Spoilers ahead for the midseason finale of Better Call Saul.
There is an image late in Monday’s midseason finale of Better Call Saul — before the unexpected entrance, the firing of a gun, and the death of a significant character — that serves as both foreshadowing and metaphor. Just as Lalo Salamanca enters through the front door, the wind in the room shifts, as reflected in the close-up shot of a candle on Kim and Jimmy’s coffee table. The flame suddenly blows in the other direction, heralding the arrival of a menacing force who rearranges the molecules in the room as soon as he walks in armed with the gun he will use to unceremoniously murder Howard. It also signifies a change in fortunes for Jimmy and Kim, who used to be able to somewhat compartmentalize their “legit” legal careers from the seedier, drug-cartel-related aspects of their lives. That’s over now.
In these closing minutes of the first half of the final season of Better Call Saul, Jimmy and Kim have unwittingly traded in their status as flawed antiheroes who get a kick out of running a long con or two. They are now associates of people on the wrong side of the law, which puts them firmly on the wrong side of it, too. There’s no coming back from that. Standing before Howard, their former superior at HHM, and Lalo, the drug kingpin who holds their future in his hands, it’s clear who their boss has become. Guys like Howard Hamlin — arrogant, entitled, but working within the bounds of the legal system — are, quite literally, dead to them.
In a lesser show, these shifting winds might’ve been telegraphed through some on-the-nose dialogue or a showier means of conveying where Kim and Jimmy now stand. Better Call Saul is too elegant for that. Instead, through subtle but intentional filmmaking choices like that candle, combined with events that hearken back to key scenes from previous seasons, the series tells us plainly that Jimmy and Kim must now roll with the lowlifes and give up any notion that they could still take the higher road.
Thomas Schnauz, who wrote and directed “Plan and Execution,” deftly plays with the concept of levels throughout the episode. In the opening sequence establishing that Lalo is spying on the Lavandería Brillante, the laundry service that serves as a front for Gus Fring’s meth lab, we see Lalo emerge from a manhole, drive to a rest stop, shower, then return to the same manhole and climb back down into the sewer. On its face, this is a nonsensical series of events: why go clean yourself up if you’re immediately going down into the muck again? But it’s a metaphor, both for the futility of trying to escape a life of crime — both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have taught us that once you get involved with a Salamanca or a Fring, you’re stuck with them — and for what Jimmy and Kim have done throughout their careers. After engaging in reckless or immoral behavior, Jimmy and Kim — especially Kim — have often tried to rise above their baser tendencies by being good lawyers, the kind who look out for the little guys they have always considered themselves to be. But inevitably, they make choices that drag them back down. They keep washing off the filth, only to get dirty again almost immediately.
Schnauz frames parts of the Lalo scenes so that even the viewer feels low to the ground, if not entirely underneath it. The first image of the manhole cover is shot as if the camera is resting on the street itself. Once Lalo settles into his sewer perch, where he peers out like a drug-dealing Pennywise, cars roll by above our sightline. It’s significant, too, that Lalo can’t actually see Fring’s meth business because, like Lalo’s spying, it is also happening underground and out of sight. The implication of these visual signals is pretty straightforward: If you side with Lalo or get involved in the feud between the Salamancas and Gus, expect a grimy existence spent beneath the place where normal people try to lead decent lives.
By contrast, the scenes that take place in the HHM conference room are often shot from high angles, as when the team from Schweikart & Cokely enters and the camera instantly pans out and upward. These moments, which unfold at that long oak table where Jimmy and Kim always felt they deserved a seat, represent a world where they frequently sensed they were looked down upon. To that point: The person with the highest position in the room is Chuck McGill, whose portrait has been hung in a lofty spot on the far wall where he can forever gaze down condescendingly upon all who enter this space.
After Howard praised Chuck for having “the greatest legal mind I ever knew,” it’s notable that his breakdown — in which he accuses the mediator in the Sandpaper case of paying off Jimmy — makes him sound as paranoid and unbalanced as Chuck used to be. It’s not an accident that Jimmy and Kim designed their ruse to make Howard look stupid when he’s so smart he’s actually been able to decipher every page in the Kim/Jimmy playbook. It’s exactly what Jimmy used to do to his brother.
When Howard finally confronts Kim and Jimmy, he says he cannot understand why they would go to such great lengths to upend his life. “You did it for fun,” he says. “You get off on it.” Howard’s not wrong about that, but that’s not the only reason for their actions. “Plan and Execution” plants some subtle callbacks to two important moments that acted as catalysts for what Jimmy and Kim ultimately do to Howard, and that underline how things have shifted for Jimmy and Kim.
The first unfolds in the second episode of season four, when Kim blows up at Howard after he tells her that Jimmy will inherit a mere $4,000 from Chuck’s estate and is welcome to keep any items he finds while sifting through the wreckage of his brother’s burned-down home. “And did I hear you right?” she adds. “You want him to serve on the board of a scholarship committee? A scholarship that Chuck never in a million years would’ve given to Jimmy.” Both Howard and Chuck have disrespected Jimmy and, to a lesser extent, Kim. But in Kim’s mind and Jimmy’s too, these men symbolize all the things that have stood in the way of them earning the status they deserve while practicing law that actually does real good. They don’t merely want to knock Howard down a peg or two, as Howard puts it. They want what they’ve always wanted: justice. Kim and Jimmy have learned that the only way to really get that is by circumventing a system that, as the Sandpiper storyline reminds us, is either too slow or incapable of truly giving people what they deserve.
Things happen in “Plan and Execution” that seem orchestrated to make us remember that argument between Kim and Howard. When Kim met with Howard to discuss Chuck’s estate, her arm was broken and in a sling. In Monday’s episode, Howard is thrown off balance once again by a person with a cast on their arm, but this time it’s the mediator, a respected judge who finds Howard just as unreasonable, for different reasons. While Howard spoke then of Chuck’s establishment of a scholarship program for deserving youth, in “Plan and Execution,” it is Gus Fring who we see presenting a massive check to a youth program, a connection that mirrors the new threat to Jimmy’s and Kim’s well-being. That heated conversation in season four takes place in Howard’s office, which is also where Howard, fully unhinged, begs Cliff to take his Jimmy theory seriously. Howard had the upper hand in his exchange with Kim, a woman with only one working arm. By Monday’s finale, he’s lost that upper hand by accusing a man in a cast of taking an amount of money from Jimmy that Chuck’s estate never would have allowed.
As Howard recounts his past with Jimmy and Kim in their apartment, he mentions the bowling balls Jimmy once chucked on his car, sparking a memory of another significant scene from season five. Back then, it was Jimmy’s turn to blow up after Howard, impatient with Jimmy for a host of reasons, including the bowling balls, rescinds a job offer to rejoin HHM. As Howard accuses Jimmy of harassing him — again, very rightly! — Jimmy tells him he sounds unhinged. Jimmy also becomes indignant because he thinks Howard’s job offer was only extended out of pity, and the last thing Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman wants is to be pitied by Howard Hamlin. Though the series never explicitly tells us this, this conversation must be one that Jimmy returns to, in his mind, every time he has second thoughts about Howard’s so-called D-Day.
“I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine!” Jimmy yells as Howard walks away from that confrontation. “You can’t conceive what I am capable of!” At the time Jimmy came across as sputtering, absurd, and a touch pathetic. But fast-forward to the end of “Plan and Execution,” and those comments now seem prophetic.
In the final moments of his life, Howard realized that Jimmy wasn’t lying. He really does travel in worlds beyond Howard’s imagination. Howard truly could not conceive of what Jimmy or Kim were capable of. But there is no satisfaction for Jimmy in Howard’s realization. Neither he nor Kim has gained power here.
In the last shot of this episode, Schnauz makes one more purposeful choice, focusing not on Howard’s body, nor on Jimmy and Kim’s shocked expressions. It is Lalo whose face takes up the entire frame. “Okay,” he says to Jimmy and Kim with disturbing calm. “Let’s talk.”
This is who they will answer to as we enter the very last chapter of Better Call Saul: the man who hides in a sewer and occasionally cleanses himself, but has no qualms about sinking back down in the muck.