Better Call Saul: The Three Trapped Animals in “Bali Ha’i”


From the moment he received it, the “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” mug has been a symbol of the way that Jimmy doesn’t really fit with his new surroundings. “Bali Ha’i” doubles down on that symbolism throughout the episode, showing the several ways that the nascent Saul Goodman is a square peg who does not quite belong in the round hole that he now finds himself in.

That’s the major takeaway from the episode’s funny and creative cold open, which features Jimmy fighting insomnia in his generic corporate apartment. He takes the odd wicker balls that seem to be the default decoration in any upper-middle class setting, and turns those bland accent pieces into pure fun and games, whether it be an impromptu bit of hallway soccer or a spate of trick shot basketball. In a moment of resignation, Jimmy turns to late night television to soothe him to sleep, only to find that Davis & Main has adopted his idea to use commercials in order to reach potential Sandpiper clients, but they went with the standard bland production in lieu of his attention-grabbing spot. Eventually, Jimmy is left with no choice but to return to his hovel at the old salon. He clears out enough room for his fold out couch, and is finally at home, at peace, and able to get some sleep.

The broader implications are clear. Try as he might, a man as colorful as Jimmy doesn’t fit into the antiseptic world he’s stumbled into, with the generic living space, the anodyne commercial, and the slick corporate car that doesn’t quite accommodate his oversized novelty coffee mug. So when, at the end of the episode, he pulls out a tire iron and bashes in the cup holder until there’s enough space to hold his beverage container of choice, it’s not just a scene of day-to-day frustration; it’s a quiet act of rebellion that speaks to the ways in which Jimmy is growing ever-weary of the space he inhabits.

But the episode’s major focus is on how that the same weariness and frustration extends to Kim as well, who is out of the basement, but not quite out of the doghouse at HHM. The episode depicts the sense in which both Jimmy and Kim are feeling boxed in, cornered, and unfulfilled by their current circumstances. Jimmy is cataloguing clients in a tedious session where the meticulous Erin is triple-checking his every word. And Kim cannot even go out to lunch without Hamlin sending an envoy of his own to keep her at her desk, with only the promise of an ordered-in meal from “that fancy new salad place” to placate her.

Kim, unlike Jimmy, finds herself with an attractive out. After she goes to court to argue a losing motion, her opposing counsel, Rick Schweikart, not only compliments her for going down swinging, but takes her out to lunch afterward. Schweikart is a sharp contrast with Howard, especially lately, a man who can’t even bother to tell Kim to work through the lunch hour himself.

 

"I wouldn't have to grow a goatee to fit in, right?"

 

At the restaurant, Schweikart offers Kim the golden ticket: a partner-track position, a clean slate for her student debt, and the benefits of being hand-picked by a partner with his name on the door. But more than that, Schweikart’s argument comes through when he tells Kim an old war story about his own experience arguing a losing motion with no support from the men upstairs. He explains that he left his old firm because the people in charge didn’t have his back. The Pacino-like Dennis Boutsikaris does a lot with a little in this brief scene, and his performance helps to cement the appeal of what Schweikart is offering. His proposal is particularly salient at a time when Kim is questioning whether she has a real future at HHM, given the frosty reception she continues to receive from Hamlin despite her hard work and recent successes.

Kim clearly feels a certain loyalty to HHM that she is loath to ignore. She tells Schweikart that she’s been at the firm, in one capacity or another, for a solid decade, that they brought her up from the mailroom and put her through law school and she’s hard-pressed to walk away from that. But Schweikart responds with the valid point that HHM is still making her pay them back for every penny, that it’s not kindness or generosity on Howard Hamlin’s part, but sheer self-interest — HHM not only didn’t give her a “gift” by sending her to law school or putting her to work, but they’re actually taking advantage of her by not using her to her full potential and sending her on fool’s errands like having to argue that motion.

The accusation has all the more force when, in an excellent scene, Hamlin is stone cold to Kim as the two of them walk to meet the Mesa Verde clients, until he mechanically turns on the charm a few steps before they walk into the room. Not only does Kim have reason to doubt that Hamlin, and the firm he oversees, truly have her back, but she has reason to doubt that Howard ever did. At a minimum, she sees that with his ability to shift his demeanor and put on whatever mask suits him at the moment, she cannot trust that she’ll ever really know where she stands with him.

As much as last week’s episode was a showcase for Rhea Seehorn as Kim, this week’s episode gives her even more opportunities to convey her character’s emotions in subtle but striking ways: the way her eyes light up for split second when Schweikart encourages her to imagine what she could do at a firm that recognized her talents and abilities, the look of longing that when she’s sitting at the bar and gazing at Schweikart’s business card, the gradual smile that spreads across her face as she listens to Jimmy’s voicemail, and her conflicted stare when Jimmy asks her about the job offer. It’s a virtuoso performance in an episode where Seehorn does a tremendous job selling the thoughts that Kim is turning over and over in her mind without ever requiring her to say them out loud.

 

"This is a step from my usual con -- stealing the moscow mule mugs."

 

“Bali Ha’i” brings these two individuals, each feeling the desire to buck against the forces meant to hold them in place, to a simple reunion where they can each blow off a bit of steam by conning another rube at the same bar where they last worked their combined magic. The rub of that sequence comes later, when in the morning after, Kim admits she has little interest in cashing the mark’s $10,000 check; she just wants to keep it as a trophy, a symbol of what both she and Jimmy are capable of when they’re not constrained by the strictures and authority figures that keep them in their gilded cages.

Jimmy is trying to convince himself as much as Kim when he tells her that he took the Davis & Main job because it’s what he wanted, not because of her. And Kim is trying to figure out what she really wants and where her talents would be best utilized. There’s a greater strength to Kim that suggests she’ll find her path, even as the more temperamental, if charming Jimmy McGill (whose answering machine song was adorable) seems more and more poised to trade in the good life for the much scrappier one in which he’s more comfortable, whether he means to or not.

Mike also finds himself backed into a corner in this episode, locked into a world he’s been trying to get away from. After what was supposed to be a one-off transaction with Nacho, Mike is unfortunately still embroiled in a dispute with the Salamanca family that requires him to continue to dabble in a criminal world he never wanted to return to in the first place.

There’s something undeniably compelling about Mike as the reluctant badass. When he stands up to Arturo (Hector Salamanca’s henchman) without intimidation, when he slips carbon paper under his newly-purchased doormat in anticipation of another attempt to rattle him, when he uses his incredible sense of anticipation and misdirection to neutralize his would-be assailants, it’s thrilling and fun. And it culminates in one of those trademark Breaking Bad-Better Call Saul sequences that keeps you on the edge of your seat. But when Mike’s hand trembles after he methodically cleans off the gun he used to pistol-whip the intruders–much the same way it did while he sat at the bar and waited for Matty’s killers in “Five-O”–it’s clear that in his heart of hearts, he wants no part of this.

 

"I'm not really enjoying this odd remake of Sister, Sister. I can't even tell which one's Tia and which one's Tamera."

 

But the appearance of Hector’s twin nephews (a thrilling moment for Breaking Bad fans) forces Mike’s hand. In my review of “Gloves Off”, I wrote about how Mike has a few things in common with Batman. “Bali Ha’i”, on the other hand, puts the grizzled grump in the unexpected company of Superman, the “Big Blue Boy scout” who occasionally teams up with his counterpart from Gotham. The challenge in writing Superman stories is creating stakes and tension for a character who is impervious to nearly any threat. Similarly, when a character is as uber-capable as Mike, it can be difficult to make it seem as though anything can phase him. And yet, the answer in each case is to show that no matter how strong the character at the center of your story is, the people close to them, the ones your hero is trying desperately to protect, may be much more vulnerable. The striking image of The Cousins gazing at Kaylee from the distance, and the sharp change in Mike’s demeanor, says everything about how to put pressure on someone as calm and collected as Mr. Ehrmantraut.

But his actions at the end episode are telling. In a wonderfully tense scene, Mike stands up to Hector even as he’s acquiescing to him. And when Nacho comes to his house to make the delivery of Mike’s ransom money, the former cop, now in bed with the criminals, offers his former accomplice half. Even though Mike himself has gone through quite a bit on both sides of the law, he still has his principles and a code by which he conducts his business. Under that code, the fact that Mike didn’t fully do the job he was hired to do means that Nacho is entitled to some of his investment back.

Sure, it’s partly just good business, but that code is also a part of Mike that he cannot turn off, even in the “no honor among thieves” setting he finds himself in. It’s the same way that Jimmy cannot escape the colorful conman side of who he is despite his plush surroundings, and Kim cannot ignore the conflicting parts of her that value loyalty but also the thrill of that con and the idea of living up to her potential. “Bali Ha’i” finds three of the major characters in Better Call Saul being walled in through circumstances beyond their control, and explores the way in which who these people are at their cores is something they cannot ignore or squelch, especially when that part of them is clawing at the walls.


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