Hector Salamanca is the anti-Gustavo. Crude, boorish, selfish, egotistical and demanding of the lowest kind of personal loyalty, he’s the Trump of Mexican gangsters. One would like to think that people like that can only hold on to their power for so long before they offend enough people to provoke some sort of decisive revolt. Over the course of this season of Better Call Saul, we’ve seen Hector essentially struggle, in his delusional way, with Gustavo Fring over his import rights for the made-in-Mexico drugs they both sell. They’re more or less of equal rank in the cartel, but neither wants anything to do with the other and would rather be on their own. Fring responds to this by arranging to become his own manufacturer and thus break free of the cartel’s influence. Salamanca doesn’t seek to sever his cartel ties, but rather clumsily tries to muscle his way into a new method of getting his cut of the drug delivery system. When he feels he can’t push Fring around anymore (oh, how he tries, even here, to take more than he’s entitled to), he turns to one of his own people, none other than Nacho, whose father’s cross-border textile business would provide adequate cover for drug smuggling. This turns out to be that one person too many that Hector, in his belligerent ignorance, offends once too often. Nacho is fighting back.
He’s doing so with the help of Pryce, who we met way back in season one, the haplessly incompetent amateur who gets in way over his head and somehow only cares about the safety of his baseball cards. Working for a pharmaceutical company gives Pryce access to capsule-based medications, and Nacho intends to switch out Hector’s heart pills, which everyone presumes will lead Hector to a cardiac arrest and death. All Nacho needs from Pryce is empty capsules, but Pryce is wary, and with good reason. He goes, of course, to Mike for protection and advice.
Mike, when we really get down to it, is a helper. That’s what he does. He doesn’t do things for himself or his own benefit. He’s a gruff, capable, professional helper. Lately he’s been helping his daughter-in-law at her grief support group, just being present for the meetings at a local church. When the playground needs renovating, Mike dips into his own funds and pays for the whole thing, even doing the construction work (including pouring the concrete) himself. It should be said that his involvement in that project was not entirely his idea – his daughter-in-law puts him up to it. But then he meets a woman in the support group who had lost her husband and suddenly Mike perks up (as much as it’s possible for a character this taciturn to “perk” up). As wonderful as it would be for Mike to have a love interest (Anita is her name), he’s no sooner expanding his life in that direction when Pryce comes calling.
Mike’s attitude towards Pryce is the same as his attitude, later, towards Walter White, and perhaps a bit more firm: “You’re an idiot and an amateur and you shouldn’t get involved.” Pryce weakly responds that he’s already involved with Nacho and there’s no turning back now. Later, when Mike finally agrees to help Pryce with the negotiations, he does so more out of curiosity regarding Nacho’s plan than anything else. Mike knows, and he explains this to Nacho, that making a move of any kind against Hector Salamanca is a dangerous course of action with potentially deadly consequences. It’s not something to be taken lightly. Nacho doesn’t have to explain his plan – Mike understands exactly what he’s going to do – but Mike does offer one bit of advice: once the pills are switched, and whatever happens to Hector happens, switch the pills back. If something suspiciously medical happens to someone like Hector, the first place his lieutenants will look is at his medication, which will lead them straight to Nacho and Pryce. Mike may actually suspect that Nacho is on some sort of mission from Fring (he checks Nacho’s gas cap for bugs, for example), but by the end of the encounter, he appears to have given the young gangster his reluctant and grudging approval for his plan. We all know how things turn out for Hector (and the reason for Nacho’s absence from Breaking Bad is becoming increasingly clear), but Mike’s ability to walk between the criminal world and the legitimate world might be his greatest strength. Here’s this helpful middle-aged handyman who pours concrete for a children’s playground, but who can also face powerful international drug smugglers face-on and understand their temperaments and priorities. Jimmy/Saul would love to have that particular set of skills. It would make the grey legal area in which he operates much more comfortable.
Jimmy, for his part, is now in show business. He always was, to some degree, but now his life has become 100% artifice, just reassuring everyone around him that things are fine and under control even as his personal ship is sinking fast. His financial struggles are really the centre of attention now, as his commercial making business continues to fail to find clients while Jimmy (now going by “Saul Goodman” for the first time) bleeds money. At a certain point, his makeup technician, part of the trio of students he’s recruited from the University of New Mexico to help make the commercials, even offers to return her cash salary to him out of pity. Saul isn’t quite ready to accept that yet, but it’s tempting. Day after day, Jimmy is humiliated — forced to performing community service, which eats into his time for his business, for example — and the resentment is growing in him. Far from projecting the casual image of someone who could go without practicing law for a year with ease, Jimmy is already touching rock bottom, and his anger and resentment are laser-focused on one target: Chuck. Tearing down his brother is basically the only thing that’s given Jimmy any pleasure, or any wins, lately. So, for example, when things go badly at the insurance office and Jimmy learns that he’ll still have to pay for malpractice insurance even when he’s temporarily disbarred and at the end of that time his premiums will go up by 150%, he saves some shred of his personal dignity and sense of self-worth by sticking it to Chuck, telling the insurance agent tearfully about Chuck’s breakdown in court, something that should make his insurance premiums go up and cause him some problems. It’s far from a knockout blow, but it’s something. It’s some small victory that Jimmy feels his won over his arch-enemy.
In the midst of all of this, Kim is starting to come unglued. It’s subtle, but with every passing episode, Kim’s facade of competent, spunky control is slipping. When Jimmy lies to her about money and pretends everything’s fine, she doesn’t believe him, but she also doesn’t contradict him. This feels like uncharted territory for their relationship. She’s “all-in” with Jimmy (she would have left him long ago if that were not the case), and while Jimmy knows she’s disappointed in him, she’s still enabling him. (Albeit in one scene set in a bar, Kim gently intervenes to prevent Jimmy from going back to his Slippin’ ways, which under the current circumstances would send him right back to jail.) It’s telling that, relatively soon into Jimmy’s suspension, he’s already thinking of the Slipping life again, and that appears to scare Kim a great deal. The strain is getting to her, as is her deep, lingering guilt over destroying Chuck in court. She’s not convinced, as Jimmy is, that Chuck deserved what happened to him, and this guilt overflows at a Mesa Verde meeting, driving her to break down very unprofessionally (and uncharacteristically). With three episodes to go before the end of the season, it does appear that, while Kim is willing to put up with quite a lot from Jimmy, she’s far less tolerant of this new guy “Saul”, and as Jimmy fades and Saul rises, the stage is set for some dramatic developments.