Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 9, “Fun and Games”

“Fun and Games” finds our surviving characters, Gus, Mike, Jimmy, and Kim, dealing with the emotional aftermath of the various stresses Lalo placed on their lives. Some of their responses are profound and impactful, while others are more subtle and telling, but “Fun and Games” develops each character in new directions and reveals compelling details about them as they cope with their trauma. In doing so, “Fun and Games” finally pays off years of viewer speculation by providing deeply satisfying answers to two of Better Call Saul’s three most prominent remaining narrative questions: what happens to Kim, and what causes Jimmy to become the version of Saul we know from Breaking Bad. It’s a fantastic episode of television, easily one of the series’ best, answering these questions while also revealing layers of nuance and calling upon a wealth of serial knowledge in the process.

Let’s start by addressing Mike and Gus’s material. Mike has the least profound reaction to everything that’s happened over this half-season, partly because it was the least personal for him, and partly because of his temperament. He’s simply built to handle this kind of pressure. However, he also has a lingering guilty conscience that finally catches up with him. He decides he needs to let Nacho’s father, Manuel, know about Nacho’s fate. It might seem out of character for Mike to take such a risk by revealing himself to someone not in “the game,” as he once put it, but his actions here are informed by his own code of honor, where he feels like he must do right by another player (Nacho) who also adhered to that code, particularly one for whom he felt a paternal bond. 

Indeed, it’s likely that Mike was inspired to finally approach Manuel when Mike told Gus that without a body, Howard’s police file will always remain open. While Howard’s loved ones – such that they exist – can find some solace in thinking that they know what happened to him, Manuel has no such closure. Nacho simply seemed to vanish. Sure, Manuel can likely guess at what happened, given his awareness (and disapproval) of Nacho’s business and the tenor of their last conversation, but Mike sympathizes with the part of Manuel that would always wonder about Nacho’s fate. In fact, Mike only decides to talk to Manuel after glancing at Kaylee’s toys, likely thinking about how he would want to know should anything ever happen to her.

When he approaches Manuel and tells him what happened to Nacho, Manuel takes it in stride, but when he tries to console Manuel by telling him that there will be “justice” for Nacho, Manuel sets Mike straight, telling him he’s not speaking of justice, but revenge, and then lumping Mike in with all of the other cartel dirtbags Manuel despises. The entire scene is interesting because it speaks to the path Mike has traveled. Really, his equation of justice with revenge stems all the way back to his killing the cops who murdered his son. It’s this ethos that won Mike over to Gus’s employ back in “Dedicado a Max,” and for Mike, it’s what separates Gus from the Salamancas and other cartel gangsters. Given Mike’s story on Breaking Bad, we know that Manuel’s dismissal here doesn’t really affect Mike much, other than dismantling any illusions he still harbors about what kind of work he is doing, but it does perhaps distance him from Gus, such that he is relatively unaffected by Gus’s eventual death. After all, Mike seems disturbed that Gus doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in having emerged victorious over Lalo – perhaps Manuel’s dressing down here solidifies the distance Mike has always felt between him and Gus. 

Of course, “Fun and Games” also reveals that Gus does take pleasure in his victory over one of the Salamancas, he just doesn’t do it in front of Mike. Gus manages to avoid the fallout from Lalo’s “disappearance” when he’s summoned to Don Eladio’s estate for a confrontation with Hector and the Cousins, who accuse Gus of killing Lalo. Ironically, Lalo’s efforts to make Gus think he’s dead end up helping Gus dismiss Hector’s accusations, particularly the matching dental records on the corpse Lalo furnished. Lalo’s first mistake was to call Hector to update him on his whereabouts (tipping off Gus), and his second mistake was to only call Hector, and not Don Eladio or Bolsa or even the Cousins, any of whom could have corroborated Hector’s story about Lalo surviving the attack on his home. I suppose you can chalk it up to Lalo’s hubris. The charismatic psychopath was just too nonchalant for his own goddamn good. Perhaps this is what he was thinking about as he laughed while choking to death on his own blood: he realized that his efforts to conceal himself from Gus would ultimately help Gus get away with killing him.

In any case, the rest of Gus’s material in “Fun and Games” reveals to us what Gustavo Fring looks like when he exhales. We actually see him celebrate a victory in ways aside from reveling in his gleeful hatred of the Salamancas. Here, we seem his relief in finally being able to return to his real house, and he even allows himself the pleasure of some expensive wine at an upscale restaurant, and to indulge in what appears to be an ongoing, flirtatious relationship with the resident sommelier. Just when I had given up on the writers exploring any new facets to Gus’s character, here we get to see what it’s like for Gus to have a romantic interest in someone. 

It’s long been implied that Gus is homosexual, particularly through his relationship with Max, and this scene with the sommelier revisits that part of Gus’s life. However, before it can amount to anything, Gus regains his severe composure and leaves the restaurant. Perhaps he stops himself because he thinks of what happened to Max, or perhaps he tells himself that he can’t ever have a real romantic relationship with someone else, given his drug empire. Or perhaps most fittingly, he puts an end to his flirtation because he thinks that any romantic connections would merely become a weakness to be exploited by his rivals and enemies. The notion that Gus doesn’t allow himself a richer personal life is certainly an interesting one, and it makes him a much sadder and more complex character than I had considered previously, I just wish it had come a season or two ago, rather than as a coda to his conflict with Lalo.

Of course, “Fun and Games” doesn’t begin with Gus, but with a montage sequence of Jimmy and Kim doing just as Mike instructed them at the end of “Point and Shoot,” going about their day as if nothing remarkable has happened, while Mike and his crew simultaneously clean up any evidence of Howard’s remains from Jimmy and Kim’s apartment. It’s a telling montage sequence: over and over, graphic matches link Jimmy and Kim’s activities to Mike’s. Coffee draining into a cup in the courthouse vending machine becomes blood draining from a sponge into a bucket. Scrubbing blood off the floor becomes mopping up salsa with a tortilla. In one regard, this montage sequence simply shows us where Jimmy and Kim’s minds are as they go through the motions of pretending everything is normal. However, it also suggests an equivalency between their lives and the bloody mess in their apartment. For Jimmy and (especially) Kim, these things are now forever linked, and neither will ever really be clean. 

Jimmy knows it too, thus when he and Kim finally return home, the first thing he does (after staring at their newly spotless living room) is to pack their bags to go stay in a motel. It’s in this scene where Jimmy says to Kim the line we heard in the preview at the end of “Point and Shoot,” where he tries repeating for Kim the wisdom Mike shared with him about recovering from trauma. On the surface, it appears to go better than the last time Jimmy tried to convince Kim of something based off of Mike’s worldview, but not by much. Rather than becoming angry with him (as in “Bad Choice Road”) instead Kim doesn’t seem to react at all. 

However, their body language speaks to a festering disconnection: Kim lies on the bed facing away from Jimmy, who sits on the end facing away from Kim. It’s difficult to read Kim in this scene, but it’s clear she isn’t particularly reassured by Jimmy’s suggestion that they’ll eventually forget about what they’ve done. Given his eventual recovery from his previous Lalo-induced trauma, Jimmy likely believes in what he’s saying insofar as it applies to himself, but he’s much less sure that the same will be true for Kim. Regardless, Jimmy’s sensitivity to Kim’s state of mind, and his acknowledgement that this has been traumatic for him too, speaks to the gap that remains between who Jimmy is now and who we know he’ll become as Saul Goodman. 

We don’t see Jimmy and Kim again until over 24 minutes later in the episode, but when we return to them, they’re attending a memorial for Howard at HHM, and as they wait for the elevator, Jimmy realizes that the trashcan in the hallway has been replaced, because this new one lacks the dents he put in the old one when he kicked the crap out of it back in the series’ pilot. It’s appropriate that the trashcan has been replaced now, since the chapter in his life that began – for us, at least – with him beating up the trashcan is now coming to a close. 

This memorial scene serves three principal functions. First, it retrospectively clarifies the reason we glimpsed Howard’s personal life in “Axe and Grind,” in that it helps to establish how Jimmy and Kim are so easily able to maintain the lie that Howard committed suicide. “Axe and Grind” revealed that Howard didn’t actually have much of a personal life. He was estranged from his wife, Cheryl, and evidently had no children, so he doesn’t really have anyone who can strongly protest the story Jimmy, Kim, and Mike have agreed to tell about Howard’s death. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Cheryl is entirely convinced – she might be estranged, but she still knew her husband, and she makes Jimmy and Kim bathe in the filth of their own guilt a little more when she needs further convincing to believe in Howard’s suicide. Jimmy and Kim rise to the task, and it is here where we can find the scene’s second function: it forces Kim to feel even worse than she had before. Cheryl demands that Jimmy repeat to her what he told the police, and then also demands explanation for Jimmy’s animosity for Howard. Jimmy provides both, and is especially smooth in explaining the latter as a product of the resentment he felt for Howard having actually received the approval that Jimmy always sought from Chuck (this lie is particularly smooth because there was once some truth to it, but we know that Jimmy’s need for Chuck’s approval died along with Chuck, and was replaced with a vindictive disregard for Chuck’s values). 

Jimmy’s explanations still aren’t enough for Cheryl, however, so one again Kim swoops in to save Jimmy and herself, this time by making up a story about having walked in on Howard snorting coke back when she still worked at HHM. This story – and Cliff Main’s refusal to defend Howard – does the trick, and completely shreds Cheryl’s last ounce of skepticism. Shattered by Kim’s subsequent attempt to comfort her, Cheryl flees to sob in the bathroom, leaving Kim to feel like a complete scumbag (just look at Kim’s face when she glances at Jimmy before chiming in with her lie – she detests what she’s about to do. All hail the newly Emmy-nominated Rhea Seehorn). 

Finally, like the previous motel scene before it, this memorial scene also serves as yet another indicator that Jimmy still hasn’t become the Saul Goodman we know from Breaking Bad. The episode repeatedly cuts to Jimmy’s reaction as Kim pours lies into Cheryl’s ear, and at first he puts on a show of sympathy to corroborate Kim, but when Kim goes in for the kill by trying to comfort Cheryl, Jimmy looks a little disturbed over how good Kim is at this. Just like when Kim applied pressure to the Kettlemens in “Carrot and Stick,” this is not the reaction that Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman would have. Saul would be proud of Kim for such cutthroat instincts, but here, Jimmy is just concerned about the additional stress he knows this is causing her.

Jimmy’s sensitivity to Kim’s emotional state carries over into the end of this scene, when Jimmy and Kim are leaving the memorial. He tries comforting Kim by telling her, “I know that was tough. But it’s over now, really over. Let the healing begin.” Kim turns to face him, takes a long pause, kisses him, then gets in her car and drives away. It’s a moment ripe with implicit meaning, all of it seeming to indicate – finally – an answer to that burning question about Kim’s fate: this is when she decides that she’s going to leave Jimmy. 

This garage scene is masterful. Every choice in it is significant, and all of them point to Kim’s decision. For one, the setting provides some nice narrative unity, since this parking garage was also the location of Jimmy and Kim’s very first scene together. Thus it’s fitting that it should also be the location for Kim’s decision to leave him. Moreover, while Jimmy’s line of dialogue is referring explicitly to what Kim just did in the previous scene, it also applies implicitly to the entirety of their relationship. It’s not their trip to the memorial that was difficult and now behind them, but their marriage, and the healing will begin through its dissolution. 

The staging and framing is also significant – when Kim stops to look at Jimmy prior to kissing him, they are framed in front of their cars in a symmetrical composition, but when Kim departs, a closer shot reveals the resulting asymmetry, the empty part of the frame prefiguring what will soon be an empty part of Jimmy’s life. Finally, it’s also significant that they took two cars to arrive at the memorial, not just because it creates the opportunity for the contrasting balanced and unbalanced compositions featured above, but because it allows Kim the opportunity to leave Jimmy standing there, sensing something is wrong, but now knowing its severity.

Indeed, Jimmy’s concern about Kim is underscored when he speeds home to her two scenes later, doubtlessly having heard about her decision to resign her law license, as revealed in the intervening scene. Here we get confirmation of what the parking garage scene merely suggested: not only has Kim resigned her law license, but she’s also going to leave Jimmy, as he discovers when he barges into their bedroom to find Kim’s bags half-packed. 

It’s yet another marvelous scene, one that again illustrates one of Better Call Saul’s core strengths: characters being true to themselves. Kim explains her rational to Jimmy by calling back to the season five finale, “Something Unforgiveable,” stating, “You asked if you are bad for me. That’s not it. We’re bad for each other.” Of course, Kim is only half right about this. We know from the life that awaits Jimmy on Breaking Bad (or really, the life that awaits Jimmy at the end of this scene), and from what we’ve seen these past five-plus seasons on Better Call Saul, that while he might be bad for her, she’s good for him. She gives him something to live for, something to strive to be better for. Indeed, becoming closer to Kim was central to Jimmy’s inspiration for pursuing a legal career in the first place, as we saw in the flashback that opens the season four episode “Piñata.” 

Jimmy knows the truth of this, and so does Kim, so when Jimmy resists “we’re bad for each other” as an explanation for her leaving him, she reveals the guilt and shame that rests at the core of her decision, finally admitting to herself and to Jimmy the harsh truths she had previously been unwilling to face. She tells Jimmy that she knew Lalo was alive, but that she didn’t tell Jimmy not to protect him, but because she knew that telling him would mean the end of the confidence scheme they were running on Howard (Jimmy would abort it to protect her), and eventually, the end of their relationship as well. Implicit in this explanation is something we’ve long known to be true: that her and Jimmy’s cons are what made their marriage work. 

I must admit I was initially surprised by how effective I found "Kim leaves Jimmy" as an answer to the question of why Kim was no longer around on Breaking Bad. In my recap of “Point and Shoot,” I suggested that Kim deciding to leave Jimmy would be an anti-climactic retread of the season four plot where Jimmy and Kim started to drift apart (perhaps best illustrated in “Something Stupid”). In a way, it is somewhat of a retread, in that Jimmy and Kim part ways because Kim's conscience won't allow her to enjoy a life with Jimmy. However, season six's execution of this development is also very different from the direction the plot seemed to be heading two seasons ago. Rather than a retread of previous material, instead, Kim leaving Jimmy becomes a product of what we saw previously. Kim tied herself closer to Jimmy to prevent them from drifting apart, but in doing so, she inadvertently created a situation where she can no longer live with her own guilt, rather than her no longer being able to stomach Jimmy's immorality. 

Kim is one of the most honest and self-aware characters in the Heisenberg-verse, and she understands that her and Jimmy’s relationship was only reinvigorated after they successfully pulled off their con to save Huell back in “Coushatta.” Now though, running confidence schemes has been irreparably tarnished for her, and she knows that their marriage likely won’t survive their inability to carry them out anymore. Add to this insecurity the guilt and self-loathing she feels over her role in Howard’s death, and it’s little wonder that she feels it’s now impossible for her to continue her life with Jimmy, or indeed, to continue her life as an attorney, even though she still loves both deeply. Ultimately, the thrill of the con was both the crux and the undoing of their relationship. 

Notably, Jimmy doesn’t protest any of this once Kim explains her burden of conscience. He knows the truth of it as much as she does. He was willing to pull the plug on the Howard con many times over the course of the season, but each time it was Kim who insisted on persevering. Jimmy was always willing to go as far as Kim wanted because he loves her, but now it’s led to her leaving him, and he's crushed, as is Kim. She loved being an attorney almost as much as she loved running cons with Jimmy, and now both are forever tainted for her. If this is truly the last time we see Kim, her story will end up being just as tragic as Jimmy's, if not more so.  

As Kim continues to pack her things, Jimmy stands in the living room, unable to move, and then “Fun and Games” finally provides yet another payoff long in the making by cutting to sometime between 2005 and 2008 (the latter of which is when Breaking Bad begins) to reveal that Jimmy has fully become the Saul we know from Breaking Bad, complete with all of the accoutrements of the mansion we saw at the start of “Wine and Roses,” as well as other totems like the Bluetooth earpiece, the comb over hairdo, the Cadillac, the eponymous slogan, and the constitution-themed office décor. 

His behavior matches Breaking Bad-era Saul as well: he wakes up next to a sex worker, and proceeds get ready for his day with the same sleazy arrogance so familiar from Breaking Bad. He harangues a defendant in one of his cases while in the shower, barks orders at Francesca while drinking coffee and driving to work, enjoys hearing his own ad on the radio (until he realizes it’s in mono, not stereo), and then parks in the handicapped spot outside his office, hanging a likely ill-gotten handicapped placard from his rearview mirror. Jimmy is now Saul Goodman in all his horror/glory. 

By cutting from Jimmy’s life to Saul's life, “Fun and Games” answers another burning question that Better Call Saul needed to address before concluding: Jimmy fully transforms into Saul as a result of losing Kim. Or rather, Jimmy transforms into Saul as result of losing Kim in this way – a successful con, one with negative consequences that he could live with, but that she could not. He ends up giving himself over to all of his worst impulses, and what was once merely a facet of himself - his public facing mask - becomes his entire identity. 

Had Kim died rather than left him, Jimmy likely would have been pushed into the emotional territory that Kim occupies in this episode, too wracked with guilt to ever really become such a selfish, jaded, law-bending showman. However, Kim leaving him of her own volition is just the right nudge he needed to permanently sour his conscience and embrace Saul Goodman. Ultimately, we see that Jimmy has taken to heart the advice he tried to give Kim in the motel, going through the very motions he describes to her (brushing his teeth, eating breakfast, etc.) with such nonchalance that it is immediately clear that whenever this is -- 2005 or 2008 -- he no longer thinks about Kim at all. It’s an incredibly sad way to conclude the portion of Jimmy’s life with which Better Call Saul has been predominantly concerned, but it also fits with what viewers have long expected would happen to this character. All of the other possibilities for Jimmy's transformation have been pruned, and the bad choice road he's been on has led him to the destination we all knew was on the horizon.   

Really, it’s remarkable that this transformation from Jimmy to Saul works at all, considering the haphazard way in which Better Call Saul was written, without a definitive long-term plan, and with the wider arc of the series being written on an ad hoc basis. Like Breaking Bad before it, Better Call Saul has demonstrated how a talented creative team can succeed when they let the characters dictate the story’s path, sorting out the details later. Given her introduction, Kim never seemed intended to be such a pivotal character, yet as the viewers and writers grew to love her, she became more and more central to the show and to Jimmy’s life, creating the opportunity for great dramatic dividends that have so wonderfully paid off over the past two seasons.

So, now that Jimmy has become Saul, what remains for the series? It appears as though there will be some business concerning Saul’s life during Breaking Bad – Walt and Jesse’s promised appearance more or less confirms it – but the last major burning question concerns what happens to Cinnabon Gene. I strongly suspect that Gene will figure a way out of the pickle he was in the last time we saw him, but beyond that, my hope is that the series finale will offer some sort of reconciliation between him and Kim. Kim surviving the events of Better Call Saul thankfully leaves that door open, especially considering that Gene lives in Nebraska, which is where Kim is from, and possibly where she moved to after leaving Jimmy. 

A reunion would be nice, not only because it would provide the happy ending I hope for (and which the preview at the tail end of “Plan and Execution” vaguely suggested), but also because it would be true to the characters. Both Jimmy and Kim had to reinvent themselves in the wake of what happened to Howard, it’s just that Kim realized immediately she had to leave her old life behind, whereas Jimmy was forced into doing so later through his association with Walt. As always, Kim is smarter and more self-aware than Jimmy, realizing and accepting truths about herself far more readily than Jimmy does. Thus it’s fitting that they might only be able to find each other again after changing things about themselves.

Other thoughts:

- The opening montage also shows Jimmy installing the “Saul Goodman & Associates” sign we saw in the “Wine and Roses” flash forward. Retrospectively, this sign is a relic of who he was in his relationship to Kim, and it doesn’t fit with who he becomes after she leaves him. However, rather than let it go to waste, he simply moves it to his mansion. More fuel for Saul’s narcissistic fire. 

- It’s appropriate that the HHM trashcan should make a reappearance in this episode, since the last time we saw it also marked another significant change in Jimmy’s life. We saw it previously in the season four finale, “Winner,” where it was tied to Jimmy finally articulating the ethos that would come to define Saul Goodman’s approach to the law, one based on vindictiveness toward the prejudice represented by Chuck and the greater Albuquerque legal community. It reappears here in “Fun and Games” to signal another change in Jimmy’s life: the end of his marriage, and his fully embracing that ethos from “Winner,” and all of the law-bending it entails.

- At Howard’s memorial, Schweikart also gives Jimmy and Kim an additional reason to feel guilty: with Howard gone, HHM is downsizing and renaming itself. Whatever partners remain likely want to distance themselves from the named partners, two of which were (seemingly) suicidal. So Jimmy and Kim have not only indirectly murdered Howard, they’ve also destroyed Chuck and Howard’s legacy. Jimmy certainly didn’t care about Chuck’s legacy, but Howard did (of which we were reminded in “Plan and Execution”), and the end of HHM is yet one more injustice heaped upon him. 

- I’m really loving these “X and Y” episode titles. “Fun and Games” of course refers to the old adage, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” which is exactly what Kim is experiencing in this episode. Her time with Jimmy was all fun and games, until Howard got hurt, and now the fun is over and she can’t continue the games anymore.

- Kim thinking that their marriage’s foundation was fun and games (or cons) also further explains her decision to throw away the career opportunity Cliff provided her in “Axe and Grind.” She pulled a U-turn on the interstate not just because she was too drawn to the thrill of the con, but because in her mind, she was also maintaining her marriage, convinced that aborting the con would mark the end for her and Jimmy. 

- Looking at Kim’s actions at the end of last season and the start of this one from another angle, perhaps the trauma of what Jimmy put her through with Lalo in season five (thinking Jimmy was dead, then having to act fast to save his life later) pushed Kim to near her breaking point. Such trauma could be another reason she pushed so hard for the Howard con. She was trying to ignore the peril to which Jimmy subjected both of them by focusing on what had so invigorated their relationship in the first place. Thus she needed the Howard con in order to counterbalance what Jimmy put her through before. Perhaps she understood deep down that Jimmy was right about him not being good for her, but she was willing to suppress that feeling it in order to try to save their relationship, and her way of doing that was to lean hard into what attracted her to him (and which happened to also mean suppressing her own conscience).

- Hilariously, Don Eladio recognizes the hatred that defines Gus, and is okay with it, and even expects it! Perhaps being at the top of the cartel food chain for so long has made him used to seeing it in others, although he miscalculates the depth of it in Gus.

- This second glimpse of Saul's mansion reveals at least one additional detail: his walk-in closet features a bronze relief of his own face in profile hanging above it. His narcissism shines through.

- Saul shoots the sex worker with finger guns in response to her blowing him a kiss goodbye. It’s another callback to the ends of seasons four and five, where Jimmy and Kim each made this gesture at one another, only here it becomes sad, since it is not a Jimmy-Kim exchange, but a Saul-sex worker one.

- Jimmy likely never gave Kim any of the money from the Sandpiper settlement. I doubt she would have accepted any of it even if he tried to offer it to her, given how guilty she feels. And of course, the settlement money explains Saul’s lavish lifestyle.

- Another nice detail: Saul sports a world’s greatest lawyer coffee mug, except this one un-ironic, free of Kim’s penmanship.

- More narrative unity: both Mike and Saul speak of “justice,” but neither of them really have anything to do with the concept. They simply warp it to fit their own agendas.

No comments:

Post a Comment