Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Better Call Saul Season 5, Episode 4, “Namaste”

“Namaste” finds most of the regular characters trying to clean up messes of one sort or another. Some of the messes are perfunctory: Kim literally sweeps up the mess of broken glass she made in the parking lot at the end of “The Guy For This,” while Jimmy is hired to represent the pair of idiots who were inspired to go on a meth-fueled bender by Jimmy’s 50% off sales gimmick. The most interesting mess is the one Acker made of Kim’s moral compass, both because it’s yet another step down a dark road Kim is travelling, and because it intersects nicely with what Jimmy is going through in this episode.

Kim owes Acker nothing, but her sense of right and wrong makes her determined to help him, first through ethical means: she tries to convince Paige and Kevin to move Mesa Verde’s call center to a different lot. But when that effort fails, she turns to Jimmy, asking him to take Acker on as a client, knowing that Jimmy will find a way to gum up Mesa Verde’s plan to bulldoze Acker’s life (perhaps even explicitly asking Jimmy to do so – the scene of her request is elided, so we can only speculate how she phrased things).

Asking Jimmy to represent Acker – her client’s opponent – is clearly a conflict of interest, and should Mesa Verde find out about it, they could sue Kim for malpractice, and the New Mexico bar could reprimand her. Her relationship with Jimmy heightens her risk, because it makes it even easier for Mesa Verde to see the connection. Kim knows it too – when she raises Acker with Jimmy, it’s the most vulnerable and unsure she’s ever looked, at least in a professional capacity (Rhea Seehorn is aces, as usual). It’s an interesting development for Kim, because it’s yet one more way in which her relationship to Jimmy seems to facilitate her moral degradation. Helping Acker feels like the right thing to do morally, even if it’s professionally the unethical, and she only acts on her scrambled moral compass because of her proximity to Jimmy. It’s one more turn on the slippery slope down which Kim seems to be slaloming.

Kim’s solution to her dilemma also intersects nicely with Jimmy’s business in “Namaste,” because his willingness to take on Acker as a client illustrates once again how far down the road he’s traveled toward becoming Saul. In an earlier scene where Jimmy meets Howard for lunch, Howard offers Jimmy a job at HHM. The scene makes great use of our serial knowledge about Jimmy and Howard, once again plausibly motivating a character’s refusal to take the easy way out by what we know of them (a Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul specialty – we saw it just last week with Nacho’s father).

Here, Jimmy can’t accept Howard’s job offer, and our extensive serial knowledge tells us why. As he tells Kim in the season opener, “Jimmy McGill the lawyer is always going to be Chuck McGill’s loser brother. I’m done with that. That name is burned.” However, Jimmy’s reasons for refusing the job offer actually run much deeper, which this scene alludes to when Howard brings up Kristy Esposito, the rejected scholarship candidate from season four’s “Winner.” Jimmy’s post hoc pep talk with Kristy revealed that he’s been soured by his animosity for Chuck: Jimmy is no longer the kind of person who would be happy at HHM because he no longer has any faith in the legal establishment. He sees the law as an extension of Chuck: a prejudiced system that will never approve of him, so he’s no longer going to try. Instead he’s going to focus his efforts on succeeding despite people like Chuck or firms like HHM, and he’ll do it by taking advantage of the kinds people and institutions that have constantly underestimated, overlooked, and unfairly judged him. HHM is Chuck's firm, and it represents everything he loathes about the legal system.

In fact, Jimmy has been so badly burned by Chuck and HHM that he seems to wonder if Howard’s offer is some sort of con. When he enters the restaurant, Jimmy rubs the ring his old con buddy Marco once gave him, perhaps indicating that he’s suspicious of Howard’s motivation in meeting with him. Of course, we know better, thanks again to our serial knowledge. Jimmy participated in the scholarship committee as a way of selling his reformation to the Bar Association before his reinstatement hearing, but evidently it worked so well that it convinced Howard to give Jimmy what he’d never thought he’d ever receive from someone like Howard: a second chance.

Howard is still operating under the assumption that Jimmy is the same guy he used to be, despite his name change, thus he extends an altruistic olive branch. However, Jimmy isn’t that guy anymore – becoming Saul Goodman is more than simply a name change (the latest evidence: an earlier scene where Jimmy pulls off a sneaky, very Saul-like theatrical court maneuver, swapping out his defendant for a lookalike in an attempt to discredit the plaintiff). Jimmy truly believes in what he implicitly told Kristy about taking advantage of a corrupt system, which is precisely what makes him the right guy to represent Acker.

It’s the Saul worldview that gets Acker to even listen to Jimmy in the first place: he sticks a picture of a man fucking a horse in front of Acker’s nose and tells Acker that this is what he wants to do to Mesa Verde. Before he fucks Mesa Verde, however, first he resoundingly rejects Howard’s offer by sneaking onto Howard’s property and lobbing bowling balls over a gate and onto Howard’s car. Well-meaning as it may be, Howard’s offer was far too little too late, and Jimmy vindictively makes him pay for his hubris. Of course, Jimmy himself is also demonstrating hubris in rejecting Howard's offer, and we all know where that leads. No one makes things easy for themselves in the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe.

Other thoughts:
- “Namaste” is able to cram some character work into even the marginal scene of Kim sweeping up the broken glass. Kim feels obligated to clean up the glass, but Jimmy is content to let the building manager take care of it, which speaks to Kim’s sense of responsibility, and what we know will eventually become Saul’s lack thereof.

- Jimmy and Howard’s lunch takes place in what I’ll now call “Asshole Restaurant,” since it’s the same place where Howard passive-aggressively wrote Kim a check for her student loans, the place where Jimmy and Kim conned Ken Wins into buying them expensive tequila, the place where Mesa Verde met with Kim to discuss their business, and the place where Schweikart offered Kim a job in season two (Schweikart isn’t exactly an asshole, but he’s close enough).

- Episodes come and go, but one narrational tactic remains the same: restricting our knowledge to make us curious about whatever the hell the characters are doing. This week, the cold open creates some intrigue over Jimmy browsing for the perfect object to lob over Howard’s gate.

- One final mess that a character tries to clean up in this episode, albeit of a much less compelling nature than anything happening with Jimmy or Kim: Gus tries to limit the damage from the DEA learning of his dead drops, allowing them to seize his money, but not his men. While he’s waiting for the results of the DEA’s sting operation, he also makes his poor Los Pollos Hermanos assistant manager, Lyle, repeatedly clean the deep fryer in a fit of transposed fastidiousness. Giancarlo Esposito is great in this role, but I’m starting to agree with Alan Sepinwall that Better Call Saul has not served Gus’s character very well. Unlike with Jimmy, or to a lesser extent Mike, Saul hasn’t added any nuance to Gus’s character or shed much light on any previously neglected facets of his arc. If anything, the series has merely deepened the well of hatred that drives most of Gus’s actions, but this isn’t terribly insightful. It doesn’t help that Lalo and Nacho were absent this week.

- Mike continues to spiral, this time deliberately seeking out the young toughs whom he intimidated in “The Guy For This” after Stacey wisely denies Mike access to Kaylee. It doesn’t go so well for Mike this time: he’s outnumbered and stabbed, and then wakes up somewhere else, perhaps Mexico. It’s unclear exactly what this is building to, although I have an imperfect hypothesis: either Gus or Lalo was having Mike tailed, and the tail intervened to save his life. Gus would do so because he doesn’t want to let a good resource/talent destroy itself; Lalo because he’s curious about Mike. It’s imperfect though, because Mike knows how to spot and shake a tail. Sure, perhaps in his malaise he simply didn’t care, but it’s unlike Saul to leave out a detail like this. We know Mike will end up working for Gus, so I’m hoping the writers figure out a way to make this sojourn something other than a long, circuitous journey that finds Mike exactly where he was mid-season four.

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