If experiencing anxiety-induced nausea while watching is the mark of a great television drama, then Better Call Saul is an all-timer. Bearing the bittersweet title "Something Beautiful," this week's episode feels like writer Gordon Smith and director Daniel Sackheim issued themselves a challenge before filming: Just how many different ways can we drop our viewers' hearts into the pits of their stomachs? I, for one, am having a hard time recovering long enough to write about it. So, y'know, great job!
One source of teeth-grinding tension is obvious enough: the passion of Nacho Varga (Michael Mando). The episode opens with one of the extended, wordless, detail-driven portrayals of a complex criminal act in progress for which BCS and its predecessor, Breaking Bad, are justly renowned. Working with Gus Fring's lieutenants Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) and Tyrus (Ray Campbell), Nacho helps fake an ambush to account for the murder of his fellow Salamanca soldier Arturo (Vincent Fuentes) at Gus' hands last week.
The problem for Nacho is that after they finish filling the car with bullet holes and Arturo's lifeless body, they need to wound Nacho himself to make the fake attack look convincing. When it looks like all they'll do is wing him in the shoulder, that's one thing. When they shoot him in the side and leave him by the side of the road hoping he can call for medical help in time but not really caring if he gets it, that's something else.
Mando is impressive throughout the episode, which stands to reason: Silence has always been his secret weapon, so he's used to the kind of non-verbal communication Nacho must rely on to convey pain or signal understanding while he's bleeding out from two different bullet holes. His eyes radiate the knowledge that he may be forced by Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who now has him in his pocket, to do something just as bad as this — or worse — in the future, too.
In a way, though, the music of composer Dave Porter serves as Nacho's true voice. Over the years Porter has gotten better and better at producing the kind of rattling, ominous industrial tones that horror movies would give their left arm for, without ever coasting on John Carpenter synth knockoffs like many of his peers. The result is a perfect complement both to Nacho's gory plight and the disorienting shadow and light that Sackheim captures it with.
Jimmy's (Bob Odenkirk) storyline is comparatively low-stakes, as is the criminal enterprise he concocts. In a crime born purely of opportunity, he plans to steal an ultra-rare Hummel figurine from the offices of the copier company he visited for an interview last week, swapping it out for a similar but much less sought-after statuette. Naturally he turns to Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), but the scheme appears to violate his personal code of ethics: He asks Jimmy if he has a reason for stealing from this company, and finds "because it's an easy way to make eight grand" an unacceptable response.
Jimmy winds up pulling off the caper — by the skin of his teeth — with Ira (Franc Ross), whom observant viewers may recognize as the owner and operator of the Vamonos Pest exterminator company used by Mike and Walt as a front company for their meth operation in the waning days of Breaking Bad. The plan takes a hit when the owner of the company strolls out of the bathroom mid-burglary, after getting sent to sleep in the office by his wife, who's angry he gave her a vacuum as a present. ("It never loses suction!" he insists in a failed attempt to get himself out of the doghouse.) Jimmy winds up having to break into the guy's car and send it rolling across the parking lot just to create a diversion long enough for Ira to escape; their buoyant camaraderie as they compare notes afterwards is one of the few unmitigated up notes in the whole episode.
You certainly won't find very much to be upbeat about in Kim Wexler's scenes. Once again, Rhea Seehorn delivers a show-stealing performance as the physically and emotionally bruised attorney, finally getting back on the horse following her sleep-deprived car accident and the death of her old friend Chuck McGill. She wanders through a meeting with her banking client Mesa Verde in a semi-daze when Kevin (Rex Linn), the bank's genial but ambitious chief executive, shows off a series of models for future expansion sites. (Their meticulous construction, and the soft pink and blue glow of the room where they're contained, have an effect reminiscent of "Kandors" by the late artist Mike Kelley — a riff on the "bottle city" motif from Superman comics that takes our dreams of a vanished future and renders them appropriately tiny and delicate.) She at first hesitates to delegate responsibility to her new paralegal, then winds up handing her a major assignment wholesale just to avoid having to deal with it herself.
And when she finally musters the courage to pass along the terms of Chuck's will to Jimmy, her poise finally shatters. As Jimmy reads Chuck's posthumous letter aloud, Kim is moved to tears by the older man's words of praise, respect, and love for his kid brother, all of it shattered by their falling out and the circumstances of his subsequent death. Jimmy, by contrast, doesn't even bother to stop eating his breakfast cereal as he reads. There's a real heartbreak to this, and you see it in Kim's face: She's devastated not just by Chuck's death, but by Jimmy's cauterized indifference to it. The final shot of the episode echoes the famous door-closing conclusion of The Godfather, but unlike Michael Corleone's minion shutting out his wife Kay, Kim is so enervated that the door remains slightly ajar. Jimmy can look in, but the barrier is there nonetheless.
But the episode's most talked-about element is sure to be the surprise return of another familiar face from Breaking Bad, this one both more prominent and more tragic: Gale Boetticher, the lovably dorky chemist played by David Costabile in a career highlight. After the fake attack on the Salamancas has the desired effect of forcing the cartel to have Gus seek his own meth supplier rather than relying on imports from across the border, the Chicken Man turns to Gale, whose academic career he's sponsored for ages.
Gale, whom we first see here as he sings a periodic-table parody of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" (it's no "Major Tom," but it'll do) wrinkles his nose at the poor quality of the recent meth samples Gus has had him analyze, promising he himself could do a much better job. "You were meant for better things," Gus tells him, gently denying his request. But we know Gus will eventually involve him in the trade, and that he won't long survive the assignment. His fate is a foregone conclusion, and Better Call Saul is strong enough to hurt us with that knowledge even now.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.