Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 7, “Plan and Execution”

After several episodes of moving the pieces around the chessboard, “Plan and Execution” finally advances Better Call Saul’s major story beats by concluding Kim and Jimmy’s con of Howard and addressing its fallout. It’s a tremendous conclusion to the first half of this final season, as it not only satisfies various expectations raised over the previous six episodes, but also manages to toss in a few surprises along the way. It’s easily the high point of what has been a fairly slow final season thus far, and hopefully a portent what’s to come as the series moves toward its conclusion after a brief mid-season hiatus. 

The episode’s title, “Plan and Execution,” applies to both the cartel and legal halves of the show. On the cartel side, Lalo is in the midst of his own plans. He’s back in Albuquerque and is staking out Gus’s operation at the Laundromat, having learned about the super lab after torturing Ziegler’s crew member in “Axe and Grind.” In process of observing Lalo, we see lots of little character details that reinforce Lalo’s ingenuity and determination. He’s avoided Mike’s security detail by climbing into the sewer system and observing the Laundromat through the gutter across the street. It’s a clever workaround, one that resembles his earlier stakeout of Gus’s chicken farm at the end of season four. We also see him put into practice what he told Nacho at the end of season five about needing only a few hours of sleep per night. Here, he sets an egg timer to give himself an hour of sleep in his car, but awakes just before the timer goes off. However, as impressive as all of this is, Lalo also makes a tactical error in the execution of this plan. 

Lalo has figured out the pattern of Gus’s security detail and records an amusing video for Don Eladio revealing what he’s learned, but before he can find more convincing evidence of Gus’s clandestine meth operation, he places a call to Hector at the nursing home, and hears the telltale sign of a phone tap kicking in while he’s waiting for the nurse to connect him. He immediately realizes the tap must be Gus, and is furious over having given himself away (a rare display of Lalo losing his composure), but then he improvises a new plan. In order to throw Gus off his scent, he lies to Hector about not finding evidence of Gus’s malfeasance, and says that he’s just going to go back to his original plan of assaulting Gus directly.

It’s all a smokescreen, of course; Lalo isn’t ready to quit this game of cat and mouse just yet. Instead, he’s just kicking the hornet’s nest to see how Gus responds, and he’s satisfied to see Mike’s Laundromat security detail spring into action (upon spotting Mike, he even affectionately refers to him as “Michael,” which is yet another little character detail contributing to Lalo being such a charming psychopath). Lalo seems to realize his one remaining advantage over Gus is that Gus thinks Lalo is unaware of Gus’s security measures, and upon eyeing a cockroach in the sewer, Lalo seems to think of a way to use that edge to his advantage. 

Of course, the majority of the episode concerns the execution of another set of plans, namely the final stage of Jimmy and Kim’s plan to con Howard and Cliff into settling the Sandpiper case prematurely, starting with their frantic efforts to adjust for Rand Casamiro’s arm cast. In depicting these last-minute preparations, “Plan and Execution” provides almost all of the information we need to figure out the mechanics of the con ahead of time: Jimmy and Kim assemble the film crew to photograph Jimmy bribing their Casamiro imposter (now sporting a cast), then coat the photos with the drug they purchased from Caldera in “Axe and Grind” and deliver them directly to the private investigator Howard hired to spy on Jimmy (in turn confirming that this PI, Genidowski, was indeed working with Jimmy and Kim all along).* Then, just prior to the Sandpiper mediation, Genidowski delivers the incriminating photos to Howard, who gets dosed with the drug while handling them. 

* The identity of the substance coating the photos is withheld from us, but thinking back to “Axe and Grind,” it’s not a huge leap to infer what it must be. 

All of this is intended to make Howard suspicious of Casamiro, and Howard takes the bait, accusing Casamiro of being compromised by Jimmy and alarming everyone else present, including Cliff Main and Richard Schweikart, the latter of whom is representing Sandpiper. It’s here where all of Jimmy and Kim’s previous planning pays off: to everyone else present, especially Cliff, Howard appears to experience a paranoid, coke-fueled manic episode, one that makes him seem obsessed with Jimmy.* Everyone is alarmed when Howard first accuses Casamiro, and alarmed further when Howard reveals the basis of his accusation (the PI he’s hired to tail Jimmy), and then alarmed even more when Howard begins sweating and his pupils dilate. Howard, naturally, turns to the photos to prove his accusations, and it’s at this moment where we finally learn the last of the information that has been withheld from us, and which makes all of the other stages of the con make sense. 

* When Howard first mentions Jimmy’s name, Cliff starts to raise his hand as if to rub his forehead in exasperation, but then stops himself midway because he doesn’t want to telegraph his feelings to Schweikart. It’s a wonderful performative note from Ed Begley Jr.

When the photos are delivered, they reveal not Jimmy bribing Casamiro, but Jimmy handing an errant Frisbee to the film crew’s fake-mustachioed sound technician. We are left to infer two things: that there was a second half to the photo shoot that we didn’t see, and that Genidowski swapped the sets of photos when Howard wasn’t looking.* It’s a satisfying payoff to what the past six episodes have been building toward, as it seems to confirm to everyone else present that Howard is having some sort of drug-induced breakdown, but what’s really great about it is that it also relies on what Jimmy and Kim know about Howard’s dispositions, especially his precise self-assuredness and his indignation with Jimmy. 

*The scene where Genidowski gives the photos to Howard ends before either leave Howard’s office, but it’s easy to imagine Howard rushing out to attend to the mediation, providing Genidowski with the opportunity to replace the photos (later Howard confirms as much). Indeed, at the very end of the scene, Genidowski gets up to leave, but then stops and checks his phone. Retrospectively, this seems like a stalling tactic – he makes it look like he’s going to follow up on Howard’s request to identify the man in the photo (Howard doesn’t know Casamiro), but he’s really just waiting for Howard to leave. 

Anyone else might have let their suspicion of Casamiro slide, or at the very least accept the sidebar Cliff suggests, and pause to reconsider their actions, but Howard barrels forward. He is so sure of himself, and so eager to have finally outsmarted Jimmy, that he’s willing to derail the mediation completely. Indeed, rather than regroup and do damage control, as Cliff begs Howard to do during a recess, Howard doubles down on getting to the bottom of things, dashing upstairs to his office, and providing the opportunity for a wonderfully allegorical overhead shot composition that turns the staircase into a spiral clearly meant to echo Howard’s mental spiral. 

In the aftermath of Howard’s breakdown, we get another fantastic scene where his precision and self-assuredness shine through again, first as he correctly pieces together exactly how he was duped, and then when he realizes just how thoroughly Jimmy and Kim have outplayed him (he even fills in the blanks about how he was led to hire an imposter private investigator – once again, the Heisenberg-verse skips no steps!). Despite tanking the mediation, Howard still wants to hold out for a better settlement, but Jimmy and Kim have stacked the deck against him. 

Howard can’t convince Cliff to hold out for a better settlement offer because Cliff’s trust in Howard has been too thoroughly undermined over the past few months, and he also can’t convince Cliff to take the case to trial because doing so would delay its resolution too long for their elderly clients. Cliff also doesn’t buy Howard’s thin explanation for Jimmy’s motivation (he’s a child who wants his money now) because, as both Cliff and Schweikart point out, forcing a premature settlement works against Jimmy’s own interests. As lead counsel, Howard could override Cliff’s insistence on settling, but doing so would jeopardize Howard’s career because Cliff would air all of his suspicions about Howard to the other partners, and Howard would have no evidence to back up his wild story about Jimmy. Howard has been thoroughly beaten and he knows it, concluding the scene by hanging his head and dejectedly agreeing to settle the case. 

One of the more remarkable things here is that Jimmy and Kim’s con relies so much on Howard’s perception of Jimmy. In a way, the con has provided Jimmy with another opportunity to do exactly what he said he wanted to do at the end of season four (“Winner”), which is to take advantage of the legal world’s prejudice against him. Jimmy knows that Howard already assumes the worst about him, so the con capitalizes on his prejudice by making it the basis for Howard’s self-sabotage. At the same time, however, Jimmy has deliberately created the basis for that prejudice in the first place. Howard was ready to work with Jimmy midway through season five, offering him a job in “Namaste,” but Jimmy turned him down; he could never work for HHM given his resentment of Chuck and the greater legal establishment. Indeed, Jimmy was so offended by Howard’s hubris that he subjected Howard to a series of pranks (flinging bowling balls onto his car, hiring sex workers to embarrass him at a business lunch, and so on). Jimmy and Kim’s con builds upon those shenanigans by giving Howard even further reason to expect the worst from Jimmy, which Jimmy and Kim expertly use to their own advantage. 

Moreover, Howard is a somewhat undeserving target of Jimmy and Kim’s ire. Sure, Howard has always been fastidious, smug, and self-assured, and sometimes his treatment of Kim has been unfair (in addition to putting her in the doghouse in season two, he also had a passive-aggressive exchange with her in season three after she left HHM), but he also possesses a lot of admirable qualities. “Plan and Execution” cleverly reminds us of some of these qualities when he pleasantly chats with a nervous intern prior to the mediation, helping the intern clean up a mess, and then again when he expresses both his admiration for Chuck and some humility in acknowledging that there are other important things in life aside from legal expertise (a thought perhaps encouraged by reflecting on how Chuck’s life ended). 

Indeed, Better Call Saul has offered multiple perspectives on Howard over the course of its run. He creates a strong negative first impression in season one, but a lot of his behavior then was a smokescreen for Chuck. Howard played the villain so that Chuck could preserve the façade of an amiable relationship with Jimmy. It was Chuck who didn’t want Jimmy to work for HHM, not Howard, even after Jimmy brought them the Sandpiper case. Indeed, toward the end of season one, Howard revealed that he actually liked Jimmy, and he was pretty consistent in this attitude until Jimmy started behaving so antagonistically toward him in season five (albeit with a few exceptions here and there, like in season three when Jimmy asks Howard to expedite the Sandpiper settlement and Howard rightly suspects Jimmy just wants his cut of the money, not what’s best for their clients). Perhaps Howard's biggest fault actually stemmed from his reverence for Chuck, in that it prevented him from standing up to Chuck over Chuck's treatment of Jimmy.  

Howard brings up a lot of this personal and professional history with Jimmy and Kim when he finally confronts them in their apartment during the episode’s tremendous climax. He goes through a wide range of emotions as he tries to work through why they were so determined to humiliate him and damage his reputation. Jimmy and Kim play dumb throughout his tirade, but as Howard berates them, he also tries to answer some of the central questions the series has encouraged viewers to ponder regarding the nature of their characters and their motivations. 

Howard misses the mark when he calls them “soulless,” but on the surface, his individual remarks to each of them seem more accurate, or at least, they would seem accurate to someone who hasn’t been as closely aligned with them as we have been over the length of the series. Howard parrots Chuck when he tells Jimmy that Jimmy can’t help his behavior because he was born this way. However, we learned long ago that this assessment of Jimmy is wrong, and that Jimmy is not innately immoral, but was strongly conditioned by Chuck’s refusal to approve of him. As Kim herself told Chuck in season two’s “Nailed,” “You’re the one who made him this way….All he ever wanted was your love and support, but all you’ve ever done is judge him. You never believed in him. You never wanted him to succeed.”

As for Kim, Howard tells her that she is “one of the smartest and most promising human beings I’ve ever known” before expressing withering contempt for the life she’s chosen. Howard’s assessment of Kim isn’t exactly wrong; she is indeed an astounding character primed for success in her endeavors, and he’s also right that her choices have become increasingly morally compromised. However, the series has firmly established that Kim has the capacity to be both the promising and intelligent person that Howard describes, as well as someone who makes risky and impulsive choices when the conditions are right. As we’ve seen, despite her knowing better, she has never been able to resist the excitement Jimmy represents – it’s just who she is. So, while Howard is right in that Kim’s choices are what have led her here, those choices themselves were influenced by her innate qualities. Thus Howard’s characterizations of Jimmy and Kim are (at least partially) the reverse of what we know of them: she was born this way, whereas Jimmy was conditioned by his environment.

Regardless, Howard does finally arrive at the truth of Jimmy and Kim’s motivation when he realizes that they didn’t con him for the money, but for the fun of it, disgustedly telling them, “You get off on it.” Howard is being bitter and vindictive here, but like a lot of his other inferences in this episode, he’s also absolutely right. Indeed, they were listening in on the mediation via the conference call, and we literally saw them making love in the aftermath of their success. Their "getting off" on their cons is a pattern of behavior we’ve seen repeatedly over the life of the series. 

Howard concludes his tirade by threatening them, telling them he’s going to dedicate his life to making sure everyone knows the truth about what they’ve done. Had the episode ended here, it would have been a satisfying if slightly underwhelming conclusion to this half-season, having resolved the con that preoccupied our protagonists, while also seeming to hint at how the series would resolve its last, major open questions about what will become of Kim and how it will affect Jimmy. After the conclusion of the con, but before the episode’s final scene, I was convinced the series was headed toward a scenario where Howard sets out to ruin Jimmy, and somehow Kim gets caught in the crossfire, leading to her undoing. 

Indeed, had the episode ended with Howard vowing to exact revenge on Jimmy and Kim, it would be easy to hypothesize about the remainder of the path that leads Jimmy to becoming the Saul we know from Breaking Bad. Jimmy would feel terrible about whatever happens to Kim and give himself over to his worst tendencies as Saul, but it doesn’t totally ruin him, since Kim had a hand in her own fate. After all, she was the one who pushed for the con, not Jimmy, so the lightness of Saul’s cocksure cynicism is partly a product of his not having to shoulder all the blame and guilt for whatever might befall Kim.

However, the episode doesn’t end with Howard threatening revenge. Before the scene concludes, “Plan and Execution” offers up another pair of surprises that elevate the episode from merely “satisfying” to “excellent.” The first surprise: after Howard issues his threat, Lalo casually strolls through Jimmy and Kim’s open door and into their living room. Evidently the cockroach Lalo spotted in the sewer reminded him of Saul, and inspired him to think of a way to use his “legal team” to his advantage in his war with Gus. Understandably, Jimmy and Kim are terrified of Lalo’s appearance, and Howard – initially unaware that Lalo is standing behind him – smiles at their terror, thinking it a reaction to his threat to ruin them.

Once Howard realizes that someone else is behind him, he takes Jimmy and Kim’s terror as a sign of weakness, something he could potentially use against them, thus he ignores Kim’s pleas for him to leave. However, he sobers up when he sees Lalo pull a gun out of his pocket and methodically attach a silencer to the barrel. In a morbid parallel to Jimmy’s reaction to cartel danger back in “Bagman,” Howard’s first impulse is to try to talk his way out of the situation, but before he can even finish his next sentence, the scene provides its second and final surprise: Lalo shoots Howard in the head, killing him instantly. Lalo then concludes the episode by quieting Kim and Jimmy’s screams, and in a chipper tone of voice, insists that they talk.

Howard’s death is a genuine shock, and the product of some creative sleight of hand on the part of the show’s writers. All this time, viewers have been encouraged to suspect some dark fate is awaiting Kim, given her apparent absence from Saul’s life on Breaking Bad, and while that might still be the case, concern over her fate discouraged us from considering that Howard didn’t seem to be a part of Saul’s Breaking Bad life either. Of course, Howard’s absence on Breaking Bad makes sense from a character perspective, since he was an ancillary part of Jimmy’s life, often amounting to little more than an irritant or the object of Jimmy’s scorn. All along it seemed like Howard would simply fade into the background of Saul’s life as Saul became increasingly enmeshed in Albuquerque’s underworld, eventually becoming irrelevant entirely, especially in a series where Saul is only an ancillary character.

However, making Howard into an innocent victim (twice over) of Kim and Jimmy’s criminal exploits is a much more powerful use for his character. For one, it’s shocking. Even though he’s been defeated here, Howard is resilient, and during their confrontation Jimmy and Howard even agree that Howard will be alright in the long run, which seems to promise that further complications will ensue from Jimmy and Kim so thoroughly arousing his animosity. Thus it’s shocking when Lalo reveals him to be a paper tiger by murdering him moments later. Second, Howard’s murder reinforces the notion that there are unforeseen consequences to Jimmy and Kim playing with other people’s lives and bending the law. Such consequences have always been on our mind in regard to Kim, but here, it's Howard who pays the price, one far greater than Jimmy and Kim had intended. Finally, these events also make Kim and Jimmy at least somewhat inadvertently responsible for Howard's death. They knew that Howard would need to confront them eventually, but in doing so, he ends up getting killed. Yes, Howard is also a victim of sheer coincidence and bad timing, but had Jimmy and Kim never committed to their con, Howard would never have been in a position to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Indeed, the responsibility Jimmy and Kim bear in Howard’s execution is emphasized by the grisliness of its stylization. In addition to a medium close-up of Howard taking the bullet in the head, we also see his blood splatter onto the wall and – significantly – the painting concealing Jimmy and Kim’s timeline on the reverse side, as well as a close-up of Howard’s head colliding sharply with the coffee table as he falls, and then another close-up of his body landing on the floor, his face filling the frame with a ghastly rictus. These gory details reinforce Kim and Jimmy’s horror, which stems both from their responsibility for his death and from their fear for their own lives. 

This terror is doubtlessly one of Lalo’s intentions. Lalo was likely in the hallway outside of the apartment, listening to the confrontation for some time before entering. I suspect that he initially intended to wait for Howard to leave, but decided to intervene once Howard threatened Jimmy and Kim. Indeed, Lalo enters the scene immediately after Howard issues his threat. Lalo likely needs to preserve Jimmy and Kim’s standing in the legal world for whatever he’s planning against Gus, so killing Howard not only eliminates a loose end, but also demonstrates to Jimmy and Kim the consequences of failing to comply with him. 

Regardless, Lalo’s actions here demonstrate once again why he’s such a compelling character. Not only is he a charming psychopath, but he’s also a wildcard. He’s like Mike in that he’s one of the few characters to frequently traverse both the legal and cartel halves of the show, but unlike Mike, he often makes these parts intersect in unexpected and interesting ways. Here, he delivers exactly what I wanted from this final season. While I certainly wasn’t clamoring for Howard to die, his murder is not only a thrilling way to conclude the episode, but it also provides a suitably suspenseful way for Jimmy to learn that Lalo is alive, while also giving both Jimmy and Kim even greater reason to fear him. 

Even more importantly, Lalo’s appearance here firmly intertwines the legal and cartel halves of the show once again. Tying Kim’s fate to Lalo and Gus’s war is a smart move because it enlivens both stories. After all, we can already guess at the general outcome of Lalo and Gus’s conflict, given the constraints set upon it by Breaking Bad. Don Eladio never learns of the super lab, and Lalo is not a going concern for Gus when he meets Walt (at one point Gus even gloats to Hector that all of the other Salamancas are dead). However, involving Kim makes the outcome of this conflict far more compelling because it introduces some unknowns, while simultaneously heightening the suspense we feel for Kim by increasing the likelihood that she befalls some grim fate. 

Overall, this was a slow first half of the season, but “Plan and Execution” seems to promise that the remaining episodes will kick into high gear. After all, there’s still a lot of ground to cover in only six episodes. In addition to concluding the cartel war and answering questions about what happens to Kim, we also know that at some point the series will address the part of Saul’s life that overlaps with Breaking Bad, so I anticipate that we'll start skipping over great swathes of time relatively soon. Then there’s also the matter of concluding Cinnabon Gene’s story. 

Rest in peace, Howard - it's a shame you didn't make it all the way to the end of the series,  but at least your death has (hopefully) provided enough juice to supercharge the remainder of Better Call Saul when it returns from its mid-season hiatus.

Other thoughts:

- Speculation time: What might Lalo be planning? It could be something immediate – perhaps it’s something involving the “surprise” Lalo told Hector he would give Gus that evening. Or it could be something more elaborate, involving Jimmy and Kim’s legal expertise. The latter would certainly be a reason for Lalo to kill Howard rather than waiting for him to leave, since it prevents Howard from doing anything to damage Kim and Jimmy’s reputation. On the other hand, murdering Howard also creates complications that would likely prevent Lalo from carrying out anything too long term (at the very least, Howard’s disappearance would likely arouse a police investigation into Jimmy and Kim). Neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul tend to skip over the consequences of characters’ actions, and I don’t expect the problems created by Howard’s corpse to be treated any differently, despite the limited space remaining to the series. 

- More speculation: perhaps Kim and Jimmy are driven apart from how they react to their responsibility for Howard's murder. Perhaps their coping mechanisms are incompatible, or perhaps the main thing drawing Kim to Jimmy (the excitement he represents) is now forever tainted for her.  

- Jimmy actually has to turn on the charm in order to convince his Casamiro actor to abandon his day job for the con's reshoots. Jimmy is frantic, and tries multiple tacks to convince the actor: bribery, reassurance that Jimmy will protect the actor’s day job, and then, finally, Jimmy appeals to the actor’s sense of artistry. It’s the last of these that finally convinces the actor, and it's the kind of folksy tack that Jimmy used to use intuitively, but which has atrophied lately, considering that he only practices his persuasion on his easily swayed clientele and a court system that largely despises him. 

- Jimmy’s makeup artist arrives at the impromptu film shoot having come from a dress rehearsal for a live action tribute to The Dark Crystal. I can’t help but see this as a subtle reference to Breaking Bad (which also concerned a “dark” crystal). 

- The movie Jimmy and Kim are watching in the final scene is Born Yesterday, which is about a brassy, uneducated woman who, upon acquiring worldly knowledge of art and culture, rejects her corrupt former lover and marries her tutor. Just like with His Girl Friday, which Jimmy and Kim were watching in “Bad Choice Road,” Born Yesterday neatly corresponds with character arcs on Better Call Saul, in this case representing something of a reversal of Kim’s trajectory, where a formerly outstanding person has become corrupted by her own worst impulses and her association with a man who can help her indulge them. 

- The episode’s title is wonderful, as it has at least three applications to the episode’s events. “Plan and Execution” of course refers to the con – we’re watching the execution of all of Jimmy and Kim’s planning. However, the phrase itself also alludes to how these two things – the plan and its execution – are not one and the same, and how plans have the potential to go awry in their execution. And of course, this does indeed come to pass in the episode’s climax. It was always a part of Jimmy and Kim’s plan that Howard would confront them – how could he not? – but this confluence of events was unexpected, and it leads to the term “execution” taking on one additional meaning when Lalo literally executes Howard. Just like the “clever, clever Chicken Man,” Better Call Saul has clever, clever writers.

- Lots of technological indicators that this story is set in the early 2000s: in addition to all of the flip phones and the old video camera equipment Joey handles, they shoot their incriminating Casamiro photos on film, and need to wait while Joey develops them in the lab. This would all be digital only a few years later. In fact, it likely could have been digital even then, but Joey is such an obnoxious film bro that I doubt he’d ever agree to using what was then still an inferior medium.

- A bit of a running gag (or cultural commentary) at this point: every time Lalo calls Hector’s nursing home, he tries speaking Spanish, and every time, the nurse answering the phone doesn’t speak it. He seems to assume (justifiably) that because the nursing home has a Spanish name, it will have Spanish-speaking employees.

- A nice detail: when Howard enters Jimmy and Kim’s apartment, the draft created by the door opening causes the candle on the coffee table to flicker. Kim notices it the first time, and both Kim and Jimmy notice it the second time when Lalo enters. 

- I love that Howard offers Jimmy and Kim tumblers to share his "celebratory" whiskey gift when he’s in the processes of confronting them. He's concerned with etiquette and appearances right up to the end.

- Jimmy and Kim have now endured two Lalo-related traumas in their living room. I think they’re probably done with this apartment, especially with the Sandpiper money rolling in. 

- A few episodes ago, Saul hesitantly embraced being known as “Salamanca’s guy,” and here, that hesitancy is justified. He is indeed Salamanca’s guy, with all the terror that implies.

- Overall, “Plan and Execution” is a fantastic showcase for Howard, which is somewhat atypical for Better Call Saul. Howard has always been a relatively minor character in Jimmy and Kim’s lives, but it makes sense to focus on him here since the success of the con hinges on his reaction to Jimmy and Kim’s manipulation. However, retrospectively, it’s also clear that this episode focuses so much on Howard because it’s his last episode, barring his potential appearance in flashbacks. It's thus a fitting sendoff.

- I don’t usually comment on previews for subsequent episodes, but this week’s was really enigmatic: a black and white shot of Jimmy and Kim’s apartment, with Jimmy stating off-screen, “So, after all that, a happy ending.” Given the context, it seems like Jimmy could be referring to Howard’s murder, but since its likely taking place some distance in the narrative future, he just as easily could be referring to something else. It might also be a comment on the series overall, given that black and white has always been associated with Cinnabon Gene. It’s not even clear if Jimmy’s voice is coming from the space featured in the image – it might be from a totally different time/place. Very intriguing.

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