You could be forgiven for asking, “Hey, isn’t there some guy named Saul on this show?” for much of “Sabrosito.” It’s an episode that turns over most of the proceedings to Gustavo Fring and the people in his orbit, with just enough of a narrative side dish to remind you that Jimmy and Mike are the show’s main characters.
But I’m not complaining. Giancarlo Esposito has a certain presence about him that can hold your attention in a way few other actors can muster. And the events that affect him here — the cold war brewing at Don Eladio’s compound, the mutual affronts between him and Hector, the declaration of resolve from Fring to his employees — add so much shading to what we already know about the grudges and rivalries within the cartel from Breaking Bad. “Sabrosito” serves as a direct prequel to the events that Walter White would eventually become tangled up in, in a way that the rest of Better Call Saul hasn’t really. By using Gus as a conduit for that, “Sabrosito” practically guarantees a quality outing for the show.
And, as usual, there is some theme-based connective tissue between the seemingly disparate, constituent parts of the episode. Gus’s story in “Sabrosito” is ultimately about standing up to bullies, not giving into intimidation, and holding your ground in the face of the people who believe that you deserve less. It’s about pushing back against those who don’t respect you, who believe that your new approach doesn’t measure up to their old ways, and who think you need to kowtow to their wants and wishes.
But so is Jimmy’s. Sure, an ornery older brother trying to drum you out of the legal profession is not quite the same thing as a rival drug dealer using his position in the cartel to lean on you, but “Sabrosito” draws a clear line between Chuck and Hector. Both of them are oldtimers, long entrenched in the systems in which they operate, ready to use their connections, power, and the network they have amassed over the years, to stamp out the people who would challenge their hegemony.
For Hector, that means preventing the upstart Gus from infringing on his territory. The opening shot of the episode, set under the water in Don Eladio’s pool, not only puts Breaking Bad fans on alert for little pink bears, but it calls to mind both Gus’s partner being killed at the edge of that pool and Don Eladio himself meeting his end there. It’s an interesting start to the episode that immediately makes the setting laden with meaning before a single word is spoken.
That means the atmosphere is already a bit fraught when Don Eladio, gregarious shit-stirrer that he is, makes Hector feel like the lesser man in the shadow of the bigger stack of crisp, clean bills that Gus sent his way. The Los Pollos Hermanos shirt Don Eladio puts on only adds insult to injury. So Hector goes to throw his weight around in the best way he knows how – by messing with Gus in his own restaurant.
Things turn unexpectedly tense for a scene set at a fast food chicken restaurant. Still, Hector knows the best way to get to Gus is to violate the sanctity of his domain, to tweak Fring where it will bother him most. Hector wanders around the meticulously-kept Los Pollos Hermanos outpost, violating every norm of cleanliness and decorum imaginable. He intimidates customers, smokes, wanders in the back, and carves gunk off his shoe right onto Gus’s desk. The message is clear — I am in charge here, and even if there’s a greater authority than us both, you will accede to my wishes.
That’s the message Chuck sends as well. There is the same air of tension as the McGill brothers, and their legal representatives, march in to accept the A.D.A.’s deal. Chuck, true to form, similarly tweaks his brother about every niggling detail of the process, from the wording of Jimmy’s confession to the cost of the destroyed cassette tape. And from the minute Ms. Hay converses with Chuck about his condition, it’s clear that this is far from a neutral proceeding, removing any doubt as to whether she is, knowingly or not, taking Chuck’s side on this. The peak of these prodding gesture comes when Ms. Hay requires Jimmy to not only sign his confession and make restitution, but to apologize to his brother.
In facing down such demands, Gus and Jimmy stand in the same position. Both are clearly on edge, effectively taunted by the very people who want to squeeze them out. But each maintains his composure, not rising to the bait intended to throw them off balance. Each lets his tormentor believe that they’ve won the battle. Gus, stoic as he is, simply makes firm-voiced defenses and stands dignified and unmoved. Jimmy, always a little more heart on his sleeve, turns his supposed apology into a recrimination against his antagonist, albeit one subtle enough to pass muster with the A.D.A.
But neither of them is beaten. Through Kim’s clever phone-booking and Mike’s combined conman/handyman skills, the Kim and Jimmy not only have a plan to thwart Chuck from getting Jimmy disbarred, but they have the benefit of Mike’s surveillance to go on. Gus, for his part, stays resolute, but is clearly concocting a big plan of his own. When he explains himself to his frightened employees, he speaks of a refusal to bend, to allow the old guard to flex its muscles and have the newcomers cower in fear. He resolves to stand his ground, and those in his employ applaud him for it.
But poor Mike, who is not yet officially in Gus’s employ, may be a big part of that plan. Mike story is the most understated one in “Sabrosito” but also, in its way, the most poignant. Mike is a taciturn individual by nature, which calls upon Jonathan Banks to fill in the blank spaces between bits of dialogue with his world-weary expressions. When Mike sits with his granddaughter nestled under his arm, there is a hint of wistfulness, of regret in his eyes, enough for his daughter-in-law to pick up on it. These are the loved ones for whom Mike committed those terrible deeds, for whom he got other innocent people killed. Better Call Saul, as usual, plays its cards close to the vest, but Banks’s performance gives the sense that the moral calculus of these acts is weighing on Mike in that moment.
Reflecting on his con in the guise of replacing a door, Mike remarks that it was nice to get to fix something for once. When we see him later in the episode, he’s reading Handyman Magazine. Mike is good at his normal extracurricular activities — the way he manages to nonchalantly shoo Chuck away using power tools demonstrates that — but there’s also a sense that he’s tired of this life.
Keeping his daughter-in-law and granddaughter in that nice neighborhood, with the good schools and safe streets, costs real money, and Mike’s most marketable skill, the one that brings those brown paper bags full of dollar bills, isn’t a pleasant one. Mike’s demeanor hints that he wishes he could simply rest and maybe even start to build things rather than tear them down.
One of the best qualities of Better Call Saul is the way it uses its status as a prequel as an advantage rather than a hindrance. The tension between Gus and Hector in “Sabrosito” is heightened because we know they share enough bad blood that in the future, Hector will sacrifice his own life to take out Fring at the same time. Jimmy’s tête-à-tête with Chuck has added intrigue because it seems as though Chuck has his brother dead to rights, but we know that Jimmy will continue practicing law, by hook or by crook, prompting the audience to wonder how Jimmy will wriggle out of this one.
But it also creates a sense of tragedy, of a sad destiny for characters like Mike. It isn’t a bully who compels Mr. Ehrmantraut, nor does it seem likely anyone could intimidate him into doing much of anything. And yet, he is no less pulled by forces beyond his control than Jimmy or Gus. He feels the need to care for his family, the need to make up for the death of his son that he holds himself responsible for, that we know will keep from the life of a contented handyman.
The encounter between Mike and Gus at the end of the episode, where Mike agrees, in his typically cagey way, to work for Gus, is partly a momentous one, because it serves as a milestone for a partnership that will pay each of them dividends long down the line. At the same time, it’s a recommitment to a line of work that will ultimately grind away at Mike, that will lead to his death, and will jeopardize those stacks of dollar bills he has stashed away for his granddaughter.
It’s hard to say that it will lead him to ruin. Mike is not a young man and he enjoys close to a decade of being able to care for his family via Gus’s largesse. But for at least a moment in “Sabrosito,” it seems that at a time when Gus and Jimmy are firm and committed to staying in the game, Mike wants out. And we know, however much he may want that — the ability to while away his time fixing doors instead of dusting cartel goons — he’s fated to keep at this until, one day, it will kill him.