Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4, Episode 6, “Piñata”

For the second week in a row, Better Call Saul delivers another strong episode by paralleling Jimmy’s past with his future, this time showing how Kim is central both to Jimmy’s decision to become a lawyer, as well as his decision to commit further to his criminal tendencies in the process of becoming Saul.

“Piñata” opens with a flashback to Jimmy and Kim’s time in the HHM mailroom. At this point in their lives, Jimmy and Kim are on very different paths. Kim is headed up; she only shares Jimmy’s menial job because it’s a step on the path to finishing law school and working at HHM. Jimmy, on the other hand, is simply trying to go straight, and is there only because Chuck has a soft spot for his legally-challenged brother.

Chuck has just won a big case, and Kim is beside herself in her admiration for his legal prowess, making Jimmy both envious of Chuck and embarrassed for himself when he needs Kim to dumb down her explanation of Chuck’s accomplishment to make it intelligible. Jimmy exits the scene dejected, sensing that his and Kim’s trajectories leave no room for a future together. However, he soon passes the HHM library and doubles back to go inside. Motivated by his affection for Kim, this is likely the moment where he first has the idea to change his path by becoming a lawyer.

Likewise, Jimmy’s actions in the present are also motivated by Kim's career trajectory. Kim’s taste of pro bono public defender work in the previous episode left her wanting more, and her disinterest in Mesa Verde is reconfirmed this week when she distractedly and sarcastically dictates notes to Viola. Not one to be dishonest with herself, she decides she needs to make a change, and proposes becoming a partner at Schweikart & Cokely in exchange for bringing them Mesa Verde, opening a banking division within the law firm and allowing her more freedom to take on public defender work.

Yet Kim does not make this move lightly. She knows that Jimmy’s dream is to share their dual law practices, as evidenced by his notepad full of different possibilities for their shared marquee, which resembles a school crush practicing their signature with their crush’s family name. Partnering with Schweikart & Cokely would shatter this dream, and possibly Jimmy with it. Thus her fudging of the truth when she breaks the news to Jimmy, framing it as Schweikart & Cokely offering her a partnership, rather than her bringing the idea to them.

Initially, Jimmy is devastated, leaving the table to have an anxiety attack, nicely conveyed through a gradual increase in the volume of the ambient noise. Just like in the flashback, Jimmy feels like he’s getting left behind. Back then, this feeling motivated Jimmy to change his life, and the same thing happens here, except this time, rather than bringing them closer together, it's a change that will likely push him and Kim further down separate paths

With Chuck gone, and with the hope of a dual law practice with Kim shattered, there’s no longer anything tethering Jimmy to good professional behavior (and in the future, legitimate law practice). The rest of the episode shows Jimmy doubling down on doing business his way, because he no longer needs to compromise doing things the easy way with doing things the right way.

Jimmy recommits to his criminal-abetting side business by ironically putting his inheritance from Chuck toward a venture Chuck would have vehemently disapproved of: buying $5,000 worth of burner cell phones. When he picks up his check from Howard at HHM, he gives Howard a pep talk that’s more about himself than Howard, especially when he tells Howard to get his shit together, and that Howard is a shitty lawyer but a great salesman. Jimmy acts on his own advice by going after the street punks who jumped him in the previous episode. With the help of Huell and another heavy, Jimmy intimidates the punks into both leaving him alone, and spreading the word that Jimmy is not to be messed with. In doing so, he fully commits to the “street life” that will characterize Saul Goodman’s law practice.

At the end of the scene where Kim tells Jimmy about Schweikart & Cokely, Jimmy reassures Kim that he’ll be fine by telling her that a lot can happen in ten months. It’s a moment of foreshadowing that the end of the episode pays off, as this is the most violent and Saul-like we’ve ever seen Jimmy. It leaves me wondering if there will be anything left of Jimmy at the end of his probation.

Other thoughts:

- Mike and Gus continue to move forward with the construction of the super lab, this time detailing how they intend to house and provide for the construction workers. Mike is impressively thorough in thinking of contingency and security measures. It’s obvious why Gus will want to make Mike his fixer. He makes everything run more smoothly. Plus Gus already knows Mike is not averse to murder, since Gus first becomes aware of Mike when he stops Mike from murdering Hector. It seems a small step from providing security to providing wet work, and this episode also provides a strong candidate for someone that will eventually need to be murdered: Kai, the smartass construction worker. Mike knows a troublemaker when he sees one. I half-expected Mike to fire him on the spot.

- Gus also gets a meaty monologue where he tells a story from his childhood that serves as a thinly veiled allegory for his plans for Hector. This scene shouldn’t be as compelling as it is, since its dramatic purpose is redundant with what we already know: Gus wants Hector to live so he can torture him. Moreover, this is a goal we’ve already seen him accomplish on Breaking Bad, where he visits Hector in an assisted living facility to twist a psychological knife (and it’s implied that these visits are regular). However, this monologue remains interesting both because it reveals some new information about Gus’s background (he had an impoverished childhood), and because Giancarlo Esposito invests it with such panache.

- Jimmy hammed it up with his elder care clientele, but he also knew them well, and really cared about them, as we’re reminded when he learns that one passed away. It's fitting that we learn of it in this episode, since it also features the death of his dream of practicing law side-by-side with Kim.

- I enjoyed the little montage of Jimmy moving the phones from the crate outside of the nail salon to his office in the back, especially when the salon owner, Mrs. Nguyen, gradually takes notice and stares at Jimmy disapprovingly. It’s funny: Jimmy has a knack for charming people, but Mrs. Nguyen has always given him a hard time, clearly distrusting him. His powers don’t work on her, at least for now. Later he’ll try to sell Walt and Jesse on laundering money through salon ownership, so presumably he will eventually corrupt her.

- It’s fitting that Kim tells Jimmy about wanting to work at Schweikart & Cokely in the hotel restaurant where they practiced their just-for-fun confidence schemes, since both of them are lying through omission in this scene. Kim makes it seem like Schweikart approached her, while Jimmy tells Kim he’s been thinking about practicing criminal law, making it seem like it’s for the same altruistic reason as Kim, when really, his version of “helping people” is making it easier for criminals to skirt the law.

- Jimmy, ever the hustler, is running the office Oscar pool in the flashback.

- It was great to see Chuck again, but my favorite thing about the flashback is that great pains are taken to make Chuck, Jimmy, and Kim appear younger through hair, makeup, and wardrobe choices, but Howard looks more or less identical to the present day.

- Two episodes in a row with no Nacho. I hope he’s back next week.

- Kim paused to look at the cowboy sculpture in the Mesa Verde lobby in episode three. It was puzzling at the time, but it makes more sense now that we know Mesa Verde wants to exploit a law loophole by declaring the sculpture a work of art. It’s exemplary of the kind of bullshit Kim no longer wants to deal with.

- Initially it seemed as though Kim recommended that Jimmy see a therapist over concern for how he was handling Chuck’s death, but now I wonder if it was also partly motivated by her desire to move to Schweikart & Cokely, and the impact that would also have on Jimmy.

 - Nice stylistic touch: immediately after Kim looks over Jimmy’s doodled marquees and business slogans for their shared law practice, there’s a cut to an extreme close-up of Jimmy pulping oranges the next morning, which is symbolic of what Kim is about to do to Jimmy’s dreams for their professional future.

- Another factor potentially informing Kim’s behavior in this episode is that she might feel a little guilty for joining Schweikart & Cokely because Jimmy helped her become an independent lawyer in the first place. She neither asked for nor wanted his help in snagging Mesa Verde, and she was livid with Jimmy when she found out what he did to make it happen, but the risks he took for her (and the consequences he suffered), while misguided, came from a place of love. Sort of like when a cat brings home a kill.

- There’s some nice upside down cinematography in the scene where Jimmy intimidates the punks. It both better approximate the punks’ perspective, and gives us a topsy-turvey world in which Saul emerges from Jimmy's placid demeanor.

- Where did that piñata warehouse come from, and how did Jimmy know about it? Did he just buy a bunch of piñatas and place them in a rented space purely to use as intimidation props? The former seems like a logistical headache, but the latter seems like a big expense.

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