Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 4, “Hit and Run”

"Hit and Run” is one of those incremental episodes of Better Call Saul, where nothing major happens, but where plots advance bit by inexorable bit. In the hands of a less skilled creative team, it could come across as boring or rote, but in the hands of these writers, and especially in the hands of first-time director Rhea Seehorn, the episode is still incredibly compelling. It helps, of course, that Seehorn directs the hell out of it. “Hit and Run” is full of stylistic flourishes and visual nuance that enlivens the action and enhances the storytelling in various ways. 

Take, for instance, what is probably the episode’s most exciting development: Kim and Mike meet for the first time. It’s an exciting scene for a number of reasons: it features two fan favorites interacting (finally) after five seasons of television; it represents another rare intersection between the cartel and legal halves of the series, and it honors both of the characters’ core traits. However, it’s Mike’s introduction to the scene that is truly sublime. Earlier, Kim spotted and confronted the tail that we first saw following her and Jimmy back in “Carrot and Stick.” She puts on a bold face when chasing them away, but later we see that the confrontation has unnerved her. After she escorts a client out of her de facto office in the El Camino Dining Room, she anxiously peers out the windows to see if the tail has returned. As she pays her bill, we hear a familiar voice from off screen reassure her that the men are indeed gone, and then the camera tracks over to reveal Mike sitting calmly at the counter. This stylistic flourish teases out Mike’s entrance, in turn complementing the keen anticipation most viewers likely feel over finally getting to see these two characters interact (which itself was never guaranteed, given how cloistered they’ve each been in their own halves of the series).

The scene itself is also great because their interaction fully respects both characters: Mike is at his most Mike, and Kim is at her most Kim. Mike is laconic, saying only what he needs to, and letting his silences do some of his talking, while Kim is probing, analytical, and inferential. The only reason this meeting even happens is because Mike is doing what he always does -- trying to stop potential problems from developing -- this time by telling Kim the reason he assigned men to tail her: Lalo is still alive, and might attempt to contact (or worse) her or Jimmy.* Mike doesn’t tell Kim who he’s working for, but Kim immediately figures out that Mike is the man who saved Jimmy in the desert, and when she asks Mike why he’s come to her instead of Jimmy, Mike leans on his correct assessment that she’s “made of sterner stuff” than Jimmy. 

*Seehorn’s performance is great in this moment: a shiver runs run down Kim’s spine upon hearing the news.

Of course, Mike learned how formidable Kim is when he watched her defend Jimmy against Lalo back in “Bad Choice Road,” so it makes sense that this impression would inform his decision to contact her here. It’s a far cry from the assumptions he made about her back in “Bagman,” when he chastised Jimmy for involving Kim in “the game,” as he put it. Now, he knows Kim is a better player than Jimmy. Game recognizes game! 

The scene between them ends with another serial reference. As Mike starts to leave, Kim realizes she recognizes him from the courthouse parking booth, and when Mike confirms that he did indeed used to work there, his confirmation hangs in the air, as if to emphasize that it was in a past life. Not only does this exchange recall the first season of the series, where Jimmy first met Mike in the parking lot, but it also recalls Mike’s speech to Jimmy about choices and the difficulty of deviating from the road you’re travelling. He was a parking attendant, but his path is a different one now.

Speaking of choices and roads, “Hit and Run” finds Jimmy taking a few more steps on the path toward becoming the Saul we know from Breaking Bad, if only superficially. For one, Jimmy has become persona non grata at the courthouse. It seems Suzanne and the DA’s office have spread word that Saul has become a friend of the cartel, because his previously chummy relationships have soured: security guards treat him like a stranger, file clerks refuse to be bribed into expediting his requests, and his old foil Bill Oakley gives him the cold shoulder. Indeed, no one is willing to sit with him at lunch either (indicated to us in another wonderful directorial touch from Seehorn, where an overhead tracking shot shows attorneys crowding table after table, except for Jimmy’s). Playing dirty and tricking the court into releasing a murderous psychopath is apparently a bridge too far for the Albuquerque legal community. 

I strongly suspect Jimmy will not be able to wash off Lalo’s stink, because it helps to explain further Saul’s cynicism on Breaking Bad. We already know he intended to wipe his ass with the sanctity of the law just to stick it to Chuck and everyone else who lets their prejudice dictate their perception of him and his clientele, but losing the friendly relationships he has with the courthouse staff will only drive him further toward the kind of guy who relishes playing dirty like Saul will on Breaking Bad. When Jimmy’s charm fails, Saul’s sleaze prevails.

Jimmy takes yet another step on the path toward Saul when he finds the office he'll eventually inhabit. It’s a move necessitated by another development in this episode, which is that his clientele – or what will become Saul’s regular clientele on Breaking Bad – have started to seek him out. Word of Saul’s defense of Lalo has spread around not only the courthouse, but Albuquerque’s criminal or criminal-adjacent community as well, and they flood Mrs. Nguyen’s nail salon while waiting for appointments with Saul. This is the last straw for Mrs. Nguyen, who finally kicks Jimmy out of his rented office space. What’s interesting here is the resignation with which Jimmy accepts this new clientele. Combined with how everyone at the courthouse treats him, he seems to accept that this is who he is now, at least in the eyes of the legal and legally-challenged Albuquerque communities. 

Jimmy renting this office space was inevitable, given the constraints of the series, but “Hit and Run” enlivens its revelation by having it coincide with Kim’s introduction to it as well. Kim is already on edge from learning that Lalo is alive and that she and Jimmy are being tailed, and she lets her anxiety creep into her assessment of the office space, especially when she correctly deduces that Jimmy’s busy day was a product of his newfound appeal to Albuquerque’s lowlifes.* When she describes the office as small, dirty, and funny-smelling, she’s talking about more than just the office; she’s also talking about Jimmy’s new business and client base. But she also doesn’t want to discourage Jimmy, so she also lists the location's advantages, concluding that it could be a diamond in the rough, which also extends to Jimmy. He’s her diamond in the middle of the roughness she feels encroaching on her.

* In yet another nice directorial touch, Kim’s anxiety also makes its way into the scene’s sound design. While Jimmy and Kim debate the merits of his office location, the noise coming off the street is very prominent, as if to underscore Kim’s uneasiness, and her heightened sensitivity to what’s happening around her.

Kim’s hesitancy over Jimmy’s office is also informed by an earlier scene. Kim doesn’t tell Jimmy about what she learns from Mike, but earlier she shares with Jimmy her suspicion that she’s being followed, and he tries to reassure her with a biblical quote, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” Kim is taken aback by his description of them as “wicked,” and we see yet another suggestion that she’s having second thoughts about her own morality. Evidently the moral embers stoked by Suzanne in “Rock and Hard Place” are still smoldering in “Hit and Run.” Jimmy tries to console her by reassuring her that no one is following her, but it’s clear the source of her discontent remains the con she and Jimmy are running on Howard.

Speaking of which, “Hit and Run” features the next stage of development in the con, and boy is it a fun one. The entire scene features what has become commonplace for this plotline: a very skillful drip of information, providing just enough so that we are able to anticipate some aspects of what’s about to happen, but not so much that we can figure out everything ahead of time. Here, Jimmy, decked out in a Howard costume complete with pinstripe suit, spray-tan, and blonde wig, steals Howard’s car while he’s in a therapy session, picks up Wendy the sex worker, and then violently throws her out of the car right in front of Cliff Main, who just happens to be having a business lunch with Kim. 

The entire sequence is rife with directorial flourishes, including linking Jimmy and Kim’s actions through matching introductory back-of-the-head shots, a Hitchcockian moment of suspense and surprise when Jimmy discovers another car has taken the parking spot from which he stole Howard’s car (itself complete with flop sweat and a last-minute mad dash across the length of the screen), and then a perfectly-timed site gag of a parking sign Jimmy tampered with falling over just after Howard drives away. 

However, aside from all of the fun, this stage of the con also reveals a more insidious aspect of their manipulation of Cliff. During his conversation with Kim, Cliff reveals that his son has a drug problem, thus Cliff has a firm basis for his growing suspicions of Howard. This background certainly makes the con more effective, but it also makes Kim and Jimmy’s con even more morally dubious, since they’re taking advantage of a trauma Cliff has endured.

Finally, the prologue for “Hit and Run” features a somewhat enigmatic opening, with a middle-aged pair of bicyclists returning to their home to reveal that it’s decked out with a giant security apparatus, including guards armed with automatic rifles and a giant bank of security monitors. However, it all snaps into focus later in the episode when Gus returns home to the house next door, and we discover that the two houses are connected through an underground tunnel (revealed to us in yet another impressive directorial flourish, a long take where Gus goes from one cellar to another, and then up to the living room of the neighbor’s house to speak with Mike). 

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this sequence. One is that it is yet another example of the great lengths of Gus’s contingency planning (so much so that his slapdash plan for Lalo in “Something Unforgiveable” continues to irk me). Another is how reminiscent it is of Breaking Bad. Once again, here we are in the suburbs of Albuquerque, and beneath a placid surface something incongruous and sinister lurks (literally, in this case). We also discover that under his clothes Gus wears a bulletproof vest and holsters a pistol around his ankle, which he seems particularly irritated at having to wear. Gus, it seems, would rather have others do the actual dirty work of killing. Finally, when Mike doubts Gus’s instincts about Lalo being alive, Gus insists, which prompts to Mike ask, “Then where is he?” It's an apt question. It's certainly one I've found myself asking now that he's been absent for three weeks in a row. I hope we see him return next week.

Other thoughts:

- As soon as Mike asks Gus about where Lalo could be, the episode cuts to Kim, seemingly suggesting the terrifying thought that he could be stalking her. After all, I wouldn’t put it past him to outsmart Mike’s security detail. 

- Kim meeting Mike suddenly made me wonder: Saul never met Gus, but that doesn’t mean that the same holds true for Kim. It seems unlikely that she would meet him, since were it to happen, she would likely share his identity with Jimmy. But still, it’s an intriguing possibility. 

- Wendy likes Saul’s Howard wig. It’s perhaps a bit of a reflexive comment on the wig Bob Odenkirk has had to wear while playing Jimmy for much of the run of the series.

- Now that Jimmy has broken ties with Mrs. Nguyen, I wonder if/when we’ll eventually see him get back into business with her as a part of a money laundering scheme. Perhaps he helps her start a new spa location. After all, spa franchising is what he advises Walt and Jesse to do on Breaking Bad, so it would make sense for him to try his hand at it first. Or perhaps he’ll start up a rival salon to drive Mrs. Nguyen out of business. That seems more like something Saul would do.

- Jimmy’s new office is barren except for a freestanding toilet in the middle of the room. An apt metaphor for what will become his business.

- It’s been a long-running motif that neither Kim nor Jimmy cook – they’re always dining out, eating takeout, or are having food delivered, and what meals they do eat at home are simple (like Jimmy's morning cereal). Here, Kim eats from a pizza delivery box in the bedroom, and the episode concludes with their deciding to eat at a nearby restaurant. There’s nothing terribly insightful here, I just like that this is a character detail that’s been built into the margins over many seasons.

- In the bedroom scene, Jimmy reassures Kim, “No one knows what we’re doing except for us.” Jimmy is wrong on two counts. Not only is he wrong about no one knowing about their con of Howard (Mike knows), he’s also wrong that no one knows about his misleading defense of Lalo, which the episode emphasizes by almost immediately by cutting from Jimmy's reassurance to his entering the courthouse, where he'll get the cold shoulder from everyone. It's a nice way of undercutting him, since they all know exactly what Jimmy is doing, at least in regards to his clientele. 

- It’s interesting that it took his representing Lalo for Saul to get his reputation and to start developing this client base. After all, we kind of went through this already with the whole burner phone business back in season four. Perhaps it took Saul’s successful defense of a obviously guilty criminal for him to really start establishing his reputation as a criminal lawyer. 

- The pattern on Kim’s blouse in her meeting with Cliff is noticeably flashier than what she usually wears. It’s almost Saul-like.

- It’s pretty clear by now that each episode title this season will follow the format of “X and Y.” Can’t wait for “Captain and Tennille,” or more appropriately, "Bonnie and Clyde."

- Jimmy’s new office – and particularly his new clientele – suggest other developments we know are coming. He’s going to need an administrative assistant to manage his customers (cue Francesca’s return), and he’s going to need some security to discourage his clientele from plying their trades on or around him (cue Huell’s regular employment).

- Insidious as their manipulation of Cliff might be, Kim’s reason for meeting with him is a solid cover. She wants to advance her public defender mission via Cliff’s contacts in the state government. Somehow Kim continues to make moral lemonade out of immoral lemons.

- Seehorn really broke out lots of filmmaking toys for her directorial debut. In addition to those mentioned above, we also see a nifty crane shot high above the motel out of which Wendy works, and a camera affixed to Howard’s car door, which perfectly frames Jimmy driving, and then perfectly frames him placing a traffic cone in Howard’s parking space when he opens the door. Kudos!

- One last flourish: prior to his revelation, we can briefly see Mike sitting in the background, out of focus.  

- Another funny thing about the lone Gus scene this week: Mike’s security detail is so thorough he’s even planted a man on Gus’s Pollos staff, someone with previous fast food experience. However, Gus hilariously complains to Mike about the man not being up to Pollos standards. Gus remains fastidious in all things, even when he’s under threat from a psychopathic cartel member. 

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