Friday, October 5, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4, Episode 9, “Wiedersehen”

One of the questions Better Call Saul has raised, and that “Wiedersehen” addresses explicitly, is the actual effectiveness of Jimmy’s powers of persuasion. Just how charming is Jimmy supposed to be? On the one hand, his folksy shtick goes over really well with the elder care clientele he courted in seasons two and three, and many of the cons he’s run over the course of the series have been successful. Moreover, we’ve also seen him be an effective salesman, most recently in his burner phone business. Yet on Breaking Bad, Saul’s attempts to charm people always came off as smarmy and half-assed, and were often much less successful. Take, for instance, his transparent attempt to flatter Skyler upon first meeting her, and then his patronizingly explaining money laundering to her. Here and elsewhere (there are many examples), Saul fails to read his audience, which begs the question: How can we reconcile Jimmy’s charm on Better Call Saul with Saul’s smarm on Breaking Bad?

One could motivate the change through differences in milieu: being routinely surrounding by the low level criminality of his Saul clientele atrophies Jimmy’s charm, as his clients only need the bare minimum of finesse in private, and he forgoes the need for charm when dealing with opposing council because he’s willing to play dirty (recall his ruthless negotiation with Jesse parents for Jesse’s aunt’s house in season three of Breaking Bad). Or perhaps you could argue that Saul needs to be smarmy in order to impress upon his clientele that he’s the right lawyer for them, which then interferes with his charm calibration so that he no longer has a feel for the best approach with someone like Skyler. In short, he's used to not having to try as hard, and it becomes the norm. An even less satisfying answer would be to simply shrug off the inconsistently as a ret-conning of Jimmy’s character to make him more compelling than Saul was on Breaking Bad.

“Wiedersehen” reconciles this discrepancy between Jimmy’s charm and Saul’s smarm by suggesting that they are really two sides of the same coin. At his reinstatement hearing, Jimmy demonstrates an abundance of persuasive charm, wowing the reinstatement committee as he waxes rhapsodically about a recent Supreme Court ruling (just look at their smiling faces) and giving a genuine, impassioned response to an unexpected question about what the law means to him. However, the committee member who asked the question was clearly fishing for Jimmy to show some remorse about Chuck, and when she gives him a more pointed follow up question, Jimmy’s charm runs out. He flubs the response, citing his alma mater and weakly cheering their mascot. (Update: Alan Sepinwall points out that Jimmy also made a mistake in being so clearly thrown by the question in the first place).

It’s here where we can see what will become Saul’s smarm emerge. Jimmy is sincere, but only to a point. He runs into trouble when he’s asked to see beyond his own self-interests. Perhaps this blind spot was always a part of his character, or perhaps it’s something that developed only in the wake of Chuck’s suicide. Either way, Jimmy’s inability to realize that the question was really about Chuck reveals the limits of his sincerity, and how his charm can easily turn to smarm when he loses a feel for what kind of persuasive pressure to apply in a given situation. He momentarily loses the thread here, and he pays for it. His response doesn’t pass muster with the committee, who denies his reinstatement. Notably, Jimmy seems to know he missed something, nervously waiting around after the hearing and then flying into a panicked rage when he learns of the decision.

Jimmy won’t understand what he missed until Kim explains it to him in what is easily the episode’s best scene. Kim, like Jimmy, is at a loss for understanding the committee’s decision until she realizes Jimmy didn’t mention Chuck in his response. Kim tries to explain to him that he needed to connect his suspension and bad judgment with the consequence of losing his brother, and that it was his failure to do so that made him seem insincere, but for whatever reason, Jimmy can’t make the connection (the most likely reason being that Chuck’s suicide broke something inside him).

Soon Jimmy transfers his anger and frustration over being denied reinstatement onto Kim and the relationship problems they’ve had this season. He accuses her of not believing in his sincerity, of looking at him and seeing Slippin’ Jimmy, defender of low lives. Suddenly, all of their mutual grievances come pouring out: Jimmy resents Kim’s success and accuses her of slumming it with him for kicks, Kim resents Jimmy's petulance and his using her to help Huell. The fight is so bad it seems to throw their entire relationship in jeopardy, despite the positive turn it took at the end of the previous episode and the start of this one (which capitalized immediately on Kim’s desire to “do it again” by showing the duo executing a con to get Mesa Verde a bigger floor plan).

Ultimately, Kim is in the right here; she’s stuck with him through his seemingly endless trials and tribulations, and Jimmy's qualms speak more to his insecurities than to any transgressions Kim might have committed (especially telling and funny: Jimmy referring to Kim's "office in the sky"). Jimmy seems to acknowledge as much in the next scene, where the two make peace, and Kim agrees to help Jimmy with his appeal of the committee’s decision. However, the fight does cast some doubt on their relationship going forward. Jimmy seemed to be packing his bags to move out before Kim approached him and they quasi-apologized to one another. Perhaps they embark on more cons together in the future, or perhaps it’s a bridge too far for Kim after Jimmy accuses her of using him for kicks. I hope it's the former, as it seemed more rife with dramatic/tragic potential.

Regardless, I have less doubt over the outcome of the appeal, which will almost certainly go in Jimmy’s favor, largely because Better Call Saul has clearly exhausted whatever story there was to tell about Jimmy’s year of suspension, as evidenced by their condensing eight months of it into the previous episode’s montage sequence. Moreover, setting back the clock on his practicing law again would be counterproductive because it would derail all of the Saul-related things this season began to establish: Saul’s client base, his searching for a law office, etc. No, instead, I think next episode we’ll get a bit more insight into exactly how Chuck’s death affected Jimmy when we see him spin his grief in order to win his appeal. Perhaps it will be enough to woo Kim back into Jimmy's fold as well.

Other thoughts:

- The groundwork for Jimmy and Kim’s fight is laid earlier in the episode, when Kim nixes Jimmy’s suggestion that they take on more cases like Huell’s together. Jimmy lets it pass here, but he takes note of Kim’s desire to keep her nose clear of defending people she deems unworthy of a strong advocate. Kim wants to use their power to bend the law only for good. Jimmy pushes back at her morality, questioning whether or not getting Mesa Verde a bigger floor plan counts as good, but he backs off when Kim gives him a look that says, “Don’t make me question what we’re doing too closely, lest I begin to have moral qualms.”

- The rest of the plots involving Gus, Mike, Nacho, Lalo, and Ziegler are rather perfunctory. Lalo, for instance, is the answer to a question no one was asking, about how Hector got his bell. I suppose it’s made slightly more interesting by being given a backstory that confirms that Lalo is indeed a sadistic Salamanca.

- A bit more on Lalo: of all the many criminals who have come to Los Pollos Hermanos to speak with Gus about his non-Pollos business, Lalo is the most tactful of them all. He actually makes up an excuse to speak with Gus in private, even if Gus still gives Nacho the stink eye for bringing him there in the first place. It’s a funny exchange. Lalo is shaping up to be a fun character, even if there hasn't been much story to hang on him yet.

- Funny touch: the old lady who moves her purse away from Nacho after he steps away from Hector and Lalo at the nursing home. Maybe she's racist, or maybe she's interacted with Hector enough to know that she doesn't want to get near anyone who might come visit him (although it's probably the former).

- It was nice to see Kim and Jimmy being happy together again near the start of the episode when they enjoy the thrill of a freshly successful con. It’s a sight we haven’t seen all season.

- I’ve enjoyed Ziegler as a character, particularly his rapport with Mike, but this plot seems more disposable the more we see of it. His fleeing the compound is a security risk, certainly, and Mike might end up having to kill him, but “How did the super lab get built?” isn’t exactly atop the list of burning questions to which I needed answers. This whole plot feels more like a means of giving Mike something to do. Perhaps the writers will wring more drama out of it next week if/when Mike catches up to Zielger and is forced to kill him. It would certainly tie Mike closer to Gus.

- More manipulation of setting to convey mood: now that the construction crew has successfully accomplished a major milestone and they’re in better spirits, the lighting in their residence is brighter again. It’s a rather expressionist touch, which is fitting, considering these characters are German.

- Lots of striking images this episode, like of Gus and Ziegler on the couch, or Lalo and Nacho getting into Nacho’s car. Well done, director Vince Gilligan.

- When Jimmy calls Kim after his hearing, we see a shot of Kim telling him to slow down twice, after which we cut to a shot of Jimmy speeding through a parking garage at breakneck speed. Nice matching of Jimmy's talking speed with his driving speed.

- The severity of Kim and Jimmy's argument is conveyed stylistically when Jimmy returns home in the next scene, and he and Kim are divided by the architecture of the house. The wide angle lens also makes Kim seem far away from Jimmy, matching their emotional situation as well.


  1. I went into this episode thinking that the main story would involve Kim getting deeper into Jimmy’s business only to get caught and her entire future to be into jeopardy, cementing the final nail in the coffin of their relationship. Once again, I couldn’t have been wronger.

    Jimmy’s arc was once again fantastic as all the tension regarding his being reinstated and the tension between him and Kim that had accumulated throughout the season finally imploded. Although he’s gone, Chuck has been looming over this season like a ghost and Jimmy being denied the chance to become a lawyer again was a nice indicator how even when dead, Chuck is still getting in Jimmy’s way, despite Jimmy’s best attempts to put Chuck behind him (though I can definitely see the finale showing the ultimate affect of his suicide on Jimmy.) Kim’s arc was equally impressive with the teaser being both tense and hilarious and her conversation with jimmy where it shows that she still has boundaries in regards to how far she’s willing to work with Jimmy.

    The other storylines were definitely secondary to the episode, though as always with the show, they were at least well crafted. Lalo’s scene with Hector established him as just as evil as the rest of his family and provided a layer to the infamous bell on Breaking Bad (though I definitely agree that more than ever, this season has felt overstuffed with references to the original show). Ziegler’s breakdown in the lab was excruciating with the sequence where he was making last minute adjustments lured the audience into thinking he was done for (Gilligan’s directing was on point). There’s no way he’s getting out of the finale alive, and I can definitely see Mike being the one to carry the deed out, if only to reinforce the “no half-measures” principle he espoused in Breaking Bad.

    Also: Loved the detail with the old lady moving her purse away from Nacho as a possibly racist action.

  2. Agreed - even this show's filler material is still a compelling watch. It's just obvious when it's filler, especially in comparison to other, more compelling plots.