Better Call Saul has been all about the long game from its beginning.
What would make the ornery, funny, usually well-intentioned Jimmy McGill turn into the colorfully-attired, drug-cartel-connected Breaking Bad lawyer who advises his client that murder is the way out of a jam? It’s a mystery we’ve been watching unfold for the last five-and-a-half seasons. What, too, would make the smart, hard-working, respected, and well-liked Kim Wexler become a person who turns her back on so much of what she appears to stand for and risk everything she’s built to torment a former colleague she resents?
And then there’s Howard Hamlin, who has perhaps been a bigger mystery than any of us realized. Was Howard just the pompous, privileged asshole Jimmy and Kim made themselves believe he was? And what was his real opinion of Kim, who he had mentored and helped pay for her law degree during her employment at HHM, but who he had also treated harshly at times (two words: “doc review”)? “Plan And Execution” finally answers both of those questions and drops some surprising nuggets, painting the clearest picture yet of Howard.
During his visit to casa McGill, where he confronts his tormentors, we come to understand Howard is pompous and privileged (his dad was the first “H” in HHM, after all). But he’s also carrying the weight of running the law firm, keeping a whole company of people employed, and incurring debt and depression and the breakdown his marriage. He’s a jerk sometimes, but he isn’t just a jerk.
While trying to deal with what he figured were more shenanigans by Jimmy, Howard seemed to be ignorant of, or simply ignoring, Kim’s role. He blames only Jimmy when he tries to convince Cliff Main the coke in the locker room and the hooker being kicked out of his car are Jimmy’s mischief. Ditto when he attempts to account for the fake PI and the disappearing photos of Judge Casimiro accepting an envelope full of bribe money from Jimmy after the disastrous Sandpiper hearing.
But when he’s at the couple’s apartment, hurt from an attack so personal and thorough, and impelled by a tumbler of Macallan, Howard tells Kim and Jimmy what he thinks of both of them. “You two are soulless. Chuck knew it,” he tells Jimmy. “You were born that way.” (These words are not a fresh indictment.) “But you,” Howard addresses Kim. “One of the smartest and most promising human beings I’ve ever known. And this is the life you choose.”
Kim is finally getting the acknowledgement of what she’s capable of. She knows she was not underestimated by Howard. But now she also knows everything she and Jimmy have done erased all those sparkling sentiments he felt about her, not just her intelligence but her capacity as a human being. Howard tells her she “has a piece missing,” that she humiliated him not for money but for fun. Howard confirms he is something of a decent man, one who has struggled and overcome a variety of personal and professional challenges. And he assures his enemies that he will land on his feet, that he will be okay. But he won’t.
Because Lalo has also been playing a long game, stalking those who have wronged him and his family. After cleverly tricking Mike to steer security detail off Jimmy and Kim, Lalo slinks into their apartment. (It was left unlocked, apparently, after Jimmy let Howard in.) Kim and Jimmy are terrified, but Howard knows nothing. Lalo explains he’s just there to talk to his lawyers, while screwing the silencer on his gun. Kim urges Howard to turn around and leave, something Lalo certainly wouldn’t have allowed, but before anyone can do anything, Lalo aims his gun at Howard’s head and pulls the trigger.
(Kudos to writer and director Thomas Schnauz for an episode that beautifully unfolded the completion of Kim and Jimmy’s intricate plan against Howard, Lalo’s undercover sewer surveillance of Gus’ superlab and security detail, and Howard’s tragic end. I especially love the moment when Jimmy first spots Lalo in the apartment. The framing of the shot and Bob Odenkirk’s horrified look and how Jimmy’s first reaction is to grab Kim’s shoulders and pull her away from Lalo perfectly sets up the devastation that follows.)
This may be the most shocking, jarring Gilligan universe death since young Drew Sharp was murdered by “dead-eyed Opie” Todd in Breaking Bad. It leaves us with a midseason finale-worthy cliffhanger that, thankfully, will resolve when the series returns for its final six episodes in July.
- How many consequences are going to result from Kim’s decision not to tell Jimmy that Lalo is alive? Maybe if Jimmy had known, he might have locked the door after he let Howard in. It, at least, would have spared them the surprise entrance and might have given them time to do…something? Or, had he known, he might have been so freaked out that he would have insisted they leave their apartment, as he did after Lalo’s last visit. They might have found a safer haven, and Howard might have been spared. The broken trust, that she didn’t trust him to help them deal with the danger they’re in, is something that will have to haunt both of them and perhaps has a role in their futures individually and as a couple.
- Howard’s most devastating words to Kim, after telling her he once saw her as “one of the most promising human beings” he’d ever known: deeming her and Jimmy sociopaths and comparing them to Leopold and Loeb, who were saved from the death penalty by a lawyer.
- When Howard was reciting his list of personal trials to Kim and Jimmy, the couple was surprised to learn about his crumbling marriage. It struck me as one of the saddest moments of his confrontation. As viewers, we first learned about his relationship troubles during his therapy session in “Hit And Run.” But to Kim and Jimmy, the fact that he had a therapy session was just an opportunity to further their plot to mess with his professional life. They never considered his personal life.
- Howard’s soda can trick, or rather, Chuck’s soda can trick, was also a sad reminder of Chuck’s foibles, and what it must have been like to go through life so paranoid about other peoples’ intentions that he had to preemptively defuse all his cans of carbonated beverages.
- Now I want Mrs. Landry’s potato leek soup recipe.