I'm in awe of Mike Ehrmantraut, the way only a guy who has to make plans days in advance to do the dishes watching a senior citizen smoothly transition into running OpSec for a billion-dollar drug cartel can be. Sure, Mike (Jonathan Banks) is a guilt-ridden murderer who blames himself for his son's death and will eventually die in disgrace, but in the meantime his hyper-competence is an absolute joy to watch when you're feeling less than competent yourself. And despite being a comedown from the lethal tension and emotional turmoil of recent episodes, this week's installment of Better Call Saul ("Piñata") offers this particular pleasure in bulk.
For me, the scene when he walks Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and his underling Tyrus (Ray Campbell) through the warehouse where they'll be housing the German construction workers for their meth lab in total lockdown secrecy is one of the finest "Mike is great at his job" sequences in a season full of them. Without missing a single angle, Erhmantraut explains to his colleagues the exact nature of both the creature comforts (foosball table, fully stocked bar, basketball court) and security measures (visible but unobtrusive cameras throughout the interior and surrounding the exterior, a 24-hour monitoring station nearby, a two-door sally port that can only be unlocked from the outside) required to keep the operation running and the men happy.
He's equally efficient when the Germans arrive with their mousy boss, Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock), and the time comes to tell them how it's gonna be. Watching him do this stuff is so satisfying, like scratching an itch between my shoulderblades I've been having trouble reaching for minutes on end. And actor Jonathan Banks is so good at looking quietly contemptuous that I almost wanted that one German guy who kept giving him a hard time to keep it up, just so I could continue to watch Mike keep on shooting him the stinkeye. Knowing Mike, it's probably not long before he'll be shooting the dude with something else entirely.
Yet the sad side of Mike comes out too, during a visit to his daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon). By the sound of it, they haven't been speaking or seeing one another, nor has Mike seen his beloved granddaughter, since the debacle at the grief counseling session a couple episodes ago. It wouldn't be correct to say that Mike apologizes for his behavior, since no I'm sorry or mea culpa passes his lips. "I stand by what I said," he tells her, referring to his vicious outing of a fraudulent member of the group. "The guy's a charlatan. But there's a time and there's a place, and that wasn't it." Good enough, Mike, good enough. And while he demurs when Stacey says that he should call group leader Anita to smooth things over as well, he makes sure to tell the young widow that despite his outburst, it's okay for her to move on with her life following his son's death; he knows she'll never really forget his son. He even resumes picking up his grandkid from school.
Once again, Banks is so good in this role that you can actually see the differences in the kind of weariness he projects, depending on the circumstances, the way sailors can read different kinds of breezes. When he's with his criminal associates, his exhaustion stems from his suffer-no-fools side. When he's with his family, it's because he's tired from wrestling with his conscience. It's a minor difference, yet it makes all the difference.
For once, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) also seems to have things largely under control. She's realized that both her passion and her time is better spent doing pro-bono criminal defense work than, like, finagling permits for corporate plaza art outside Mesa Verde branch offices. So she approaches the law firm headed by recurring character Richard Schweikart (Dennis Boutsikaris) about launching a banking division for them, a move that would entail a major increase in both pay and prestige — she'd be a full partner — while enabling her to pass her more boring duties off to an army of an associates so she can pursue her true calling.
The only problem is Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). The poor sap has been doodling logo treatments for his and Kim's future two-person firm on a notepad, like a lovestruck teenage girl writing "Mrs. Harry Styles" on her binder. When he hears of Kim's plans — including the fact that she's already been doing the public defender stuff, which he knew as little about as she does about his black-market phone sales — he plays it off as best he can, saying he too has been considering switching over to criminal law. In a way, his hands are tied. Kim's already given him the go-ahead to concentrate on work rather than attend therapy, saying "You have to do what's best for you." What else can he do but say the same to her? The full-fledged panic attack he has in the restaurant kitchen after excusing himself from the table where they've met to celebrate the surprise offer tells another story.
Speaking of stories, it's a veritable visit to the children's library for storytime over at the hosptial where Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) lies comatose and on the verge of death. His old enemy Gus is waiting patiently by his bedside for him to regain consciousness enough to be tormented for real, and while waiting he spins a little yarn about his life before he came to America.
The scene is exquisitely shot. The blue-white glow of the hospital equipment on the white sheets of Hector's bed, the dim yellow interior light reflecting off Gus's silhouette like he's outlined in gold, the streetlights outside shining against the dark blue nighttime backdrop through the window — it's one of the most ambitious combinations of BCS's traditional lighting palette to date. It looks like a Dutch Master painted this thing.
In a sense, a painter did work on the episode. It's directed by Andrew Stanton, best known as the Disney/Pixar writer-director behind Finding Nemo and WALL-E. These animated features are not my personal speed (I know, I know, it's not you, it's me), but if nothing else they sure know how to use light to tell a story. Put Stanton together with the show's MVP cinematographer Marshall Adams and it's small wonder that magic happens.
The speech itself is rather less wondrous. It's a lengthy tale of how a young, desperately impoverished Gus battled a coati (a relative of the raccoon) over the fruit tree he'd nursed back to health, which was providing enjoyment, sustenance, and income for him and his brothers until the animal devoured its fruit in one fell swoop. Gus sets a trap that catches the critter's leg, but it thrashes hard enough to break free, breaking its leg in the process. It slinks under their ramshackle house, so Gus simply sits and waits in total stillness and silence for hours, until the animal is forced by hunter to reemerge. The story ends with the revelation that rather than killing the animal — "the merciful thing" — Gus kept it, implying that he enjoyed its suffering before it finally died. To Gus, the ailing Hector's just a bigger version of the same vermin. To be honest, it's all rather supervillain-by-numbers as monologues go. On a show as inventive about genre tropes as Better Call Saul, that's something of a surprise.
Then again, it's absolutely appropriate and fitting that when you dig down below both the Chicken Man's mild-mannered entrepreneur/community servant public face and his tough-as-nails, cool-as-ice private one, he started out as a garden-variety animal abuser like so many other murderers. Violent sociopaths can get...creative about their endeavors, as any serial-killer buff will tell you, and that can be fascinating. But at heart, they're exceedingly boring and predictable people, with cruelty in place of nearly every other recognizable human emotion. Learning that Gus Fring tortured an animal to death for having the temerity to be hungry — just like Gus himself was at that time, might I remind you — is an appropriately predictable revelation about a creep like this.
The episode closes on Jimmy's biggest, and most violent, criminal exploit yet. With the help of a couple of ski-masked goons, including fan favorite goon-of-all-trades Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford), Jimmy reboots his street-level cellphone dealership by ambushing the three kids who mugged him when they try to do so again, dragging them into a piñata warehouse, hanging them upside down, and demanding they leave him alone and spread the word that he's off limits — all while his muscle ominously destroys piñata after piñata with baseball bats, working their way toward the captives until a Louisville Slugger stops just shy of the ringleader's forehead. I guess Jimmy really was thinking about becoming, in Jesse Pinkman's memorable words, a criminal lawyer.
It's such a dramatic escalation in Jimmy's shiftiness that it almost feels like fanservice. But consider how the episode opened: a flashback to Kim and Jimmy's mailroom days, during which they attempt to congratulate his brother Chuck (Michael McKean, returning in a cameo — and with weirdly full eyebrows) on winning a big case. The elder McGill condescends to his kid brother, who keeps making elementary mistakes about the name and nature of the case. Kim walks away, seemingly disquieted by this display of arrogance by a man whose career she was currently studying to emulate. Jimmy slinks off under the guide of collecting more ballots for the office Oscar pool ("Howard's End all the way down," he says at one point, which given later events is...alarming), but he's really sneaking into the law library to study for the degree no one knows he's pursuing.
Now consider what else happens to him this week. He finds out his girlfriend and would-be partner has entirely different plans for her life and career than what he'd thought. He learns that Mrs. Strauss, his very first elder-law client, has passed away. He remembers every detail of her life and case, showing what a good lawyer he really could be, and then watches the commercial he shot with her, a gutting way to process his grief. And he flips that on a dime when he visits the offices of Hamlin Hamlin McGill to see Howard (Patrick Fabian), who's falling apart and taking the firm down with him. Jimmy mocks his grief and goads him into lobbing f-bombs, then patronizingly says this is the kind of fire that'll help him win cases again.
In other words, the Jimmy who's hanging guys upside down like something out of a gangster movie is the same Jimmy who feels his career has collapsed, who's crushed by sadness, who can't admit he's feeling it, and who ridicules it in others. Odenkirk underplays this with characteristic skill, but there's no doubt about it. He's having an emotional crisis, and it's driving him to the dark side, which is increasingly where he feels he belongs.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.