“Consequences” is the big theme of this, the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul’s second season. We don’t often mention the creators’ names (and frankly I also ignore media from the creators of this show, preferring to base my analysis on the show itself, rather than what the creators say about it), but it’s worth mentioning that this episode is written and directed by Peter Gould. Gould is one of the show’s co-creators (along with Vince Gilligan, of course), and in his long history with Breaking Bad, Gould wrote and directed one of that series’ strongest episodes, the second-to-last instalment in the entire series, “Granite State”. In television, the actual season (or series) finale can sometimes be a letdown, or more often is buried under the need to bring everything to a dramatic conclusion. A penultimate episode, on the other hand, can still take risks and introduce new elements, slowly pulling together the various threads of the season while still maintaining a certain narrative freedom. From his track record, it’s safe to say that Gould is very good at this particular job.
Setting aside any behind-the-scenes info, nothing that happens in this particular episode should come as a big shock. Last time, we saw Jimmy sabotaging Chuck’s documents so he would make a fool of himself with Mesa Verde and the account would bounce back to Kim (which it does), and Mike making a spiked garden hose in order to sabotage Hector Salamanca’s cross-border scheme (which it does). It’s very much a case this week of watching the other shoe drop. One important difference between Mike and Jimmy here is that Jimmy knows the consequences of his actions, and his intended target, while Mike has to make assumptions about what’s exactly coming across the border in that refrigerated truck. But, as we see, Mike’s presumption that he’s a bit smarter than a group of Mexican gangsters turns out to be the right one.
It could have been anything that the Salamanca family was bringing into the US on that truck, but a veteran such as Mike could easily presume it was either money, drugs or guns, or some combination of the three. After spiking the the tires of the truck and putting the driver out of commission (without killing him — another case of Mike’s tendency towards half-measures), Mike discovers that it was in fact cash money that Salamanca was bringing over, stashed in the tires of the truck, where the border guards wouldn’t likely look. He then stakes out the Salamanca headquarters, seeing a very agitated Hector downing pills and pacing (watch the blood pressure there, Senor Salamanca: that’s the path to a stroke), but also discovering that the driver, rather than going to the police, went straight to the boss with news of his hijacking. That was not Mike’s endgame, as he was attempting to put the authorities on the trail of the Salamanca family and leave the driver alive. In the time-honoured fashion, the hapless driver is executed by the family he has failed, a decision that is not in the Salamanca’s best interests (the driver was the only one who could have possibly identified Mike), but it is in keeping with their emotional, trigger-happy modus operandi. (Tuco, for example, is only an extreme case. They’re all too emotional for their own good. Just look again at Hector and his pills.)
Unfortunately for Mike, Nacho recognizes that only one person could have staged the whole incident and left the driver alive, and he calls Mike out on his actions, initially wondering how this crazy old man new there was going to be money on the truck. “You guys aren’t half as smart as you think you are,” intones Mike, but that is belied somewhat by the fact that Nacho is at least smart enough to connect him to the hijacking. Mike still has to learn to be Breaking Bad Mike, who would leave no stone unturned or loose ends. Nor would the later version of Mike flash his money around at a bar for all to see. As we mentioned last time, he’s about 80% of the way there, but still has room to grow. He might be smarter than the gang, but he’s not yet bolder.
Jimmy’s sabotage of Chuck’s case goes exactly according to his plan, up to a point. Chuck is embarrassed in court and does lose the Mesa Verde case to Kim, but Chuck is also no fool. He figures out essentially immediately what Jimmy has done, but has no proof of it. None, at least, until he has Ernesto (or “Young Gus”, as I’m starting to think of him, right down to his South American name) investigate every 24 hour photocopy centre in Albuquerque, eventually finding the one that Jimmy used. Jimmy himself, crawling happily into bed next to Kim in an interesting echo of Chuck and his wife in bed that we saw in a flashback a few episodes ago, is a bit off his game. He presumes that Chuck will never find the proof of his wrongdoing, but it’s Kim, putting on her cold, professional face, who points out basically that Jimmy isn’t half as smart as he thinks he is. “Chuck would be a formidable enemy,” she warns him, and Jimmy realizes that not only is she right, but that he has to cover some tracks. A few bills change hands with the copy centre clerk, and Jimmy presumes all is right with the world. To make sure, he retreats back into an alley and watches Chuck interrogate the wage-slave with a bribe in his pocket, getting nowhere and only working himself up into a frenzy.
Jimmy and Mike are on parallel tracks at this point. They both watch powerful men lose their grip this week, with Hector careening towards the stroke that we know will incapacitate him, and Chuck’s electromagnetic hypersensitivity, along with his anger and being challenged by “Slippin’ Jimmy” leading him to collapse in the copy centre and smash his head on a table. This is a curious development: just how far will the show spin this injury? Has Chuck just knocked himself out, or was this a more serious fall? (Looking at the angle of the hit and the horrible crunch of bone, it could easily be a spinal cord injury in the making.) It depends on how far the show’s creators want to follow that particular path. An injured Chuck, despite this latest fall being technically an accident, would make Jimmy a great deal less sympathetic, especially because Chuck already has a rather serious disability. But a mildly wounded Chuck would make for an even more dangerous opponent.
Many episodes of Better Call Saul this season have been static and deep, but this one has momentum. Things are happening at this point, and as we head into the season finale next week, there are sure to be more consequences. The moral ground is once again shifting, as it always seems to on shows like this, and our sympathies as an audience are constantly challenged. It’s that very challenge that makes Better Call Saul such compelling television.