Sunday, September 2, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4 Episode 4, “Talk”

Even more than in previous seasons, season four of Better Call Saul has really seemed like three or four separate shows that just happen to air within the same hour. Jimmy, Nacho/Gus, Mike, and to some extent Kim have all been off in their own worlds, dealing with largely unrelated conflicts and problems. Your mileage may vary on which of these storylines you find more compelling in a given week. Arguably, plots related to Kim and Nacho could be considered more interesting, as the fates of these two aren’t nearly as predetermined as Jimmy, Mike, and Gus’s. Regardless, while the writers and actors are capable of making each of these stories compelling in their own right, Better Call Saul is most enthralling when these different characters and plots intersect with one another, as they finally do once again near the end of this episode.

It takes a while to get there, however, as most of the characters are off on their own once again for much of this episode. Mike’s plot is perhaps the most interesting, as it showcases Mike’s powers of observation while also addressing his lingering grief (and guilt) over the death of his son, Matty. The episode employs some sleight of hand here, using both a flashback and a flash forward in the cold open to make it seem as though Mike’s support group is nonplussed by a relatively uneventful story Mike tells about Matty as a kid. Only later in the episode is it revealed that the support group’s stunned silence is not in reaction to this memory, but to Mike’s condescension and skepticism over the merits of the support group, which he reveals in the process of exposing an imposter within the group who exploits the others’ sadness for his own gratification.

Mike’s condescension for group therapy likely derives from his discomfort with the memories and feelings it arouses. Stacey, Mike’s daughter-in-law, shares a subtle but poignant component of her grief with the group, about the moment she realized that she hadn’t thought about Matty in a while. Forgetting her grief, even for just a few hours, brings with it a new pain of feeling guilty over having forgotten it. As Stacey relates this story, we can see Mike grinding his teeth, feeling increasingly upset (he blames himself, after all), and perhaps remembering the flashback with which the episode began.

The scene does a nice job of reminding us that Mike is a flawed character, like so many others on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. His taciturn and intimidating demeanor derives from his inability to deal with his emotions in a constructive manner. This flaw is counterproductive in a group therapy session, but serves him well in other parts of his life, like in his dealings with the Albuquerque’s underworld, as demonstrated in the great scene that concludes the episode.

Mike is summoned to a meeting by Gus, who immediately tries to assume a position of power by blaming Mike for not telling him about Nacho’s desire to kill Hector (whom Gus wants to torture himself). Essentially, Gus is trying to play Mike. If Gus were truly angry about Mike’s selective revelation of information, he would have acted upon it earlier, when he discovered Nacho’s plan. Gus is simply using Nacho as an excuse to intimidate Mike into being more compliant for when Gus eventually raises what he really wants from Mike.

It’s a smart move, reminiscent of the different ways Gus successfully manipulates Walt and Jesse on Breaking Bad, but it doesn’t work on Mike. As this episode reminds us, both in the group therapy scene, and in a later Madrigal warehouse scene where Mike is at his most witheringly disapproving when dealing with a Madrigal foreman, Mike is indomitable. He calls Gus’s bluff and unflinchingly rejects the blame Gus tries to assign, which immediately puts Mike and Gus on more equal footing. It’s a fun scene not only because it features an unstoppable force (Gus) clashing with an immovable object (Mike), but also because we know each of these characters so well that we can make nuanced and complex inferences about their behavior (which is not the case with a lot of Jimmy's non-Kim scene partners lately). Moreover, Mike accepting whatever job Gus has for him will draw them closer to the point where Mike is Gus’s right-hand man, as he is when we meet him in season two of Breaking Bad.

If Gus’s major scene features Gus doing what he does best, Nacho’s biggest scene features the Cousins doing what they do best. On Gus’s orders, Nacho blames the newly-introduced Espinosa gang for Arturo’s death, and the Cousins wipe them out nearly singlehandedly (Nacho helps out by shooting one in the back). R.I.P. Espinosa gang, we hardly knew ye. It’s a nice little suspense scene, largely because Nacho’s wounds make his participation particularly perilous. It also cleverly leaves most of the Cousins’ assault off-screen, leaving it to our imaginations, which works because we already know how lethal the Cousins are from Breaking Bad (it also saves the show’s production a lot of time and money that can be spent elsewhere).

Later, Nacho has a scene with Gus that reveals more of Gus’s Machiavellian nature. Blaming the Espionsas for Arturo’s murder is a way to get the Salamancas and the Espionsas to fight each other. He’d have been happy if one or both of the Cousins didn’t escape alive, but either way, his enemies weaken themselves and he swoops in to claim the vacant territory.

If the developments with Nacho, Gus, and Mike, seem like they're making progress toward a storytelling destination, then Jimmy’s story this season feels increasingly like wheel spinning. The Better Call Saul writers are good enough – and Bob Odenkirk compelling enough – to make even this quiet, uneventful period in Jimmy’s life somewhat interesting, insofar as we start to see telltale signs of Saul emerging. However, even for the measured pace of the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe, this has been a slow season for Jimmy thus far, with multiple episodes hitting relatively similar beats repeatedly.

Here, again, we have Jimmy being reluctant to tell Kim – or anyone – how he’s feeling, choosing a boring job over the prospect of talking to the therapist Kim recommends him. Likewise, here we see Jimmy once again more interested in criminal than legitimate enterprise when he meets with Ira for his cut of the Hummel figurine. While a tip from Ira about always using a new phone for a new job hints at what will become Saul’s cautiousness on Breaking Bad (complete with a drawer full of phones), Jimmy painting a conspiracy-baiting slogan on the storefront at his cell phone sales job doesn’t really tell us anything new either. Just like with his cushy Davis & Main job in season two, it’s yet another example of Jimmy trying to enliven things through advertising that doesn’t quite match his employers’ brand. I’m interested to see how Jimmy becomes Saul, but the slow drip from here to there is starting to try my patience. Learning something new about this transformation would go a long way toward alleviating the feeling that we’re standing still or repeating certain story beats.

Other thoughts:

- Jimmy’s story has also been impoverished by Chuck’s absence. Now the only character of note with whom he regularly interacts is Kim, and he's so uncommunicative with her that it's tough to get a read on him in their scenes together, other than that he's reluctant to open up. Retrospectively, last week’s scene between Jimmy and Mike seems like an excuse to give Jimmy some variety in scene partners.

- More enigmatic material for Kim this episode. Perhaps the judge is right in thinking she’s bored with Mesa Verde and wants to get involved in something more meaningful. Or perhaps Mesa Verde still makes her uncomfortable because of Chuck. Either way, this is more of an incremental step on the road to an unknown destination than a full blown story at this point. I suppose it’s nice that Kim has time to whittle away by observing a courtroom now that she’s hired a paralegal to help with Mesa Verde.

- The assault on the Espinosa gang provided a couple of nice touches. I particularly liked Nacho exasperatedly cursing, “Salamancas” under his breath after the Cousins attack. He’s pretty fed up with this impulsive, destructive family, in all its forms, be it hyper-aggression (Tuco), masochism and egotism (Hector), or psychopathy (the Cousins).

- The Cousins share a nice glance with one another when Nacho hypothesizes needing a large crew to take out the Espinosas, which reads, “No we don’t.”

- I also enjoyed one of the cousins giving Nacho the slightest of nods in acknowledgement of Nacho’s contribution to the assault after the battle is over.

- If nothing else, Jimmy’s experience as shift supervisor for the cell phone store will come in handy for his management of the Cinnabon: both appear pretty boring.

- The support group imposter is played by the always fun Marc Evan Jackson, whom you might recognize from The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or a host of improv comedy podcasts.


  1. This episode did a good job of examining where the characters are at and their respective headspaces.

    Mike’s plot was definitely the most interesting from a character standpoint, as this was the first time in quite a while where we see how scarred he is by his past and the world around him, reminding us that he’s far more complicated than the bona fide fixer we first met on Breaking Bad. The scene where he outs the imposter quickly turned from satisfying to excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch, Johnathan Banks in top form as always

    Nacho’s scenes were definitely the most exciting from an action standpoint, with the shootout at the hideout being the most violence we’ve ever gotten from the show at this point and further digging Nacho into a hole, and the fact that we’re not 100% certain of his ultimate fate just increases the tension.

    Jimmy’s scenes were pretty entertaining to watch, the long scene of him goofing around in the store reminding me of Better Call Saul’s talent for dragging out scenes while still making them entertaining to watch for the psychology of their characters. Like you said though, it’s not really that different from Mesa Verde, as fun as the scene where he paints the front of the store was, but I have confidence that his story will pick up soon. Kim’s scenes weren’t as central as the last couple of episodes were, but were still bolstered by Seehorn’s performance and also threw mystery up into the air about where her character goes from here.

    Also: what did you think of the second half of Sharp Objects, especially the ending?

  2. You got more mileage out of the Jimmy scenes than I did. But yes, I trust the writers to get this story moving as well.

    I wrote a piece on the back half of Sharp Objects for Cultured Vultures, but it hasn't been published yet. I'll post a link to it once it goes up. I liked it a lot!