship with the cartel, which is still being explored and redefined, as he tries to wriggle out from under the Salamanca family’s thumb. (More on this in a bit.)

And there’s Mike…who I figured would have been changed by the events of “Winner” in a quiet, internal way. I was wrong. He slugs Kai when the boy attempts a gesture of goodwill, promising Mike that he understands why Werner had to die. In trying to say the right thing, Kai says precisely the wrong thing. When somebody else tells Mike that Werner did not deserve to die and was 50 times the man Mike will ever be…Mike does not react. The wrong thing to say was actually the right thing.

Of course we also have the characters unique to this show, such as Kim who is clearly agonizing over Jimmy’s decision to practice law as Saul Goodman, but who ultimately has to concede he knows what he’s doing. For now, at least, he’s interested in using his powers for good. This show will end next season, so we know we shouldn’t get used to that.

And there’s newcomer Eduardo, who was introduced at the end of last season. Then I was able to see him as a sort of Salamanca response to Mike. We even saw him defined through the differences between the methods of the two men. Mike tricks a desk clerk to get information he needs; Eduardo beats and kills that desk clerk for the same information. Mike gums up a parking gate; Eduardo smashes through it.

In “Magic Man,” yeah, that contrast is still on display, but we see Eduardo is not just a foil to Mike; he’s a foil to the entire arrangement. He blabs openly about things that should obviously be kept quiet. He confronts his own dealers without making it clear what he’s doing, or why. He asks questions of Gus when it would be appropriate for him to accept an apology and move on. He coerces Gus into introducing him to Mike and drops information he shouldn’t have.

The drug trade has been portrayed as a dance and Eduardo is trying to turn it into a bar fight. It’s bizarre and unpredictable, just like he is. He both keeps everyone on their toes and makes it impossible for them to predict what he will do next. I wouldn’t say Better Call Saul was lacking energy, but it certainly gets a hell of a lot more from Eduardo.

Which, to be honest, is where I think I’ll leave it tonight. The next episode of the show premieres shortly. I won’t get to see it and review it until tomorrow, but that’s okay. Because “Magic Man” has moved a lot of things forward, and we won’t have to wait until next week to see them moved even further.

It’s a big difference from El Camino, which just kept spinning its wheels.