Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Better Call Saul, Season 5, Episode 8, “Bagman”

“Bagman” finally gives Better Call Saul the kind of action-packed episode that was regularly featured on Breaking Bad, where the characters are put in a life-or-death situation and must figure out how to survive. The result is a highly rewarding suspense piece that also performs important character work, pushing forward character change and certain relationships.

“Bagman” resembles one episode of Breaking Bad in particular: season two’s “4 Days Out,” where Walt and Jesse become stranded in the desert when the battery in their RV dies. In “Bagman” it’s Jimmy and Mike who become stranded in the desert when Jimmy’s trip to pick up Lalo’s $7 million bail predictably runs afoul of inter-cartel politics. After receiving the money from the Cousins, Jimmy is ambushed by rival cartel elements while driving back, and is seconds away from being murdered before Mike comes to the rescue. Sharpshooter that he is, Mike prevails in the ensuing gunfight, but all of the remaining vehicles are damaged, forcing Mike and Jimmy to escape on foot, lest they get caught by the lone cartel member who escaped the slaughter with a functioning vehicle.

Much of the rest of “Bagman” features Jimmy and Mike not only trying to survive the desert (like Walt and Jesse in “4 Days Out”), but also actively being hunted by the cartel. Luckily for Jimmy, Mike is probably the best possible character in the Heisenberg-verse to be partnered with in this situation, given his preparedness and survival skills. However, Mike – and the situation more generally – also affords Jimmy the opportunity to grow into Saul just a little bit more.

A lot of Jimmy’s growth in “Bagman” seems to be paving the way for what Saul will be like later (a thesis statement for the entire series, really). Why else give Jimmy an experience like this? The ambush itself is harrowing, and it’s as close to death as Jimmy’s ever come (the nearest comparison is his encounter with Tuco). It’s the kind of experience that will likely make him more brazen, as Saul is on Breaking Bad. If he can survive this brush with death, then any legal challenges he’ll face in the future will seem small by comparison. Thus Saul’s blasé attitude toward all of Walt and Jesse’s exploits; nothing they do – or could muster the will to do to him – is as terrifying as what almost happens to him here, where his silver tongue is useless, and where being a “friend of the cartel” means nothing when weighed against $7 million.*

* One of the ambush’s best touches is that it echoes Saul’s pleas to Walt and Jesse when they kidnap him in his first appearance on Breaking Bad. In both cases, Jimmy/Saul tries to save himself by insisting that he’s a friend of the cartel. It’s ineffective both times.

Jimmy’s horror over the situation is compounded by it unfolding exactly how Kim imagined it would earlier in the episode, when he told her he was going to retrieve the money. In “JMM,” Jimmy floated the possibility that Kim might not like what he tells her when they negotiate total honesty as one of the terms of their marriage. Kim responded that they’d cross that bridge when they come to it, and that bridge arrives almost immediately in “Bagman.” Kim is alarmed and horrified to discover that she can’t penetrate Jimmy’s cloak of naiveté (Rhea Seehorn is great here, enunciating every word in Kim’s line, “I don’t like this. I don’t want you to do it”). No matter how hard she tries, Jimmy simply dismisses her (very valid) concerns.

Kim reverberates throughout Jimmy and Mike’s desert odyssey. For one, the shootout marks the demise not only of Jimmy’s Suzuki Esteem (making room for the appearance of another Saul talisman, the Cadillac), but also of the coffee mug Kim gave Jimmy to congratulate him on his reinstatement, both of which are riddled with bullet holes. It’s hard not read into this a little: Jimmy’s decision to retrieve the bail money despite Kim’s very strong objections undoubtedly would have strained their relationship even if it were to have gone off without a hitch, given Kim's exasperation with Jimmy steamrolling over her protests. Jimmy’s near-murder would likely damage their relationship further, should Kim know the full extent of the truth.

When Jimmy gets back to civilization, Kim’s predominant emotion will likely be relief, but anger will also be in the mix. How could it not be? She was adamant in her objections to his plan, but he ignored her and nearly ruined both of their lives. She’d likely be even angrier if she knew he was getting a $100,000 fee, because it means that Jimmy weighed his greed against his love for her, and his greed won. A lot of Kim’s reaction to this fiasco will depend on how much of the truth Jimmy decides to tell her, but the bullet through the mug could essentially be the same as a bullet through the equal partnership Kim hoped marriage might create for them. A part of Jimmy seems to realize it too, as indicated by a few moments of repose after the shootout, where he seems to regret his own hubris.

Kim’s welfare weighs on Jimmy as well. When Mike and Jimmy have to camp overnight, Jimmy searches for phone reception not just because he wants to call for help, but because he wants to be able to tell Kim he’s okay. When he says as much to Mike, Mike – who has never met Kim – immediately assumes the worst: that Kim’s worry will drive her to contact the police, or some other confidant, further imperiling everyone. Basically, Mike assumes that Kim is like Skyler. In fact, this is exactly what Skyler did on Breaking Bad when Walt was kidnapped by Tuco at the start of season two.

Jimmy reassures Mike that Kim won’t turn to the police, but Mike remains alarmed that Jimmy would put Kim at risk by including her in “the game.” Jimmy resists this description, insisting that Kim’s “not even game-adjacent.” It’s an interesting conflict. Mike has always maintained a strict division between his professional and personal lives as a way of protecting Stacey and Kaylee. In violating that division, Jimmy has forfeited that protection for Kim.

Mike’s skepticism about Kim not being in “the game” is a bit of a comment on Kim’s status overall on Better Call Saul. In a way, she has been in the game, insofar as the game includes not just the drug cartels but also the shadier side of the law that Jimmy inhabits: not only has she relished pulling off law cons with Jimmy, but she was the direct beneficiary of Jimmy’s tampering with Chuck’s Mesa Verde paperwork. Sure, her knowledge was retrospective, but she didn’t renounce the fruits of his labor either (and even slyly advised Jimmy about covering his tracks in the aftermath). Her eyes have always been open.

Indeed, Jimmy’s protests are undermined in the very next scene, when Kim inserts herself directly into the game by turning to one of the most dangerous people possible to help ease her fears: Lalo. In seeking out Lalo, Kim proves Jimmy right about being too smart to contact the police, but also proves him wrong about not needing to do something to help him (and further illustrates how little forethought Jimmy has had in this episode, failing to anticipate what would happen should something go wrong).

Kim is as whip-smart as ever, knowing exactly what she needs to say to Lalo so he doesn’t see her as a threat, but she also has no leverage. Lalo doesn’t care at all about Jimmy, and thus has no incentive to help her figure out what might have happened to him. All Kim has done is expose herself to a very dangerous cartel member. Who knows if or how Lalo might use his knowledge of Kim's existence in the future?

Jimmy's greed might have overpowered his love for Kim at the start "Bagman," but it's his love for her that motivates some of the change he undergoes later in the episode. Exhausted and dehydrated, Jimmy is ready to give up until Mike gives him a pep talk explaining how Mike is able to keep trudging through the desert: Mike does it for the people he loves, who are protected by their ignorance of his profession. His life is immaterial, so long as they're taken care of. Mike’s speech is remarkable, not because it gives us any new insights into his character (Mike’s motivations have been very clear ever since Breaking Bad), but because Jimmy's response alters the dynamic between Mike and Jimmy, and because it motivates Jimmy to change as a character.

Mike has had very little respect for Jimmy thus far on Better Call Saul, and we can see it in his pep talk, which is meant to both motivate and shame Jimmy. He certainly wants Jimmy to think of Kim as a reason to keep going, but by implying that Kaylee and Stacey are protected, he also means to contrast them with what Jimmy has done with Kim, shaming Jimmy for letting her into this part of his life. Mike can’t resist rubbing it in when others’ actions don’t measure up to his own exacting standards (to his great detriment on Breaking Bad – needling Walt is what makes Walt fly off the handle and kill him). Jimmy letting Kim into “the game” just reconfirms his opinion of Jimmy as a clownish weasel. However, Jimmy’s reaction to Mike’s pep talk surprises him.

When the surviving cartel member returns, Jimmy decides to use himself as bait. He makes himself easy to spot, wrapping Mike’s thermal blanket around his shoulders and walking down the middle of the road with the giant duffel bags full of money, in order to give Mike an opportunity to snipe the driver from afar. It’s a great storytelling move, not only because it gives both Mike and Jimmy agency in working their way out of this jam, but also because Jimmy’s actions seem to overturn some of Mike’s presumptions about Jimmy.

Mike was resigned to lying low and letting the cartel member pass, never thinking that Jimmy would be willing or able to place himself in such danger (or perhaps dismissing such a plan as impossible, with Jimmy ready to give up). By putting his life on the line, and by trusting in Mike to save them, I can easily imagine Mike gaining a modicum of respect for Jimmy, which in turn brings Mike and Jimmy closer to what their relationship is like when we meet them on Breaking Bad. Mike’s potential respect for Jimmy is further bolstered in the episode’s final moments, when Jimmy demonstrates yet more resolve as he wordlessly continues walking down the road after Mike’s murder of the cartel member fails to preserve his car – he swerves after he’s shot, and the car tumbles end over end in one of the most spectacular stunts Better Call Saul has ever featured.

Even more remarkable than Jimmy’s ability to surprise Mike is how Jimmy’s actions demonstrate his own growth and change. Jimmy’s love for Kim hasn’t motivated any of his actions thus far in “Bagman,” but here, that’s precisely what inspires him. Jimmy’s determination to live, his decision to risk himself as bait, even his willingness to drink his own piss in the aftermath of the car’s destruction (knowing that more walking is in store and that he needs the hydration) – all of these things are a new kind of resolve Jimmy hasn’t ever displayed before, and they’re all motivated by his love for Kim.

Of course, there’s another side to this coin. These desperate actions are exactly the kind of squirming, bottom-feeding behavior that will become second nature to Saul. It’s easy to draw a line from the lengths Jimmy goes to survive here to all of the ways Saul will end up debasing himself for money later. Even though the episode concludes without resolving how Mike and Jimmy escape from this particular predicament, we know they won't die in the desert. However, a part of Jimmy changes, and it’s a change that will make room for the kind of person he'll become as Saul.

Other thoughts:

- Even before he’s stuck in the desert, a little bit of Saul’s corruptibility seeps out from behind Jimmy’s façade. Initially, Jimmy rejects Lalo’s insistence that Jimmy retrieve the money, wisely viewing it as too risky, but before he leaves, Jimmy timidly negotiates for a $100,000 fee for his trouble. Regardless of his demeanor, negotiating for a cut of ill-gotten money is a purely Saul Goodman move. Lalo shouts, “Done!” once he agrees to it, and the episode cuts to an extreme close-up of the lock on Jimmy and Kim’s apartment door turning and the door swinging open. The snappy editing almost seems symbolic, as if Jimmy has just unlocked another aspect of Saul’s modus operandi (even though it’s Kim literally opening the door here).

- As if we needed more evidence that Lalo’s a psychopath, when describing the Cousins to Jimmy, he says, “You’ll like them! They’re good boys.” The same goes for his laughing heartily at a newspaper story about Gus’s restaurant blowing up, as though he were reading the comics section.

- A nice instance of Better Call Saul using our serial knowledge: the only explanation we get about how Mike knew Jimmy’s location during the rescue is when we see Mike remove the gas cap from Jimmy’s car. This is a trick Mike learned when Gus had Mike tracked in season three.

- Another way in which this episode is in dialogue with Breaking Bad: Walt’s barrels of money eventually became an albatross around his neck, and the same is true for Jimmy here, almost literally, as he has to lug two enormous duffel bags over his shoulders. After this one was over, I wanted a massage even more than I wanted a drink.

- Another reason to put Jimmy through all of this: perhaps it will scare him off of becoming a “friend of the cartel,” which will in turn motivate his desire to get into business with Walt in the future. As Alan Sepinwall wrote in his recap for last week’s episode, Jimmy’s failure to become Lalo’s partner turns Walt’s nascent drug empire into a second chance for Jimmy/Saul to get in on the drug game, one that’s less intimidating than the cartels.

- Kudos to Vince Gilligan, who directed “Bagman,” for stocking it chock-full of gorgeous imagery.

- Rhea Seehorn is incredible in her scene with Lalo, perfectly conveying how shaken Kim is, but also how competent she remains, even though her voice sounds like she’s been crying all night.

- Update: something I missed, and that Sepinwall nails in his excellent review, is what the thermal blanket means to Jimmy. Chuck wrapped himself in them when suffering from his mental illness, so it's no wonder that Jimmy would reject Mike's offer of one during their night in the desert. Jimmy's history with these blankets makes his decision to don one in the climax even more of an emotional turning point than I had realized.

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