Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Better Call Saul, Season 6, Episode 11, “Breaking Bad”

“Breaking Bad” is a masterful episode of Better Call Saul. Not only does it deepen our understanding of why Saul got into business with Walt and Jesse in the first place, but it also draws parallels between Gene’s behavior in the present and Saul’s actions in the past, and perhaps most remarkably, somehow it does these things while also withholding a key piece of information that would better explain Gene’s actions throughout the episode, namely his decision to seemingly “break bad” himself by committing more scams with Jeff and Rick, even after Gene put it all behind him in “Nippy.”

The episode’s charms begin with its title. In addition to referring to what Gene seems to be doing in this episode, “Breaking Bad” also obviously refers to Breaking Bad itself, which is appropriate since this episode is first time since “Quite a Ride” that we’ve spent any significant time with Saul during the Breaking Bad years. Moreover, it’s fitting that the episode of Better Call Saul that finally features Walt and Jesse is entitled “Breaking Bad,” since the episode that first introduced Saul on Breaking Bad was entitled “Better Call Saul.” Call it titular reciprocity. 

After a brief prologue flashback that teases Walt and Jesse’s appearance, “Breaking Bad” begins with Francesca driving to a remote payphone to take the call that Saul set up for her way back in “Quite a Ride,” thus resolving one of Better Call Saul’s few outstanding plot threads. It turns out that the call’s purpose was for Saul/Gene to check in with Francesca to get a sense of how much danger he is still in after the fallout from the events that concluded Breaking Bad. The answer: considerable danger. With Walt dead, Jesse in the wind, and Skyler having cut a deal, Saul is the only one left for the DEA to chase after, so they’re making Francesca’s life uncomfortable (by following her, opening her mail, tapping her phones, etc.), and they’ve seized all of Saul’s business enterprises, clandestine or otherwise.

Perhaps still feeling nostalgic for the life he left behind, and cognizant that this call with Francesca might be the last connection he ever has with it (especially considering the deserved scorn with which Francesca treats him), Gene tries to prolong the conversation by asking after the ancillary characters we know from Breaking Bad, allowing Better Call Saul to tie off one more loose end by providing an epilogue for Huell, whom we last saw being duped by Hank and Gomez into hiding in a safe house, lest Walt kill him. It was amusing to imagine Huell sitting in that safe house forever, but here we learn that since the DEA held him under false pretenses, he walked and is now living in New Orleans – likely the happiest ending thus far for any character in the Heisenberg-verse. 

Before the call concludes, Francesca, perhaps feeling nostalgic for better days herself, or perhaps mustering an iota of pity for Gene, gives him one last kernel of information: Kim called to find out how she was, and to ask after Jimmy/Saul. Gene is thunderstruck by the news (viewers, less so), especially considering that he didn’t even think to ask about Kim, even after asking about the fates of also-rans like Kuby and Ira, showing just how far behind he had left his marriage.

Of course, Gene also can’t let go of the idea of Kim calling and asking about him, so perhaps it’s not that far behind him after all. Or rather, perhaps reaching out to Kim now is a way for him to continue to scratch that nostalgic itch. We don’t know his exact motivation here, because when Gene decides to call Kim next, the episode cuts away from the payphone’s interior to across the street, blotting out the muffled sounds of the resulting conversation with the sound of passing traffic. Aside from learning that Kim is living in Florida (not Nebraska), and is working at a seemingly po-dunk business called Palm Coast Sprinklers, Gene’s body language is our only other recourse for information, and he gets increasingly heated, concluding the conversation in a rage, repeatedly smashing the receiver against the payphone and then kicking in the glass window. 

What could they have possibly said to one another that would yield this response from Gene? Did Gene really even talk to Kim, or merely to someone else who ran interference for her? He’s never been that angry with Kim before (the closest he came was when they fought in “Wiedersehen” after Jimmy was denied reinstatement by the New Mexico Bar), nor has he ever become violent after talking with her. If it really was Kim on the other end of the phone, perhaps she blamed him for his role in what happened in Albuquerque, or told him that she was wrong before when she said that they were a mutual negative influence on one another, and that he’s rotten all by himself. However, that doesn’t seem like something Kim would say to him, and even if she did, flying into a rage doesn’t seem like how Jimmy/Saul/Gene would react to hearing it. 

Whatever was said in that phone booth conversation is the key that will unlock a lot of Gene’s behavior in “Breaking Bad.” I think Gene really was prepared to leave his past lives behind him, as the end of “Nippy” suggested, but whatever was said in that phone conversation has made him reverse course, because after it’s over, Gene almost immediately “breaks bad,” returning to Jeff with a new scheme to steal from rich assholes’ bank accounts without letting them know they’ve been robbed: Gene gets them drunk, loads them into Jeff’s cab, who then gives them water laced with barbiturates so that they pass out once they’re back home. Jeff also sees the marks to their door and tapes over the lock mechanism so that Rick can then sneak in and photograph all of their identifying information: IDs, credit cards, bank statements, tax returns, etc.

Gene’s behavior throughout “Breaking Bad” might best be described as angrily determined. He shocks Jeff with his reversal, and then is ruthless in manipulating the marks they steal from, swerving hard into Slippin’ Jimmy territory, but without any of the mirth or satisfaction that it used to give him. These feelings have been replaced by hardness and a sense of urgency: he is somewhat tactless in brushing off Marion to talk business with Jeff, for instance, not caring to keep up much of a pretense of folksy charm. Likewise, he doesn’t offer Jeff any reassurances or explanations for his change of mind, and is unflinching in stealing from his marks, including even a sympathetic cancer-stricken one. 

We’re clearly meant to draw connections between Gene’s behavior here and Walt’s behavior on Breaking Bad (which is one reason for why Walt appears in flashbacks this episode). Gene, for instance, seems overconfident in the way Walt often was, taking needless risks because he thinks he can get away with them, especially at the end of the episode when Gene insists on a risky course of action in continuing to pursue a mark that seems to have gotten away (more on that later). Hell, Gene even looks like Walt with his glasses and mustache, and his talking down to Jeff and Rick is somewhat reminiscent of Walt’s frequent treatment of Jesse. 

Moreover, on Breaking Bad, Walt was repeatedly presented with opportunities to leave the drug business, but he always kept at it because – as he finally admitted in the series finale – he was proud of his accomplishments, even though that pride ended up costing him dearly. Here, Gene has laid the groundwork for an exit ramp, but just like Walt, he can’t bring himself to take it. However, without knowing what was said in that phone call, we can only speculate about why, and we can rule out some of the reasons we’ve seen in the past. 

For instance, Gene’s behavior in this episode is not dictated by pride, since there isn’t much to be proud of here. The scheme he’s cooked up is modest compared to the impressive cons he ran with Kim, or even compared with the scam from "Nippy." He also isn’t motivated by the thrill of the con. If anything, he seems irritated by his own behavior here, as if he’s being forced into it against his own better judgment. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait until the final two episodes to learn what was said in that phone call, and subsequently, what is really driving Gene, but I strongly suspect that it’s more complicated than him giving up on himself or giving in to his own worse impulses. Perhaps in some weird way he’s doing this for Kim. 

Even more apt than parallels between Walt and Gene, however, are parallels between Saul and Gene. The flashbacks in “Breaking Bad” (all to events taking place during the Breaking Bad episode entitled “Better Call Saul”) provide frequent connections between Saul’s actions in the past and Gene’s actions in the present, suggesting Saul’s decision to go into business with Walt was a moment where Saul “broke bad” (or perhaps “broke worse,” given Saul’s proclivities), akin to Gene’s decision to embark on this latest series of cons. 

We see as much in the transition out of the episode’s first sustained flashback. Saul has just talked Walt and Jesse out of killing him, and after returning to the RV, he deduces that Walt is Heisenberg and that the RV is a mobile meth lab. Saul’s interest in Walt and Jesse’s business is very clearly piqued. He asks them all about it, even though none of his questions are necessary for him to function as their attorney. As Walt starts the RV and pulls away from the desert grave they dug for Saul, there is a dissolve to an image of Gene lying in bed in Nebraska, but the two images are superimposed long enough that it looks like Gene is lying in the grave (it’s made all the more eerie by Gene appearing in ghostly black and white, rather than the color of the flashback sequence). The implication here is clear: learning about Walt and Jesse’s business was the beginning of the end for Saul. Gene might even be reflecting on that fateful night as he lies in bed.

A similar, more explicit connection between Gene and Saul’s actions is made near the end of “Breaking Bad.” Rick's conscience won’t let him steal from the cancer-stricken mark, so Gene fires him and goes to the mark’s house in Rick’s stead. It’s a risky move, since the barbiturate might have worn off by the time Gene arrives, and since Rick removed the tape that prevented the front door from locking, meaning that Gene will have to break in. Gene perseveres, however, and as he gets out of Jeff’s cab to approach the mark’s house, the editing matches the action of Gene closing the cab’s door with a flashback to Saul closing the door of his Cadillac, having just arrived at the high school at which Walt used to teach chemistry. Saul approaches the door to the school’s science center, and just as he’s about to enter, the flashback ends, returning us to Gene smashing a pane of glass in the door to the mark’s house. 

Just like with the first flashback, this one is full of portent. It takes place just prior to the final scene from “Better Call Saul,” where Saul approaches Walt at school and offers to become his consigliore, providing him with “sound advice and the proper introductions,” and telling Walt that he wants to be a “small and silent” part of Walt’s burgeoning meth business. The implication here is even clearer than in the previous flashback: the moment that Saul decided that he wanted to be in business with Walt is similar to the moment that Gene decides he needs to break into the mark’s house. Both are points of no return. 

“Breaking Bad” features one other flashback that takes place between these two, however, one where Saul and Mike discuss Walt’s background and his criminal capabilities. It’s an important scene, because it enriches our understanding of Saul’s motivation for getting into bed with Walt and Jesse. On Breaking Bad, Saul just seemed like a greedy scumbag with savvy knowledge of criminal enterprises. After all, Jesse describes him as a “criminal lawyer,” so it’s easy to imagine that Saul was involved in other criminal exploits aside from Walt and Jesse’s business.

However, after watching Better Call Saul, we know that this isn’t exactly true, or at least, it wasn’t true up until Kim left him. For what we can tell, Jimmy always kept some distance between himself and most of his clients, never resorting to becoming involved in their affairs beyond what it took to defend them in court. Sure, he’d bend rules and massage the justice system in his favor, but from what we saw of his work, he always stopped short of aiding and abetting ongoing criminal enterprises, instead limiting himself to mitigating the legal repercussions of those enterprises after the fact. In fact, Jimmy’s experiences with Lalo likely led him to better insulate himself from his clients. I doubt he would have been interested in becoming Splooge’s business partner, for instance.

All of that changes with Walt and Jesse though: he involves himself in their business and takes them under his wing in the process, teaching them about money laundering and other best practices for underworld business. He becomes their partner in crime, more or less. The flashbacks in “Breaking Bad,” then, enrich our understanding of why he decided to make an exception for them. One explanation aligns with what Breaking Bad suggested previously: he saw their enterprise as a lucrative business venture, impressed as he is by the quality of their product, which he knows must be good since the DEA wants to catch them so badly. When Mike tries to warn Saul that Walt is an amateur, Saul replies, “You see an amateur, I see a 170 pounds of clay ready to be molded.” 

However “Breaking Bad” suggests another reason for Saul’s interest in Walt and Jesse, which is that Saul is intrigued by Walt and Jesse’s ingenuity: the mobile meth lab, the Heisenberg pseudonym, the fact that he’s a lower-middle class high school chemistry teacher with a family to support, and so on. Walt’s setup has all of the makings of an elaborate, perhaps brilliant scheme, one that Saul seems to admire. Walt’s business is an extremely tempting scenario for a former con man like Saul. More than just the potential money, Saul is attracted to the scheme Walt has built because it resembles a warped echo of something Jimmy and Kim might have tried to pull off. 

Combined, all three of these flashbacks emphasize that Saul is extremely culpable in his own fate. Here we find another parallel between Walt and Saul: just like how Walt pushed to stay in the drug game when he could have taken other paths out of it, Saul pushes to involve himself in Walt’s life when he could have taken a safer path and put more distance between them. Moreover, looking back on it now, Gene is likely aware of it too. The perspective Mike provides in this flashback is important in this regard; he advises Saul to steer clear of Walt, correctly surmising that Walt is a hopeless amateur who is liable to wind up dead or in jail.* Saul agrees with Mike in the moment (citing Walt’s mustache as evidence of Walt’s poor decision-making skills, which is hilarious by itself, but becomes even funnier considering that Gene’s similar mustache is also a product of Saul’s own poor life decisions). However, Saul can’t shake his interest in Walt, and still winds up driving to Walt’s school for that fateful meeting. 

*This flashback to the scene with Mike is also rife with irony, since Walt will end up being Mike’s undoing as well, despite Mike’s better judgment. Neither Mike nor Saul could quite resist the money Walt represented, although Mike tried.

Ultimately, intercutting these flashbacks with scenes of Gene’s behavior in “Breaking Bad” seems to show that despite his disparagement of Walt in the past two episodes, Gene is aware of his culpability in his own fate – perhaps his anger over his own hubris is pushing him toward the increasingly risky behavior (in addition to whatever transpired in the elided phone call). After all, Saul seems to have Mike’s warnings in mind as he exits his Cadillac and approaches the school in the final flashback; he looks mildly apprehensive when he adjusts his tie, and again when approaches the door to the building, seeming to weigh whether or not this is really a good idea. It’s a testament to Better Call Saul’s storytelling that I kept hoping that Saul would turn away from the science building rather than enter it. However, much like this entire series, Saul is locked into the choices he made. We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out if Gene is merely repeating the mistakes of his past, or if there’s something more to his breaking bad once again. 

Other thoughts:

- I laughed at the lack of surprise in Gene’s voice when mistook Francesca’s telling him that Bill Oakley “switched sides” for meaning that Oakley came out, rather than his becoming a defense attorney. 

- Speaking of Oakley’s new practice, a bus stop ad reveals that he’s taken a page from Saul’s book with a showy slogan: "Trust Experience, Trust Oakley." He’s likely filling the void in the market created by Saul’s absence.

- Some nice symbolic staging: when Gene gets off the phone with Francesca, he gets in his car and drives away, but when he comes to a crossroads, he decides to go back to the payphone and call Kim. I can’t help but think of Mike’s speech about choices and roads here, considering Gene is literally at a crossroad.

- The elided payphone conversation has some nice cinematographic flourishes. Shots from inside the phone booth use a wide angle lens, but shots from outside use telephoto lenses, increasing the feeling of distance we have from Gene in this moment. It’s especially startling when the episode cuts from the telephoto exterior shot to the wide angle interior shot of Gene smashing the receiver over and over.

- Gene stares at the dough mixing machine at the Cinnabon a couple of times in this episode, once after getting off the phone with Kim, and a second time during the confidence scam montage. The machine seems to serve as a symbol of Gene's broiling discontent, although I wouldn’t put it past Better Call Saul’s writers to make this mixing machine into a more specific motivation for something Gene does (ala Lalo and the cockroach in "Plan and Execution").

- Jeff takes pains to explain away the laptop he bought Marion with his cut of the heist spoils, but Gene doesn’t really care. How funny would it be if Marion, suspicious of Gene showing up at her garage late at night, used her newfound access to the internet to piece together Gene’s real identity?

- The flashback scene in the RV is full of tiny references to Jimmy’s life: his first impression of the RV is that it’s “James Whale’s traveling road show,” which is a reference to the classical Hollywood horror director, whom Saul knows because of his and Kim’s love for old Hollywood films. Likewise, when he pulls out the round bottom flask they use for distilling, he says it’s like a vacation home for a fish he used to have. 

- When Saul pries into Walt and Jesse’s meth operation, Jesse is forthcoming, but Walt doesn’t want to give Saul any more info about their operation than is necessary. Walt’s motivation is to protect himself, but his impulse would also have done more to protect Saul when all is said and done. 

- Jesse asking Saul about Lalo seems designed for viewers who haven’t gone back to watch the corresponding scene from Breaking Bad (the one and only time on Breaking Bad where Saul mentions Lalo). Saul is taken aback for a moment, but then dismisses the question.

- In the course of breaking bad, Gene has started to acquire more and more of Saul’s totems, including Saul’s old foot massager and phone earpiece. Maybe he just doesn’t give a shit anymore.

- Another totem from the past: during the montage of Gene running this new scheme with Jeff and Rick, we see Gene toss them each burner phones. Old habits die hard. Or maybe: stick with best practices.

- When Rick resists Gene’s insistence that they rob the cancer-stricken mark, Gene retorts with a clear reference to Walt: “So a guy with cancer can’t be an asshole? Ha! Believe me, I speak from experience.” 

- It sure was fun to see Walt and Jesse again, huh? A lot of their repartee was fan service, but boy howdy did it service that fandom. Interestingly, “4 Days Out,” the episode where Walt and Jesse get stuck in the desert after the RV’s battery dies, is the next episode after “Better Call Saul,” thus Walt removing the keys from the ignition here (which turns off the battery) has a little extra portent. 

- Another possible motivation for Saul’s interest in Walt is that Saul sees a bit of himself in Walt. From a certain (blinkered) perspective, Walt’s story could be construed as that of someone striving for self-worth by doing what they're good at, despite a system tilted against him. Saul certainly sees himself along similar lines, or at least he used to, given his contempt for the legal community’s prejudice against those who have made mistakes in the past. However, I think it’s difficult to argue that Saul really gets that impression of Walt in the exchanges he has with him during any of the events that take place in these flashbacks or in the original episode of Breaking Bad. He doesn’t yet realize the massive size of the chip on Walt’s shoulder, so he likely doesn’t recognize him as a kindred spirit. 

- For most of its run, one could watch Better Call Saul and enjoy it just fine without having seen Breaking Bad. Sure, such a viewer would miss some references and allusions to future events, but on the whole the series has likely been very enjoyable (if somewhat impoverished) even for those without foreknowledge of what is to come. However, I doubt someone who hasn’t seen Breaking Bad, or at the very least the “Better Call Saul” episode of Breaking Bad, would even understand -- let alone enjoy -- large swathes of this episode, particularly the flashbacks.  

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