Jimmy, Kim, Mike, and Gus pick up the pieces after last week’s bloody climax to more than one mortal threat.
It’s all fun and games until someone’s murdered on your living room floor. Everyone expected the distance between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman to be closed with a bang. And it did, but not in the way most expected. The deed is done. After so long, the man who viewers first met in Breaking Bad has arrived. And Kim Wexler lives, but she also leaves.
That is the bombshell in an otherwise sanguine installment of Better Call Saul. Despite the title, “Fun and Games” is not an especially chipper or fun outing for the series. It is, instead, focused on picking up the pieces after so many dark, dramatic events from the season, and arguably the series, have finally come to fruition. The season’s ninth episode is, if not an epilogue exactly, then certainly the capstone to what so much of the last several years of the show have built up to.
The episode opens with a spritely montage, rife with match cuts of Saul (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) going about their day as if nothing happened, just as Mike (Jonathan Banks) instructed then, while Gustavo’s (Giancarlo Esposito) men scrub their apartment clean and erase any evidence of the grim deeds that transpired there. And just like that, it’s done.
The look on the couple’s faces when they return to their freshly-cleaned home says it all. When they’re behind closed doors, they can drop the facade and feel the enormity of what’s just happened. Yet, it’s the scene that follows that’s the codex for “Fun and Games.” Some stellar framing and lighting position Kim and Jimmy at odds. She’s crumpled on the bed, and Jimmy’s sitting on the edge of it, the emotional distance between them illustrated with physical distance. The last McGill standing is as gobsmacked as his wife. But he tells her that one day they’ll move past this. One day they’ll move on. One day they’ll forget.
But the unifying idea of this episode — the one that binds the disparate stories of Gus, Mike, and Kim — is that they can’t forget. Each has achieved their goals, eliminated the immediate threats, secured their windfalls. Nonetheless, each still bears the weight of what’s been lost to get there.
The saddest story is Fring’s. He cleans up the last remaining bit of the Lalo affair. Hector protests to Don Eladio, but as with Howard complaining about Saul and Kim’s skullduggery, Gus’ scheme is so byzantine that telling the truth makes you sound ridiculous. The boss grants Fring the northern territory, and with a warning that presages events to come in another show, closes the book on the Salamanca threat for the time being. But before Gus leaves the compound, he gazes into the pool and recalls the brutal death of his partner there. His sullen look and memory of what took place casts a shadow over everything that comes next.
With Lalo dead, Gus can finally relax. He returns to his home and lets the light in, a marked contrast to the darkness that saved him from his would-be killer. He goes to a bar and flirts with a handsome waiter he knows well. They gush, to the extent Fring can gush, about wine and the Rhône valley and special bottles for special occasions. Gus is clearly smitten, and his friendly acquaintance’s kindness and chattiness suggests the feeling is mutual.
Yet, it’s not to be. When the waiter stops off to grab another bottle for show and tell, another look crosses Gus’ face. Maybe it’s simple cold feet. Maybe it’s the gruesomeness of what just transpired. Maybe it’s the thought of how his line of work puts those close to you in danger, something Jimmy and Kim experienced in harrowing terms. Whatever it is, it causes Fring to leave abruptly rather than pursue something he clearly wants.
The best guess, though, is that it is the echo of Gus’ wistful look into the pool earlier. It is the pang of guilt that to hang around and consort with this man any longer would be a betrayal to someone important. It is the closest confirmation the series offers that Max Arciniega was not merely Gus’ business associate, but instead the love of his life. It is the memory of someone dear to him, lost forever, but who still has a hold on him all these years later. Killing Lalo, killing every last Salamanca, even killing Don Eladio, cannot bring Max back or allow Gus to move on.
Mike is no more able to shake off his own ghosts when the smoke clears. With his work done, he returns his deadly implements to their case and finds the fake ID Nacho procured to help his father escape. Mike tries in vain to let it go. But he’s a father too. He knows what it’s like to lose a son under terrible circumstances. And he cannot help but go to Mr. Varga to break the news to him, man-to-man.
Mike Ehrmantraut gives Manuel Varga the peace of certainty. He explains that Nacho won’t be found, reassures him that the young man made mistakes but never truly broke bad, and that his son’s killers will face justice. But Mr. Varga, ever the bastion of purity, rejects the suggestion as laughable. In his eyes, the choices made are lamentable, but revenge killings don’t achieve justice. Instead, they only perpetuate the violence, spur people to continue in these vicious cycles rather than exit them, and render all these gangsters the same.
The season’s ninth episode is, if not an epilogue exactly, then certainly the capstone to what so much of the last several years of the show have built up to.
That may be the ultimate moral of the fictional universe of Better Call Saul. There are players viewers root for in this story, Mike chief among them. He is noble, honorable, and decent, in a way few in his line of work are. But he also does awful things. Lives come to terrible ends with his help. It’s easy to believe he’s different, more laudable, than the worst of the cartel. But it’s worth looking at the carnage he abides and abets and considering if that’s really true.
More to the point, Breaking Bad viewers know that Manuel Varga is right. This doesn’t end. The Salamancas die, but so do Mike and Gus and countless other soldiers and civilians in this war. This isn’t victory. It’s a temporary reprieve before more blood is shed, more vengeance is taken, and no one is better for it.
The only way out is to do what Mr. Varga told his son to do so many times, what Mike strove to do only to relent when circumstances compelled him, what Jimmy McGill seems preternaturally incapable of doing — get out of the game.
Only Kim has the moral fortitude, the strength of will, to recognize this grisly climax as the wake-up call it should be. She and Jimmy make an appearance at Howard’s funeral and put the finishing touches on their big lie. When Howard’s wife refuses to believe that her husband was on drugs, Jimmy spills his guts a bit about why he resented Howard, how he had the respect of Chuck in the way Jimmy never did, how that made Jimmy tweak him at every opportunity and “inadvertently” gave Howard a paranoid complex. But it’s Kim’s lie that seals the deal, a yarn about accidentally spotting Howard snorting something late at the office one night that sends the widow into tears and eliminates the last bit of lingering doubt from those who matter.
It’s also Kim’s last straw. There may be no bigger wham line in Better Call Saul than “Because I’m no longer an attorney.” She cannot live with this. She cannot pretend it never happened. She cannot move on. She is haunted by Howard’s death in the way that Mike is haunted by Matty’s and Gus is haunted by Max’s.
Only it provokes a change in her that the other characters cannot muster, a willingness to cast away the factors and circumstances that led her down this road no one else has.
The biggest factor of them all is, of course, Jimmy. What separates the couple after all these years is not, as so many feared, one of Jimmy’s ploys getting her killed. It is not some sense of shock or disgust at his actions that scares her away for good. It is, instead, a moment of self-recognition. Kim and Jimmy love each other, but they are bad for one another. They bring out the worst in each other. They are mutual enablers who, as Howard correctly diagnosed, get off on pulling these schemes together.
Their plans may ostensibly be for the greater good, but they get men like Howard killed. They grind Chuck McGill’s legacy into the dirt as his name no longer carries on in the practice he founded. They make simple conmen into friends of the cartel who must talk down murderers in their living rooms to walk away with their lives.
The difference between Jimmy and Kim is that Jimmy can envision moving on from that. In the parking garage of HHM, where they spent so many moments bonding together, he tells his wife that they can start healing after the funeral, now that their last, ignoble duty is complete. Jimmy believes it. He can live with it. Except Kim can’t, and unlike so many people in the world of Better Call Saul, she has the conviction to act. After all this mess, all these schemes, all this blood on their hands, she leaves Saul, heading off to pay penance and reckon with what they have wrought together.
That’s it. Untold time passes. The bare scalp and barer ass of a shyster lawyer on a rotating bed tell the audience that the man from the series’ title is firmly and finally here. The transformation from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman does not stem from one event or one cause. It is the steady escalation and accumulation of little moments, that sanded down his scruples and ratcheted up his excuses. But with the woman he loves gone — the last piece holding him back removed, the final tether to something worth caring about outside of himself severed — his final descent into becoming Saul is a fait accompli. In the end, Kim realized this wasn’t a game, but like so many others, Slippin’ Jimmy just keeps playing.