There's a sucker born every minute, and Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is their midwife. "Breathe," the second episode of Better Call Saul's already extraordinary fourth season, is the clearest indication yet of how a con man with a heart of gold and some genuine legal and people skills could become consigliere to New Mexico's most violent drug kingpin: He can see how easy it is to fool decent people into trusting absolute creeps, and apparently at some point he'll decide he'd rather play for the winning team.
The setting for this pivotal moment, though, is about as far away from the meth trade as possible, which on a show that's more and more focused on its career criminals is an achievement in itself. Remember all those sales job openings Jimmy circled in the classifieds last week? Today is the big day when he starts heading out for interviews.
Jimmy's first stop is a family-owned copier company, which is looking for a smooth talker who can convince its clients to upgrade their old machines. He impresses his interviewers with his hard-earned knowledge of the product — you can take the man out of the mailroom, but you can't take the mailroom out of the man! — and his almost superhuman ability to spin yarns people will believe. Which, of course, is perfectly fine when you're telling the truth. And for the most part, he is! He's not faking his familiarity with how copiers work, or how important their smooth functioning is to office productivity and morale. He's just, you know, upselling it, letting the company know that if they think he's this persuasive, imagine how the folks they're trying to sell new machines to will feel.
But even before he deliberately torches the interview, the ghosts of the past pop up unexpectedly. The interviewer mentions that one of their old models was so good it could convincingly counterfeit five dollar bills; Jimmy, no stranger to using copy machines for forgery, waxes outraged on behalf of decent people everywhere. Then he notices an old Hummel figurine on the boss's trophy shelf — the same one his first elder-care client had, before he severely screwed with her life in order to get his share of her lawsuit winnings, forcing him to out himself as a fraud just to help her recover.
Maybe that's in his mind when he reacts to being offered the job on the spot by insulting the people making the offer. "Are you out of your mind?" he asks, to their bafflement. "You don't know me! I just came in off the street!" He goes on and on: "No due diligence, no background check... I could be a serial killer! I could be a guy who pees in your coffee pot! Or both!"
"Suckers," he spits as he leaves. "I feel sorry for you." Thus is born Saul Goodman's deep-seated contempt for people who aren't smart enough to realize people like him exist.
Jimmy's old pal Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is having some workplace issues of his own. When he meets with his irritable supervisor Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), she tells him that his attempt to actually do his job as Madrigal Electromotive's security consultant, instead of just collecting his laundered-money paycheck like his real employer Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) intended, raises his risk of exposure. Mike, naturally, sees it the opposite way: Showing up to work and performing the task associated with his title improves his cover story.
When she threatens him with Gus's disapproval and hustles out of the conference room, he is quite literally unmoved, sitting like an aging warlord in the shadows and light. And why should he budge? After all, Gus supports his plan rather than Lydia's, as she learns when the druglord rudely rebuffs her on the phone after the meeting. In matters of illegality, the smart money is always on Mike.
Kim Wexler's turn in the spotlight, meanwhile, sees actor Rhea Seehorn turn in her best work on the series to date. At the start of her sequence of scenes in the episode, she quietly watches Jimmy's manic new morning routine, and the question of whether the man she loves is trying to put on a brave face or has genuinely been broken by his brother's death plays out silently behind her eyes.
Next, she travels to the offices of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, the firm to which she, Jimmy, and Chuck alike once belonged. She's there on Jimmy's behalf, to sign off on the final details of Chuck's estate, for which his old partner Howard (Patrick Fabian) is the executor. After she exchanges awkward but sincere pleasantries with Chuck's ex-wife Rebecca (Ann Cusack), you can see her slowly build up and then release the energy to have a full-fledged freakout on Howard for his behavior.
It's not just Howard's participation in laying out the terms of Chuck's will — which as far as Jimmy's concerned amount to a kiss-off payout of five thousand dollars, a chance to claim any objects of sentimental value from the wreckage of his burned-out house, a seat on the board for a scholarship fund she accurately asserts Chuck would never have been caught dead awarding to his baby brother himself, and a posthumous letter for Jimmy's eyes only — that bothers her. It's his post-funeral visit to their home, when he laid out his theory that Chuck committed suicide. "I thought I owed it to Jimmy to tell him," Howard says in his own defense... but as Kim points out, he didn't extend this same dubious courtesy to Rebecca.
Tears in her eyes, voice breaking, and covered in visible bruises from her car accident that make her look as beat up physically as she is emotionally, Kim bellows that Howard told Jimmy that his brother deliberately burned himself to death "to make yourself feel better, to unload your guilt." "Kim, I don't think that's fair," Howard says, taken aback. "Fair?" she all but screams in response, before laying out all the extremely unfair pain that both the terms of the will and Howard's (in her eyes) self-centered handling of Chuck's death would put Jimmy through.
"What can I do to make it better?" Howard asks, all but begging to be told what to do, as Fabian gets teary and shaky-voiced himself, his sincerity obvious. "Nothing," Kim spits. "There is nothing you can do. Just stay away." She leaves him standing alone in the office, looking for all the world like a man who's just been given six months to live by an oncologist. Which, perhaps, isn't that far from the mark. The deadly battle between Jimmy and Chuck is slowly killing them all.
But the most moving moment from Kim and Seehorn alike comes at the end of the day, when Jimmy returns from his farcical job hunt, bearing takeout and churning out smiley platitudes about getting solid leads and even rejecting an offer that "wasn't a perfect fit." As they sit down on the couch to eat and watch an old movie, she shoots him a look that is pure love, pure pity, pure desire to see a person she cares about come through his current ordeal intact. When she moves in suddenly to kiss him and have sex, it feels like the only way she can express how much she wants him to feel better. Words simply aren't up to the task. It's one of the realest moments of acting I've seen on television all year.
Yet she has an equal on this cast in the form of Michael Mando as Nacho Varga. Though the good-hearted gangster's plan to sideline his vicious boss Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) with a stroke has been successful, any sense of actual victory he might have is as intangible and ephemeral as smoke. His hard-working father, whose business Nacho sabotaged Salamanca's heart medication in order to save, will barely speak with him or even look at him. Director Michelle MacLaren, a franchise MVP, frames the two as separate entities during this scene, with Nacho in darkness and his father in the light. All his dad can bring himself to ask is whether Nacho, too, will be free of the Salamancas' clutches anytime soon; Nacho promises that he's working on it, but we'll soon see all the good that will do him.
Out of obligation, Nacho pays a visit to Hector in the hospital, where he's being attended by his sinister twin nephews (Daniel and Luis Moncada) and a doctor flown in from Johns Hopkins by Gus Fring for the express purpose of extending the man's life and sentience long enough for Gus himself to exact a revenge of his choosing. At the encouragement of both the doctor and the Cousins, Nacho and his colleague Arturo (Vincent Fuentes) talk to Hector in hopes he'll recognize their voices and his brain will start working to rewire itself around the stroke damage in order to respond. "You're going to get past this," Nacho tells him, his voice and his eyes straining to hide the hatred and fear he feels. "And be stronger than ever." God forbid.
In the end, Nacho's strike against his crime family on behalf of his actual one comes back to haunt him... or more accurately Arturo, whom Gus personally suffocates to death in a sudden and horrifying attack staged expressly for Nacho's benefit. "I know what you've done," he tells Nacho as Nacho's partner struggles to breathe through the plastic bag zip-tied to his head. "The Salamancas, they do not. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Nacho, too frightened and guilt-ridden over what's happening right in front of his eyes, cannot bring himself to respond. "Look at me," Gus orders, and Nacho does so through sheer force of will. "From now on," the Chicken Man concludes, "you are mine." This pronouncement is so sinister and so final that to my ears it sounds like actor Giancarlo Esposito's already imposing voice has been slightly electronically altered to make him just a few bass notes shy of Darth Vader on the villainy scale.
Keep in mind that we know almost all there is to know about Gus's future: his alliance of convenience with Mike Ehrmantraut and Walter White, his employment of Walt and his sidekick Jesse as glorified slaves, his triumph over his enemies in the cartel, his kill-or-be-killed cat-and-mouse game with Walt, and his final ignominious destruction (with Walt's help) by none other than Hector himself. Yet somehow Better Call Saul is skillful enough to draw out new notes of menace from the character and Esposito's performance, as if lurking within him are horrors we can't yet imagine. I'd almost be worried for us if we could.
Better Call Saul airs Monday nights at 9/8c on AMC.