Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Better Call Saul, Season 5, Episode 9, “Bad Choice Road”

“Bad Choice Road” is a phenomenal episode of television, easily the best yet of Better Call Saul season five. It gets its name from a speech Mike gives to Jimmy midway through the episode. Jimmy suffers from PTSD after he and Mike make it back to civilization, and when he turns to Mike for advice about how to handle it, Mike lays out the entire ethos of character arcs on both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul: “We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off, but eventually you’re back on it…. And nothing, nothing can be done about that.”

Most obviously, this ethos applies to Jimmy and Mike, whose fates are predetermined by Breaking Bad: Jimmy will inexorably march towards Saul, just like how Mike will inexorably march toward conflict with Walt after becoming Gus’s right hand man. However, this ethos also seems to apply to Kim, who like Jimmy and Walt, has flirted with making the “right” choice – the smart, safe choice – but who also can’t stop herself from returning to the road that intertwines her path with Jimmy’s, and which seems headed toward some still-unspecified (likely dark) fate. Sometimes she thinks about alternative paths, but again and again, she chooses to stay on this road, just like many of the other major characters in the Heisenberg-verse.

In “Bad Choice Road,” Kim makes a number of choices, some of them small, many of them quite large, and nearly all of them leading in the direction of ever deeper complicity in Jimmy/Saul’s affairs, many of which led me repeatedly to the conclusion that she’s too good for Jimmy. Her first choice is to adhere to Lalo’s advice and wait, agonizingly, for news from Jimmy. This wait is depicted brilliantly via a split-screen montage that deliberately parallels an earlier split-screen montage from season four’s “Something Stupid.” In both montages, each side of the split-screen creates symmetrical compositions showing Jimmy and Kim going about their business (and each is accompanied by the Lola Marsh song, “Something Stupid”), but in a lot of ways this new split-screen montage is the opposite of the previous one.

For one, the split-screen montage in “Something Stupid” covers months, whereas the one in “Bad Choice Road” covers mere hours. More importantly, the previous split-screen montage showed Jimmy and Kim growing further apart emotionally, even though they were still close physically. Here, the two are far apart physically, but they’ve never been closer emotionally. All Kim does is worry over Jimmy’s safety and await his call. Her psychological misery is matched by Jimmy’s physical misery, as we see him search for a cell phone signal and try to stay hydrated (the latter being a luxury Kim can indulge in, even if it brings her no relief). In the first of many powerful Rhea Seehorn performative moments, Kim weeps with relief when Jimmy finally gets phone reception and lets her know she’s okay.

Kim’s next important choice concerns how she reacts to the story Jimmy tells her about what happened to him in the desert. Mike and Jimmy come up with a lie to tell Lalo and Kim in order to mask Mike and Gus’s involvement. The lie is necessary for Lalo because he can’t know that Gus is behind his release from prison, and it’s necessary for Kim (or so Jimmy thinks) because Jimmy doesn’t want to risk drawing Kim further into “the game” as Mike put it, and because he doesn’t want to test his luck with her. Yes, one of the terms of their marriage was that Jimmy wouldn’t lie to her, but a part of Jimmy probably suspects that telling Kim the full truth would jeopardize their relationship. Kim loves Jimmy, but not many people would be willing to stay with someone who puts them through the hell Jimmy just put Kim through, especially after Jimmy ignored Kim’s staunch objections.

Still, their marriage terms make lying risky for Jimmy. Indeed, the lie lasts for only about as long as the conversation where he tells it, because Kim immediately finds Jimmy’s newly perforated coffee mug amidst his cut of the money. Here, Kim makes another important decision – she chooses not to confront Jimmy with her new knowledge, at least not immediately (it’s the opposite of the choice Lalo will make later in the episode).

For someone less in love with Jimmy, this lie would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but for the moment, Kim is just happy that Jimmy is still alive. She doesn’t want to confront him immediately because she just finished thinking she had lost him forever, and doesn’t want to lose him all over again because of a lie.

Moreover, Kim also recognizes that Jimmy is suffering from PTSD, and that he needs time to heal. She’s there to support him, right until he tries to push himself into going back to work too soon. Then she uses her knowledge of his lie to try to make him take better care of himself. She even tells him that he can be honest with her without it reflecting on their marriage terms. And when given a judgment-free chance to come clean, he chooses to lie again – or at least, to tell a woefully insufficient lie by omission. Perhaps he’s scared by Lalo’s earlier revelation that Kim came to see him in prison, and is trying to protect Kim from getting further involved, but regardless, Jimmy is colossally disappointing here.

Kim responds to the lie by going to work – she had taken the day off care for him, but if Jimmy is going to be a fool, she might as well get something productive out of the day (Kim’s pragmatism is yet another reason she’s such a great character). However, while she’s at work, she makes another one of those choices Mike described, this time a large one: she resigns from her partnership at Schweikart & Cokely. While surprising, Better Call Saul has laid a lot of groundwork for this decision. Kim’s dissatisfaction with being Mesa Verde’s lapdog has been well-established, as has the satisfaction she gets out of her public defender work (which we’re reminded of here). Now, with Jimmy’s near death experience, she seems to decide that life is too short to waste on Mesa Verde’s bullshit. Once again, Kim is honest with herself about her choices, even if those choices might make us worry about the path she’s treading.

Notably, she leaves behind all of her Mesa Verde trophies. These mean nothing to her, especially when compared with the allure of doing actual good work as a public defender. However, as Kim is about to leave, she makes a special point of taking one keepsake with her: the cap from the expensive bottle of tequila she and Jimmy conned Ken Wins into buying. It’s not just the allure of public defender work motivating her to abandon an otherwise safe, strong career, but the allure of being with Jimmy. If Kim has a flaw, it’s her inability to stay away from the exciting risk that Jimmy represents.

The writers even use an earlier scene to comment on this aspect of Kim’s character. Just before Kim tried to get Jimmy to open up to her about the truth, the two settle into the couch for some television, and turn on what is unmistakably the 1940 classical Hollywood film His Girl Friday. The film is a wonderful screwball comedy, but viewed in the context of Better Call Saul, and in the context of an episode about the bad choices characters make, it presents some powerful parallels to Kim’s story. His Girl Friday is partly about a woman's attraction to a manipulative man, and the thrill she gets from a job she excels at. In the end, she rejects a boring alternative life she could have had for a somewhat toxic professional and personal life because she enjoys what she does for a living, frequently getting lost in the excitement of it. The parallels with Kim are plain – she can’t quit Jimmy either, even though his morality is increasingly dubious and his life increasingly dangerous. He represents simply too much excitement for her.

Kim will get a hefty dose of excitement before the end of “Bad Choice Road,” courtesy of all of the bad choices Jimmy has been making lately. He makes another bad choice when he decides to go to back to work too early. He is so rattled by his PTSD that he blows what should have been a slam dunk case, at least judging by how heavily prosecutor Bill Oakley rubs the loss in Jimmy’s face. It’s an important scene, because it motivates Jimmy turning to Mike for advice about how to cope with PTSD, which Mike kindly provides, sans condescension, in turn demonstrating the newfound respect Mike has for Jimmy after their desert sojourn. However, showing how rattled Jimmy is also serves another function: it motivates the events of the episode’s climax between Jimmy, Kim, and Lalo.

Midway through the episode, I was disappointed to see Lalo set to return to Mexico. I wanted something more climactic out of his relationship to Saul, such that the mere thought of Lalo would inspire the terror we see Saul display in Saul's first appearance on Breaking Bad. Lalo merely being tangentially associated with Jimmy’s near-death desert misadventure didn’t cut it. Moreover, sending Lalo back to Mexico would do a disservice to his character by making him too easily manipulated by Mike and Gus. He would have become a much less threatening and interesting adversary.

Thankfully, my disappointment was nipped in the bud. Lalo’s instincts kick in at the last moment, when he realizes that Jimmy/Saul lied to him about his car breaking down. If true, Lalo reasons, he should have spotted Saul's car on the way to the well (which is where Nacho is taking him to cross the border). However, Lalo didn’t see the car, and it doesn’t sit right with him. Once again, Lalo proves to be the smartest Salamanca, and his playing detective is as compelling here as was in the season four finale, “Winner.”

Lalo’s intelligence in this moment is great storytelling, not only because it honors his character, but also because this lapse in Jimmy’s lie is not something Mike could have anticipated when Mike helped Jimmy fabricate it (thus it honors Mike’s intelligence too). Mike couldn’t have known that Lalo uses this well as a regular rendezvous point, thus from Mike’s perspective, Jimmy’s cover story should have worked. It’s Jimmy who is the weak link here. Lalo knew the exact details of where to find the well so precisely in “Bagman” that it’s clear he regularly uses it as a meeting location (he even specifies that the well is 31.6 miles down a dirt road). This is a detail that Mike likely would have picked up on, were he to observe Lalo telling Jimmy about the well, but it’s not something that registers with Jimmy (especially not in his delirium after returning from the desert), so he doesn’t relay it to Mike. It’s a wonderful example of using character traits to seamlessly motivate the unfolding drama.

Eventually, Lalo finds Jimmy’s ditched Esteem, and discovers the bullet holes, just like Kim discovered the holes in Jimmy’s mug. Both Lalo and Kim’s moments of realization receive identical framing: a shot taken from inside the bullet hole. The paralleling underscores A) that Jimmy is surrounded by people who are too smart for him, and B) the near-similarity in how Kim and Lalo each react to discovering the lie. Both will try to make Jimmy tell them the truth, just with slightly different leverage at their disposal. Kim uses altruism and honesty to try to coax the truth out of Jimmy, whereas Lalo uses fear and intimidation to do the same.

Upon discovering the bullet hole, Lalo immediately travels to Jimmy and Kim’s apartment and confronts them, making Jimmy repeat his lie over and over, with Lalo’s gun visibly sticking out of his belt (Tony Dalton is magnificent here, conveying menace and implied violence through the twinkle in his eye). It’s here where Jimmy’s PTSD becomes important – he’s a lawyer and a con man, so he should be able to argue his way out of this situation, but here he only weakly repeats the lie he and Mike concocted, adding in more true details to substantiate it (like drinking his own urine). However, he’s so off his game that he behaves like someone trying not to get caught rather than someone who believes in what they’re saying, and Lalo can sense it.

Jimmy is also terrified for Kim, seeming to realize that he has imperiled her when Lalo refuses to let her leave (his rationale: “She’s part of the legal team, right?”). The entire scene seems to prove Mike’s point that Kim is indeed in the game. Luckily for Jimmy, if Kim is in the game, then you can be damn sure she’s going to seize control of it, which is exactly what she does here, swooping in to rescue Jimmy with her brilliant legal/con artist mind. She argues that Lalo finding the bullet-riddled Esteem in a ditch has nothing to do with Jimmy – how is he supposed to know what happened to his car after he abandoned it? Lalo’s evidence is weak, circumstantial, and stupid, given that Jimmy risked his life to get Lalo’s money.

In her riskiest move, she even goes on the offensive, betting that Lalo only sent Jimmy in the first place because Lalo has no one else he can trust, in which case he has bigger problems than Jimmy. It’s a marvelous defense, but it’s also a sad one, especially when Kim clinches her victory by telling Lalo that Jimmy doesn’t lie, “Not to me, not to his clients,” even though he’s spent the entire episode lying to Kim, and she knows it. Kim demonstrates once again that she’s far, far too good for Jimmy, but standing by him in what is clearly a life-or-death situation only reinforces her “bad” choice to stay on this particular road.

It’s a phenomenal scene. Not only is it suspenseful because it involves the unknown fates of two prominent characters (a rarity on this show), but also because it provides exactly what I thought was missing from Lalo’s relationship to Saul by making sense of Saul’s fear of Lalo in the future. Saul need never interact with Lalo again, and I’d still believe he’d be as haunted as he appears to be when he mentions Lalo on Breaking Bad.

Like the split-screen montage at the start of the episode, this confrontation with Lalo offers up yet another parallel to an earlier episode of Better Call Saul: it’s like a dark mirror version of the scene between Jimmy, Chuck, and Kim at the climax of the season two episode, “Nailed,” where Kim came to Jimmy’s defense when Chuck accused him of sabotaging Chuck’s work on Mesa Verde. Once again, Kim defends Jimmy from an adversary who means Jimmy some sort of harm; once again, Kim knows Jimmy is lying, but pretends she doesn’t, and once again, she’s rhetorically effective because her vision is clearer than both Jimmy's and the people she’s trying to convince.

Both times, she convinces her mark, but her defense also comes at her own expense: in “Nailed,” it’s at the expense of her integrity. She wanted to win Mesa Verde on her own merits, not because Jimmy sabotaged Chuck, but she goes along with it both because she wants the account, and because refusing it would damage her relationship with Jimmy and her plausible deniability. In “Bad Choice Road,” her riding to the rescue comes at the expense of her safety: she’s put herself squarely in Jimmy’s game in order to save him. Her imperilment is reinforced visually when she enters into the crosshairs Mike has trained on Lalo throughout the scene. These parallels are important, because they reinforce the speech Mike makes about choices and roads, further illustrating that even if Kim has only recently entered directly into the world of the cartels, she has been on this particular road for a long time now.

Other thoughts:

- It’s hard to say without rewatching the series at a binge pace, but “Bad Choice Road” probably makes it into my personal top five Better Call Saul episodes. Other contenders include “Nailed” (season two), “Something Stupid,” “Coushatta,” and “Winner.” There's probably some recency bias here, considering the latter three are episodes seven, eight and ten of the previous season, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.

- Mike’s speech about choices gives even more life to his telling Stacey that he’s decided to play the hand he’s been dealt. He’s decided that this is his road – playing “the game” – and he’s choosing to stay on it.

- More poetic unity afforded by the split-screen montage: in “Something Stupid,” it features Kim moving into her office at Schweikart & Cokely, having just negotiated to become partner. In “Bad Choice Road,” Kim will leave Schweikart & Cokely.

- That's a David & Main water bottle that Jimmy is drinking his piss from. Another subtle but telling detail in a show full of them. 

- Kim weeping over Jimmy’s phone call is perhaps the most openly vulnerable she's ever been, and even though it makes perfect sense given the circumstances, it’s still surprising to see such a raw outpouring of emotion from her, given how reserved she normally is. It signals that this is an important moment in their relationship. It’s worth repeating: Rhea Seehorn gives an outstanding performance here, not just in the climax, but throughout the episode more generally.

- More kudos to the makeup and cinematography departments – Mike’s skin has never looks as mottled as it does when he and Jimmy recover at the truck stop.

- Even during the brief moment where Kim actually believes Jimmy’s story about the desert, she still phrases her sympathy in terms of incredulity: “I can’t believe you walked through the desert alone for 36 hours.”

- Jimmy probing Kim about meeting with Lalo, mere moments after he lies to her about what happened in the desert, is the first of many times where, “She’s too good for him,” crossed my mind. Yes, his warning her off of Lalo is for her own safety, but it smacked of hypocrisy for him to probe her about it immediately after he baldly lies to her.

- Kim finding out about Jimmy’s lie immediately after he tells it represents yet one more example of Better Call Saul wildly swerving away from the territory Breaking Bad already covered via Walt and Skyler.

- According to Lalo, Tuco gets out of prison in eleven months. That makes the start of Breaking Bad roughly a year and some months away, given that Tuco seems pretty well established by the time Walt and Jesse meet him.

- In one of the episode’s funnier moments, Jimmy tries to repeat Mike’s speech about roads and choices to Kim when he tries to talk her out of leaving her job. He fails miserably. Jimmy’s resistance to Kim’s choice makes sense; the safety of a cushy partnership must seem extra appealing to him right now, given what he just went through. The scene turns serious when Kim justifiably reams him out for his lack of support when she was nothing but supportive of his switching his name to Saul Goodman. Then it turns deadly serious when Lalo arrives.

- We know that Lalo must survive the climax, since his specter will terrify Saul in the future. Thus Mike training his rifle on Lalo from across the street was suspenseful for a different reason: the fear that he might accidentally shoot Kim (although that seemed unlikely too, given that Jimmy would never forgive Mike, let alone consent to working with him on Breaking Bad).

- At the conclusion of the climax, I half-expected Lalo’s mood to turn on dime like it has in the past, and for him to leave the apartment with a cheery, “Okay!” That he doesn’t do this here makes him even scarier. The look he gives Jimmy on his way out the door seems to say, "You're lucky your wife is a better advocate than you are, or you'd be dead right now." 

- Mike listens in on Kim's magic during the climax too - perhaps he'll have a newfound respect for her, since she saves him from having to shoot Lalo, and all the messiness that would ensue (which Gus definitely wouldn't want, given his earlier instructions that their next moves with Lalo need to be impeccable).

- Now that Jimmy is suitably terrified of Lalo, room has been made for Lalo to be killed by Mike and Gus, although I’d like it if Lalo somehow survived Better Call Saul and continued to be a character in the future - it would be a shame to waste such a charismatic villain. After Kim, Lalo has probably become my favorite of Saul’s additions to the Heisenberg-verse (tied with Chuck, and just ahead of Nacho).

- Evidently it was Juan who hired the cartel mercenaries to sabotage Lalo’s bail money. Juan was tired of Lalo trying to sabotage Gus’s operation – Juan just wants Gus to make money, not for the Salamancas to make it difficult for him. After all, he warned Lalo off of Gus earlier this season. Juan doesn’t care about all of this interpersonal beef between Gus and the cartel, and saw keeping Lalo in jail as a way of fixing the situation.

- I also want to mention another good scene in this episode: Mike’s attempt to negotiate for Nacho to be released from Gus’s thrall. Mike makes explicit what I commented on back in “50% Off,” that fear isn’t the best motivation tool if you want to win someone’s loyalty. Gus considers releasing Nacho, but it’s practically a foregone conclusion that he'll ultimately reject Mike’s advice. As Better Call Saul has made very clear, Gus seems to understand only fear and hatred at this point. Depending on how this situation resolves, perhaps Gus making a mistake with Nacho will lead him to the more carrot-laden incentivizing strategy he initially tries with Walt on Breaking Bad.

No comments:

Post a Comment