You don't have to be a Breaking Bad fan to enjoy Better Call Saul; one of this show's greatest strengths is how well it stands alone. But every so often, an episode comes along that finds Saul fully and thoughtfully in conversation with its predecessor, and when it does, man, television doesn't get better than this.
In Better Call Saul's fifth season, that episode is "Bagman." Vince Gilligan is back behind the camera for this one, and he brought two of his best characters along for the ride: as a pair of low-level cartel grunts scrub the interior of a blood-soaked Cadillac, two familiar figures appear silhouetted in the garage door behind them. Before you see their faces, you'd know them by the shape of their boots. The Salamanca Cousins pass through the garage and into a backroom lined with stacks on stacks of bills. They count it. They take it. The credits roll.
This money is Lalo Salamanca's $7 million bail, which Jimmy is supposed to retrieve. But he balks at the details: the handoff is supposed to happen near the Mexican border, 30 miles down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Lalo shrugs and says he can get someone else, but it's not that Jimmy won't do it. It's that he won't do it for free. His voice cracks as he names his price: $100,000.
As always, Kim understands this situation sooner and better than Jimmy does — and also recognizes the danger that Jimmy is too distracted by a huge payday to see.
"Jimmy, you are an attorney, not a bagman," she says. She doesn't think he should do this. She does not want him to do this. And crucially, this isn't a value judgment. Kim's objections have nothing to do with legality, or morality. She's just afraid for him.
Crucially, because for those of us who've watched Breaking Bad (or, uh, those of us who binge-rewatched the entire series over a four-day period in lockdown, throw your hands up), this is probably when you started thinking about Skyler White. Kim Wexler sometimes seems like a mulligan on Breaking Bad's wife problem, in which Skyler kept rudely and inexplicably getting in the way of her man's ability to reach his full potential as a drug-cooking, murder-committing, bajillionaire big-dick kingpin of the criminal underworld. (Yeah, blah blah, murder is bad, we've heard it all before, KAREN.) Kim, on the other hand, is no scold; she was Jimmy's partner in crime long before she became his wife. It makes it that much easier to listen to her, and to wish that Jimmy would, when she tells him that driving into the desert to retrieve $7 million in cartel cash is a bad idea not just legally, but in a get-you-killed kind of way.
But Jimmy believes he knows better, and the next day finds him at the drop point, miles from anywhere, in one of those desert dead zones that's as visually breathtaking as it is treacherous. He brushes the dust from his loafers. He practices his lines: “Yo soy abogado.” As if this were just another con; as if you could rehearse for this.
It seems like a joke at first: a car pulls up and the mutters of "abogado" die on Jimmy's lips, the Cousins killing the vibe with a single, hilariously withering look. But as Jimmy starts the long drive home ("$7 million of cash in the trunk, $7 million in cash! Take one down, pass it around…"), a Jeep appears in his rearview, riding his tail — and then two more trucks pull out in front, blocking his way. This gang of nameless men wants the money. They also want no witnesses. A gun is pointed at Jimmy's face. But the blood that splatters his carefully-selected outfit is not his own; it belongs to his would-be killer, who collapses as a hail of bullets rains down. Jimmy cowers until it's over. A lifetime of petty scam artistry has been no preparation for this. Finally, after an eternity, the gunfire stops and his unseen savior approaches.
"You'll be okay," Mike says.
On the one hand, we know that this is factually accurate: Jimmy will survive and thrive as his sleazebag alter-ego for years to come. On the other hand, what does okay even mean for a small-time criminal whose LARPing fantasy as a cartel bagman just turned into an actual mass murder? Does he come back from this? Does he come back unchanged?
From here, things get hairy, quickly. Jimmy's Suzuki is shot, literally, as is his "World's Second Best Lawyer" mug. (A moment of silence for the death of the series' longest-running vehicle: RIP, Suzuki.) The only thing left to do is shoulder the bags full of money and start walking. And walking. And walking. As they slog through the desert, a red and white truck appears on the horizon: one man who escaped the massacre is back and looking for them. Mike begins to make camp, and Jimmy realizes he won't be getting home tonight— and that Kim is going to think he's dead. Mike is incredulous: "You told your girlfriend what you're doing."
"My wife," Jimmy says, but of course this makes no difference to Mike (although his deadpan "Congratulations" is priceless.) If Kim knows, says Mike, she's involved. Jimmy balks: "She's not in the game. She's not even game adjacent!"
Mike says he hopes Jimmy is right. But this comment is accompanied by a very bad omen indeed, one of the surest signs in the Better Call Saul universe that Jimmy is very wrong and things are about to unravel: He takes out a space blanket.
The next morning, at the same time Kim is meeting with Lalo Salamanca in an effort to find out where Jimmy is, Jimmy is setting out for day two of the long slog home. He's sunburned and dehydrated, and unable to do anything about the latter unless he wants to drink his own urine. All his hustle, all his ingenuity, is worth absolutely nothing out here, a fact driven home by every humiliating setback. A bloody run-in with a cactus is the last straw: he collapses. He's done. Mike looms over him and tells him to get up, and Jimmy asks: how is he still standing? How can he keep going?!
“Because I know why I’m out here," Mike says. "I know what it’s for.”
This is what Mike has, and Jimmy lacks: a reason. Why is James Morgan McGill out here? What is it for? A woman? A payday? A sense of pride? Or maybe Lalo has a point: Jimmy is like a cockroach, a survivor, but a purposeless one. A cockroach has no plan; it just scurries to the nearest safe place when the lights come on.
On the horizon, the truck that's been searching for them appears again.
Jimmy grabs the space blanket and scurries. Not out of the light, but toward it: into the blazing sun, into the view of the man who's chasing them. As the truck bears down on him from behind, Mike takes aim, and fires, and fires again.
The truck is destroyed. So is the gallon of water that its occupants were carrying. Again, finally, there's nothing to do but walk. Jimmy uncaps his water bottle and takes a long swig of his own urine. He leaves the space blanket behind. He picks up the bags, and gets moving. Why is he out here? What is it for? We may not know until next week, but for the moment, it looks like Jimmy does.