Actually, it probably goes without saying, but at this point Better Call Saul never takes a day off when it comes to quality. This show is humming along like a freight train, gliding effortlessly yet with unmistakable power from moment to moment, scene to scene, sequence to sequence, character to character, episode to episode. Its destination is death. As Saul (Bob Odenkirk) himself puts it in this episode's cold open, "Quite a ride, huh?"
It really is — and this week more than most. In part it's because of that cold open, and that quote, from which the episode ("Quite a Ride") takes its title. It's a flash-forward, but not to the black-and-white world of the Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska where the former Jimmy McGill, aka the former Saul Goodman, finds gainful employment after fleeing New Mexico one step ahead of the law after the events of Breaking Bad.
This one takes place during the events of Breaking Bad, in full color and with Jimmy in full Saul Goodman mode, complete with his long-suffering receptionist Francesca (Tina Parker) — a BB regular last seen on Saul when Jimmy and Kim had to let her go following Jimmy's suspension from the bar. As she shreds every last document in the office, Saul ransacks the place for various secret stashes of cash and god knows what else, at one point literally taking a boxcutter and slicing the preamble of the Constitution — his office wallpaper — to shreds to find what he needs. He also makes the call to the witness-relocation specialist who'll help him escape with a new identity.
This sudden re-immersion into the last frantic days of Walter White's reign makes for a bracing and disturbing intro to the episode. This is where it's all headed, after all. For all of Jimmy's antics, for all of his one-step-forward, two-steps-back moral evolution, he winds up a functionary in the empire of a mass murderer, every last relationship with other people as shredded as the papers in his filing cabinet.
Yet for an episode that starts with the end of a man's career as we know it, the rest is dedicated to showing just how good the characters can be at their various jobs: Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) running operations for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito); Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) using her legal acumen to keep young defendants from getting the book thrown at them; Jimmy taking gifts as a salesman to new heights as he markets burner cell phones to less-than-legal clientele — it's a weird way to celebrate Labor Day, but it works.
The key to the episode's success is the variety with which it depicts Mike, Jimmy, and Kim going about their business. Working with stalwart director of photography Marshall Adams and editor Skip MacDonald, writer Ann Cherkis and director Michael Morris concoct a panoply of cinematic approaches that all lead us to the same place in the end.
Take Mike, for starters. Mr. Ehrmantraut's task this week is to shepherd candidates for the construction of Gus Fring's state-of-the-art subterranean meth lab to the job site, which you'll recall from Breaking Bad was an industrial laundry for Gus's fast-food chain. When the first hopeful, a dapper Frenchman, arrives at the airport, he follows Mike's phoned-in instructions until he's left standing by the side of a remote stretch of road with a black hood over his head to prevent him from seeing where he's being taken, resulting in a creepy monumental horror image that hints at danger to come.
The man's long trip with Mike in the back of a van to their destination is filmed entirely from within the van itself, using a shot of the two men seated next to each other with their backs to the metal plating that separates the driver from the cargo. The shot itself never varies, but a series of jump cuts show us the same thing at different stages of the journey, using the changing quality of the light that filters in to convey the passage of time. It's a way to depict the tedium of an endless car drive with Fring-like efficiency.
It also reflects Gus's respect for drudgery, for lack of a better term. The French candidate breaks out a laptop when he arrives to take notes and make calculations, uses a laser to measure the area, and crows about how quick and easy the job will be; per a phone call from an unseen Gus, Mike thanks the guy for his time and sends him on his way.
Candidate number two, by contrast, is a nebbishy German who nearly gets carsick on the way, scribbles his observations in a battered old notebook, and measures the place with an old-fashioned tape measure, even marking out the distances in physical paces at one point. When it's all said and done he rattles off an entire litany of reasons why the job will be difficult, dangerous, expensive, hard to keep secret, and easy to screw up in any number of ways. But this kind of workaday frankness is exactly what Gus is looking for. He emerges from the shadows and introduces himself, in German no less. Say what you will about the Chicken Man, but he knows the value of a hard day's work.
Then there's Jimmy, who... doesn't. He spends the episode working on his scheme to convert his ghost town of a cell phone store to a hotbed for clients who need to make calls using phones they can throw away the moment they hang up in order to avoid detection. After talking an off-the-books contractor into buying an entire stack, Jimmy winds up laying out the cash for a trunkful of the things himself, then heading over to an all-night hot dog stand that's a hotbed for junkies, dealers, bikers, hustlers, sex workers, and other types who need reliably untraceable communication options — even plain old employees and customers who just want a cheap phone.
Unlike Mike's storyline, which goes through the audition process for the two prospective architects in painstaking detail, Jimmy's big night out is a breezy musical montage set to Randy Crawford's cooled-out disco track "Street Life." if you want a way to show viewers how good James McGill, Esq. is at making a quick buck, that's how it's done.
Unfortunately for Jimmy, his success attracts the attention of a trio of kids who'd earlier dismissed his sales pitch as a sting attempt. Now they know he's not a narc, and that means they can mug him for the money he spent the night making. Jimmy winds up lying face-up in the abandoned parking lot, with nothing to show for his enterprise but his beat-up body.
This makes him a perfect match for the still bruised and battered Kim, as they uneasily joke later that night. (He tells her about the mugging, but lies about what he was doing at the hot dog stand that late at night in the first place.) And that's not the only way these two are cut from the same cloth. Just like Jimmy's legitimate skill and passion for elder law, Kim turns out to be a heck of a pro bono public defender. She coaches a young client in how to look and act in the courtroom, she steamrolls the D.A. into agreeing to a shockingly light sentence by threatening to expose his prosecutorial misconduct in the case, and she comforts a terrified young woman (implicitly a single mother) facing her first drug charge until she's ready to stand trial. These scenes play out in a fashion that's less showy than either Mike's or Jimmy's, emphasizing the hands-on care required for her to get the job done.
But this passion project has a major pitfall: Kim neglects her main client, the Mesa Verde banking chain, during a crisis — going so far as to hang up on Paige, her number-one supporter at the company. "It won't happen again," Kim tells her after a tense confrontation. She may not know it yet, but she's almost certainly lying.
That's the thing about being a lawyer in Jimmy's world: You're always your own worst client. If the flash-forward or Kim's predicament aren't proof enough, take a good long look at Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), whom Jimmy encounters in the courthouse's urine-yellow men's room. Normally the picture of moneyed confidence, the dude is falling apart at the seams: suit rumpled, collar undone, tie loosened, face haggard from insomnia, voice cracking with forced good cheer when he reveals he's been seeing a very good therapist twice a week and still looks like this. He's wracked with guilt over his role in the death of Chuck McGill of course. And though Jimmy is sincerely concerned about his old rival's wellbeing, Howard still can't bring himself to confide in a guy who seemed to blow off his own brother's death like it was the passing of a supporting actor on a sitcom he dimly remembers watching once.
The episode ends with Jimmy at a check-in for his suspension status. His community service obligation has been fulfilled, he's got a steady job, and his lie about associating with known criminals is convincing. The officer in charge of the case asks what he plans to do when this is all over, and Jimmy gets heated as he talks about rejoining Kim in private practice, bigger and better and more well known than ever before. "Okay, so...'lawyer,'" the officer paraphrases. "Yeah," Jimmy replies. "Lawyer." We've seen the fruits of that labor.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.