This review contains spoilers.
Most good storytelling is driven by conflict, and the best conflict needn’t be explosive or violent. The best conflict is rooted in characters and how they differ, how their clashing interests and differing approaches pit them against each other without anyone necessarily being the hero or villain. Good, compelling conflict allows us to understand who characters are and why they do what they do while still pitting them against each other.
The heart of this week’s episode is the struggle over the hugely lucrative client Mesa Verde. As Kim sets out on her own, working alongside but not together with Jimmy, she attempts to take her hard-won gains with her. Howard tries to stop her but fails, leading to Chuck stepping in, deploying a herculean effort to stave off his own mental illness until he has snatched Kim’s victory away from her, before Jimmy enters with a ploy of his own. Early in the episode Kim turns down Jimmy’s advice of going behind Howard’s back to secure Mesa Verde, telling him that the point of this venture is to allow both of them to be their own kind of lawyer. This sets up the way in which Fifi examines Better Call Saul’s four central lawyer characters and their very different approaches to their profession.
I’m not sure if we’ve learnt much about Howard’s background before, but his scene with Kim gives us some solid insight. He is sincerely impressed when he learns that Kim is not defecting to another firm, but heading out on her own, and even admits that he once wanted to do the same thing before being pushed into HHM by his father. This exchange reveals so much; while Kim’s transfer to a different firm pretty much guaranteed her a partnership, she chose autonomy, something Howard didn’t do. But furthermore, Kim reached her position through lots and lots of hard work. Howard’s was handed to him by a father who wanted to ‘throw another H in the firm’s logo’. There’s a lot to unpack here; firstly, it makes it no surprise that Kim quite easily snatches Mesa Verde from Howard’s relatively weak grasp. Kim knows how to fight for what she wants, Howard, on the other hand, is far more willing to give up when things don’t come easily. Furthermore, I think that Howard genuinely means it when he tells Kim he always pushed her harder because he expected more from her. The problem is that, having been given his partnership instead of fighting for it, I doubt Howard has much understanding of hard work and ergo even less understanding of how to motivate people. His ‘pushing’, however well intentioned, was really just unfair bullying, and as a result he lost a great employee and came within an inch of losing an important client.
While Howard might not know how to fight, Chuck won’t give up so easily. Where Kim treats Mesa Verde (and by extension her profession) with honesty and the promise of hard work and dedication, Chuck uses manipulation and a brilliant way with words, disarming the client through his appraising assessment of Kim before swiftly turning that appraisal into a sales pitch for his own skills. That he manages this all while fighting off the torment that being in that well-lit room must be speaks to his determination and spite toward his brother. His ploy might be pretty obvious, and to the show’s credit the banker from Mesa Verde sees through it pretty quickly, but that doesn’t mean that Chuck’s expert knowledge hasn’t had an impact. Enough of one, in fact, to remove the client from Kim.
It’s a scene that is gripping in just how venomous it is. Mesa Verde might be a huge account, but Jimmy’s right in that HHM hardly needed it, while it would have been a brilliant start for Kim’s fledgling firm. Previous weeks shed some light on the origin of Chuck’s antipathy toward his brother, but that doesn’t mean that the overriding motive here isn’t pure spite. And while Chuck is right in that his actions are firmly within the parameters of a company retaining an important client, his motives certainly are not.
Jimmy, of course, sees right through this. And if Chuck is going to use his own arsenal of verbal skills and legal brilliance to hurt his brother, then Jimmy can retaliate in kind. And so the future Saul Goodman does one of the ugliest things we’ve yet seen from him; he takes advantage of his brother’s incapacitation to alter the Mesa Verde documents, strewing them with errors presumably to help drive them back to Kim. Can this be justified? It all depends on your point of view. Jimmy always cared for Chuck despite their problems, and you can see the guilt on his face when Chuck thanks him for it. This is the first time Jimmy has taken advantage of his brother’s condition, and it’s hard not to see it as another line crossed. This episode almost captures both brothers and their conflict in perfect microcosm; Jimmy does the wrong thing for the right reasons, Chuck the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Jimmy’s choice here will almost definitely have enormous ramifications. He has tried to help Kim in the past, but always stopped short of directly interfering with her affairs. It’s pretty clear that he has done the last thing she wants, something that may very well give her back Mesa Verde, but as a poisoned chalice won through lying and cheating rather than integrity. Because that’s the central theme of Better Call Saul; doing the wrong thing might be easier and more effective than the right one, but it will always come back to bite you, whether it ruins your job or relationships or leaves you trapped in the trash room of a Nebraska mall, too scared to use the emergency exit for fear of the police finding out who you are.
And speaking of cold opens, holy crap, this week offered up one of the show’s best ever. It’s hard to know where to start; the catchy, toe tapping, slowly building music, the long, winding shot around the Salamanca truck being searched or the driver finding his gun just past the border, the icy pole sticks showing that this is just business as usual. As a scene, it didn’t have any huge pay-off other than to give us a little glimpse inside the Salamanca operation that Mike is apparently about to take on, but it was the kind of moment that reminds us of the spectacular level this show operates on, far above so many other things on TV.
The Mike side of things was relatively quiet this week. He’s staking out the Salamanca operation and enlisting Kaylee to help him in making what appears to be some kind of trap for their trucks, perhaps to pop the tyres as part of some larger scheme. This subplot is treading water at the moment, but it’s hard to care much when the Jimmy material is as riveting as it currently is. There are only two episodes left this season, and the pieces are in place for a thrilling end to this chapter.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Inflatable, here.