4 out of 5 stars

A relatively minor irritation of mine with Better Call Saul is how the two halves of the story—Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) evolution (or devolution?) into ‘Saul Goodman’, and the war between Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and the Salamanca family for dominance of Albuquerque’s illegal drug trade—haven’t converged much despite now being in the last stretch of episodes. However, there have always been welcome collisions of these two worlds along the way, and a particularly explosive one occurs at the end of “Plan and Execution” as the mid-season finale.

The ‘plan’ part of the episode returned us to Jimmy and Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) scheme to discredit and embarrass Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) as the Sandpiper settlement hearing gets underway. Clifford Main (Ed Begley Jr.) is already suspicious his golden boy’s a secret junkie who abuses prostitutes, but “Plan and Execution” finally reveals the scope and genius of Jimmy and Kim’s con. I gave credit to Howard for shrewdly hiring a private eye to snoop on Jimmy’s affairs, but it turns out his man’s a double agent working for the enemy. So as Kim and Jimmy rush to shoot new photos of Sandpiper mediator Rand Casimiro (John Posey) being handed $20,000 by Jimmy in a local park, now with his once-missing hand sling in view, everything comes into focus once poor Howard walks into the mediation and wrongly believes Casimiro is compromised. The brilliance of the plan is how the sleuth’s photos, which prove Howard’s claim, had been switched for ones that don’t show the Casimiro lookalike (John Ennis).

Worse, the images were tainted with the untraceable drug Jimmy and Kim got from the vet, which makes Howard’s pupils dilate and start sweating, so he appears like a strung-out nutcase when trying to convince Clifford he’s been set up. The whole situation leads to Schweikert & Cokely, led by Rich Schweikert (Dennis Boutsikaris), revising down their settlement offer and warning they’ll reduce it by $1M each day until it’s accepted. Howard and Cliff’s dreams of an enormous payout are sadly over, which means even Jimmy won’t benefit from a windfall (which was unexpected), but it seems it was worth it in his eyes just to see Howard taken down a peg or two.

This was certainly an entertaining and enjoyable conclusion to the first half of this season’s main story, and the Sandpiper case in general, which has been the cornerstone of Better Call Saul since the beginning. I still maintain it’s been difficult to see Howard treated this way because he’s not a terrible villain, but in some ways I know that’s the point. While we have sympathy for Jimmy and Kim because they’re two of the show’s leads, Better Call Saul is ultimately a subtler version of Breaking Bad—in the sense we’re again seeing two likeable people give into their personality flaws and become worse people. Maybe not to the extent of Walter White going from family man and high school chemistry teacher to terrifying drug lord, but it’s definitely intentional that we should feel bad for Howard as their unfortunate mark. Part of me just wishes he’d done a few truly awful things to Jimmy, so we could take more pleasure in the scene where he got his comeuppance in their eyes. But we’ll get back to Howard in a moment…

The ‘execution’ part of the episode concerned Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), who’s finally back in New Mexico having apparently tortured German engineer Caspar for information about the whereabouts of Gus Fring’s Superlab. (I have no idea how Lalo’s able to fly around the world without getting stopped at an airport but presume he has nefarious contacts to arrange safe passage. It’s just never made clear how he’s managing it.) For most of the episode, Lalo is simply surveilling the laundry building from deep inside the city’s sewerage system, peering out from a storm drain using binoculars and noticing the armed guards Gus has dressed as ordinary laundry workers. It’s unclear what his next move is going to be until he calls uncle Hector (Mark Margolis) at his nursing home, only to realise the line is probably tapped (which it is), then sees a cockroach and gets an idea we’ll have to be patient to see happen. Curious…

Of course, the final scene is what’s so memorable about “Plan and Execution”, as a disgraced and upset Howard comes to see Jimmy and Kim at their apartment late at night—heralded by the flickering of a candle flame, ominously. They’re quietly celebrating their plan coming together, forced to listen to Howard’s perfectly ludic and understandable speech about their ridiculous plot to humiliate him. He even compares them to Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students who kidnapped and murdered a teenage boy in 1924. It’s a beautifully performed scene from the excellent Patrick Fabian, who doesn’t get as much credit for his supporting role in Better Call Saul because there are bigger and more important characters surrounding him, but I’ve always loved his smooth broadcast-quality voice and the easygoing charm he brings to scenes. I’ve always felt bad for Howard and he makes his thoughts known in a way that reminded me of a school teacher scolding two irritating kids who pulled off the ultimate prank.

And then… in walks Lalo Salamanca like a ghost from the past, again heralded by the same spluttering candle flame, which we first thought was announcing his presence until Howard was revealed at the door. So now, unexpectedly, two disconnected parts of Jimmy’s story are standing in the same room, and both Jimmy and Kim are terrified of what a sociopath like Lalo might do. It was intensely awkward to be reminded that Howard has literally no idea who Lalo is, or what on earth Jimmy’s got himself mixed up in with the Salamanca’s, so he’s caught off-guard and utterly confused… until he notices Lalo calmly attaching a silencer to a handgun and tries to find a way to remove himself from the situation. But it’s too late. Lalo casually shoots Howard in the head before he even has time to register what could happen, and cooly says “let’s talk” as Jimmy and Kim have their world of petty games world turned upside-down.

It’s a fine way to end things halfway through this final season. For all the mischievousness that Jimmy and Kim enjoy getting up to together, which occasionally turns into maliciousness, they ultimately didn’t want Howard’s career to be ruined by their con. And now their tangled lives snared him in something he was never supposed to be a witness to, and he’s paid the ultimate price for their misadventures. It’s become deadly serious with one pull of a trigger, and it’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. How will they explain Howard’s murder to Clifford and the world? I presume they’ll have to either dispose of his body or perhaps more like fake a suicide? If so, Howard’s reputation will be in tatters after all, as Cliff will assume he killed himself due to substance abuse amplifying his professional embarrassment. It seems Jimmy and Kim are going to be strongarmed into helping Lalo pull off whatever his plan is for the Superlab.

Better Call Saul will return on 11 July for the final six episodes, so hold tight…

frame rated divider amc