Even the most well-oiled machine needs a trip to the shop for a tune-up now and then. Better Call Saul, I suppose, is no exception. This week's episode, "Coushatta," is the first time that the show's tremendous fourth season has hit any significant storytelling hiccups. They're hardly deal breakers — the show is simply too good for that at this point, it seems — but for once, it felt like Jimmy McGill and company are playing for time.
The troubles, which is too strong a term but oh well, begin during the show's opening sequence. It's a traditional musical montage in the grand Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad condition: Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) takes a cross-country bus trip from Albuquerque to the tiny Louisiana hometown of his associate Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford), writing letters and postcards with different pens and in different handwriting styles all the while. After a couple thousand miles he pays his fellow passengers to get in on the act, complimenting or reprimanding them when their stylistic choices either hit the mark or go wide.
Eventually the method to the madness becomes clear: Based on an idea by his usually straitlaced partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy is forging a Miracle on 34th Street-style mountain of letters from the fictional members of Huell's fictional hometown church, upbraiding the ABQ district attorney for pressing charges against this ostensibly upstanding member of their community. Once he returns home, he even unboxes a few dozen of his burner cellphones to use for the bogus phone numbers he's planted in some of the missives, hiring the same crew of college film students who've shot his various commercials to add sound effects and voices that will make the ruse more convincing.
It's not that the ploy doesn't work — it does, spectacularly. The letters drive the judge into fits of exasperation, and the faked parishioners who answer the dummy phones convince the assistant district attorney to strike the no-jail-time deal Kim (and the phalanx of $400/hour legal associates she borrows from her law firm) had been pushing for. This in turn drives Kim, who finds herself thrilled by the deception to a literally erotic degree, back into Jimmy's arms after a period of estrangement.
Rather, the issue is how pro forma the whole thing feels. The letter-writing montage is set to as impeccable a deep cut as ever, in this case Les McCann's funk-inflected barn-burner "Burnin' Coal", but the music feels like an excuse to make the filmmaking less interesting, not an impetus to get innovative. Better Call Saul obviously thrives on depicting the tedium of crime in an innovative way, but there's nothing particularly interesting about a series of straightforward shots of a guy writing postcards on a bus as a hot piano tune plays. If the cinematography had been bolder, sure. Hell, if they'd gotten rid of the music entirely, and just let us sit on that bus with Jimmy for five minutes, soaking in the repetition of it all, that would have worked to. The choice the show made, neither fish nor fowl, feels like junior-varsity Saul at best.
The most interesting thing about the entire #FreeHuell campaign, which serves as the spine for the whole episode, is the end result mentioned above. Instead of being disgusted by becoming a party to any number of disbarment-level offenses, Kim asks a repentant Jimmy if they can do it again. What form this will take, we don't know. But for now it's Ms. Wexler's biggest step yet away from the legit banking-law work that clearly bores her to death and into the thrill-seeking world not just of criminal law, which she's been practicing as a sideline for several episodes, but of what one Jesse Pinkman will one day refer to as criminal law.
I've got a feeling we'll hear complaints for some viewers that a smart, talented attorney like Kim would never go for this, but keep in mind that Jimmy is a smart, talented attorney too. He's just been more susceptible to shortcuts and swindles than his girlfriend, until now at least. And given that she is his girlfriend, despite everything she already knows about his character, the allure of his shady side should come as no surprise.
Note also the lyrics of the aptly named song "Tempter" by European art-rockers Stereolab (a throwback to her college days, no doubt) that Kim listens to through her headphones at one point:
Midway between happiness and sadness,
Boiling but not overflowing
Falls to only make a better comeback,
More powerful and poignant, and falls again
Destructive lust for life erected,
On the verge, pricked up like a picket,
Fearing to respond to the tempting but malevolent call of the other side
It's like she's listening to her own life story.
Kim and Jimmy aren't alone in this episode, naturally. While they're pulling off the crime of — well, not quite the century, but at least the fiscal quarter — Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) has hit a potentially substantial stumbling block in his own illegal enterprise. He's acquiesced to the request of his construction team leader Werner (Rainer Bock) for some R&R, bringing "the boys" to a strip club and then spiriting away Werner himself to a quiet bar where they can relax in a less illicit atmosphere. (Werner describes his wife as basically his entire world, so no wonder he'd prefer to drink outside the strip joint's highly sexualized confines.)
But trouble finds them no matter where they go. Mike is soon brought back to the strip club by one of his goons, who reports that the team's designated troublemaker, Kai (Ben Bela Böhm), has gotten inappropriately handsy with one of the dancers. Ehrmantraut has the creep whisked away and pays off the bouncer and the dancer to keep them quiet. But when he returns to the bar, he finds Werner making small talk with some friendly fellow customers by running them through the engineering problems he has to overcome to get his job for Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) done properly.
When Mike confronts Werner about this the next day, the German protests he hasn't given anyone enough details for them to connect all the dots, but he's forgotten just how unusual the presence of a German guy in Albuquerque, talking about a subterranean construction project involving tons and tons of concrete and total secrecy, would seem to your average barfly. There's a part of Werner — the part that's never been away from his wife this long in 26 years, the part trying to live up to the legacy of an engineer father who helped build the Sydney Opera House — that's just plain too square to really realize the danger he's in by taking this job.
"Do you understand what I am saying to you?" Mike asks after warning Werner just how serious their mutual employer is about his work — emphasis is very much his, since he's reluctant to spell out the nature of the danger in so many words. Werner says he understands, and Mike vouches for him to Gus in turn. But you run afoul of the Chicken Man at your own risk.
Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) knows that better than almost anyone. (Anyone still living, anyway.) After taking the last few episodes off, Nacho returns, much wealthier since we last saw him several months ago in story time but no happier. He lives in a mansion where beautiful meth-head women call him "baby" the moment he steps in the door, but he simply retreats to his bedroom and locks his loot up in a vault containing fake IDs for him and his dad should they finally choose to flee to Canada.
During collection time, he sits in the command position once occupied by his hated boss Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), with the man he once beat to a pulp for coming up short, Domingo "Krazy-8" Molina (Max Arciniega) as his timid new second banana. It's now Nacho's job to use force to impel on-time payouts, as he does when he tears an earring from the lobe of a guy whose envelope is a little light.
But he's not in charge for long. The episode ends with the arrival of yet another member of the sprawling Salamanca clan: Eduardo (Tony Dalton) — "but you can call me Lalo" — a chatty, friendly, ever so slightly condescending sort who introduces himself by serving Nacho a fresh-cooked meal. At first glance he's less dictatorial than Hector, less insane than Tuco (Raymond Cruz, who I was convinced was making a surprise return until we saw Lalo's face), and less frankly terrifying than the Cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada). But the concluding shot of the back of Nacho's head as he stares balefully at Arturo telegraphs Varga's thoughts: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The presence of a higher-ranking Salamanca is dangerous in and of itself. Throw in the fact that Nacho's secretly a Gus Fring double agent and the difficulty expands exponentially: Not only does he have to learn how to stay on the new guy's good side, he also has to figure out how best to exploit his weaknesses for his true overlord. How did that song go again? Right: Fearing to respond to the tempting but malevolent call of the other side.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.