Wednesday, May 11, 2022

"Better Call Saul" - "Black and Blue"

Spoilers for this week's Better Call Saul episode after the jump: 

Up until the last several scenes of "Black and Blue," we've never met Margarethe, the widow of the late Werner Ziegler, who's already unknowingly escaped death once when her husband got her to return to Germany just in the nick of time. On the list of characters who I didn't really expect to see during the final season of Better Call Saul, her name would rank somewhere near the bottom (well below Betsy and Craig Kettleman, who at least played a significant onscreen role in season one). So it takes a few beats to realize, after an episode spent following the show's more established characters around, who this woman is and what significance she has to the story. I personally didn't put it all together until Lalo Salamanca shows up, in his first appearance since the season's first episode. At which point two things happen in fairly quick succession:

1) An instinctual rush of pure giddiness at realizing just how smart this show has proven itself once again. Because of course Lalo would end up here. He knows who Werner is. It's one of his few possible angles at this point, and while Werner's work for Gus was secret, his career in his home country wouldn't be. It makes complete sense once it clicks into place, but I'll be damned if I saw it coming. 

2) A moment when that giddiness evaporates and you realize that Margarethe is potentially in a whole lot of trouble. 

And thus begins an incredible series of scenes where the fate of a character who's been onscreen for mere minutes is called into question. Andrea Sooch creates a tremendous portrait of a person trying to have some semblance of a life despite the grief she's carrying around (her amused reaction to the people who lose at the trivia game after ignoring her advice is instantly endearing), which Tony Dalton's Lalo immediately seizes on as he proves a most attentive listener. They'd probably be an endearing pair in a romantic drama in another life. Here, of course, it all comes with an undercurrent of menace. And when they leave the relative safety of the bar and she walks home with him, it's utterly terrifying. After she declines to invite him inside (a decision that likely saves her life), Alison Tatlock's script then gives us a few moments to exhale as night turns into morning in one of those classic sped-up Breaking Bad universe shots, and he returns to break into her place once she's left for the day. 

It doesn't last, because (in a moment that I can't imagine anyone watching this won't anticipate but is no less nerve-racking because of its predictability) Margarethe returns home, having realized she didn't take her phone with her. And Lalo is still upstairs, going through her late husband's things. And now her dog is barking and she senses something's amiss. It's the kind of old-school suspense setpiece both these shows (Breaking Bad maybe a little bit more than Better Call Saul) often excel at, only this one is orders of magnitude more frightening than most of the others simply because of how unimportant Margarethe's survival is to where the larger narrative goes from here. But there's obviously nothing unimportant about it in this moment, when it becomes the most urgent question in the show's world for the span of about two minutes, as she climbs those stairs and Lalo spots the slide rule first seen the episode's cold open. Cut back to Margarethe, who finally ventures into the room and finds an open window but nothing else, thanks to Lalo's well-established athleticism. Smiling at herself for her own apparent foolishness, she closes it. Cut to credits, and I swear I haven't breathed this much of a sigh of relief at the end of an hour of TV in years. 

This stunner of a finale caps off another excellent episode in general (following last week's terrific "Hit and Run," which I didn't get a chance to review). Elsewhere, there's plenty happening in Wexler/McGill land, with Kim's anxiousness over Lalo carrying over from the previous hour—something that leads to at least one sleepless night on her part but no conversation with Jimmy about the truth of what she's learned. (She's seemingly taken Mike's comment about her being "made of sterner stuff" than her husband to heart, although given she's putting chairs under doorknobs in response to this, sternness is clearly a relative term in this case.) Jimmy, meanwhile, is forging ahead with his plans for the new office, which include the return of Francesca in a scene that shows their dynamic already being much closer to the way it is during the Breaking Bad years than how it was back when Kim and Jimmy were working out of the same space.

The best stuff (outside of Margarethe's narrow escape) is saved for the ongoing Howard scheme, though. I've been wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, figuring that Howard's too smart to not begin putting things together at a certain point. (Something Kim and Jimmy know as well, of course.) And so he does, after Cliff confronts him over the scene Kim and Jimmy staged last week. Whether he's begun to entertain the notion that Kim is directly involved is another story. When he hears her name, he makes this brief guttural sound—a great, great acting moment from Patrick Fabian—as he realizes what it means, but the fact that his first move is to invite his nemesis to go a few rounds in a boxing ring with him leads me to believe he still thinks it's all Jimmy. Yes, an actual boxing ring—when I saw the episode's title was "Black and Blue" I assumed this might be the episode that left Howard "bruised" (in Kim's words), but instead it's Jimmy who leaves a little worse for wear, with a warning from Howard that he's not just gonna sit there and take what Jimmy is dishing out anymore. 

If Howard miscalculates in this moment, it's that he seems to be under the impression that this is simply an extension of Jimmy's season five actions, rather than a much more carefully orchestrated scheme. Kim reminds us of that fact when she tells Jimmy she's gotten the name of the mediator in the Sandpiper case from her former paralegal Viola. ("You know what's coming next," she tells him, squeezing his hand. I don't! But I'm sure it's gonna be ethically slimy yet clever enough that I'll wind up rooting for them to get away with it. I can't wait!) Still, the fact that Howard is now sending a private investigator to tail Jimmy could lead to some complications for them, especially with Mike's guys presumably still out there as well. This is perhaps slightly more of a moving-the-pieces-around kind of an episode than the previous four have been, but what great pieces Better Call Saul has to work with at this point in its run. 

Other Thoughts 

- I'm less riveted by a second straight hour of Gus playing the waiting game when it comes to Lalo, although his scenes are (as always) filmed with plenty of great style, and he appears to have come up with some sort of a plan by the end of the episode. While the Margarethe and Lalo story is a textbook example of BCS continuing to make this part of the show compelling now that its main emotional center (Nacho) is gone, my reaction to this other stuff is more on the lines of "hmm, that's kind of interesting." 

- The moment where Jimmy tells Howard he's not gonna fight him and then they cut to him getting ready in the ring is a classic bit of sitcom editing. Very fun.

- I hope this is the last we see of Margarethe. Let her live in peace. Let her find love again with some other dashing dude from across the Atlantic who doesn't make a habit out of killing people. I want that for her.

- This is something I'd have talked about more if I'd reviewed last week's episode, but the meeting with Viola continues to find Kim in a more conflicted mode than the last scene of "Carrot and Stick" would have led me to believe. The common consensus after season five was that she was fully "breaking bad," but BCS has never really worked that way. Its characters cross various lines, but there's typically a part of them that's visibly wrestling with themselves about it, in a way you basically never saw Walt do in the later seasons of Breaking Bad.

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