Better Call Saul goes Bad in a stunning survival tale
Last week, Better Call Saul hit a stunning new high. "JMM" began with a marriage, and somehow that shotgun courthouse ceremony was the least shocking development in an episode full of chilling character turns and psychodramatic visual magnificence. The hour climaxed with Bob Odenkirk winning an Emmy, probably, with a burst of florid hallway egomania. "I travel in worlds you can't even imagine!" Jimmy screamed at Howard (Patrick Fabian). "I'm like a god in human clothing! Lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!"
"JMM" was also Better Call Saul at its most jurisdictional, wrapping lawyer mumbo jumbo around major life decisions and moral spirals. I love this show so much when it's a detail-fixated legal opera. An indifferent judge united Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) in matrimony. Jimmy diverted the case against Lalo (Tony Dalton) with some witness-tampering maneuvers. There was even a trip to my beloved Mesa Verde, a local bank on a series-long quest for regional glory.
This week's episode, "Bagman," veers far in the opposite direction. It's an often wordless survival tale, shot on location along desert horizons. Lalo sends Jimmy to pick up $7 million in bail money. "You're the right guy for this," he explains. "You're nobody." That line cuts Mr. Lightning Bolt down to size, and one day later he's barely a bacterium. Fancy courtroom acrobatics hold no power out here on the moral borderlands of the criminal frontier. Jimmy gets the money from Lalo's cousins. Then he's staring down the barrel of too many guns, victim of a bit of inter-cartel espionage. Rescued by Mike (Jonathan Banks), he's doomed to a hike through nowhere.
"Bagman" was directed by Vince Gilligan, Better Call Saul's co-creator and the conjurer of the whole Breaking Bad universe. You recognize stylistic decisions from the sequel film El Camino. Gilligan loves extreme long shots that shrink characters to tiny points on the infinite landscape. And this is definitely an Action Set Piece adventure, with sniper gundowns and a long walk through rough territory.
If "JMM" was a full expression of all the ways Better Call Saul has become its own unique entity, "Bagman" feels a bit like an undiscovered Breaking Bad scroll. There are narrative echoes back to the original show. The destruction of Jimmy's Esteem suggests the junkyarding of Bad's own mascot vehicle, the meth-cooking RV. The concept of guys trying not to die slow in the desert recalls "Four Days Out," the best Breaking Bad episode. And as the weight of drug cash weighed Jimmy down, I thought about Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in "Ozymandias," another wannabe God in Human Clothing rolling his little cash barrel away from another unmarked graveyard.
I'm not sure if the references were intentional, and the effect was the opposite of repetitive. In this penultimate season, Better Call Saul keeps moving toward familiar events in impossible-to-predict ways. "Bagman" brings Jimmy once and for all into the drug trade world that previously felt far removed from his dramas. After staring his own death in the face, Jimmy goes into shock. There have been plenty of bloody cartel incidents on Better Call Saul, but Odenkirk's sheer terror defamiliarizes the action. You see Mike through Jimmy's eyes: not a lovable operative struggling internally, but a deadpan death god notching bodies on his belt.
"Bagman" digs into Better Call Saul's own history. Mike offers Jimmy a space blanket — the same totem the late Chuck (Michael McKean) used to hold off electromagnetic modernity. Jimmy finally uses the space blanket in the climax, drawing the attention of the gunman hunting them. Is he embracing Chuck's memory? Or, halfway dead from thirst, does he grab the blanket out of kamikaze spite? The script, credited to Gordon Smith, is allusive without being specific.
The episode's a marvel to look at, scenes staged with sweaty-exquisite perfection. Two dialogue scenes stand out for prophetic edge. On a cold desert night, Mike chastises Jimmy for telling Kim about his interactions with Lalo. "She's in the game now," Mike says, lit up monster-green by his travel lights. You feel that he's warning Jimmy, but also that he's just offended by anyone messy enough to leave a trail. He claims that it doesn't really matter whether he lives or dies, so long as his family is okay. It's a nice speech — as close to a mantra as craggly Mike has ever allowed us.
Meanwhile, Kim does not wait patiently for her husband to get home. She warned Jimmy off the mission before he left: "I don't like this. I don't want you to do it." Worried, she takes matters into her own hands. She speaks to Lalo like she's engaging with a logical person. Does she know how far she is from the world she knows? Lalo doesn't give her anything, seems to mark her existence down as an item on his fatal to-do list. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Goodman," he says, which sounds like a threat or an epitaph.
Better Call Saul has always been a roller coaster ride for me. There are things I love: Kim Wexler, all the lawyer stuff, the fish tank in Jimmy and Kim's apartment, montages of Mike doing something gradually technical. There are other things I've never been sure about, most of them Salamanca-adjacent. I'm on the highest loop of the roller coaster, because season 5 has been the show's best season yet, successfully threading together its far-flung story points with breathtaking images and twisty plot turns.
Can the Goodman marriage survive? What does it mean for Kim to be in "the game"? In the span of two episodes, Saul took Saul from his highest highs to the lowest lows. "Bagman" doesn't even let him escape from his current predicament. Our last sight of him, he's lugging millions of dollars through another hot day. He's thirsty enough to drink his own urine, a cannibal for his own waste. And he has so much further to fall, and so many more people to take with him. Episode grade: A
Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own Vince Gilligan prequel.