Photo: Greg Lewis / AMC / Sony Pictures Telivision
The creators of Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, are admirers of craft. The cold open of tonight’s episode, where a slide rule is encased in lucite, is one of those teasing, what-the-hell-is-this-all-about sequences that Gilligan and company liked to deploy on Breaking Bad and previous episodes of this show, with the big reveal coming much further down the line. (In fact, the German aspect of it recalls a particularly memorable head-scratcher of an opener from Breaking Badwhen the head of an electromotive company called Madrigal is presented with a variety of dipping sauces.) But embedded within this sequence is a statement of purpose, a respect for the fine-hued details of the creative process and a conviction that viewers will have the patience to appreciate their rendering.
Both shows have shared an admiration for the fastidiousness of their antiheroes and villains, who care deeply about the quality of their morally indefensible labors: It matters to Walter White, for example, that the brain-rotting meth that emerges from his laboratory is 99.1% pure and glistening with his trademark blue. One not-insignificant reason Walter refused to retire from the meth business, despite his intent to make enough money to support his family after he dies, is that he cannot stand the thought of junky, white-supremacist meth flooding the streets of Albuquerque. It’s aesthetically displeasing. In that same spirit, Gilligan and Gould cannot bring themselves to take the expected narrative shortcuts to get where they want to go. And if that means spending a season digging into the minutiae of a retirement-home class action lawsuit or the negotiations for a piece of property a bank needs to build a calling center, so be it. Such seeming mundanities can be the source of fascination and extraordinary tension.
“Black and Blue” is one of those episodes that’s nearly all craft, a careful setting of the table for the payoffs to come. All the important players, save for poor Jimmy McGill, know that Lalo Salamanca is not dead, and even Lalo has planned for the contingency that reports of his death will have been greatly exaggerated. Though Kim was told last week, in her first encounter with Mike, that the likelihood of Lalo reaching out to Jimmy was minimal, the 1% chance he will have left her quietly freaked out. She wakes up before dawn to recheck the locks, peer out through the peephole, and wedge a wooden chair up against the doorknob, perhaps in the hope that it might buy her an extra minute to call for help. When Jimmy rises early, too, she flips on a light and pretends to be deep in her case work, rather than sleepless in fear. “The nuns back in Cicero would send me to hell for saying it,” says Jimmy, “but thank god he’s dead.” Kim grants him the peace of his ignorance.
In the agonizing wait for Lalo to resurface, Gus uses his meticulous nature to calm himself, and he’s only half-successful in doing so. The show focuses intently on his obsessive-compulsive gestures, like the way he straightens his Los Pollos Hermanos pen after finishing his paperwork or his scrubbing of shower tiles in the surveillance house across the street from his residence. Yet he’s as unnerved as we ever see him: When he slips behind the counter to handle a rush at the restaurant, smoothly upselling the “signature spice curls,” Gus is driven to distraction by looking into the parking lot and rattled by the crash of a few metal trays behind him. He knows Lalo is coming for him – of this fact, Mike is firm in agreement – and he respects his adversary enough to plug every possible hole, even the one blasted into rock below the Lavandería Brillante.
Turns out he has a reason for that specific concern. Remember when Mike had to kill the laundry lab’s chief architect, Werner Ziegler, and send each of his men packing on wildly different routes, so no connections could be made between any of them? That was Mike thinking a few moves ahead on the chessboard. In a thrillingly unexpected turn of events, Lalo surfaces in a German bar pretending to be “Ben,” a suave American traveling through on business. One mention of the right New Mexico town draws the attention of Werner’s widow, Margarethe Ziegler, who’s happy to talk to him about what her late husband did for a living and some of the pertinent circumstances. She tells him about a cave-in where he saved the lives of “his boys” – the inscription on the slide rule is a tribute to them – but laments that none of them came for his funeral. Most importantly, she lets him walk her back to her place, setting up a tense scene the next morning where he breaks in searching for papers, and she comes back for her phone. This is the only suspense sequence in the episode – and even it ends with Lalo slipping out through a window.
Back in Albuquerque, Kim and Jimmy pull off a piece of misdirection on Howard, and unless you guessed that Howard catching on to the cocaine-and-hooker scheme was part of the plan, the show pulled off some misdirection on us, too. The trio of staged shenanigans designed to get Cliff’s attention – the packet of cocaine at the country club, the ridiculous lawsuit by the Kettlemans, the tossing of Wendy the motel sex worker out of the Jaguar – finally leads him to confront Howard, who recognizes Jimmy’s handiwork, especially after learning that Kim was Cliff’s lunch partner on the last one. This leads to a wild scene where Howard, under the hilarious pseudonym “HO Ward,” summons Jimmy to a boxing ring and offers him the opportunity to punch out whatever issues he seems to have with him. Unsurprisingly, the Bob Odenkirk of Nobody does not make an appearance, and he’s laid flat by an uppercut.
Back home, there’s no concern about what happened to Jimmy at all. Howard snuffing out Jimmy’s involvement in those first three ploys was part of a longer con, much like the bit where Jimmy does a subtle work of persuading the Kettlemans to sue Howard for poor representation while also dismissing him as their attorney. In a particularly brilliant touch, Kim has a whole conversation with a former colleague that happens only because she needs to extract the name of the retired judge assigned to the Sandpiper case. Perhaps Howard isn’t the dope he appears to be, given that he hired a tail man to follow Jimmy around. But that’s where a show this deliberate gets its tension – from the moves, countermoves, and surprising contingencies of worthy adversaries. Cons are no fun with easy marks.
• The show could have staged a shorter scene before Cliff confronts Howard about his supposed vices, but it’s important that we hear Howard’s full speech to his elderly clients, who are growing restless over the timetable of the Sandpiper suit. (“Some of us do not have a protracted timeline.”) Howard assures them that “This is not about money, it’s about people” and that he “wants to live in a world where people can trust each other,” but it’s nonsense. He wants a bigger payday. And Jimmy and Kim are wanting to bring the suit to a close as quickly as possible so these retirees will not be dead before it’s resolved. Speedy justice, the Saul Goodman way.
• Wonderful to see Tina Parker back as Francesca, Jimmy’s office manager, negotiating a doubled salary and a cash bonus for herding a ragged clientele into an office with little more than a folding table and a toilet.
• “What Colonel Sanders is to chicken, Saul Goodman is to the law.”
• “You’ve mistaken my kindness for weakness. I’d like to think that tonight makes a difference. I’d like to think that tonight ends it. ” Alas, no, Howard.