As I have noted several times before, the primary strength of Better Call Saul has been its knack for finding ways to surprise us even when we know where the story is headed. But short of putting Kim’s head on the back of a tortoise, there’s no bigger surprise they could have come up with than giving Mike Ehrmantraut a love interest.
Between meetings with Mr. Price, the milquetoast pharmaceutical employee gone rogue, who’s approached Mike to act as his bodyguard for a second deal with Nacho, this one for some empty capsules to swap for Hector’s heart medication, Mike makes contact with a nice lady from the local church group as he’s installing a cement walkway on the playground, which somehow changes his “no” with Mr. Price to a “yes,” leading to another tense meeting with Nacho where Mike sagely advises that if Nacho is going to swap out Hector’s pills, he should swap them back afterward. Maybe the lady’s story about her husband going for a walk and never coming back revives Mike’s sense of justice and interest in punishing Hector for all the suffering he has inflicted on innocent people? In any case, he is once again at least tangentially involved in the Fring/Salamanca turf war.
But the episode mostly focuses on Jimmy’s transformation to Saul Goodman, which seems to have begun in earnest as he lines up to report for community service, is forced to don an orange vest, and officially becomes a “CRIMINAL lawyer.” As his prospects to hold up his end of the rent on his office with Kim through the commercial-production scheme go pear-shaped, his scruples seem to be withering right before our eyes, and a harder edge is forming on his otherwise easygoing nature.
Meanwhile, it appears that the Jimmy/Kim partnership, which seemed stronger than ever as they worked together on Jimmy’s defense against Chuck, is curdling in the cold light of day as a profoundly overworked Kim (whose 5-minute nap was one of the episode’s best touches) betrays her unease with what they did to Chuck — “As far as I’m concerned, all we did was tear down a sick man,” she tells Paige — and with Jimmy’s increasing willingness to color outside the lines. In one of two standout scenes in the episode (the other being Jimmy’s emotional breakdown at the insurance office that turns out to be running up the score on Chuck by making sure his malpractice insurance premium hike matches his own), Jimmy pulls Kim out for drinks at the local bar, and as they play at identifying new targets for their low-stakes grifting, it’s all too clear that Jimmy has brutal revenge on his mind, and elaborate scams come to him far too easily for her comfort. All along we have been wondering what the seismic event will be that drives Kim away, but it’s starting to seem like the weight of what they did to Chuck may eventually wear her down and drive them apart, sort of the way couples who lose a child tend to break up because the the sight of each other is too painful a reminder of all they’ve lost.
Sean T. Collins of the New York Observer appreciates the episode’s change of pace:
If there’s a defining image for “Expenses,” this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, it’s of a mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially exhausted Jimmy McGill, disheartened by the failure of his latest scheme, just sitting there alone on the sidewalk, collecting himself. Everyone needs a breather now and then, including this show.
The slow pace obscures it somewhat, but season three of BCS has seen a whole lot of excitement go down from the return of Gus Fring and other figures from Breaking Bad’s drug wars to the courtroom showdown between Jimmy and his brother Chuck. The seeds of both were planted in the finale of Season Two, with Mike’s Gus-aborted assassination attempt on Hector Salamanca and Jimmy’s felony confession at Chuck’s house. The resulting sense of momentum was powerful, no matter how long it took Mike Ehrmantraut to reassemble the bug in his gas cap.
But Mike’s dealings with his future boss Gus reached a head in episode four, the courtroom drama occupied episode five, and its aftermath ate up the half of episode six not occupied by the reintroduction of the soft-spoken gangster Nacho Varga as a major player. The task of episode seven, then, seems to be to relax, regroup, and reboot. It’s the first installment of the season that doesn’t feel like a drift downward into an inexorable hell.
The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman thinks the season is headed for a grand finale:
After this week’s episode, there are three more Better Call Sauls remaining in the third season, and while it’s tempting to wish that more happened in “Expenses”—especially given that it’s coming on the heels of last week’s equally sedate, piece-moving “Off Brand”—there are signs throughout this hour that the show’s gearing up for a big finish. In scene after scene, Jimmy gets humiliated and outmatched, until by the end he’s become more hardened and cynical. One of the surprises of Better Call Saul when the series began was how sweet and upbeat Bob Odenkirk’s interpretation of the character was, in contrast to his Breaking Bad days. This week it becomes clearer that the “origin story” for Saul Goodman isn’t so much when and why Jimmy adopted the name, but how he became so cold, and so mercenary.
Blame the state official who only gives Jimmy credit for 30 minutes of trash-picking instead of four hours, because he was on his phone the whole time—even though he filled more bags than anybody else. Blame the drivers who hurl additional garbage—including what looks to be a bottle of piss—while Jimmy’s on the clean-up crew, making it hard for even a quick wet-wipe “whore’s bath” to make him presentable. Blame the owner of Duke City Recliners for not buying more than one ad from Saul Goodman Productions. Blame the owners of the ABQ In Tune music store (played by the Sklar brothers!) for bargaining Jimmy down to $0 for a commercial shoot after they threaten to scrap their ad altogether.
Because of all these folks, throughout “Expenses” Jimmy keeps hustling to nowhere. Before his community service, he wants to read the legalese on the waiver, but the court officer won’t give him the time. He can’t sway the ABQ In Tune guys when he says that running their ad running during Murder, She Wrote reruns will expand their market to doting grandmas. Even when he tries to convince his malpractice insurance company that they should let him take a year off from paying premiums because of his suspension, the representative pulls a Jimmy-style “What if?” maneuver, reminding him that a client could still sue.
David Segal of the New York Times begs to differ:
There is something deflating about watching the younger McGill go backward, career-wise, particularly in a show that is really focused on the man’s professional and personal journey. At this point, he is sort of sputtering. This may reflect the way life is actually lived, but it isn’t particularly compelling.
For me, the sense of déjà vu made this the dullest episode of the series. It’s not just the paucity of spark or intrigue. There was little by way of narrative momentum, nothing about the Jimmy and Kim plot that said, “You need to tune in next week.” Three episodes left. We know the season is heading somewhere. Beyond the looming showdown between Hector and Gus, we should, by now, have a better sense of what direction that is.
Then there were smaller annoyances. Those barroom cads that are sized up for scamming — they really bring out the most cartoonish impulses of the “Better Call Saul” writers. “This is a $14 glass of puke!” the buffooniest of them shouts at a waiter. Please. Nobody would say that. And did we really need two scenes of the TV-ad hard sell, with the Wes Anderson Trio in tow? Wouldn’t one have made the Jimmy-has-hit-bottom point?
Folks, Giancarlo Esposito is on this show, the man who brings to life the single greatest villain in small-screen history. Giancarlo. Esposito. Why give him the week off? Sigh.
Vulture’s Kenny Herzog sees a parallel in Mike’s story with (ahem) the church lady:
Watching sensible men incite their demise appears to be Mike’s lot writ large, whether it’s Jimmy, Wormald, Nacho, or the man they’d soon call Heisenberg.
That’s why he admires Anita. She’s stronger than these men. She’s refused to be a victim, having survived the enigmatic disappearance of her husband eight years earlier, and put her energies toward a meaningful life. He’s downright smitten, you might say, in his own reticent way. Their budding connection would make no one happier than Stacey, who’s so grateful for all he’s done, but wants desperately for his life to be well-rounded again. Breaking Bad fans can project that things won’t shake out for Mike and Anita, no more than Nacho offs Hector and thrives to outlast Tyrus and Victor and the other thugs who pointed handguns in his face. (Let’s just all think wishfully that Nacho successfully escapes the country with his dad and starts over with new identities and enough capital for a booming upholstery business.) But for now, it’s sweet — if a bit corny — to see Mike bond with a possible romantic interest the way he sparks a kind of surrogate paternal kinship with Jesse Pinkman down the road.
And Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx, listing the indiginities Jimmy suffers in this episode, sees a fundamental shift in the character:
And when the insurance company rep not only doesn’t give him any money back from the now-superfluous policy, but informs him that his premiums will go up 150% due to the suspension, he doesn’t slink out, but instead decides to pile on Chuck some more, by telling her — in between some convincing fake tears — about Chuck’s breakdown before the committee, just to make sure Chuck’s premiums go up, too.
It’s a nasty little trick, as reflected by the half-scowl, half-smirk on his face as he walks out of the insurance office. It was one thing for Jimmy to publicly humiliate Chuck as the only way to avoid disbarment, or worse; that was self-defense, even if Jimmy committed the various crimes that got him into that jam in the first place. In this case, though, Jimmy gains nothing, save for the satisfaction that Chuck shares in this particular part of his punishment. Even if you’re an inveterate Chuck-hater, this doesn’t seem at all the kind of thing the Jimmy McGill we’ve come to know and like would do to his brother.
When Jimmy showed Kim the commercial at the end of last week’s episode, he assured her that “Saul Goodman” was just a name. At the moment, this is true, given that most of the things we’ve come to think about from the Saul persona have yet to fully emerge. But there are lines we know Saul Goodman will cross that Jimmy McGill at this moment in his life simply wouldn’t. Actively hurting his brother this way, trying to rope Kim into a real grift rather than a harmless one… these take him closer to being Saul Goodman than the name itself.
And for him to fully become Saul, his life — and his behavior — will only have to get worse.
New episodes of Better Call Saul air at 10pm ET Mondays on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.