People believe what they want to believe. That's as true for the audience of Better Call Saul as it is for the characters. Chances are good that as you watched Monday's episode unfold, you assumed disaster would befall Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and his German construction crew. You likely pegged Werner (Rainer Bock), the gentle team leader who misses his wife of 26 years and always refers to Mike with a kindly-sounding "Michael," as the victim. You probably thought Kai (Ben Bela Böhm), the cocky young demolitions expert who's butted heads with Mike over and over, would be the culprit.
So when Werner goes back down into the subterranean depths to check on a faulty fuse laid by Kai the night the team is scheduled to blow up one last gigantic rock with dynamite -- a rock spraypainted with "WIEDERSEHN," the German word for "goodbye," no less -- you were probably nearly as nervous as Werner himself. Note: The episode is titled "Wiedersehen," and it was written and directed by Breaking Bad top dogs Gennifer Hutchison and Vince Gilligan, respectively. You've heard of Chekhov's gun? This is like Chekhov's arsenal.
But it was all a bait and switch; indeed, the entire German subplot might have been. Werner fixes the fuse. The detonation goes off without a hitch. The teammates toast to a job well done, with Kai himself pouring a cold one in Mike's honor.
Now the goalposts get moved once again. Could Werner, who all but begs Mike to be allowed a brief trip home to visit his beloved wife but puts on a brave face once Mike declines, be despondent enough to kill himself? His lengthy goodbyes during the extra phone call he gets allotted instead of a vacation indicate that yeah, he just might be.
Instead, the owlish little guy sabotages the security cameras, cuts through the padlocks, evades the security team, and escapes the secure facility where he and his team have lived in seclusion for months. He's fleeing home... and given what we know about his drug lord boss, he's risking not only his life, but Mike's, the guards and the entire construction crew's in the process. He may have disabled the cameras, but the real blindspot was Mike's, believing his friend knew the stakes and could be trusted not to do anything reckless. On this show, trust doesn't get you very far.
This episode finds Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) in nearly as unenviable a position as Mike. The unhappy cartel lieutenant tags along as his glad-handing new boss Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) meets two of the most dangerous men in the Southwest: his uncle, the crippled kingpin Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), and Tio Hector's nemesis turned savior Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
Plotwise, the two visits are simple matters. First, Lalo visits Hector in his nursing home to plan their next move against Fring. Then he visits Gus to bury the hatchet between their two branches of Don Eladio's cartel (allegedly, anyway), thanking him for his life-saving actions when Hector fell ill. Along the way he gives Hector the trademark bell he'd ring with explosive results during the events of Breaking Bad, giving the prop its own origin story -- it was stolen from the ruins of a hotel that burned down, along with its proprietor, by Hector himself -- along the way.
But the real action in both scenes plays out on the faces of the actors involved. As Lalo, Dalton fits right into the series' lineage of deceptively personable heavies. Whether he's cheerfully reminiscing with Hector about the murdered hotelier or making nice with the Chicken Man, the glib grin almost never leaves his face. When it does, like in the initial moment of shock when he sees how the great Hector has been laid low or a tricky moment when he tries to test Gus's loyalty to their mutual boss Don Eladio, you notice.
Esposito's Gus is a different story. While his front as a friendly businessman is convincing, he drops it the instant it's no longer required. His face's shift from charming to terrifying is as dramatic as the difference between the comedy and tragedy masks gracing the website of your local high-school drama club.
And as Nacho, series MVP Mando faces the biggest challenge. Unlike both his de jure overlords the Salamancas and his de facto employer Fring, Nacho takes no pleasure, perverse or otherwise, in dirty deeds. His face when Lalo and Hector stroll down their murderous memory lane, or when Lalo and Gus both pretend to be two regular joes who just so happen to enjoy delicious chicken, is a carefully constructed blank. Only his eyes, among the most expressive on television, radiate his disgust and fear.
False fronts are everywhere you look in this episode, in fact. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) kicks things off by bluffing her way into the City of Lubbock, Texas's files by pretending to be a single mother with a broken leg, horrified by the care her neglectful "brother" -- who just so happens to look a lot like Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) -- is providing her 8-month-old son. It's all part of a clever ploy to replace the previously filed blueprints for a Mesa Verde bank branch with a new, slightly larger one, without having to deal with the attendant paperwork. As the sympathetic city clerk rubber-stamps a new copy of the plans to replace the one destroyed by Jimmy's carelessness without ever realizing a switcheroo has taken place, Kim watches with barely concealed glee. It's the look of a person who derives pleasure from getting away with things, and thanks to a restrained, pointed performance by Rhea Seehorn, it's nearly as chilling a moment as anything involving the actual gangsters on the show.
But true to her nature, Kim has carved out a legalistic loophole for her behavior, one that Jimmy is quick to point out is actually rather flimsy. She's all for helping Jimmy get his future clients out of jurisprudential jams, don't get her wrong, but she wants to use their powers for good instead of evil. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when attempting to define pornography, she claims she'll know it when she sees it. When Jimmy, detecting some condescension, wonders how this noble-sounding guideline applies to helping a bank weasel out of zoning regulations, she has no response at all.
Maybe Jimmy's remembering this moment when he turns on her, seemingly out of the blue, after his application to have his license to practice law gets turned down. The reason for his rejection is obvious, to us and to Kim anyway. Jimmy ably demonstrates his bonafide legal acumen, his up-by-the-bootstraps backstory, his humility about his mail-order law degree, and -- most of all -- his totally sincere love for helping his clients when he makes his case to the board. But he fails to mention his late brother Chuck at all, despite the fact that he was only disbarred in the first place because of the long-running war of wills that led first to the collapse of Jimmy's career, then to the end of Chuck's, and then to Chuck's relapse and death. It's the one thing he can't be honest about or lie his way around.
Instead, he unloads on Kim. "We will find a way to make you look sincere," she says, already planning his appeal. "Kim, I was sincere!" he says, which is true... to a point. But this gives him all the excuse he needs to accuse her of not believing him, for seeing him as a lowlife, a con artist, the kind of guy you might shack up with but feel embarrassed to share an office with, or to bring to meet your white-shoe law-firm partners. Sure, she'll take a walk on the wild side with him when she gets "bored with [her] life," but when the thrill passes, she's content to kick him while he's down. "Jimmy," she says, angry and exhausted by this display, "you are always down."
Until that moment, Jimmy's rant seemed like a classic case of projection. All the things Chuck ever said about him, all the things he's afraid are true, he puts in Kim's mouth and attacks her for. But when pushed, perhaps she agrees more than she lets on.
There's still hope for these crazy kids yet (if you've never looked for Seehorn's name in the Breaking Bad credits, at least): As Jimmy packs up to move out of their apartment, he cops to screwing his own life up, and Kim suggests continuing to pursue a career as a lawyer might be the first step for fixing it, and perhaps for fixing them. Is that why the episode's final shot -- a simulation of a laser pointer's effect on a warehouse security camera Werner disabled, distorting its vision and permanently frying its picture a few pixels at a time -- feels so disturbing? When you've been blind enough for long enough to certain problems, are they beyond repair?
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.