Occasionally, both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul produce episodes that feel like their own mini-movies. And they usually focus on a single location or delve into greater detail surrounding one incident. I’m most reminded of Breaking Bad’s “Fly” or earlier “4 Days Out”, the latter of which “Bagman” perhaps draw the most from — as it likewise takes place out in the desert with only two characters. This instalment was directed by series co-creator Vince Gilligan, who apparently shot it over a difficult 18 days (that’s twice the time of a normal episode) immediately after completing work on El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story (2019). The cast and crew drove two-hours away from Albuquerque into the middle of the New Mexico desert, with Bob Odenkirk going method with real weighted bags. The result is a memorable hour of well-crafted visual television with gorgeous imagery and scenery, although it doesn’t add much new to the subgenre of ordinary people having to survive an extraordinary situation in an inhospitable environment.
Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) needs $7M in bail money, which his Cousins (Daniel Moncada, Luis Moncada) have picked up in Mexico and will deliver to a remote pickup site in the desert near the US border. Now in Lalo’s good books as a “friend to the cartel”, Lalo asks Saul (Odenkirk) to collect the millions, as he won’t arouse any suspicion, which Saul isn’t too happy about. And to Lalo’s unexpected credit, he senses his lawyer’s nerves and is fine about making other arrangements, but Saul’s greed gets the better of him and he blurts out an agreement to become Lalo’s “bagman” in exchange for a cool $100,000. That should help him get his dream house with new wife Kim (Rhea Seehorn), right?
If Lalo’s understanding behaviour was a little surprising (unless he knew Saul’s greed would come into play?), so was Saul telling Kim exactly what he’s up to. It makes sense because they’re now married and protected by spousal privilege, but one still expected Saul to spin a yarn in order to protect Kim. Or just keep her from worrying (which is what she ends up going through). But Saul’s still keeping up his side of their no-secrets “prenup”, which is good to see, although part of “Bagman” was making it clear through Mike (Jonathan Banks) that the best way to protect the ones you love is to keep them in the dark. It’s a lesson one assumes Saul will have learned after the events of this nightmare, even if that could mean breaking his marriage vow and ruining his relationship in the process.
Saul makes the pickup near a stone well, face-to-face with the scarily stoic Cousins (who’re always fun to see back), and happily drives home in his beat-up car with a fortune in the back. Unfortunately, Saul is soon ambushed by several vehicles on a desolate turning and robbed by gunmen, finding himself seconds away from being shot dead for his trouble, until an unseen sniper comes to his rescue and takes out all of the thieves except one who escapes in a truck. Saul’s saviour is Mike, of course, who was presumably informed of the Cousin’s drop-off by Nacho and asked to ensure Saul made it back with the money in one piece, as Gus now wants Lalo out on bail where it’s easier to keep an eye on him. It’s never made clear that’s what’s happened, but it’s a good assumption. One assumes Saul just thinks Mike was an insurance policy sent by Lalo Salamanca and not their rival?
However, in the midst of the firefight, Mike’s car is damaged and Saul’s scrappy ride only makes it a short way up the road before its alternator breaks down. And this forces them to push the car over a ravine and continue on foot, lugging their heavy essentials and the $7M in two heavy canvas bags, aware the surviving thief is still out there somewhere and likely prowling the area looking to complete the botched robbery.
And so begins an odyssey across the desert, with the threat of death lurking everywhere — most obviously from the searing heat and lack of drinking water, but also the surviving thief who’s doing a grid-search to locate them and complete his steal. Mike proves to be a survival expert, as one would expect, having brought some materials to help them get through a freezing cold night together, and Saul understandably struggles with the whole situation.
It’s been a long time since these characters, the linchpins of the show’s two halves, shared a lot of screen time. That alone made “Bagman” a fun episode, as it’s always great when Saul’s life and Mike’s life connect. And as Saul is drawn further into “the game”, this experience is undoubtedly going to be formative for him going forward as a criminal lawyer, as it’s his first taste of the dangers involved in working for a drugs cartel. Mike also shares that he has people he loves (a rare moment of him opening up), and advises Saul that keeping them in the dark is the best course of action. Saul can’t exactly erase what Kim already knows about his activities, but it’ll be interesting to see if his greed keeps him working for the Salamanca’s while now keeping his wife in the dark about that.
Of course, Kim’s no pushover, so I don’t know if that’s even possible as it’s been with Mike’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Kim even goes to see Lalo in jail after Saul doesn’t come home, which gets Lalo’s back up, in a scene that continues to make Lalo one of the show’s better new creations. He’s so arrogant and detached, occasionally quite reasonable, and yet also menacing when he needs to be. He doesn’t much care about “la cucaracha” Saul Goodman, but he realises that his new lawyer having a wife can be used as leverage to continue his usefulness to the cartel.
“Bagman” is certainly a season 5 highlight and one of the show’s best instalments ever, packing a lot of drama and excitement into an hour of television that’s been expertly assembled by writer Gordon Smith and director Vince Gilligan. It certainly owes a debt to the style and rhythm of Breaking Bad more than what’s perhaps typical for Better Call Saul, but as both shows exist in the same universe and there’s always been some stylistic crossover that’s not exactly a bad thing.