The one consistent through-line of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is a pessimism about redemption — that once characters like Walter White and Jimmy McGill break bad, they lose themselves forever, sliding so far down the slippery slope that their former selves are a distant memory. They become the part. Walter became Heisenberg; Jimmy became Saul Goodman. Part of what makes these shows so compelling are those small moments when they rediscover pieces of their humanity and take some noble action, but that’s not the same thing as fully accounting for their wrongs. It’s not even close. And it leads them to an extremely lonely place — without allies, without conscience, imprisoned by the roles they’ve chosen to play.
In tonight’s gripping episode, Kim Wexler proves to be the exception, though even her redemption is fascinatingly qualified. In the six years since she divorced Jimmy and moved to coastal Florida to work on catalogs and brochures for a sprinkler company, all the relevant parties involved in her and Jimmy’s situation are gone. Lalo, Mike, and Gus are all dead, and there’s much more interest in finding “Saul Goodman” than her, despite their relationship. But this week, we finally hear the phone conversation that had upset Jimmy so much in the previous episode. It turns out to be an important exchange for her, too, though certainly not in the way Jimmy could have expected or hoped. She fully finds her stubborn self again, and it’s a glorious thing to witness.
Last week, acting on Francesca’s news that Kim had asked about him, Jimmy worked up the courage — the gall, really — to drop coins into a pay phone and call Palm Coast Sprinkler. He affects a casual, what’s-up tone that’s strange and off-putting in that slick, Saul Goodman way, assuming that she’d want to know he’s still around, “getting away with it.” When she’s cool to that approach, he presses further, wondering if she “has a pulse,” perhaps thinking that his old partner-in-crime might be as bored with her fake-normal life in Florida as he is playing Gene the Cinnabon manager in Nebraska. “You want me to say something?” she says sternly. “You should turn yourself in.” The best she can manage is to end the call by saying that she’s glad he’s alive. The heartbreaking thing is that she means it.
But Jimmy is undoubtedly right about Kim’s new life. It isn’t worthy of her. Scripted by Vince Gilligan, “Waterworks” takes its time laying out the parameters of Kim’s banal new world before getting to the call. She’s the most overqualified sprinkler catalog writer in the business, but she can’t help but be great at the job, studying the minutiae carefully and deploying power verbs like “heralds” in her copy. She has a boring dope for a boyfriend who offers the exotic Miracle Whip as a replacement for mayonnaise and keeps bleating “Yep!” with each thrust in their surely unspectacular lovemaking sessions. She’s game for cookouts and company birthday parties and doesn’t wriggle like “Gene” does at a life of workaday mediocrity. Florida Kim probably would have never taken action had a voice from the past not summoned her.
You almost have to squint a couple of times to see the Kim Wexler we know in those early scenes in Florida, with that darkened hair and those sensible shoes, but the Kim who resurfaces in Albuquerque is unmistakable. As she beelines to the courtroom to give a full affidavit of her actions from six years earlier, Kim gets a not-so-subtle glimpse of the lawyer she once wanted to be as another bright woman in a ponytail prepares a humble client for court. But she is there to swallow hard and do the right thing, even though there’s no reward for it. (That’s another reason those who break bad can’t break good too easily: there’s no angle in coming clean.) She feels like she owes the truth to Howard’s widow, Cheryl. From there, the chips will fall as they may.
One important wrinkle to Kim’s confession is that it’s calculated. When Cheryl gets to the end of it — and from the glimpses we get of the text, she leaves nothing out — she asks what kind of criminal charges Kim is expecting. She was a lawyer, after all, so surely she thought about it. Kim tells her that it’s the District Attorney’s decision to prosecute, but she assumes that they won’t because there’s no physical evidence and all the witnesses are dead except Jimmy, “assuming he’s still alive.” (Crucially, Kim knows he’s alive, so she’s not coming completely clean here.) Cheryl threatens a civil suit that might bankrupt her, but that would be punitive since Kim doesn’t have any money, and Cheryl can perhaps appreciate Kim’s confession, which is late but still extraordinarily unexpected. When Kim bursts into tears on the airport bus, it feels like the long-delayed catharsis of a person still capable of being human.
By contrast, Jimmy is pretty far gone. Picking up from last week, he personally executes the plan to rip off the cancer-afflicted rich guy, but greed and hubris finally get the better of him. Gilligan ramps up an already tense sequence when Jimmy gets away with stealing the man’s identity but cannot bring himself to walk out the front door and escape in Jeff’s cab. There’s an element of greed and hubris to his decision to walk back into the house, explore the upstairs, and even treat himself to a drink, but there may be a willful self-destructive impulse working within him, too. At the very least, Jimmy needs to feel the high of almost getting caught — close scrapes have become a kink to him — and he gets more than he bargained for. The woefully clumsy Jeff, panicked by a cruiser that parks right behind him, decides to floor it and immediately crashes into a parked car around the corner. The mark wakes up, too, leading Jimmy to improvise an escape.
True to form, Jimmy has planned for this contingency. He knows very well that Jeff is a loser. So just when it seems like “Gene” would disappear from Omaha forever, Jimmy actually settles back with another drink at his place awaiting the inevitable phone call from jail. But he doesn’t count on Jeff’s mother, Marion, having her doubts about him, and he certainly doesn’t count on his tutorial on search engines coming back to haunt him. It turns out “con man in Albuquerque” is just as potent a search as “funny cat videos.” And now, Jimmy McGill is on the run again.
But there’s a small moment of irrepressible humanity for Jimmy here, too. He cannot harm Marion, despite his threatening posture with the phone cord. He has a weakness for the elderly. Just ask the grateful plaintiffs in the Sandpiper suit.
• The University of American Samoa is to law schools what Hollywood Upstairs Medical College is to medical schools.
• The exchange between Florida Kim and her boyfriend (“Looks like rain again.” “Yeah, it does.”) is so close to the ending of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape that it must be an homage, right?
• A good retort from Cheryl after hearing that Howard “didn’t suffer.” Jimmy and Kim’s lies have painted a picture of him that’s hard to erase. It’s Kim’s hope that her confession will go some distance in fixing that, but that’s a tall order.
• The Cuban cigars in the mark’s loft recall a scene in Breaking Bad’s second season when Hank busted out his own Cubans, and Walt questioned him about the arbitrary nature of the law and Hank’s hypocrisy in choosing which law to break and which to enforce.
• Kim had the integrity years earlier not to take the Sandpiper money, which annoyed Jimmy, who eagerly took that and more. The way he glibly barks, “Have a nice life, Kim,” is stunning in its lack of feeling.
• Lovely scene between Kim and Jesse about Saul Goodman’s capabilities as a lawyer. “This guy? Any good?” “When I knew him, he was.” That seals it for Jesse, who wants to get his guy Emilio out of trouble. (Alas, poor Emilio has another kind of trouble awaiting him.) But Kim’s use of past tense says a lot about the distance between Jimmy and Saul.