Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Spectacular Fifth Season of ‘Better Call Saul’

Better Call Saul

Deep into the finale of Better Call Saul’s fifth season, Kim Wexler raises the idea of ruining someone’s life. Her target, the smarmy but reformed attorney Howard Hamlin, has long been stuck in her craw. “What if Howard does something terrible?” she wonders from under the sheets in the luxury hotel suite where she and her husband are holed up. Initially, he’s happy to play along. But after discussing several hypothetical scenarios, the lawyer formerly known as Jimmy McGill realizes that his wife isn’t playing at all.

“Kim, doing this, it’s not you, OK?” he says to her over a bowl of room-service ice cream. “You would not be OK with it.” Her reply is as cold as her sundae: “Wouldn’t I?”

The camera then cuts from a close-up of Kim to a nearly teary-eyed Jimmy, then back to her. “She had taken him by surprise,” says Peter Gould, who directed and also cowrote the episode with Ariel Levine. “He’s really uneasy with the direction she seems to be taking.”

“Kim,” Jimmy—or is it Saul now?—says softly, “you’re shitting me, right?” On her way to the bathroom she wheels around, pulls two imaginary pistols out of their imaginary holsters, fires twice, and pretends to blow away puffs of smoke. The only thing Jimmy can do is stare at her and force a laugh. “He’s looking at me trying to figure out, ‘Who is this person that I thought I knew?’” says Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim.

“She fights it much more confidently and completely than Jimmy does,” Bob Odenkirk, the Breaking Bad spinoff’s star, says about Kim’s duplicitous urges. “But because she has that capacity it’s not even that strange to her, in a way.” In other words, he adds, “They’re more similar than when you first meet them and you think they’re not at all.”

For Jimmy McGill, whose livelihood depends on a certain moral flexibility, this is a shocking epiphany. His wife has spent the entire series as both a guide to and a guise of integrity—keeping him from fully accepting a life of indecency while also providing him evidence that he could be decent. But “Something Unforgivable” is a point of no return; it’s the moment Jimmy realizes that Kim Wexler is just like him. Or worse: just like Saul Goodman.

By the fifth season, Jimmy has grown comfortable in Saul Goodman’s colorful suits. The latest installment of Better Call Saul reckons less with its main character’s transformation, than with the potential for osmosis.

Because Better Call Saul is a prequel, the fates of most of the show’s major characters are predetermined. And while there’s plenty to learn about Saul Goodman before he meets a certain former chemistry teacher, or about Gustavo Fring before he sits atop a drug empire, as a matter of fact, no Better Call Saul character is as mysterious as Kim. And knowing that, the show’s cocreators, Gould and Vince Gilligan, have wisely taken their time unveiling her true nature, reaching sublime heights by drilling deep into the character and letting her descent—and Jimmy’s role in it—unfold in a painfully deliberate manner.

“The show, it’s called Better Call Saul,” Odenkirk says. “But the real show is, Who the Hell is Kim?”

It’d be easy to blame Kim Wexler’s slow-building deceitfulness on her slippery partner. But Seehorn rejects that theory. “It isn’t as simple as saying, ‘Jimmy is turning her bad,’” Seehorn says. “That’s not correct. So is he reigniting something that was always there? Is he bringing it out in her?”

At the outset of Season 5, Kim seems, at best, conflicted. She vocally objects to Jimmy’s decision to practice law as Saul Goodman, yet in the premiere, “Magic Man,” she takes a page from his playbook and lies to a stubborn client so that he’ll take a favorable plea deal. After the deception, she rushes into a stairwell, throws her briefcase down, and almost collapses from shame.

Still, her affection for Jimmy remains. After his license is reinstated, she buys him a new leather monogrammed briefcase—the initials JMM, not SG—and a travel mug playfully emblazoned with the phrase “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer.” Naturally, the yellow cup pops up later, when Kim opens Jimmy’s bag and finds it—pierced with a bullet hole.

“Every detail is thought about, is considered, and is not forgotten,” Odenkirk says. “It must be extremely hard to write this. I just see the amount of concentration and care that the writers put in. It’s so apparent. I think the fun thing is when they surprise themselves; when there’s a detail that they didn’t even have a reason for and then they discover a reason for it.”

“The show, it’s called Better Call Saul. But the real show is, Who the Hell is Kim?” — Bob Odenkirk
Whether Jimmy and Kim are eating takeout, watching classic movies, or brushing their teeth, their routines illustrate just how close they are. Sometimes words aren’t even necessary to demonstrate their bond. In the closing minutes of Episode 3, when Kim comes home demoralized after failing to convince a man to leave his home to make way for Mesa Verde bank’s call center, she joins Jimmy on their apartment’s balcony. As they share a cigarette and drink beer, she decides to throw a bottle toward the parking lot; Jimmy follows suit. Soon, neighbors’ lights flicker on, and a dog starts barking as the two culprits smile and scurry inside. “I love all those scenes,” Seehorn says. “To me they’re more intimate than sex scenes.”

The question, however—one that’s hummed through the entirety of Better Call Saul—persists in the fifth season: What does Kim see in Jimmy? Seehorn believes the answer lies in the humble roots of her character, who grew up in Nebraska, where—we learn in a flashback this season—she was raised by a mother with alcohol misuse issues. “I’ve been delighted to see it realized in little places here and there, this real disdain for people that don’t make their own way, that she doesn’t feel pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” Seehorn says. “I see her get really pricked when she’s around people like that. It has always let me get another avenue to understand her connection to Jimmy, because he’s a hustler. You can have a problem with the result, but that guy does his own work.”

To Kim, Kevin Wachtell, the CEO of Mesa Verde, which his father founded, is one of those people who hasn’t made his own way. When he refuses to give in to Everett Acker, the blue-collar homeowner who the bank is attempting to evict, Kim turns on him. But to do so, she needs an accomplice, and Saul Goodman is the perfect man for the job.


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During the season’s fourth episode, while watching Jimmy’s alter ego perform in court for the first time—he sleazily swaps out his defendant with a look-alike to prove that a convenience store cashier may have identified the wrong robber—Kim makes eye contact with him and they exchange a nod. “She’s trying to figure out, number one, who this person, this third party in my relationship, is,” Seehorn says. “But also she’s considering asking him to help with Acker, and she’s trying to gauge: Is this the guy I always smiled at when he made the billboard and did all those stunts against Hamlin? It’s not exactly illegal, but it’s definitely not playing the game [right]. Is that what she’s looking for?”

Enlisting Saul Goodman to represent Acker is the kind of clever, dirty trick that Jimmy would’ve devised. But this time it’s Kim who sets things in motion, consequences be damned. The move, intended to seek justice for the little guy, backfires. Kim tries to remove herself from the case by citing a conflict of interest, but Kevin won’t have it. When her boss Rich Schweikart (played with an understated warmheartedness by Dennis Boutsikaris) later tries to take Kim off Mesa Verde, she lashes out at him. Meanwhile, as he helps delay Acker’s removal, Jimmy begins amassing dirt on Wachtell.

“It isn’t as simple as saying, ‘Jimmy is turning her bad.’ That’s not correct. So is he reigniting something that was always there? Is he bringing it out in her?” — Rhea Seehorn
In the end, both Acker and the bank appear to be receiving favorable deals. But Jimmy, as he’s wont to do, blackmails Kevin at the last minute with dirt dug up by a hired goon. Kim has no idea the extortion attempt is coming, and in the last scene of Episode 6, aptly titled “Wexler v. Goodman,” she confronts him. As he’s apologizing and defending himself, claiming that her genuine anger successfully erased any suspicion that the two were in cahoots, she rolls up her sleeves.

“She’s so contained, but you can see underneath that containment, she’s sizzling,” Gould says.

“She suppresses and forces things into being project oriented,” Seehorn says. “We all know those people in our lives. ‘I don’t want to emotionally talk about what’s wrong. Just tell me how to fix it.’”

In this case, though, she lets Jimmy have it, calling him out for his constant stream of lies and for making her “the sucker.” “This has to end,” she says. “I cannot keep living like this. Jimmy, you know this has to change. If you don’t see it, I don’t know what to say, because we’re at a breaking point.”

Even now when he watches the episode, which Thomas Schnauz wrote and Michael Morris directed, Gould feels like Jimmy and Kim are about to break up. “These two people seem to be on very different paths,” he says. “And he’s pushed her to the limit.”

Then, as Jimmy is on the verge of breaking down, Kim agonizingly gets the last word. “Either we end this now, and enjoy the time we had and go our separate ways,” she says. “Or, we … ” Then she trails off, stammers a bit as she’s working through something in her head, and says, “Or maybe … maybe we get married.”

“Her head says one thing and her heart says something else,” Gould says. “And I think if you were to ask her, the character, ‘Well, why are you getting married?’ she would say, ‘Because Jimmy told me that he lies so he can protect me from having to testify against him.’ Which is a very lawyerly reason. But I think they get married because they love each other. And there’s some beautiful symmetry on the show, that I find fun—these are two people who got a law office for love and got married for business.”

All screenshots via AMC
The twist is both believable and shocking because of the dichotomy of Seehorn’s performance—the expression of genuine anger being overtaken by a calculating mind set on solving a complex problem. “She wasn’t planning on saying that, that’s why you didn’t see it coming,” she says. “So that’s what makes the moment great and that’s what makes that moment difficult.”

“You see a lot of thinking going on on Kim’s face in that moment,” Odenkirk says. “And a hesitancy to say this strange, on the surface, hard to grasp, solution to their quandary. But you see all that thinking and when you hear her say it, you just know that she means it. And you know there’s probably even a good reason that she came up with it. She has something in her mind about why that is a good choice. Which is a wonderful piece of acting on her part. I mean, just great.”

Even before Better Call Saul began, one thing was certain: Jimmy McGill could not be saved. But knowing the once-small-time con man’s destiny hasn’t made it easier to witness as it unfolds. Better Call Saul is brimming with dramatic irony—knowing the end point makes the journey all the more gut-wrenching. By the back half of Season 5, that journey is nearly complete—Jimmy has gone from small schemes to arguing for the release of Lalo Salamanca, a member of the drug cartel who’s charged with murder.

“In front of the victim’s family, he makes this argument for releasing someone who he knows, in his heart, is a murderer,” Gould says. “An evil person, Lalo Salamanca. And yet he does it. And you can argue he had no choice but I believe he did have a choice. And Jimmy feels terrible. Terrible is probably too small a word.”

After the courtroom scene, there’s an eerie shot of the newly eloped criminal lawyer slowly emerging from behind a wall. Only half of his face peeks out, but the mirrored surface of the wall creates an optical illusion, at once making the split in Jimmy’s soul clear, but also obscuring the fact that he’s hiding from the family of Lalo’s victim.

Despite the bravado that Saul projects, the transformation from mere con man to violent criminal accomplice has battered his conscience. That soon becomes apparent when Jimmy runs into Howard Hamlin, the last person on earth he wants to see. The nattily dressed lawyer, and former partner of Jimmy’s late brother, Chuck, began the show as one of its least sympathetic characters. But after struggling to cope with Chuck’s death by suicide, he’s grown into something rare for the Breaking Bad universe: someone who, over time, evolves into a better person, not a worse one.

Howard’s kindness induces a childish fury in Jimmy. Instead of accepting Howard’s offer to join Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, he tortures Howard with a pair of nasty pranks. The reason for this, Odenkirk thinks, is simple: Howard is a stand-in for his brother. Before his death, Chuck made sure to tell Jimmy that in truth, he never mattered much to him. “What do you do with that if somebody dumps that in your lap?” Odenkirk says. “It’s awful hard to get around. In a very wacky, psychological compartmentalization, he’s decided that Howard was a part of this. It’s almost like a kid who’s gonna get bullied decides to be the biggest bully and to torture a kid who’s a different kid. Because he just knows those knives are coming for him if he doesn’t point them in another direction.”

So when Howard catches up with him at the courthouse, Jimmy becomes unhinged. In the final scene of the Alison Tatlock–penned “JMM,” executive producer Melissa Bernstein’s directorial debut, he verbally attacks Hamlin. “You know why I didn’t take the job? ’Cause It’s too small!” Jimmy shouts as he jumps up and down. “I don’t care about it. It’s nothing to me. It’s a bacterium.”

“There’s that wonderful shot where they’re trailing my face, seeing him behind me, and it flips for about three seconds and we see Jimmy,” says Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard. “He’s moving like a puppet—physically moving like something that’s possessed. And it’s not natural. It’s not human.”

Even after arranging for the release of a cold-blooded murderer, Jimmy’s job is far from over. As Salamanca/Fring double agent Nacho Varga reminds him earlier this season, when it comes to doing business with the cartel, “Once you’re in, you’re in.” So when Lalo needs $7 million in cash bail, he sends Jimmy to fetch it at the Mexican border.

“Jonathan Banks’s character, it’s like every word he says costs him money.” — Peter Gould
For the makers of Better Call Saul, this was the perfect excuse to revisit to the New Mexico desert. “I just don’t think any of us get tired of seeing that landscape,” Gould says. “You would drive through and there would be wild horses running in the distance. It is a remarkable, spiritual place. In addition to being a very difficult place to try to do a television show.”

Gilligan directed “Bagman,” an ultraviolent, bleakly comedic episode of TV that takes on the form of a Western. Written by Gordon Smith, the episode was filmed in To’hajiilee, the same expanse of Navajo land where both Walter White and Jesse Pinkman cook meth in the Breaking Bad pilot and where Heisenberg crumbles to the ground in “Ozymandias.” The shoot, which was two hours away from the show’s Albuquerque home base, took nearly three weeks.

“As the crow flies, it might not have been that far, but driving time, because of the washboard roads with all the trucks, was probably an additional hour from where we would shoot the Breaking Bad To’hajiilee stuff,” Gilligan says. “It was like going to a whole different place.”

The heat was practically unbearable. “I was bitching in some interviews about how hard it was to shoot it,” Gilligan says. “But the truth is, I had the easy job. The hard job was done by the crew, who had to schlep all that stuff out there, 50 miles out in the desert. So I had it easy.”

“It was 100 degrees every day. Up to 110,” says Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike Ehrmantraut. “And it’ll take a toll on you. And I’d give Vince a hard time every time I could. ‘What have you done to us? Where are we?’ Truth be told, I really enjoyed it.”

Early in the episode, things go awry for Jimmy. After picking up two duffel bags full of money from the twin Salamanca cousins, he notices a pack of vehicles trailing his Suzuki Esteem. Heavily armed henchmen take the loot, but as one is about to put a bullet in Jimmy’s head, gunfire rains down from an unseen shooter, sending the lawyer ducking for cover. We see much of the brutal sequence from Jimmy’s perspective.

“If you had ever been exposed to that kind of death and grisly mayhem, a normal human being would be in shock,” Banks says. “And I thought Bobby just was impressive in what he did. It got my attention.”

Jimmy doesn’t know it until he comes down to check on him, but it’s Mike who saved his life. From there, the duo heads toward civilization on foot as a surviving bad guy hunts them, eventually hunkering down at a makeshift camp as day turns to night. There, under the muted light of a glow stick, Jimmy slips and admits that Kim knows what he was supposed to be doing at the border. The ramifications of that revelation are clear to Mike. “She’s in the game now,” he says, flatly, but with a hint of disappointment.