We’re hitting ensemble cast territory, folks.
For much of Season Two, and the last few episodes in particular, the main character of Better Call Saul has seen his role marginalized to bit player status. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, the secondary players needed a boost after the first year’s heavy concentration on (re)introducing Jimmy McGill to the world, but it’s not the approach I expected. Fo sho.
Much like last week, the prime concentration in “Bali Ha’i” is Kim and her internal/external struggle with her employer, Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill. Following last week’s convo with Chuck the punitive measures placed against Kim are lifted by Howard, however the treatment remains the same. When summoned to a meeting with new client Mesa Verde, Kim tries to gauge Howard’s mood and figure her standing at the firm. Howard totally blocks her out, refusing to even acknowledge her outside of work stuff. Dude is still really mad that his referral of Jimmy to Davis & Main backfired, and he’s completely taking it out on the middle(wo)man.
Kim is receiving a lesson which has schooled many of us in the modern economy: the folly of corporate loyalty. Yeah, be good at what you do. Respect your employer, your vocation, and your clients. But don’t get caught up in believing that a business gives a damn about your well-being or possesses any sense of fairness in regard to the worker. Real talk.
Later, at a hearing, a lonesome Kim aggressively argues against releasing the medical records of her firm’s Sandpiper clients claiming it could serve to intimidate the elderly to drop out of the suit. The opposition, a lawyer for Schweikart and Cokely, plainly retorts that asking for the release of medical history is common practice for a class action suit. That argument will likely win the day but it’s Kim who looks like the more competent and assured litigator.
Rick Schweikart certainly notices. The leader of the rival firm grabs lunch with Kim and relates to her a story from early in his career where he was in a similar position of having to represent an entire firm/case by himself. Rick makes a salient point to Kim regarding the support she receives from her employer — the brass should have her back, even in a losing battle. Kim counters by telling Rick that HHM was loyal to her by footing the bill for law school while she worked her way out of the mail room. It’s apparent she feels a touch trapped by this obligation and it’s almost humorous how quick Schweikart waves it off as a non-factor and offers her a job to “spread her wings.” A telling moment in this scene is when Schweikart suggests Kim try out the in-house specialty drink. She refuses out of de facto politeness; there’s an abstemious thread to her character that instinctively rejects indulgence and hedonism.
Torn between her past ambitions, present realities, and future possibilities, Kim quietly questions her position. After being bothered about some relatively minor paperwork she returns to the same eatery and orders the special drink when she’s hit on by a creeper named Dale. Having just seen this guy kiss another woman Kim calls in Jimmy for a little fun.
Our protagonist does very little in this episode. The opening scene depicts him tossing and turning in his corporate apartment then trying to watch some TV (where he happens to catch the Davis & Main promo spot for the Sandpiper case, which is both mundane and apparently airing in the middle of the night) then playing with his “basket of balls.” After a few wakeful hours he decides to head over to his old cramped office/apartment in the back of the nail salon to try to get some sleep.
Later on he receives the phone call from Kim while he’s reviewing some mundane paperwork with associates Erin and Omar. He’s more than eager to get the hell out of the office to pull a con.
He hits the ground running. Jimmy starts to blab to Dale about some internet start-up and investors and all that jazz and the next thing we see is a hungover Kim holding a check made out to “Ice Station Zebra Associates,” which borrows its name from the movie the pair watched a couple episodes back. (It is also the name of a holding company which Saul uses to launder Walt’s money in Season 3 of Breaking Bad. Man, they’re sly with some of these references…)
During this Kim actually apologizes for pressuring Jimmy into the job at Davis & Main, indicating she realizes or respects the notion of living the life you want without shame. Is Kim changing? Is Jimmy pulling her deeper in the muck? Sometimes this show is so subtle it borders on confounding.
What is not subtle anymore is that Jimmy’s new lifestyle is clashing with his old character. While he tells Kim he’s happy with the nice job and awesome amenities, that opening scene is absolutely clear. Jimmy would rather slum. He’d rather slither. Square peg, meet round hole. Etc.
In case this isn’t clear, the show gives you one more reminder. When Jimmy jumps in his company ride his Kim-gifted coffee mug will once again not fit. So he smashes the console up with a tire iron and makes it fit.
Mike’s track, autonomous as ever, continues down a sinful path. Literally, some of his most important scenes take place in shrouded venues. Soon after his meet with Hector, previously known to the audience as the bell-ringing Tio, Mike finds a young Latino man waiting for him on his doorstep. He’s looking for the answer to the $5000 question: will Mike lie to the police to lessen Tuco’s charges? He placidly answers in the negative.
Mike is a stoic dude, that’s pretty much the main tent pole of his character, but I think an encounter like that would rattle anyone. And yet we see him take it in stride. Shortly afterward, using a welcome mat, carbon paper and regular ol’ A4 Mike detects that someone is inside his house and then slowly, silently slinks around his home with handgun drawn. He eventually coaxes the intruders from their hiding space and cracks at least one of them over the head. The hired thugs claim they’re just there to scare him into taking the money. Mike tells them to buzz off, but later, when cleaning the blood, we see the nerves kick in. A shaking hand implies that Mike isn’t as hardened as the guy we know in Breaking Bad.
To really imply the danger the show incorporates two more callbacks from that show. The Cousins, the (mostly) silent cartel enforcers, show up in the far distance, watching Mike and his granddaughter Kaylee from a rooftop. Mike notices them and their softly severe threats. It’s a simple moment but effective.
Mike goes to meet with Tio/Hector and agrees to take ownership of Tuco’s gun charge. Tio tells him immediately the $5000 is no longer part of the deal; this is a clear cut life-or-death decision. Mike retorts with a demand for $50,000, and Tio rightfully compliments the fellow old man on the spectacular size of his balls. After some back and forth Tio accepts that it would be easier to hand over 50k than possibly get shot and/or have the murder investigation of an ex-cop to deal with.
Fresh off this meeting Nacho, who was present for it, delivers the money to Mike. He immediately breaks off half and gives it to Nacho and simply tells him that they’ll be unable to keep Tuco in jail like they planned and thus he’s entitled to a refund. OK whatever, Mike. I would have kept the hell out of that dough.
Speaking of dough, there’s a yeast-like quality to this show. We’ve been tracking the slow rise of several characters for weeks now, and “Bali Ha’i” was more of the same. I’ve celebrated the artistic quality of the series since the very start, it really is well put together, but I’m getting a little fed up with the slogging pace. One reason Better Call Saul gets away with it is because of its prequel status, everyone (pretty much) knows where this is eventually (kinda) going so the creators are using that berth to tell a more hands-off, thematically-driven story. That’s cool, but again I ask: Who is the antagonist? What’s the bigger mission? Where’s the ticking time bomb to create a sense of urgency?
I give almost any show one and half seasons to get their sea legs. I find most series improve dramatically once the writers can back away from the material and look at what they’ve done and when the actors and production crew congeal and grow comfortable in their roles. I wouldn’t say Better Call Saul is regressing, but much like the main character, its little song and dance is wearing my patience thin.
I like it, I really do, but I’m starting to suspect that the next two episodes will provide only more fluff with the final two of the season finally ratcheting things to a higher gear. Several episodes have passed and the last significant thing Jimmy has done was make a commercial, and the fallout of that has been more concerned with Kim than he. Given the show’s previous high standard I believe this uncertain focus on Kim will serve to propel Jimmy’s story but I can’t ignore the retread. We’ve seen Jimmy dissatisfied with his success before. We’ve seen Kim trampled by her job before. We’ve seen Mike deal with dealers and other various lowlifes before. We’ve seen Jimmy and Kim pull a scam together before.
An upside to this approach is that the plot can go really anywhere. We’re in the dark as much as the characters are chasing darkness.