Kim Wexler has fully found herself.
That’s what the fifth season of Better Call Saul was all about. She had scaled the mountaintop of the professional lawyering class, using her intelligence and grit to persuade Schweikart & Cokely to open a banking division with her as the lead attorney. But she quickly discovered that the type of law she was practicing, like clearing out residents for a Mesa Verde call center, thoroughly repulsed her, putting her on the wrong side of the people she wished to help. Her departure from Schweikart & Cokely, coming after a long scheme in which she and Jimmy sabotaged Mesa Verde’s efforts to boot an old man from his home, was also a recommitment to helping “the little guy” beat a system that’s rigged against them.
So when Kim takes a long look at an old woman shuffling away from Sweet Liberty Tax Services, unaware that her friendly third-party tax preparers have stolen a chunk of her refund, she feels fresh resolve about “the stick” she’s about to bring down on their head. She cleared her schedule for it. She doesn’t trust that Jimmy will have the fortitude to do the right thing despite his experience with Betsy and Craig Kettleman, the scam artists they’d both encountered in the show’s first season, when Craig was a treasurer who eventually got time for embezzlement. (Craig doesn’t work front of house at Sweet Liberty Tax Services, for obvious reasons, though their clientele probably can’t see far past their glaucoma to notice.) The Kettlemans are part of Jimmy and Kim’s elaborate plan to humiliate Howard and bring the Sandpiper case to a quicker settlement, but for Kim, leveraging justice on behalf of the Kettlemans’ clientele is a major side benefit.
Each of the episodes of Better Call Saul this season has had bifurcated titles (the premiere is “Wine and Roses,” and the next two are “Rock and Hard Place” and “Hit and Run”), and this one, “Carrot and Stick,” reveals a crucial wedge between Kim and Jimmy, whose partnership we know will not survive the season. Jimmy offers the carrot, Kim the stick, even past the point where the carrot has been deemed totally ineffective. The two are united in how they feel about the Kettlemans, who are obviously shady and exploitative, and about their shared goals regarding Howard, HHM, and the Sandpiper lawsuit. But there’s an element of “game recognize game” in the way Jimmy admires the scam the Kettlemans are pulling, even if he’s using their shameless greed to his own ends. They’re outlaws and rogues — his kind of people.
We’re used to prequels that reward fans with “Easter eggs,” like finding out how Han Solo got his name, but Better Call Saul has never been that kind of prequel. The biggest Easter egg in “Carrot and Stick” is the inflatable Lady Liberty that draws customers to the Kettlemans’ fly-by-night operation off a desert roadway — and will later draw them to Saul Goodman’s strip-mall office, which is comprehensive in its tacky patriotism. (Am I alone in thinking that Lady Liberty looks like melted-wax Adam Scott?) While offering themselves as a bulwark against the system, Saul Goodman and the Kettlemans both promise quick-and-easy (and cheap) services: They’ll get you settlements fast without the expensive overhead of a slicker operation. The difference is Saul exploits the system, not his clients.
Nevertheless, Jimmy knows the Kettlemans well enough to work them over to perfection. After successfully planting a packet of cocaine in Howard’s locker at the country club — enough to catch Clifford Main’s eyes — Jimmy and Kim want to reinforce the lie that Howard has a raging coke habit. And so Jimmy sees a few moves ahead on the chessboard: He will suggest to the Kettlemans that they have a huge “insufficiency of counsel” suit against Howard for representing Craig in a dazed state, but he anticipates (correctly) that they won’t want him as a lawyer and will instead cast out for high-class law firms like Davis & Main. He also anticipates (correctly) that Cliff will consider the Kettlemans’ suit frivolous, as will the other firms, but Jimmy and Kim just need Cliff to hear it. They’re short-conning the Kettlemans to long-con Cliff to longer-con Howard.
It’s not enough for Kim to leave it at that. For one, she’s right and Jimmy’s wrong when it comes to the Kettlemans and what it really takes to motivate them. Offering them cash to keep from blabbing to Howard is not enough to get the job done. Kim could have simply threatened to expose Sweet Liberty Tax Services to the IRS, whose criminal-investigation division will descend on her command, but she needs the Kettlemans to pay back the people they’ve ripped off. Those are her people, and they’re supposed to be Jimmy’s, too, but he’s weaker than she is and more morally permissive. They both operate on the margins of the law, but she draws lines he cannot.
The drama unfolding between Gus and Mike over Nacho and the failed assassination attempt on Lalo Salamanca is a mirror of the Jimmy-Kim subplot. Gus cares about doing whatever it takes to suppress any threat to his operation full stop, and any collateral damage doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to Gus, as it does to Nacho, that scores of ordinary people were killed on Lalo’s compound. And it doesn’t matter to Gus how loyal Nacho has been in helping carry out the attempted assassination. But Mike draws lines that Gus cannot. Mike believes Nacho deserves to be made whole. He believes Gus has a responsibility to extract him safely from Mexico. And he believes that Gus should not use Nacho’s innocent father as a chess piece.
The sequences at the shady motel where Nacho is holed up are crackerjack suspense, about the closest a TV show (or a movie, really) is going to get to replicating the slow-burn of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Nacho noticing the drip-drip-drip of an air-conditioning unit in an abandoned building across from his motel room recalls the famous opening of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West when droplets accumulate on the Stetson of a mercenary at a train station. Despite his exceptional instincts and resolve, Nacho doesn’t escape the Salamancas, who are so keen to keep him alive and confirm Gus’s involvement in the move on Lalo that the Cousins murder one of their own guys to assure it.
Needless to say, the Salamancas aren’t the sort to draw any lines, either.
• The old man in a bolo tie, collecting his (partial) refund from Betsy: “They’ll cash this over at the casino for me?” Absolutely brutal to imagine this man pumping coins in slot machines, kicked between two operations hell-bent on shaking every last dime out of his pocket.
• As in the first season, Betsy Kettleman is furious at Jimmy for what he’s done to her family. “Because of you,” she says, “we lost everything. Our kids are in public school!” The Kettlemans’ feeling of entitlement to ill-gotten gains is breathtaking — nothing more American than scam artists who believe they’re the victims.
• The amount of detail the show is willing to invest on the effort to break into Nacho’s safe and replace it with a replicant is one big reason Better Call Saul stands apart from other shows. Leaving the audience waiting to figure out why is another big reason.
• In an episode in which Jimmy and Kim use the predictable greed of the Kettlemans to get what they want, Gus uses Hector Salamanca’s hatred of him as a shortcut to figuring out whether Lalo is dead or not. Hector’s eyes tell him more than an autopsy report, dental records, and a site map.