Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Better Call Saul Season 5, Episode 6, “Wexler v. Goodman”

“Wexler v. Goodman” is another excellent entry in season five of Better Call Saul, one that begins with a flashback to young Kim that reveals how unwilling Kim was to trust her very unreliable-seeming mother. It provides yet more insight into her character, but it’s bearing on the rest of the episode only snaps into focus in the final scene, when Kim is given strong cause to distrust another important person in her life: Jimmy.

“Wexler v. Goodman” finds Jimmy completing the execution of the strategy he and Kim devised to help Acker beat Mesa Verde, except he does so alone, and against Kim’s wishes. Schweikart rattled Kim in their confrontation last week, so much so that she drives directly from her office to Jimmy’s and tells him to call off their still-unclear defensive strategy (Rhea Seahorn is great in the rare chances she has to play Kim flustered - she becomes jittery and stutters). However, she catches Jimmy at the wrong time; he’s in the middle of shooting a commercial as a part of their strategy, and unlike in “Dedicado a Max,” here he’s reluctant to let Mesa Verde win, high as he is off of his creative endeavor (Jimmy always gets a rush out of directing commercials – perhaps he’s missed his true calling). Jimmy acquiesces to Kim’s wishes here, but much like with his continued needling of Howard in this episode, he can’t leave well enough alone, and decides to go through with their initial strategy anyway.

The commercial, as it turns, out is nothing but a bluff to get Kevin’s blood boiling; it amounts to little more than a libelous smear campaign against Mesa Verde, one that Jimmy fully knows will never see the light of day (it even drags Kevin’s dad into the dispute, making good on Jimmy’s promise that his and Kim’s next step would be to get personal and nasty). The real meat of Jimmy and Kim’s defense is – like I suspected – a copyright infringement lawsuit over Mesa Verde’s logo, which Mesa Verde has been using without the permission of the original photographer, Olivia Bitsui, a Native American woman.

Jimmy – or Saul, really, given his slimy behavior in this scene – is very smart in unleashing this plan of attack. Kim is shocked and dismayed by Saul’s commitment to their original plan, and knowing what’s coming, she’s vehement in her attempt to defend Kevin from it. As Jimmy/Saul will later tell Kim, her surprise and anger over Saul’s line of attack actually works to Kim’s advantage, since it will dissuade Schweikart’s suspicion over her divided loyalties. In the moment, however, she’s furious, as is Kevin (his fury stoked in no small part by a wonderful touch, Saul whistling, “We’re in the Money” to himself on the way out the door).

As good as this scene is, the next one is even better: Saul banks on Kevin’s impatience and machismo getting the better of him, and waits in the parking lot for Kevin to chase after him to hash out a deal, sans Kim and company. Saul unleashes the full force of his cynicism here, and is wonderfully, gloriously condescending – he’s as fully “Saul” as he’s ever been, gleefully rubbing Kevin’s face in what it will take to make the lawsuit to go away.

Even better, his handling of Kevin accomplishes exactly what he described to Kristy Esposito in the season four finale, "Winner." He’s sticking it to the haves and defending the have-nots, not just low life street hoods, career criminals, or unlucky chemistry teachers, but people who actually deserve representation and who have been overlooked and disregarded by elitist assholes like Kevin: the Ackers and Olivia Bitsuis of the world. His righteous indignation is wonderfully empowering, and it’s reinforced by our knowledge that Saul wins no matter what Kevin does: if Kevin agrees to Saul’s terms, Saul wins, and if he doesn’t, Saul still wins because the copyright battle that will result will be lengthy, further hurting Mesa Verde.

In fact, the only loss Saul can incur involves Kim, who might never trust him again. She tells him as much in the episode’s final, devastating scene. Saul, now back in his mild-mannered Jimmy alter-ego, tries to convince Kim that by executing their planned defense, even over Kim’s objections, everyone wins, but he’s ignoring one major exception: Kim lost because he betrayed her trust. In finally recognizing Jimmy’s negative pattern of behavior, the episode’s flashback-prologue snaps into focus: Kim is primed to spot and steer clear of patterns of bad behavior because of her experiences growing up with her mom. She knows when she can’t trust someone, and Jimmy has crossed that line.

Or so it seems. The episode ends Kim saying that either they need to break-up, or (in a final twist), get married. On the face of it, Kim wanting to get married might seem counter-intuitive. How can she hold two mutually exclusive impulses in her mind at once? However, there has always been some push and pull in Kim’s attraction to Jimmy. Over and over, she’s seen him encourage her worst impulses, and on some level, she knows he’s bad for her, but she can’t quite quit him either, because she enjoys who she is when she’s with him. Even after he used her here, a part of her still wants him because she gets a rush out of being a part of Jimmy's machinations, which can be a relief from the way she lives the rest of her life. Here and in "Dedicado a Max," her momentary fear of Schweikart scared her off of what was otherwise a good plan, one whose success she would have relished had Jimmy not betrayed her trust. So, when Jimmy crosses a line, her options are for her to end their relationship, or to push back by crossing a line in the opposite direction, via marriage. Marrying is a way for Kim to try to reverse Jimmy’s transgression by drawing them even closer together, at least in theory. However, it’s unclear if marriage will actually have any effect on Jimmy, or on Kim’s trust in him; it might merely paper over the clear problems Kim outlines, rather than solve them, no matter how much Kim wants to believe in marriage as a solution.

Amazingly, this turn in their relationship is like the entirety of season four’s Jimmy/Kim plotline in microcosm. Last season seemed to point toward two different explanations for why (presumably) Kim was out of Saul’s life by the time of Breaking Bad: either she grew apart from him and left him when he turned into Saul, or Saul corrupted and imperiled her, leading to some terrible fate like disbarment, jail, or perhaps even death. Each of these two paths seemed like strong possibilities at different points last season (the latter became more prominent at the end of “Coushatta,” when Kim told Jimmy she wanted to run more cons with him), and in “Wexler v. Goodman,” we see the exact same sort of wavering between two opposing outcomes once again, all condensed into a single episode: Kim will leave Jimmy, or she’ll marry him. It’s a really amazing trick of the writing to make this episode into a synecdoche for all of last season. Much like Kim seeing patterns in Jimmy’s behavior, we can see the same in Kim.

Speaking of patterns, “Wexler v. Goodman” employs one of Better Call Saul’s regular narrational strategies twice over: withholding information to create curiosity and drive viewer interest. We see it in Jimmy hiring his regular film crew to shoot his commercial before we know the commercial’s actual purpose, and we see it again in much of Mike’s business this episode as well. In the former case, withholding info to generate curiosity is obvious and repetitive, since it’s being used for minor and ultimately inconsequential plot material (the commercial matters little in the grand scheme of things). In the latter case, it’s much more compelling, because it concerns Mike’s plan for preventing Lalo from further disrupting Gus’s business.

Last week I complained about Better Call Saul spending too much time with Mike and Gus outside of their relationships with Nacho and Lalo, because their solo material hasn’t been terribly illuminating or insightful. Thankfully, “Wexler v. Goodman” corrects for this by bringing Mike back into Nacho’s orbit: Gus instructs Nacho to report to Mike, who is now a part of Gus’s entourage, a detail conveyed nicely by a shot where Mike and Victor flank Gus. Making Mike into Nacho’s immediate superior is a smart way of re-incorporating both Mike and Gus into the undiscovered country that is Nacho and Lalo’s arc. It also promises fruitful subsequent developments because Mike represents, perhaps, a more sympathetic ear for Nacho’s complaints about how tightly Gus is squeezing him.

However, Gus’s treatment of Nacho is a potential conflict that will have to wait for a future episode. In “Wexler v. Goodman,” the main focus is on Mike removing Lalo from the chessboard, which has been tilted decidedly against Lalo, who in addition to having a mole, also has Gus and now Mike as opponents. Mike plans a pretty ingenious sting against Lalo, planting just enough clues to get the APD to arrest Lalo for his murder of the Travel Wire clerk in last season’s “Winner.” It’s not difficult. After all, Mike knows Lalo did it, so all he needs to do is goose the system in the right direction and the rest will take care of itself: jog a witness’s memory, intimidate a file clerk, and call in a check on Lalo’s vehicle to the police. Like with Jimmy’s commercial, we don’t know the specific intentions of each of Mike’s moves, even if we know the broader goal, but because Mike’s actions are vital to the indeterminate fate of one of the show’s most interesting villains, they’re much more compelling. After a wayward episode, it’s a relief to have the cartel side of Better Call Saul back on track, and in a way that will undoubtedly incorporate Jimmy/Saul once again, as I can easily imagine Lalo’s first recourse will be to hire Saul as his lawyer.

Other thoughts:

- Saul and Kim’s plan of attack against Mesa Verde shows wonderful attention to detail on the part the Better Call Saul’s writers. Way back in season four’s “Something Beautiful,” when Kim first started to have second thoughts about being Mesa Verde’s personal attorney, one of the things that gave her pause was a giant statue of Mesa Verde’s logo in the lobby of their corporate office. That this logo should be what creates a serious roadblock for Mesa Verde is thus a stroke of poetic unity.

- Come on, Kevin. Saul is a first-rate huckster, not a third-rate one.

- The scene of Saul’s confrontation with Kevin in the parking lot brings to mind Jimmy’s consolation of Kristy Esposito not only because he’s making good on what he described to Kristy, but also because of the parallels between the two: both take place after and outside of another meeting, and Jimmy/Saul is incredibly animated, living his passion and doing most of the talking.

- Fun scene of Jimmy hiring two of his prostitute clients to mess with Howard’s image at Asshole Restaurant. It’s yet another instance of Jimmy pushing boundaries, but it’s at Howard’s expense, so who gives a shit.

- More nicely framed compositions in the climax: when Jimmy and Kim are about to start fighting, some off-centered compositions leave very little space in front of the characters. It's an unconventional choice, perhaps signaling that things are unbalanced between them.

- The framing of one of the shots of Jimmy and Kim outside of the nail salon calls back to past episodes: it is very much like the framing of previous turning points in their relationship, like when she tells Jimmy she wants to run more cons in "Coushatta." Of course, this itself is a callback to their first scene together in the pilot.

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