Better Call Saul Season 5: Lalo is Jimmy’s True Foil
Better Call Saul season 5’s penultimate episode makes clear that Lalo Salamanca is the most dangerous man in Saul Goodman’s orbit.
The following contains spoilers for Better Call Saul season 5 episode 9.
At the end of Better Call Saul season 5 episode 9 “Bad Choice Road,” Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler receive an unexpected and most unwelcome visitor.
It’s Lalo Salamanca and he’s stopping by for a very specific purpose. After tapping on their fish tank (don’t do that!), and making himself comfortable on the living room couch, Lalo has but one request for Jimmy.
“So. Tell me what happened…when you picked up the money. Walk me through it.”
Jimmy shares the story he rehearsed so thoroughly with Mike once again with Lalo. He went to pick up the money from the Salamanca cousins in the desert, his car broke down, and he walked back to civilization. It’s a good, believable story. So good in fact that Lalo wants to hear it again…then again…and again…and again.
If Jimmy McGill a.k.a. Saul Goodman has a superpower, it’s bullshitting. No one in the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul universe has a finer gift of gab than our favorite crooked lawyer. Jimmy/Saul has used his finely-tuned bullshitting ability to get out of jams time and time again across two different series.
Right here in this moment, however, something amazing is happening: that bullshitting ability isn’t working. It’s not working because Jimmy has come up against an antagonist that can’t be tricked. You ever hear the phrase “can’t bullshit a bullshitter?” Well here it is writ large. Lalo is every bit the smarmy con man that Jimmy McGill is, only from a drastically different world.
Lalo wasn’t always intended to be this way…this perfect Saul Goodman foil. The character’s origins actually date all the way back to Saul’s first appearance in Breaking Bad. When Walter White and Jesse Pinkman bring Saul to the desert to stage a mock execution (which we now know must have been particularly traumatizing for him, given his history), Saul yells “Lalo didn’t send you? No Lalo?”
Better Call Saul was therefore determined to introduce a character named Lalo at some point in its run (as it did early on with Ignacio a.k.a. Nacho, which is another name Saul mentions in that same desert scene). When Lalo is first introduced near the end of season 4, however, he almost seems like an afterthought. Hector Salamanca has been taken off the board by Gus and Nacho so the Salamanca clan needs to find another leader. So they simply bring another Salamanca cousin named Lalo north of the border.
Like with the introduction of Uncle Jack in Breaking Bad, it’s unusual to see such a major antagonist introduced so late in a series’ run. But just like the aforementioned Jack, Lalo proves his mettle quite early on. The moment he arrives in Albuquerque, Lalo realizes something that the rest of the cartel has been remarkably slow on the uptake with: there’s something up with this Gus Fring character. This is our first inclination to just how precise Lalo’s BS detector is. Dozens of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul characters have been taken in by the civilized facade that respected businessman Gustavo Fring presents. Lalo is not one of them…and that makes him a whole new kind of Salamanca.
Madness runs through the Salamanca family like it does the Targaryen line on Game of Thrones. Tuco, the first Salamanca introduced on Breaking Bad, was a straight up drug-addled lunatic. The Cousins, though more reserved, still clearly revel in their capacity to commit violence. Hector’s own erratic behavior and singular focus on vengeance eventually brought his empire down. But Lalo is different.
Though he’s certainly a sociopath (witness his complete detatchment from the Fred at Travelwire murder), he’s also very much in control of himself. Not only that, he’s charming. His perfectly-coiffed hair, thin mustache, and purple button-up all suggest someone who wants to be noticed and not hidden away from public view. In an alternate universe, it’s not hard to imagine him popping up on late-night TV commercials, encouraging petty criminals to “Better Call Lal.”
Lalo is almost a disturbing mirror image of Saul in this way. While Saul Goodman is very much part of the criminal underworld (or “the game” as he insists upon calling it), he still has some semblance of a moral code that allows him to continue to operate within society. Lalo is what Saul could be without that code.
According to Lalo actor Tony Dalton, those comparisons to Saul were very much deliberate and something that he brought to the role himself. The actor told Looper:
“For example, in the case of Lalo, he was never going to be that charming. I saw Breaking Bad and I saw Better Call Saul before I got the job and I thought there needs to be somebody besides Bob (Odenkirk), besides Jimmy, who also is kind of smiling and carefree and kind of a little bit, sort of a conman, mischievous kind of thing and in the bad guy’s part. So that’s kind of what, what we tried to do there with that.”
The approximation of a Bob Odenkirk style within a new villain is an unambiguous success. Despite the fact that they didn’t share screen time until very recently, Lalo and Jimmy turn out to be perfect foils. That’s why that final scene from season 5’s penultimate episode is so effective. Jimmy thought he could sleepwalk through another BS explanation, not realizing that his client was the one person uniquely suited to see through it. Jimmy’s powers simply don’t work on Lalo.
There is, however, one person uniquely suited to deal with both Jimmy and Lalo’s nonsense. And that’s Kim Wexler. In the end it’s not Mike Ehrmantraut and his sniper rifle who neutralizes Lalo, but Kim. Kim doesn’t even have a weapon other than her own wit. She responds to Lalo’s very reasonable questions with some reasonable answers of her own. She points out that finding bullet-ridden cars in the desert is not unusual for New Mexico. She stands her ground and forces Lalo to finally leave.
It’s a remarkable performance from Kim all around. And that’s to be expected given that she knows how to deal with people like Lalo. She does it all the time with Jimmy.