It was smart of Better Call Saul‘s creators to spend so much time, in the first few episodes, calling back to Breaking Bad. From the black-and-white short film of the pilot’s cold open, which updated us on Saul Goodman’s post-Walter White fate, to the second episode’s standoff in the desert, Vince Gilligan and his team proved they could recapture the mood of its predecessor. But what they’ve done since getting Breaking Bad fans on board is even more impressive: they’ve established Better Call Saul as a different yet not inferior show, with its own mood and rhythm.
Breaking Bad‘s greatest feat was sustaining tension through entire episodes and across five seasons. Even though viewers could be sure, after a while, that Walter White would keep plunging deeper into reprehensibility, Gilligan planted so many time bombs — in the form of other characters or even just objects, like the pink stuffed bear floating in the Whites’ pool — that the suspense never let up. Just as that show was a study in tautness, Better Call Saul has become a study in looseness, the plot, scope, and stakes varying wildly from episode to episode. It almost feels like a TV cousin to PT Anderson’s pathologically loose Inherent Vice. Last week, we got a portrait of Mike so focused it could have been a one-act play. This week was more varied, with characters and storylines the show had paused for one or several episodes floating back into the frame.
Before launching into the action of “Bingo,” we do get a quick update on Mike’s story, after a painful scene where they return the notepad to the cops and he dismisses Jimmy in favor of talking privately with his former colleague. It turns out the guy has troubles of his own, a brash, young reformer breathing down his neck over the precinct’s corruption. If Mike can convince his daughter-in-law not to rat them out, we’re given to understand that he can expect the investigation to go away. He seems confident, after their chat last week, that she’ll decide not to talk — but since the issue isn’t resolved by the end of the hour, it seems fair to wonder whether Mike’s confession will come back to haunt him.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Kettlemans disappear forever after that hilarious scene in the tent, but I was thrilled to see how their story (presumably) ended. We find them in a meeting with Kim, at HHM, as she tactfully explains that their best option — their only option, really — is to return the money and take the deal she cut with the DA. Instead of spending up to 30 years in jail, he’ll serve 16 months. “Your family is worth it,” Kim tells them. And then they fire her — because, you see, the Kettlemans are obsessed with maintaining the illusion of their innocence, to the point where it seems like they’ve even begun to delude themselves about the $1.6 million.
Craig and Betsy wind up across from Jimmy at the diner. (The scene where he takes their call, while he’s hosting bingo, is perfect.) “They treated us like we were guilty,” Betsy whines from deep within her pit of cognitive dissonance. Of course, Jimmy tries to convince the Kettlemans to go back to HHM. (Over the phone, he describes their weird denial to Kim: “Picture the 25th Hour starring Ned and Maude Flanders.” I had been waiting for the Flanders comparison!) But they’re dead set on having Jimmy represent them, if for no other reason than because he’s implicated. He took their $30,000, and they make it clear to him that if they were forced to return the money, he would have to pay up too.
And here where the episode’s heartbreaking dilemma comes in: Earlier in “Bingo,” Jimmy brings Kim to the impossibly large, luxurious office space he’s looking at renting — with the leftover money from the Kettlemans, no doubt. He shows her a beautiful corner office and reveals that he envisions it as hers. He wants them to be partners. But, like most things in Jimmy’s life, this is all fantasy. She’s got a two-year plan to make partner at HHM.
When it becomes clear that losing the Kettlemans has made her situation at the firm precarious (at best, she says, the two-year plan is now a ten-year plan), it’s easy to see how Jimmy could manipulate things in his own favor. He could keep his cash, rent the office space, represent the Kettlemans, let Craig go to jail for a few decades, let Kim get marginalized and perhaps even fired at HHM, bring her in as his partner.
The fact that he doesn’t is what makes Jimmy such a rich character, with such a complex moral code. Instead, he hatches an elaborate plan to have Mike mark Jimmy’s share of the cash with a UV-visible substance and return it in the back of a remote-control truck. From there, Mike follows the glowing fingerprints to the Kettlemans’ upstairs bathroom, where of course they’ve thrown it in with the rest of the money — which is stowed, in true Kettleman fashion, in a secret compartment below the toilet paper. Jimmy delivers all the cash to the DA, and the Kettlemans to Kim, presumably putting her back in good standing with Hamlin.
In the episode’s final scene, we follow Jimmy into that big, beautiful, empty office. He stares sadly out its floor-to-ceiling windows. And then he has a full-on temper tantrum, slamming the door and then kicking it uncontrollably (another masterful shot; we’re on the other side), then collapsing onto the floor. It’s a moment that gutted me, though the obvious visual similarities to Mad Men‘s central metaphor — powerful man gazes sadly out of big office windows — underline the differences in tone between Better Call Saul and cable’s more serious antihero dramas. With that in mind, “Bingo” ends perfectly: with Jimmy answering his phone as his own receptionist, in that horrible fake British accent, already well on his way to the next hustle.