In four seasons of covering Better Call Saul, the one aspect that I have never been able to stop praising, nor will I ever stop praising, is its uncanny ability to juxtapose what’s happening to all of its characters. The severity of what happens to each of them (especially as the number of main characters expands, as this show becomes more and more about the world that will eventually turn into the madness of Breaking Bad) in a given episode tends to lie at an extreme. One might face a life-threatening situation as they slip further and further into the affairs of a dangerous drug cartel, while another might instead be dealing with the general malaise of boredom and unfulfilled potential. The next week the tables might get turned, with the latter characters dealing with a bad car accident or the brutal suicide of a loved one, while the others might spend their week taking apart a car in order to find a tracking device.
It’s a purposeful sort of irony employed by the writers, maybe to impart with the viewer the kind of ticking time bomb that a show like this has to be. This is the kind of world where, eventually, things will wind up getting severe and dangerous for everyone. But Better Call Saul is also ostensibly a modern western, and part of the point that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are trying to get across is that in such a setting, the only options are really extreme boredom or dangerous, law-breaking violence.
On the “extreme boredom” side of the coin this week we have Jimmy and Kim. They’re trying to get things back to normal now that Chuck is gone and the Hamlin types are basically out of their lives, but of course they’re both struggling. We saw it last week when Kim broke down after Jimmy read Chuck’s boilerplate posthumous letter to him. It was more of a normal reaction that Jimmy’s blase nonchalance, as he’s already put his brother in the rearview mirror, but Kim thinks that it might help if Jimmy saw a therapist. This is the early 00s, so Jimmy is desperate to avoid this and winds up taking a dead end job managing a cell phone store that barely ever sees any customers.
Now, this could be another temporary stepping stone for Jimmy, like the printing company, or it could be the kind of boring, out of the way opportunity that opens Jimmy’s world. He spends most of his first day throwing a ball against a wall, but eventually he closes the shop and heads over to see Ira, the guy who helped him with the Bavarian Boy heist, who gives Jimmy more money than he was expecting, as Bavarian Boy was the talk of the auction and started a bidding war. Jimmy is surprised at Ira’s nobility as they promise to work together again in the future, and an offhand comment from Ira about how he changes phones because anyone could be listening inspires Jimmy to paint the store’s windows to try and drum up business. We’ll see what comes of this, but it’s just an example of Jimmy’s slow decay into what will inevitably be Saul Goodman.
Kim is similarly going through an existential crisis. Last week she asked her paralegal to drop her off at the courthouse. This week, we get to see what she’s doing there. And as it turns out,it’s… not much. She spends the day observing various cases until Judge Neelix pulls her into his chambers and tells her she isn’t going to find a once-in-a-lifetime movie-like case by trolling his court, as most of his defendants are the type of guys who throw urine at their bosses. He advises her to make her easy money with Mesa Verde, and if she continues to spend her days lackadaisically observing low-level offenders, he’s going to put her to work on some pro bono cases. Kim defies Judge Neelix’s orders, so, like with Jimmy, we’ll see what comes of this.
Now, I love watching Kim watch defendants stammer their way through court, and watching Jimmy toss a superball around a quiet cell phone store, but whatever they’re doing is designed to pay off near the end of the season. They’re in a holding pattern because they’re still so far removed from the other side of the coin, and that’s the extreme drug cartel chess game being played by one Gus Fring. Last week we got a taste of the kind of scheme we’d pull regularly on Breaking Bad, elaborately staging a gang hit on Nacho and Arturo, the latter of which he murdered the night before in order to show force to Nacho. The Cousins and the rest of the Salamanca troupe don’t suspect that Nacho is involuntarily in bed with the enemy, but that’s not all Gus had in store for his new mole. The plan leads Nacho to a gang called the Espinozas, with the Cousins in the tow. After Gus’s guys drop off some money with them the night prior, Nacho points to them as the guys who killed Arturo. Nacho pitches a plan to pull some guys and take them out, but the Cousins silently tell them to hold their cervezas as they grab a bag of guns and take out the entire gang themselves.
This is a great fucking scene that holds back in showing most of the action. We know what the Cousins are capable of at this point, so director John Shiban doesn’t show us everything, but just enough to satisfy that part of our brains and remind us that there’s more at stake here than the mid-life crises of the other characters. This is the reminder of what’s looming around the corner for all of them. I especially love the way it’s shot, as it never really breaks away from Nacho’s perspective, reminiscent of a similar sequence in a movie about similar topics from this past summer, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, where a chase sequence happens entirely from the perspective of a teenage girl whose been pulled into a manufactured drug war. Of course, Nacho is a little more competent in this than a teenage girl, but just barely, as he starts the sequence as a hapless outsider with a bum shoulder, but is forced into action when reinforcements show up and does his part in helping the Cousins take out the gang. But he aggravates his injuries in the process and can barely stand at the end of it. Later we see him meet with Gus as he susses out his plan to use his new secret agent to eliminate the competition and gain territory, since the cartel won’t give the Espinozas’ turf to the Salamancas after what the Cousins did. Gus merely tells him to get some rest, and he complies, turning to his distraught father in bad shape.
Gus uses Nacho has a pawn to advance his game, and by the end of the episode, he’s on to his next move, as he turns to Mike. But Mike isn’t a mere pawn (and frankly, after a few weeks of Nacho being kind of a badass in the face of some brutal shit that Gus forces him to go through in order to keep his secret, I feel bad giving him that label), and immediately figures out that Gus has called to meet him for two reasons; first to give him shit for not telling him what Nacho was up to, to which Mike replies that it was never part of their agreement, he merely promised not to kill Hector himself. And second, to ask him to come on board for a job. We don’t yet know what that job could be, but if the episode exhausts the equivalent to a GTA level with the Cousins, before getting to this, one can only imagine what it’ll be.
Because Mike is in his own kind of holding pattern. Unlike Jimmy and Kim, though, he seems relatively content. He’s made a friend in the support group he attends with Stacy for his deceased son, he’s still doing security work at Madrigal, and in probably the most satisfying sequence in the show since last year’s “Chicanery” where Jimmy finally takes down Chuck in court, he brutally calls out a guy (played by The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Marc Evan Jackson) who is bereaving a fake wife in his group. It’s awkward and unnecessary but glorious and so Mike, as it shows us how good he is at detecting bullshit, right before he sees straight through Gus’s.
So, “Talk” takes us on a few very different journeys. Kim and Jimmy are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, Mike and Nacho are being pulled away from theirs (one a little more brutishly than the other), all while Gus Fring continues to make moves that are way ahead of anyone else’s, a reminder of what already made him one of the greatest villains of all time in Breaking Bad. It’s kind of been the story of the season so far, and it makes these individual episodes hard to judge. I’m loving everything that’s happening on the show, but it’s sort of scatterbrains because you need it all to be happening at once. I wouldn’t necessarily want an episode that’s just Jimmy throwing a ball around a store and trying to steal a stupid figurine, or an episode about Kim doing a bank’s due diligence. And if you go too far in the other direction, an episode that’s just about what’s happened to Nacho so far this season is probably too extreme. I’d totally take a show that’s just Mike assessing warehouse security or calling out bullshitters at support groups, but nevertheless, the show expertly decides to give us a little of everything, to juxtapose the varying degrees of severity for each character, because it knows that eventually they will all have to meet somewhere closer to where Gus is operating. And while that makes each individual episode less than stellar, you can easily see the bigger picture. I recognize that these episodes aren’t perfect, but I still end new iteration with undeterred admiration for the show, and “Talk” is no exception. It gets 8.5 cartel shootouts out of 10.