Thursday, September 27, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4, Episode 8, “Coushatta”

“Let’s do it again.” With this line, Kim completely upended my expectations about where her story is headed, and where some of the tragedy of Better Call Saul rests. Throughout this season, I was certain that Kim and Jimmy were headed toward a break up, that Jimmy’s slow transformation into Saul, and his willingness to bend the rules and play dirty would be too much for Kim, and that the eventual emergence of Saul Goodman would become all the more tragic because it would come at the cost of Kim’s love. I could not have been more wrong.

Rather than tell a story about Saul driving Kim away, instead Better Call Saul has pivoted into a much more surprising and – remarkably – even more potentially tragic story about Jimmy ruining Kim. Instead of Kim staying clear of the muck in which Saul will become entrenched, now it seems as though Kim will join him, and the tragedy will lie in Jimmy’s corrosive influence. We’ll see a previously capable, determined, and intelligent character be undone by the irresistible temptation of the thrill of the con, which Jimmy has made her come to love.

Accordingly, we now seem to have a clearer answer to the question of why Kim isn’t around on Breaking Bad: bending the law comes back to bite her, but not Jimmy. Perhaps she’s in prison when Saul meets Walt and Jesse on Breaking Bad. Perhaps Robert Forster’s fixer character has given her a new identity. Perhaps she’s been disbarred. Or perhaps it’s something simpler. Kim has always been honest with herself, so perhaps she’ll wake up one day and realize what a corrosive influence Jimmy has been. Or perhaps some other worse fate will befall her. Regardless, it seems very likely that we’ll be able to trace a direct line from “Let’s do it again,” to whatever happens to Kim between now and Breaking Bad.

It’s an extremely exciting development not only for its potential pathos, but also because it will ratchet up the suspense of whatever mischief Jimmy and Kim become involved in. Now, every suspenseful situation could be something leading to Kim going down in flames. Moreover, Kim's commitment to Saul-style law cons also creates room for interesting possibilities in the Gene portion of the series. If Kim had left Jimmy here, it would seem like a decisive conclusion to their relationship. Now, however, depending on what happens to Kim, there's room for her to return after the events of Breaking Bad, giving the writers more leeway to invest this part of Jimmy/Saul/Gene's life with dramatic import.

First though, let’s back up and examine why so much of "Coushatta" seems designed to support the break up hypothesis. For one, much of the episode seems to be a reprise of what happened at Jimmy’s State Bar hearing in season three. There, we were in the dark about the details of Jimmy’s plan for undermining Chuck’s testimony, and it ultimately cost Jimmy his relationship with Chuck. Here, we’re in a similar situation: we don’t know what Kim and Jimmy’s plan is, but this time around it seems like it’s going to cost Jimmy his relationship with Kim.

Take the first scene, for instance, where Jimmy and Kim initiate their still-mysterious defense of Huell with an icy interaction: Jimmy is apologetic for enlisting Kim’s help, and Kim seems resentful that Jimmy is exploiting their relationship and her PD work. Or take a scene from later in the episode, where Kim sharply inhales upon leaving a preliminary meeting with Suzanne, the assistant DA, making it appear as if Kim is increasingly uncomfortable with what she’s doing for Jimmy. Details like these make it seem as though this plot is a variant on the fatal wedge driven between Chuck and Jimmy.

Kim’s plan is finally reveled when Judge Munsinger summons Suzanne and Kim into his office, incensed over the deluge of letters he’s received in defense of Huell’s character. Kim had Jimmy take a bus to Coushatta, Louisiana, Huell’s hometown, to mail hundreds of fraudulent letters attesting to Huell’s character, and threatening to come to Albuquerque to support Huell in the event that the case goes to trial.* Kim knows that Munsinger will want to avoid a circus, and will thus pressure Suzanne to reach a settlement.** Jimmy contributes to the con by providing voices for the phone numbers listed in some of the letters, ready to sing Huell’s praises and threatening to arrive in en masse to defend him. The final detail that clues us into the full scope of Jimmy and Kim’s scheme is a great image of Jimmy sitting at a desk lined end-to-end with burner phones, each labeled with names of the fake letter writers. If Kim is going to run a con, she's damn sure it's going to be a well-organized one.***

* Kim’s plan also leads to the episode’s funniest scene, where Jimmy pays other passengers on the bus to write letters for Huell, constructively critiquing their work in the process. Jimmy is ever the enterprising charmer, even when he’s concerned about losing the love of his life.

** In waiting to fully reveal Kim’s plan until we see it in action, “Coushatta” repeats a storytelling strategy Better Call Saul has leaned on heavily with Mike: elicit viewers’ curiosity by withholding information, and then paying off this restriction with a revelation that makes Mike’s actions clear retrospectively. Examples abound: Mike creating the drug-filled sneaker trap; Mike dismantling his car to find a tracker; Mike inspecting Madrigal’s facilities, and so on. Here we see the same narrational strategy applied to Jimmy/Kim’s legal world.

*** The shakiest parts of this con: Jimmy’s Cajun accent, and the letters all being postmarked on the same day. Perhaps Jimmy stayed on for a day or two to mail them incrementally. 

Not only the does the con work on Suzanne, who agrees to settle for no jail time for Huell, but shockingly, it reinvigorates Kim’s attraction to Jimmy. Aroused by their success, she aggressively kisses Jimmy in the courthouse stairwell, and then later has him relive his Cajun accent while they are in bed together. Kim’s arousal over their success makes sense; after all, practicing their con artistry was one of the foundations of their burgeoning romance in season two. However, it still comes as a shock, not just because it’s a total reversal of the trajectory of their relationship this season, but also because earlier in the episode Jimmy voiced aloud his concern that he and Kim were past the point of reconciliation. This renewed romantic spark provides hope for Jimmy and Kim to function as a couple again, which we really haven’t seen at all thus far this season.

However, even with Kim’s reinvigorated attraction to Jimmy, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. This reconnection seems like it’s designed to magnify the tragedy when something goes awry. And indeed, at a meeting with Mesa Verde, Kim seems to have second thoughts. Kevin asks her for the impossible, and she gently tells him that it’s unfeasible. The word hangs in the air, and Kim clearly begins to reconsider her relationship with Jimmy in the same terms. Later we see her in her office, privately contemplating a memento from an incredibly expensive bottle of tequila she and Jimmy once conned a mark into buying for them, as if weighing the feasibility of her current life against the one Jimmy represents (despite his own best efforts).

When Kim surprises Jimmy at one of Jimmy’s potential office locations, the scene has all the makings of an impending break up. Kim is agitated and contemplative, like a person reluctant to break bad news to someone they love. Likewise, the staging of the scene suggests their relationship has come full circle by deliberately echoing their very first scene together, where they smoked as they leaned against the wall of the HHM parking garage. Jimmy can sense what seems to be coming, as he acknowledges the risks they took and tries to reassure her it won’t happen again. He sounds like everyone who has ever tried to stave off a break up with reassurances and promises of change.

But then Kim reveals that she’s made the opposite decision about Jimmy, willfully throwing caution to the wind and embracing the thrill of the con. Suddenly, we can read her behavior in this episode differently: the tequila bottle cap is like a promise of the excitement she could continue to have with Jimmy; her sharp inhalation after the meeting with Suzanne is over the excitement of initiating the con, rather than the discomfort Jimmy is causing her; what’s “unfeasible” is that she continues to find her work satisfying when it will never be as exciting as what she and Jimmy just pulled off.* “Let’s do it again” unlocks not only what’s been going through Kim’s head this episode, but also an entirely new narrative path for her character, one that is much more potentially exciting than the slow grind of growing estranged from your lover.

* It’s also possible that Kim is conflicted throughout the episode, contemplating both leaving Jimmy or sticking with him and giving in to the allure of law cons, and that she doesn’t decide what she’s going to do until she tells Jimmy she wants to do it again. Rhea Seehorn’s performance can be read both ways. 

Kim’s willful embrace of Jimmy’s con man ways is also another huge contrast between her and Skyler on Breaking Bad. Skyler had intermittent moments where she appreciated the wealth and luxury of Walt’s drug money (like when she’s inspired to use it to pay for Hank’s physical therapy), but these moments were far and few between, and they were utterly dwarfed by her feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and resentment – sometimes directed at Walt, sometimes at herself – as Walt dragged her kicking and screaming into an emotional prison constructed out of his delusional rationalizations for his own immorality. Kim, on the other hand, with this single line of dialogue, becomes Skyler’s total opposite: she embraces the con man inside Jimmy and herself, quelling her own doubts and trepidation.

In a lot of ways, she’s more honest with herself than Jimmy or Walt are with themselves. Walt lied to himself about his motivations, and Jimmy tried to convince himself he'd be happy turning his gift for persuasion into a upstanding legal career (and he might have, had Chuck believed in him). But Kim likes how running cons makes her feel, wants to feel this way again, and is fully aware of the risks involved and is willing to take them. This self-awareness makes her decision here even more tragic, not just because Kim has worked hard to give herself an otherwise fulfilling and meaningful life, but also because we know that Kim doesn’t take half-measures; she’s going to be as efficient and determined here as she is in all other walks of her life, and thus her fall, if/when it comes, will be all the more devastating for it. Kim's choice here is both tragic and exciting in the best possible way, and it’s an extremely fruitful direction for Better Call to take. I am eager to see where things go from here.

Other thoughts:

- Nacho finally returns this week, and we see that the past eight months have been very good to him, as he’s taken Hector’s place in overseeing collections, with Krazy-8 taking Nacho’s old job, and has acquired all the wealth and responsibility that comes with it. He’s learned his lessons from the Salamancas, and uses a “speak softly and carry a big stick” intimidation style to keep his dealers in line, but when he is by himself, we see that he still wants out of this business, as indicated by his keeping Manitoba state ID cards for himself and his father in his safe. The end of the episode introduces a new wrinkle into Nacho’s life, however, in the form of Eduardo "Lalo" Salamanca, from a previously-unknown and seemingly friendly and well-adjusted branch of the Salamanca family tree. Knowing the Salamancas, however, Lalo will likely prove to be psychopathic in one way or another.

- In the short term, Lalo complicates Nacho’s operation by contrasting so sharply with the intimidating persona Nacho has cultivated. He claims he won’t interfere with Nacho’s operation, but then immediately sits down next to Krazy-8 to offer him the food he’s just cooked. In the long term, Lalo’s presence speaks to the limits of Nacho's power in the Salamanca organization, and will also likely reactivate Gus’s interest in Nacho, compelling Nacho to perform more risky behavior. Lalo represents a headache for Nacho from just about every perspective.

- At first, I thought Lalo was Tuco – an expectation the episode seemed to deliberately foster, given that Tuco also liked to cook, and that Lalo is introduced doing the same, with his back to the camera.

- My predications about Kim and Jimmy might have been way off, but I was on point in predicting that Ziegler’s construction crew would visit a strip club in this episode. In a bit of a twist, it’s Ziegler himself that ends up providing the biggest security risk when he gets friendly with some bar patrons and abstractly discusses the architectural problems posed by the super lab. Mike puts the fear of god – or more accurately, the fear of Gus – into Ziegler the next day, which seems to satisfy Gus, at least for now.

- The conflict between Mike and Ziegler this week is emblematic of something Better Call Saul does very well: patiently setting up little moments or character beats that will pay off in subsequent episodes. In the previous episode, we saw Mike bond with Ziegler. There, it was a small character detail, but here it yields dramatic dividends, because it provides conflict for Mike, who must chastise his new friend (or worse, if Gus orders it). It would be bad enough for Mike to have to get rid of one of the construction crew, but it would be much worse if it was someone he actually liked. We see something similar with Mrs. Nguyen in this episode as well, whose existence we were reminded of a few episodes ago. Retrospectively, the main purpose of that reminder was so that it wouldn’t seem out of the blue when she gives Jimmy an opportunity to express to someone how he feels about Kim in this episode. This planting of seeds that yield small dramatic dividends is one of the subtler ways Better Call Saul deploys its serialization.

- Possibly my favorite part of Kim’s con is the website Jimmy sets up for donations to Huell’s defense. Not only is this the origin of a similar trick he’ll pull for Walt when Walt needs to launder his drug money early in Breaking Bad, but it also features a series of staged photos showing Huell being a pillar of the Coushatta community, all of which are hilarious because they show Huell coming alive and flashing smiles we almost never see in his routine appearances. The closest we’ve come to seeing him look like this is when he’s lying on Walt’s pile of money.


  1. Another great and exciting episode of the season with an unexpected yet tragic twist. The plot to free Huell was the show firing on all cylinders with the slow process it used to let the audience in on what was happening with the Gilligan's humor on full throttle (Huell’s grin in the last picture you posted was definitely one of the episode’s best parts ) . Rhea Seehorn did another great job as Kim, this time showing a person finally realizing that they enjoy doing what they originally frowned upon, adding a lot more tension in regards to her fate by Breaking Bad (This gives the theory I brought up about the flash forward back in “quite a ride” a lot more credibility than it previously had).

    Mike’s storyline was indeed a nice payoff to last week’s character moment with Ziegler and given that the next episode is titled “Wiedersehen” it’s obvious that this friendship isn’t going to be ending on good terms. Nacho’s return and scenes regarding his new position provided a very strong Godfather vibe and introduced us to another character who will most likely inject more urgency into Nacho’s storyline going into Season 5. It seems a little late in the season to give us another antagonist but Lalo’s friendly nature compared to the previous Salamancas’, as well as their history of violence is already presenting the potential of him being another unique character in the Gilligan-verse.

  2. Yeah, Lalo is shaping up to be a fun character, given his interaction with Gus and Nacho in the next episode. We'll see what happens with Kim and Jimmy - I'm hoping for more exploits that put her in jeopardy, as it will yield dramatic tension, but the events of the next episode cast a bit of doubt on it. Time will tell!