Tuesday, May 31, 2022

"Better Call Saul" - "Plan and Execution"

Spoilers for the latest Better Call Saul after the jump:

"You're perfect for each other" - Howard Hamlin

A romantic to the very end, that Howard.

No? I guess not, but it's tremendous writing and line delivery—on par with Nacho's final monologue in "Rock and Hard Place" even if Howard doesn't intend any of this as a parting shot. I'll also admit that I didn't give the man nearly enough credit in my review of "Black and Blue," because it turns out he's far from clueless about the role Kim has played in this. Gone is the Howard who, at the end of last season, believed Kim dumping Mesa Verde was Jimmy's influence, as (in what turns out to be his last moments) he excoriates her every bit as much as her husband. Kim and Jimmy, for their part, don't wilt under his words or gaze. It's incredible acting from all three principals—the kind of character-rich confrontation that, had nothing else of consequence happened after it, would be a extraordinary closing note for the first half of this season. But then that candle (repeatedly foregrounded within the scene to chilling effect) flickers for the second time in the span of a few minutes, and Lalo Salamanca walks through the door at the most inopportune moment imaginable. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's a shocking left turn to end an hour that, prior to that point, has seen things proceed more or less according to plan for Team Wexler/McGill. Following up on the revelation about the mediator's broken arm at the end of "Axe and Grind," they're forced to reshoot their photos on the fly, with Jimmy wrangling the central actor away from his day job at a grocery store before he gets the student film crew together for what's likely the final time. (Never say never, I suppose, but given everything that transpires later in the episode, this sure feels like the end of the road for three of Better Call Saul's most entertaining recurring characters.) The second thing is accompanied by a great long take that makes room for some delightful moments of comedy—Drama Girl doing her job while dressed like a gelfling from the Dark Crystal universe (Jimmy having pulled her away from a rehearsal) being particularly amusing. Then Kim shows up with her first-hand knowledge about casts and to direct the reshoots—a nice touch hearkening back to the many moments where she and Jimmy have bonded over both being movie nerds. 

The rest of their plan does feel a bit on the convoluted side, in that it requires Howard to take a very specific action upon being given the fake photos that he doesn't really have to take. They've executed similar schemes before, of course (provoking Chuck on the witness stand in "Chicanery" springs to mind), but in that instance it's easy to accept as Jimmy using his knowledge of his brother against him. Neither of them know Howard quite that well, and it's very easy to see a way this falls apart if, say, he pulls Cliff aside and tries to show him the photos in private rather than confronting the mediator in public. (Would Cliff still be wary about Howard in this scenario? Probably, but I don't think he'd jump immediately to settling with Sandpiper.) Still, I can believe that it's a risk they deem worth taking, because there's minimal downside from their perspective. If he figures out he's been played, so what? They can try some other gambit down the road, or in the worst-case scenario they'd just have to wait for the Sandpiper money after all. They are, as Howard notes in that last scene, doing this mainly just for kicks. 

In any case, it works, with the two of them listening to the whole thing while grinning at each other the entire time and cracking silent jokes (Jimmy pretends to reel in a fish in at one point) before predictably getting turned on at the end once it's clear they've succeeded. Awful? Yes. Adorable? That too. The majority of "Plan and Execution" is like that—an intricate caper story that's every bit as fun, thrilling, and romantic as the likes of "Coushatta" but also significantly more queasy in that they're not helping Huell beat a trumped-up charge this time.

Until it suddenly stops being any fun at all. Because while all this is going on, Lalo is out there making plans, in a fashion that I found immediately more riveting than his second European sojourn in "Axe and Grind." There's a real spring back in the show's step in these scenes, starting with a patient cold open that reveals what he's up to now (he's back in the U.S. and watching the laundromat from a sewer vantage point). Tony Dalton just commands the screen here, smiling with genuine delight when he spots "Michael" and then being overcome with rage as he realizes Gus is tapping Hector's phone, before it finally dawns on him that he can use this. Marvelously entertaining stuff, watching these two sides try to outsmart each other. And devious, in that it does not seem to point toward Jimmy and Kim becoming involved in any of this, even if Lalo's pointed look at the cockroach maybe should've clued me in. 

Even if it had, though, I think I'd have put it out of my mind the instant Howard presents Jimmy with a gift for his and Kim's "victory." Because the performances here just demand your full attention in their brilliance—Patrick Fabian's Howard laying into the pair of them while Rhea Seehorn maintains an mostly stoic expression but lets the glow of satisfaction in Kim's eyes do all the talking. Bob Odenkirk, for his part, plays Jimmy as he so often has—caught between that same level of satisfaction and moments of apparent remorse. I don't know if it's the greatest scene in the history of the show, but it's certainly up there. And its greatness ensures that what happens afterward blindsided me. 

I never thought Howard Hamlin would die. I'm sure others have, but of the major Better Call Saul characters who don't appear in Breaking Bad, he's the one whose presence would've been most easily explained away as him simply living his life offscreen. What happens here makes perfect sense, though, given the long history (across both shows) of plans like this having unintended consequences. The other shoe had to drop at some point; that's what made Kim's final scene in "Axe and Grind" so ominous. But I always figured it'd have something to do with the scam itself backfiring—not the two halves of BCS finally dovetailing once again just in time for the show's homestretch (after being mostly separate so far this season), with the one remaining major character who's never had anything to do with Gus, Mike, or the Salamancas caught in the middle. God, but it's beautiful television, isn't it? 

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