Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Better Call Saul Season 5, Episode 10, “Something Unforgivable”

“Something Unforgivable” concludes another stellar season of Better Call Saul, one that once again has upended my expectations not only about where the series is heading, but which has also altered my notions of what the series is about more generally. All along, I’ve thought of Better Call Saul as a sister show to Breaking Bad, each of them being about the transformation of somewhat “good” characters into largely “bad” characters. And while each show is certainly about how people can change, Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman is revealing itself to be a more complicated story than Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg. Perhaps even more significantly, the show is also revealing itself to be about the changes other characters undergo, particularly Kim.

A lot of this additional complication is a product of Jimmy’s self-awareness. Walt was never very self-aware, often wildly overestimating his control over his circumstances and his ability to manipulate others, and lying to himself about his motivations. Long before Walt finally admitted it to Skyler in the series finale, viewers were well aware that Walt’s primary motivation was his frustrated sense of pride, not his family.

Jimmy, however, is not Walt. Not only is he a more skilled manipulator, but he’s also more aware of the effect he has on others, and the limits of his own abilities. We need look no further than the outburst he directed at Howard in “JMM,” where his self-aggrandizement is undercut by the discomfort he shows in its aftermath. Likewise, his near-death experience in “Bagman” seared into his brain that being a law-bending attorney makes for a flimsy shield when faced with a gun barrel in the middle of the desert.

The events of “Something Unforgivable” give Jimmy even further cause for self-doubt and self-awareness, seeming to leave him so unsure of himself that I am starting to wonder once again if the Saul Goodman persona we thought we knew so well on Breaking Bad was just that: a mask Jimmy wore for his clients, the DA, and his colleagues, rather than who he actually was. This idea of Saul-as-mask first occurred to me back in season four’s “Quite a Ride,” when Jimmy became Saul Goodman to sell burner phones to the Albuquerque underworld. Back then, I wrote that since we never saw Saul outside of a professional context on Breaking Bad, it’s possible that Jimmy never fully becomes the jaded and cynical person Saul seemed to be, but that he merely played that role to suit his own ends. The events of “Something Unforgivable” seem to open up this possibility once again. Or at the very least, they’ve made me wonder how Better Call Saul will use its final season to execute the transformation I thought the series had been depicting all along.

The main reason for why my expectations about the arc of the series are in doubt is that the events of the past few episodes have finally made Jimmy himself aware of the influence he’s had on Kim. “Something Unforgivable” picks up right where “Bad Choice Road” left off, with Jimmy and Kim breathing a tentative sigh of relief after Lalo leaves, and with Jimmy coming clean to Kim about what really happened in the desert (somewhat similar to the aftermath of their confrontation with Chuck in “Nailed,” except, there, Jimmy didn’t even need to tell Kim the truth – she just inferred it and punched him). Spooked by Lalo, they check into a hotel, at which point Jimmy has a quiet moment of reflection while watching Kim get ready for bed, eventually asking her, “Am I bad for you?”*

*Phrasing Jimmy’s concern as his being “bad” for Kim is itself a nice touch, since it can mean so many different things, all of which seem to flash across Jimmy’s mind at various points: that Kim has been corrupted by Jimmy, that she’s been imperiled by him, that she’s made too many sacrifices for him, etc. It’s a loose concept Jimmy can spin a lot of different ways to feel bad about himself.

It’s an astounding moment of self-awareness from Jimmy – far more than anything Walt ever displayed on Breaking Bad – and something many viewers (myself included) have long thought would characterize the arc of their relationship, given that Kim seemed not to be a part of Saul’s life on Breaking Bad. The series seemed primed for Jimmy to unknowingly act as a corrupting agent whose descent into becoming Saul drags down or alienates those around him, most tragically, Kim. However, making Jimmy aware of this arc throws it into doubt. It pits his love for Kim against his own worst tendencies, and as Kim has become a more and more important character, both in Jimmy’s life and on the series (she’s practically been a co-lead this season), it’s become harder to imagine Jimmy choosing Saul Goodman over her.

Ultimately, “Something Unforgivable” strongly suggests that Jimmy’s self-awareness is too little, too late. Kim resists the idea that he’s bad for her, gently here, and more strongly in later scenes, but almost all of her behavior adds fuel to fire that has been sparked in Jimmy’s mind. A small scale case in point: the next morning, Jimmy is overly concerned for their safety and tries to deter Kim from going to the courthouse, but Kim dismisses his concerns and goes anyway, effectively reversing their positions from “Bagman,” where Kim was the one who didn’t want Jimmy to go to “work” (Kim is right in both cases).

While at the courthouse, Kim runs into Howard and shocks him with updates on her latest career moves. Out of concern for her, he tells her about his encounters with Jimmy this season, and then fishes around for Jimmy’s involvement in Kim’s decision to drop Mesa Verde. Kim responds with what is essentially a rebuke to what’s going through Jimmy’s mind as well: “I make my own decisions. For my own reasons.”

It’s easy to paint Howard as the villain here, given that his concern for Kim is wrapped up in condescension, but her reaction also illustrates that she has indeed changed, as has her understanding of Jimmy. At the start of the episode, I would have agreed with Howard that Jimmy is capable of worse things than Kim could imagine, or that Kim doesn’t know Jimmy as well as she thinks, but by the episode’s end, I wasn’t so sure. Kim laughs in Howard’s face when he tells her his tale of embarrassment, but in previous seasons, these exploits would have bothered her. Sure, Howard undersold the part of the story where Jimmy lost his temper, but would Kim be fazed even if he hadn’t?

When Kim later tells Jimmy about her encounter with Howard, her attitude is, “Can you believe this asshole, trying to tell me what’s best for me?” However, Jimmy absolutely understands where Howard is coming from – they share the exact same concerns. Rather than set his mind at ease, Kim has only further confirmed Jimmy’s suspicion that he’s bad for her, first by demonstrating that she’s become inured to Jimmy’s shenanigans, and then by trying to set Jimmy’s mind at ease by brainstorming more pranks to play on Howard. Kim’s attitude in this scene would have been music to Jimmy’s ears prior to “Bagman” and “Bad Choice Road,” but now all he can see is how much Kim has changed by her accepting the part of herself that’s attracted to Jimmy's risky behavior.

Still, Kim manages to get Jimmy to put aside his concerns for the time being, and the two enjoy coming up with new petty ways to torture Howard, until Kim finally comes up with an idea that piques both her and Jimmy’s interest: framing Howard for serious legal misconduct in order to force HHM and Davis & Main to settle the Sandpiper lawsuit, netting Jimmy a $2 million payout. When Jimmy protests that he already tried to get Sandpiper to settle, Kim demonstrates her changed nature even more when she confidently critiques his previous efforts: “You went about it wrong. Sorry, but [going after Howard] is how you’d do it.”

Throughout the entire conversation, Kim and Jimmy’s roles are reversed from how they’ve always been on this series. Here, Kim is the one trying to convince a reluctant Jimmy to embark on a risky-but-lucrative scheme, using a lot of different rhetorical strategies we’ve often seen Jimmy use: she downplays the damage it would cause Howard; she argues that Howard deserves it, and she fantasizes about the scheme’s material benefits as a way of deflecting attention from its moral costs. She’s particularly convincing in this last strategy, arguing that the claimants would get a slightly smaller settlement, but that they would get their money before they run out of time to use it. Likewise, Jimmy’s $2 million payout would let Kim live the dream Jimmy claimed to be serving in his speech to Kristy Esposito in “Winner,” by allowing Kim to open a pro bono firm to give the underprivileged the kind of representation usually only reserved for millionaires. Jimmy even fantasizes about buying a house (which is particularly apt, since he used the fantasy of a house make peace with Kim in “50% Off”).

Jimmy in turn plays Kim’s usual role, going along for the ride, but only so long as it’s hypothetical, and ultimately pushing back by arguing that the moral costs are too high. It’s here where the episode’s title makes its way into the dialogue, with Jimmy describing how they’d need to do “something unforgivable” to Howard to make it work. It’s also here where Jimmy seems to reconfirm his doubts about his effect on Kim. He argues that the moral cost might not be too high for him, but it would be for her: “Kim, doing this isn’t you. You would not be okay with it, not in the cold light of day.” Her completely sober and measured response once again shows how much she’s changed: “Wouldn’t I?” When she leaves to take a shower, Jimmy tries to reconfirm that she isn’t serious, and she responds by shooting him with fingers guns, precisely how Jimmy shot fingers gun at Kim at the conclusion of last season’s finale, “Winner.”

Paralleling the end of “Winner” is an extraordinary way to end the season: just like how Kim was stunned by Jimmy’s revelation that his speech to the bar association was insincere, here Jimmy is stunned into silence by Kim’s amorality. His smile slowly fades as the camera pulls away, and all of Jimmy’s concerns about Kim come flooding back. However, unlike with Kim in “Winner,” Jimmy’s fading smile isn’t solely the result of realizing the person he loves isn’t exactly who he thought they were. His concern is also the result of what he sees as his own complicity in having changed Kim into the type of person who would be so nonchalant about ruining someone. It’s yet another meaning for the episode’s title: a part of Jimmy seems to realize he’s done “something unforgivable” in helping Kim become this kind of person.

If this scene were taking place earlier in the series, or even earlier this season, Jimmy would have been right about Kim not having the stomach for destroying Howard. In fact, this is exactly how she felt about conning Mesa Verde into moving their call center just a few episodes ago. But after Jimmy successfully pulled off the con (over Kim’s protests), and after Kim herself successfully convinced Lalo not to kill them, Kim has been emboldened. What had seemed like a monumental career risk with Mesa Verde now seems like small potatoes, and destroying Howard’s professional life has become merely a “career setback.” It’s easy to understand why Jimmy might see himself as being responsible for corrupting Kim.

I’m of two minds about this. One the one hand, Kim has made her own decisions, as she tells Howard. She’s the one who decided to quit Schweikart & Cokely, for instance, just like she was the one who brought Mesa Verde to them in the first place. Likewise, she’s well aware of who Jimmy is, and time and again, she’s chosen to be with him, despite – or more fittingly, because of – the risks he entails.

On the other hand, it’s also true that she’s been influenced by the shit Jimmy has put her through. Yes, she makes her own decisions, but those decisions are informed by the contexts of the various stresses that Jimmy has placed on her. While she’s always chosen to stay with him rather than leave him, it’s Jimmy who has continually created situations where Kim has felt like she’s had to make that choice. She draws a line in the sand, but has to move it further and further back every time Jimmy crosses it.

The question of who is responsible for this new-look Kim matters too, because if Jimmy feels that he’s responsible, it might influence what he decides to do about it. Surprisingly, Jimmy’s self-awareness has opened up yet another possible direction for the series to take before it concludes: Jimmy leaves Kim willingly. Afraid of the danger to which he’s exposed her, or his negative influence on her, he leaves Kim to protect her from his own worst tendencies. Paternalistic? Yes, but it’s yet another wrinkle in how all of this can go wrong for Jimmy, aside from some dark fate befalling Kim, or Kim leaving Jimmy because he changes into someone she no longer recognizes (highly unlikely at this point – she sees him clearer than ever before).

Jimmy leaving Kim would be a particularly fatalistic decision since it would be an acknowledgement that he has no self-restraint. While he hasn’t decided that this is what he wants to do, it’s certainly on the table. Throughout the episode it seems to hang over Jimmy like a thundercloud, adding extra poignancy to scenes like the one where he’s in bed with Kim. It’s rare for Better Call Saul to show Kim and Jimmy being affectionate with each other – these moments are usually elided, and Kim and Jimmy aren’t very physically affectionate to begin with. Thus it seems as if “Something Unforgivable” is letting us into this part of their lives just as Jimmy is on the verge of blowing it up.

No matter what happens in the final season, it’s pretty amazing that Better Call Saul has somehow kept afloat so many of the previous possibilities for how Jimmy becomes the Saul we know from Breaking Bad, while also adding yet another to the mix at such a late stage (usually, as stories move toward a climax, the range of outcomes becomes very narrow – perhaps one of two options seem highly likely).

Even more amazing is that Jimmy’s self-awareness creates the potential for even more tragedy. If he stays with Kim and some dark fate befalls her, Jimmy could end up blaming himself and being destroyed by guilt. It’s one thing to unknowingly ruin someone else, but it’s another thing to realize the effect you’re having on someone, and to continue to influence them despite your own trepidations. Perhaps Saul will be the product of Jimmy’s own self-loathing. I suppose I always figured Better Call Saul would be tragic, but as the depth and shape of that tragedy has become clearer, I’ve become even more impressed with it.

Of course, “Something Unforgivable” doesn’t end with this scene between Jimmy and Kim; it ends at Lalo’s compound in Mexico, where the cartel side of the series also breathes meaning into the episode title, as Nacho is forced to betray Lalo for Gus. Earlier in the episode, Gus finally reveals to Mike that he plans to assassinate Lalo without it being traced back to him, and when Mike lobbies for Nacho again, Gus decides to spare Nacho by using him to help the assassins.

When Nacho receives instructions to let the assassins into the compound late at night, he finds himself in yet another tough position: not only will it be nerve-wracking for him to successfully aid the assassins, but he also feels bad for the support staff who will be killed along with Lalo. More than this though, Lalo makes it tough for Nacho because he treats him well, grooming him for his introduction to Don Eladio. It’s ironic that the one Salamanca that might actually inspire Nacho’s loyalty is the one he must betray. In a world in which Nacho hadn’t already been frayed by the psychopathy of the other Salamancas, he might even feel bad about being forced to aid Lalo’s assassination.

However, any guilt Nacho might feel is far outweighed by his desire to escape from the cartels entirely. It’s clear he’s not heartbroken about losing a chance at promotion when he tells Eladio that he doesn’t want to have to look over his shoulder. Nacho just wants out, and if that means risking his life one more time to help Gus assassinate Lalo, so be it.

What follows is another harrowing suspense sequence, where Nacho has to distract Lalo – a self-professed night owl – from his campfire perch next to the door Nacho needs to unlock to admit the assassins. Perhaps taking inspiration from the explosion Gus created at Los Pollos Hermanos, Nacho rigs an oil fire in the kitchen, distracting Lalo long enough to fulfill his instructions. The suspense doesn’t abate here either, because now, rather than be in suspense over Nacho’s actions, we’re in suspense over Lalo’s. Lalo proves himself to be the smartest Salamanca once again, outwitting the assassins via an escape tunnel and then channeling the Cousins when he returns to murder them all.

At first I thought this scene might end with Nacho killing Lalo after Lalo thought he had successfully eliminated all of the assassins, but then I realized that Lalo was probably going to survive this encounter, given what transpires in an earlier scene between Mike and Jimmy. Still worried about his and Kim’s safety, Jimmy tries to press Mike for details about why he needed to lie to Lalo. Initially Mike resists, but he relents when Jimmy puts his agitation in terms that Mike can understand: Jimmy is unwilling to risk Kim’s life over some inexplicable marching orders from Mike’s mysterious benefactor. Mike can sympathize with Jimmy wanting to protect a loved one, so he gives Jimmy some peace of mind by telling him about Lalo’s impending assassination.

It puts Jimmy’s mind at ease for the moment, but it also provides a strong clue that Lalo will survive. The logic here is that if the assassination is successful, then “Bad Choice Road” is the last time Jimmy ever encounters Lalo, which means that Saul wouldn’t have any cause to fear him in Breaking Bad. But Saul is still afraid of Lalo on Breaking Bad, thus Lalo must survive his assassination attempt, or at least, Jimmy must believe that Lalo survives, which means either that he’ll encounter Lalo again, or that he’ll learn of the botched assassination (perhaps from Nacho). This doesn’t mean the assault on Lalo’s compound isn’t suspenseful – it is – it’s just that the suspense ends up residing in our not knowing how Lalo will survive, rather than if he survives. The suspense is derived from the causes of Lalo’s survival, rather than from the effect of the assassination attempt.

Lalo ends the episode having deduced that Gus hired the assassins, and that Nacho has betrayed him. Far from extricating himself from the situation, Nacho has only become further imperiled, especially now that Lalo has gained the element of surprise by having the lone remaining assassin report that the assassination succeeded. Poor Nacho. I’m not sure whether Gus's hatred or Lalo's fury is a worse threat, but I guess we’ll find out in season six.

Overall, “Something Unforgivable” was a stellar finale for another great season of television, Much like the suspense of the assassination attempt on Lalo, Better Call Saul has continued to make great use of most viewers’ foreknowledge of where the story is headed, constantly shifting which road we seem to be taking through this forest of bad choices that will lead to Saul Goodman. I can’t wait to see which path the series eventually takes for its final few steps.

Other thoughts:

- Witnessing Kim's magic has turned Mike into a believer: “She saved your ass!”

- After Kim defends Jimmy in her scene with Howard, Howard cuts through her with a thought I also had a few episodes ago: “You know who really knew Jimmy? Chuck.” Although fittingly, this scene makes clear that Howard doesn't know Kim, at least not anymore.

- Excellent dim lighting in the Kim-Howard courtroom scene, which could be interpreted as an expression of Kim's corruption.

- Another possible fate for Jimmy and Kim: they’re still together throughout Breaking Bad, but we just didn’t know it because we never saw Saul’s home life. I can’t imagine this being satisfying, though. Not only would it be rather anti-climactic, but it would also undermine a lot of what Better Call Saul seems to be building toward.

- Kim’s finger guns work on a couple of other levels too. For one, we can compare them with the real guns being shot at Lalo’s compound, which the episode crosscuts to throughout the Jimmy-Kim scene. Each might prove just as damaging, in a way. The finger guns also bring to mind the real gun Jimmy had pointed at him in “Bagman.” It's not very sensitive of Kim, but from a writer's standpoint, the parallels it creates with “Winner” are too good for her not to do it.

- Hey, that’s comedian Roy Wood Jr. as the Grant the public defender! When he shows Kim the backlog of cases, sad music cues make it seem as though Kim is daunted how many there are, but knowing Kim, I’d expect her to work her way through half of these in a year’s time. It’s not dissimilar from when she was in the HHM doghouse and had to work her way out of a different windowless basement room, except now it’s by choice. Another way to read this scene, however, is that Kim realizes that working as a public defender is bleaker than she thought it would be, thus her later persistence over executing a thrilling law con with Jimmy. I’m not in love with this take, though, because Kim never seemed to have illusions about being a public defender, and because tall tasks have never fazed her.

- Lalo remains charming. He presents his cash delivery to Eladio in the form of a Lamborghini and a trunk load of gift-wrapped money, and Eladio appreciates his showmanship (even if Juan Bolsa is not amused).

- Lalo makes a toast Nacho can get behind: “To sleep, and those who need it.” Nacho certainly needs it, and he also wants it for Lalo, permanently.

- As Don Eladio gets to know Nacho and his business plan, Lalo looks on with interest. It’s a nice moment, because it’s one of the few we’ve seen were Lalo seems unsure. He’s a bit like worried parent, hopeful that Nacho will reflect well on him.

- It's an interesting choice to crosscut between the assault on Lalo’s compound and Jimmy’s final scene with Kim. In theory it might dampen the suspense of the assault, but it actually increased my suspense, because near the end, I worried we wouldn’t actually cut back to Lalo’s compound, leaving the result of the fight there unresolved. A cliffhanger over Nacho and Lalo’s fate would have been tough to handle.

- I will be disappointed if Gus ends up believing that Lalo is dead based on whatever Lalo had the last assassin say over the radio. Gus is a smart character - wouldn't he insist on obtaining visual proof like a photo, or Lalo's head in a box? Like Breaking Bad before it, Better Call Saul almost never takes narrative shortcuts and hopefully this will be no exception. 


  1. Can we talk about how great Rhea Seehorn's facial expressions in Kim and Jimmy's final scene are? The close-up of the devilish smile on her face as she insists on ruining Howard's reputation is the scariest moment of the episode (though Lalo storming from the failed assassination with the increasingly loud distorted crunching of the gravel under his feet is a close second). Similar to Hank discovering Walt's criminal life in Breaking Bad, it seemed inevitable that the series would end with Kim either leaving Jimmy and/or ending up as collateral damage for his increasingly reckless crimes. For the finale to throw out the possibility that she may become just as amoral as Jimmy adds even more unpredictability to how the final season will wrap things up for their relationship and adds the potential for an even more tragic layer for Jimmy’s transformation into Saul.

  2. Agreed! What the writers have done with Kim is probably the most impressive thing about this show. And yes, Rhea Seehorn is fantastic as usual.