Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"Better Call Saul" - Final Season Premiere Review

Spoilers for the first two episodes of Better Call Saul's final season after the jump: 

It's quickly become one of the funniest things in recent TV history to look back on all the times we thought we knew where Kim Wexler's story was going. It was so obvious, wasn't it? Perhaps not so much in season one, but from the moment she and Jimmy become a couple, the overall shape of where that particular relationship was headed has seemed broadly obvious. Even as Kim became one of Better Call Saul's most compelling characters (I would argue the most compelling, and I know many people would agree with me), in big-picture prequel terms it's always seemed as though she had a prewritten role she'd eventually need to fulfill—no matter how many cons she ran with Jimmy and how much she enjoyed them, there'd come a point when he would push things too far for her. Everyone knew it. That's simply how this narrative had to work, even if in some ways it felt like a poor fate for a character whose own goals and desires have always been every bit as front-and-center as those of James McGill, Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, or anyone else in this show's world.

As it turns out, this was correct. It would've been a poor fate indeed, and Better Call Saul's writers knew it, even if I don't think they've ever spoken about exactly when they knew. I can see how the big pivot Kim makes in season five's finale—where she pitches an extremely cold-hearted scheme to ruin Howard Hamlin's reputation—may have felt too sudden to some; for me it was a thrilling statement that, yes, Peter Gould and company realize they've created an all-time great television character here whose impact on the show's endgame is going to be hugely significant. And the (unsurprisingly fantastic) first two hours of season six bear that out, while also providing some additional context and dramatic shading to Kim's series-changing proposal.

Better Call Saul likes to pull this sort of move from time to time. Think back to season one's finale, when Jimmy seemingly went full Saul Goodman for the first time, only for the following season premiere to add scenes around that moment that show it's not nearly as big a change (not yet, anyway) as it first seemed. Or the end of season four, when he tells Kim he's going to practice law as Saul; season five shows us that he does indeed do exactly that, but there's also a longer conversation that takes place between them about that seemingly spur of the moment declaration. Both "Wine and Roses" and "Carrot and Stick" have scenes that ground Kim's decision in much the same way. In the first episode, she tells Jimmy over dinner about a particularly galling pro bono case involving a rich kid trying to pin a robbery on her client. Then she circles back around to "the Howard front," reiterating her desire to move forward with the idea but saying she's figured out how to do it in a way that merely leaves him "bruised." The substance of what she's pushing for is the same as it was in that finale, but both scenes offer a greater window into her sense of justice, turning a moment that seemed shockingly callous into... well, it's obviously still callous, but it's no longer quite so shocking the more you see her think about it.

All of this feeds into the second episode's remarkable scene between Kim and the Kettlemans. The Kettlemans! Otherwise known as the reason I always rewatch (when possible) the entirety of beloved, long-running TV dramas before the final season airs. Not that I'd forgotten about them completely, of course, but having their previous shenanigans—and the way Betsy in particular insists, every time, that the world is treating them unfairly in that "let me speak to your manager" tone of voice—fresh in my mind made their return that much more of a treat. As one might expect, Jimmy and Kim run rings around them, first by using them to continue their plan for Howard (which involves convincing Cliff Main that his partner on the Sandpiper case is using cocaine). Then, after they deduce they've been tricked and attempt to blackmail Jimmy, Kim drops the hammer via her own threat—promising to turn them into the IRS for tax fraud if they don't do as she wishes. 

Compared to Kim's pitch in "Something Unforgivable," this scene feels inevitable. It feels inevitable from the moment Kim brings up "the stick" to Jimmy, who clearly would prefer to use the carrot (bribery) to get out of this situation. And it feels doubly inevitable after Kim watches an elderly woman leave the Kettlemans' new business without any knowledge she's been scammed, which to her is all the reinforcement she needs to opt for this scorched-earth approach. It should be noted that she does allow Jimmy to attempt the bribe, but the moment that appears likely to fail she jumps in with ruthless efficiency, getting everything she wants while verbally tearing the couple down to the point where Jimmy ends up giving them the money anyway out of pity. The Kettlemans represent everything that's wrong in the world to her, and she'll happily give them what she thinks they deserve. (There's a telling hitch in her voice when she tells Betsy "You think you've lost everything? You have no idea." We've gotten one glimpse of Kim's backstory before, and while it's already clear she didn't have a happy childhood, the way she speaks this line indicates it may have been even worse than what we've seen.) 

For the record, I'm more or less inclined to take her side here. Craig and Betsy are loathsome people in so many different ways. But it's still a startling display from Kim, and one that leaves Jimmy reeling as they get back into the car. "Wolves and sheep," he quietly notes under his breath, but doesn't elaborate when she asks him what he said. But what does Jimmy being married to such a wolf really mean for him as we approach Better Call Saul's endgame? I don't know exactly, but I certainly think it's a more fascinating question to kick off this final season than the one we thought we'd be asking at this point. (Also a scarier question. But hey, that's the price you pay for television this good.)

The fate of these two isn't the only question on Better Call Saul's mind, of course. Much of the rest of these two episodes is devoted to one of the show's other big unanswered questions—will Nacho Varga and his dad make it out of this alive? At least in the early going, this does mean an unfortunate return to the kind of bifurcated narrative the show had largely cast aside during season five's incredible home stretch. The good news is that—outside of one issue that I'll get to in a moment—the scenes not involving Wexler/McGill have been in excellent form for a while. From Mike's friendship with Werner to Tony Dalton's scene-stealing turn as Lalo, gone are the days when I would occasionally (not constantly, but often enough) grow weary of this half of the show. And Nacho's fate is, like that of Kim and Cinnabon Gene, still an unknown. That means tension, which is something you don't always get with Mike and Gus, two characters whose endings are set in stone. 

And there is tension in spades here, especially in the second episode when Nacho (holed up at a motel on Tyrus's orders) starts to figure out what's happening. Which brings me to the one thing that really bothered me about these episodes: Gus's plan for Nacho (a textbook loose end from his perspective) doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. Provoking a shootout in the hopes that the one guy who can tie you to the attack on Lalo's compound is killed is the kind of thing you might do if it's your only option, but are we supposed to believe a character who's long been portrayed as detail-oriented and meticulous in almost everything he does wouldn't have thought of something better? Seems like it'd be fairly easy to have a few guys ambush him at the motel and make the body disappear, then leave some sort of trail behind to suggest he escaped. Wouldn't solve every problem (people would still be wondering who hired him), but compared to the strong possibility of him being captured alive and leading the Cousins right to Gus, it seems like the obvious play. I'm wondering if there's an angle I'm missing here, because this really does seem like uncharacteristically sloppy writing.

No matter. I've watched too many horror movies to let one moment of (possibly) dubious logic ruin what is otherwise a gripping scenario. Nacho's narrow escape from the motel is a dazzling white-knuckle sequence in and of itself, but it's the beats leading up to it that really show off one of Better Call Saul's best qualities—patience. Specifically, the patience of watching the gears turning in a particular character's head as they search for some insight that's just out of reach. Kim probably gets more of those types of moments than anyone else (including one in this very episode), but everyone gets in on it at various points, and it's riveting to watch Nacho deduce someone is watching him before devising a method to get the drop on the person in question. And his continued survival presents plenty of additional complications for Gus, including a defiant Mike, who stares down Tyrus after Gus proposes threatening Nacho's dad. All of which should make for great TV in the coming weeks. That's without even getting into the Lalo factor, or Gus's realization that his current enemy is still very much alive.

Still, I'd be lying if I said this stuff (as much affection as I do have for Nacho) wasn't a distant second when it comes to what I care most about on Better Call Saul. What I care most about is contained in that beautiful cold open, and specifically in that image of the tequila stopper. Better Call Saul's greatest dramatic strength is found in two relationships—the one between Jimmy and his brother Chuck, which of course ended in tragedy in season three. And the one between him and Kim, which has lasted close to the length of the series. Obviously I've speculated since watching these episodes on what the appearance of that object (which has great sentimental value to Kim in particular) could mean. And the answer is "anything." Pretty much anything I've come up with could explain it. But what's important for the time being, I think, is the way it speaks to the often-surprising journey these two characters have taken together—something at least one of them doesn't seem to want to forget. Whether it's a final period or a sign that they might somehow still have a future together (let the romantics among us dream, OK?), what a great way to acknowledge the heart of this series before the coming turmoil. 

Other Thoughts

- In a conversation in the courthouse, Jimmy accidentally refers to Lalo by his real name when he's not supposed to know it. Guessing he's gonna regret that later. 

- The aforementioned moment where you can see those gears turning for Kim happens in the scene where she comes up with the idea involving the Kettlemans. Seehorn has at least one scene like that in basically every episode. It's magic every time. 

- Odenkirk gives the entire sequence at the country club a gleefully improvisatory feel as Jimmy is forced to rework the original plan on the fly. As superb a dramatic actor as he's become, he's still a genius comedian as well.

- Lalo is an unrepentant killer, but he also has enough honor to make sure the group of people trying to cross the border get their money back, which is weirdly sweet. 

- Better Call Saul's use of language is every bit as skillful as its various visual motifs. I love the parallel between Kim's "Don't I?" in response to Betsy and last season's "Wouldn't I?"

- Not sure if I'll be writing about this show every week (although the fact that this is the only week when two episodes are airing will probably make it a little easier to find time), but I'm gonna try. 

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