rhea seehorn and bob odenkirk in 'better call saul'

Recap Digest: ‘Better Call Saul’ 3.3, “Sunk Costs”

One of the principal pleasures of Better Call Saul has been the way it consistently subverts the audience’s expectations, finding ways to surprise even as we know where the story is headed. We have always known that Jimmy would disgrace himself badly enough to have to assume a new name in order to continue as a lawyer. We have always known that Mike Ehrmantraut would meet Gus Fring. And we have always known that Jimmy would somehow lose his dream girl, Kim Wexler.

So the big surprise of “Sunk Costs” is that despite having explicitly warned her officemate and sometime boyfriend that she would brook no extralegal maneuvers or shortcuts, and despite the fact that he ignored that warning and pulled an elaborate lampshading scheme on his brother Chuck in order to win a big client back for her after Chuck stole it, and despite the fact that he confessed to all this on a tape surreptitiously recorded by Chuck, then fell into Chuck’s trap to try and destroy that tape and is now facing prosecution and disbarment, a mess that will surely splash onto Kim one way or another, Kim is ignoring her better judgment and standing by her man.

There was a little moment in last week’s episode where Kim seemed truly charmed by Jimmy’s easy way with his elderly clients, and at his arraignment, when told that she hasn’t seen him in court for a while because he’s moved into elder law, the judge remarks that it’s very noble. It’s not the most lucrative form of law, he’s helping people in an area most people never even think of, he seems to have a genuine affection for his clients, and most of all, he’s trying. He’s a bit of a screwup who can’t seem to get out of his own way, but he’s trying, and that seems to be enough for Kim. First she shows up at Jimmy’s arraignment offering to represent him, an offer that Jimmy refuses, later explaining that it’s his mess and he should be the one to clean it up. After curtly agreeing to back off, she just can’t stay away, joining him for a cigarette the way she did when they were both at HHM. And when she hears that the offer to avoid jail time pivots on Jimmy agreeing to send his confession to the bar association and almost certainly lose his license, to Jimmy’s astonishment, Kim circles the wagons, and they agree to fight Chuck together. So while Jimmy is still certain to lose Kim, it does not appear it will be over the Mesa Verde affair.

Similarly, it sure seems like James McGill is going to lose his license and, as a matter of necessity, take on the identity of Saul Goodman in order to continue in his chosen profession, which makes it a near certainty that it won’t happen that way.

Over on The Mike Show, Mr. Ehrmantraut finally came face-to-face with Gus Fring to agree on a path forward with Hector Salamanca. At the A.V. Club, Donna Bowman marvels at both Mike’s move to further interrupt Hector’s supply lines, and at the filmmaking that encompasses it:

Instead of robbing the truck (the attendant civilian casualties last time, as Gus points out, are cause for regret), Mike arranges to have customs authorities at the border do the job for him, with an elaborate and highly entertaining set-up at a lonely intersection on the Mexican side. It’s the one where Hector’s men stop to cache their weapons before they get to the crossing. As their truck passes under a telephone wire, Mike snipes the toe of a sneaker he had earlier tossed over the wire, releasing a powdery stream of drugs onto the bumper of the truck. To inure Hector’s guys to that shot, he fired off a few shots into the air while they were stashing the guns, leading them to conclude that hunters were in the area. Long story short, drug-sniffing dog alerts, cops swarm the drivers, and now we understand what we saw in the cold open: much later (months? years?) it’s a Los Pollos Hermanos truck passing through that intersection on the way to the border, as Mike’s sneaker laces finally give way. Mike hurt Hector, and in the process, he changed the territorial map of the drug trade and gave Gus an edge.

That cold open is a classic of Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque duet. At first, it appears simply atmospheric, and would have been noteworthy just at that. Look how many angles we get on those faded red high-tops: into the sun, straight down from overhead, at immense distance, close enough to see the laces fraying. Sound design is wind, otherworldly thrum of wires strung tight, roar of the approaching truck, and finally the quick little thud of the sneakers hitting dirt. That would be enough for most prestige television, where the inscrutable, foreboding cold open is practically part of the genre convention. How much greater is it, then, that Gilligan and Peter Gould double back to it, revealing that it was a secret flash-forward? Not that we would have known to look before the credits, but yep—that little bullet hole in the toe is visible. And in an excess of generosity, we are blessed with the visual of Mike winding up to bolo those shoes at the wire three times, from the same wide range of angles as in the open.

Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx praises the other half of the show, and Michael McKean’s performance as Chuck:

Where the series has more narrative wiggle room — and where, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s at its most dramatically interesting at the moment (the Mike show is fun, but not particularly deep of late) — is in what happens to Jimmy between now and when Walt and Jesse walk into his office. We know a lot, including the fact that Chuck won’t be successful in getting him disbarred, because Jimmy-as-Saul is still practicing law in Albuquerque in incredibly public fashion years after the events of this episode, but there are many ways to get there, and a lot of them involve the state of his relationships with both Chuck and Kim.

I find more ambiguity in Chuck’s behavior than a lot of Saul fans, because he’s ultimately right about what Jimmy will do with a law degree, even if Chuck’s own actions help push him there. But his first scene in this episode is about as odious as he’s ever been: so secure in his victory over Jimmy that he can afford to play the role of the protective older brother, delivering one patronizing theory after another about how Jimmy is much better off this way. He’s feeling his oats so much, in fact, that he doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s standing out in the harsh New Mexico sunlight, with no space blanket to protect him (he’s not even wearing his suit with the space blanket lining), without ill effects of any kind(*), even as Jimmy explains what will happen the next time he has an attack, given their estrangement. For a moment in his conversation with the new prosecutor, it seems Chuck might be softening towards his brother, but it’s all just part of the whole scam, as he nudges her in a direction that would keep Jimmy from serving any prison time, but surely result in his disbarment.

Over at Observer, Sean T. Collins concurs:

A lot more happens on Jimmy’s side of the ledger this week, beginning with one of those moments of emotional cruelty the show casually tosses in once in a while to keep us aware of the moral stakes. The first time we see Jimmy in the episode, he’s on the phone with his new receptionist, canceling his appointments as he prepares to be arrested for breaking into his brother Chuck’s house. Chuck comes out to the curb where Jimmy sits smoking and begins to lecture him about how this is all for his own good, how he’ll come out the other side of being charged with these crimes to make him a better man, to show him “you have to make a change before it’s too late—before you destroy yourself, or someone else.”

Michael McKean is a marvel in this role not just  because he makes it impossible to tell at any given moment what Chuck really means when he says things, but he makes it feel like Chuck himself couldn’t tell you either. Is his concern a bullshit cover story cloak for revenge? If it is bullshit, could he be selling it to himself as much as to Jimmy, in order to mask the terrible thing he knows he’s done to the guy? Does the fact that he’s right—that Jimmy will eventually help destroy a lot of people, including himself—make Chuck’s smarm more or less intolerable? Was that smarm, and all the meddling and scheming that’s gone with it, precisely the thing that set Jimmy on the road to ruin in the first place? Whether he’s talking to Jimmy himself, or alternately defending his brother’s core character while plotting to have him disbarred during a conversation with the prosecutor later in the episode, these questions are fascinating to bat around and unravel in your brain, like a cat with a ball of yarn.

But Jimmy himself has no patience for it whatsoever. His days of trying to understand, care for, or even care about his big brother are over. “Here’s how it’s gonna go,” he deadpans back at Chuck in mocking imitation of the man’s own just-the-facts monologue. He then rattles off a disturbingly plausible narrative in which Chuck will once again get so sick from his psychosomatic sensitivity to electromagnetism that he’ll have to be brought back to the hospital—only this time, the stress of being around all those lights and machines will be too much. “And you will die there alone,” he concludes, the passionless meanness of the declaration shocking even Chuck. Then the cops pull up and Jimmy jokes “Here’s my ride!” and that’s that. It’s a psychological jaw.

And The New York Times’ David Segal wishes the show would make better use of Rhea Seehorn:

The episode contains some wonderful imagery, most notably the shots of Mike as he awaits the arrival of Gus and his minions. At moments like that, I wish “Better Call Saul” played in theaters, where the splendor of the mise-en-scène could be fully appreciated.

At other times, I wish this show would hurry up. I’ve caviled before about how little the writers are giving Kim to do, and this week they came up with a pretty lame solution: Watch her get ready for work. Unless I missed something, the montage of Kim’s morning routine — applying make up, getting to the gym, showering — doesn’t add much, even our understanding of her.

Is that really the best use of Rhea Seehorn? In Season 2, she briefly showed some edge and some cunning, the capacity to provide some intrigue and color. But she seems to have returned to her role as the voice of sanity and rectitude. There is a place for that, and I’m not saying she ought to start slinging hash, as the kids say — or, at least, as that one kid in “Breaking Bad” used to say — but she can do so much more than get dressed and be Jimmy’s faithful, tenacious partner. Even the romantic heat between her and Jimmy, which never quite reached a convincing boil, has cooled. This very fine actress should have a meatier role by now.

New episodes of Better Call Saul air at 9pm ET on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.