If you’re the type of person who was wondering why it took Better Call Saul 35 episodes to give us a scene set during the days of Breaking Bad, where Jimmy McGill is finally, fully, Saul Goodman, I present to you this week’s episode, “Pinata”. Last week’s episode gave us one of the show’s highest peaks, so the follow-up was inevitably going to be a bit of a let down, but “Pinata” significantly slowed things down, almost deliberately, to show us that there is still a long way to go until things are like that opening scene from “Quite a Ride”. To use a sloppy metaphor, that scene in Saul’s office expects us to understand that shit has already very much hit the fan. The rest of the show is more or less Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould slowly turning that fan on.
As someone who’s come to expect and embrace the idea of Better Call Saul as a slow-burn origin story, it doesn’t really bother me, but I do understand that there are people that expect more from the show. And instead of using last week’s mind-blowing developments as a launching point, they instead decided to revert back to the snail-paced pastiche of characters slowly dying inside before they reach the breaking point of evil.
The episode quite clearly hammers that home, as Mike’s arc involves setting up a warehouse bachelor pad for a bunch of horny bro-y Germans that have been brought in to build Gus’s secret underground lair. It’s fully stocked with a movie theater (I wonder if pirating falls within Gus’s code?), a soccer field and basketball court, a fully stocked bar and two full-sized bungalow. I would star in a reality show if they let me live in that warehouse. But construction hasn’t even started yet, and the whole purpose of these scenes is to single out one particular troublemaker, Kai, who Mike tells his guys to keep an eye on. But, like I said, the entire time, he’s telling the guys and the audience that they’re in for a long job.
Jimmy tippy-toes forward this week as well, as he spends his days daydreaming about the return of Wexler & McGill in between receiving shipments of prepaid phones. He dons his tracksuit one more time and lures the street thugs who beat them up into an alley where they’re taken by Jimmy’s goons, Huell (Huell!) and Man Mountain (an interesting case of Better Call Saul being self-referential instead of referring to its predecessor for once, as this character is a stretch of a callback from season 1) to what appears to be a pinata factory, where a street-level James Bond villain-esque plot of the goons busting pinatas while the thugs are strewn upside down and threatened pays dividends and gets them off Jimmy’s back, while getting the word out that Cell Phone Guy ain’t no one to fuck with.
But that’s not all that happens to Jimmy this week, as for the umpteenth time, he also gets his hopes and dreams more or less shattered. After she finds his notepad with scribblings of Wexler & McGill, Kim gets freaked out and turns to Rich Schweikart and hands him Mesa Verde on a silver platter, offering to head up their new banking division in exchange for some free time, so she can continue doing pro bono cases without hurting the client. She springs this news on Jimmy over lunch at their favourite grifting restaurant over Moscow Mules, and on the inside, Jimmy clearly isn’t loving it, as he takes a moment to himself to process before Slippin’ Jimmying his way to the next grift, offering to change their hypothetical practice into one practicing criminal law.
It seems very clear that Kim giving up Mesa Verde is an attempt to put up a barrier between her and Jimmy. She’s freaked out by Jimmy’s plans, she’s freaked out with how he’s handling his grief about Chuck, and she doesn’t know what kind of schemes he’s up to, leaving their apartment at all hours of the night, coming back beaten up and being pretty dodgy about what he’s doing. Deep inside, Kim knows the real Jimmy, and she’s starting to have second thoughts about spending her life with someone like that. It’s the kind of guilt trip that led her to pro bono work in the first place.
Don’t take my word for it, just look at how these two interact. They’re supposed to be a couple, yet we haven’t seen them kiss or do anything remotely intimate even once this season. I don’t think they’ve ever said that they love each other, and they seem to live and conspire together out of convenience more than anything. It makes you wonder why they’re together or how they even got here in the first place. And it makes you wonder if this is the show trying to give Kim an inevitable out, or Jimmy something to fight for when he realizes that he’s losing her. Even though it’s no Saul Goodman scrambling for his vacuum repair business ticket out of Albuquerque, it’s incredibly compelling and so well-paced.
And in a final Jimmy development this week, he finds out that one of his first elder clients, Geraldine Strauss, passed away and that he missed the funeral. This hits him surprisingly hard, seemingly worse than the passing of his brother. I’m not sure if Jimmy here is actually grieving over Geraldine or projecting what he wants to feel about Chuck, but soon thereafter he finds himself in Harold’s office and tells him to get his shit together and get HHM back on its feet, which leads to an ultra rare F-bomb for this show (and one that doesn’t phase Jimmy in the slightest, proving once again that Harold is Jimmy’s ultimate punching bag in this show).
All of this is bowtied nicely by the opening scene, a flashback to Jimmy and Kim’s mailroom days at HHM. It’s the morning of a big win for Chuck, who prances around the office receiving congratulations from everyone in the room. Kim tells a completely blase Jimmy all about it while he’s more interested with tallying Oscar pool picks than anything else. She shares a moment with Chuck while Jimmy bungles trying to impress his brother. Soon thereafter, at the end of the lengthy cold open, Jimmy passes by the HHM library and decides to go in, setting his path towards law in motion. The question is, does he do it because he wants to impress his brother, or because he wants to impress Kim?
The truth is that a lot happens in this episode, but you sort of have to reach in between the cracks to find the real meat, and it involves a lot of pawn movement as Kim and Jimmy gear up for the next arc in their story. The funny thing is that I didn’t even bother to talk about the two biggest developments of the episode, first the fact that Michael McKean made a surprise return in that cold open to portray Chuck, which I suppose we should have seen coming. And then the tensest, best scene in the episode, where Gus monologues to a comatose Hector about a chinchilla or whatever that he tortured as a child. It’s a frightening, incredibly well-delivered speech that will hopefully help Giancarlo Esposito get nominated for another Emmy next year, but like Chuck’s return, it’s sort of weirdly on a place in a show that is increasingly becoming, as I said, a pastiche or mosaic of a bunch of different stories that are still some time away from intersecting. And while the show often finds a way to navigate those waters expertly (see our previous discussions about dichotomies and juxtapositions), it’s less effective here.
So while a lot of good, interesting things happen in “Pinata”, it doesn’t come together as well as you would hope, especially after last week’s excellent high. That’s why “Pinata” gets 8 prepaid cell phones out of 10.