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‘Better Call Saul’ Review: ‘Bagman’ Is About as Good as This Show Has Ever Been

A series of bad choices and unforeseen circumstances all make for an exquisitely made hour of television.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul”

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

[Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 5, Episode 8, “Bagman.”]

Add this to the list of “Better Call Saul” moments as profound as they are small: Jimmy McGill, waiting on a delivery of two massive bagfuls of cash, whispering to himself, “Yo soy abogado.” It’s a bilingual spin on the psych-up sessions we’ve seen Jimmy give himself plenty of times before. He’s a pro at rehearsing his own casualness. Here, though, he’s not just readying to tell The Cousins that he’s a lawyer. He’s telling himself.

Watching Jimmy establish that line in his own conscience is made all the more poignant by the fact that the remainder of “Bagman” asks him to stray so far afield from it that it takes him into the very heart of the New Mexico desert. An hour of deliberate acts of survival and maybe one terrible mistake, this is an hour that stands alongside the best that “Better Call Saul” or its famed TV ancestor has ever done.

That $7 million handoff turns out to be the least of Jimmy’s worries when, minutes later, he’s blockaded by a small unit of assault weapon-toting smugglers. They wrest Jimmy from his car, rifle through the two new additions to his truckload, and stand seconds from murdering him by the side of the road when sniper shots start raining from a distance. After a stomach-churning sequence where these momentary enemies drop one by one, the unseen savior appears to shepherd both a shocked Jimmy and his precious cargo to safety.

(It’s Mike. Of course it’s Mike.)

From his not-exactly-desert-approved loafers/striped dress socks combo to the way that he picks up an empty weapon and briefly considers how he might use it before tossing it aside, Jimmy is not equipped to handle the escalating chaos around him. Luckily, as has been apparent for weeks now, Mike’s new sense of purpose has him as locked in as ever.

First order of business for this two-man survival team is disposing of the evidence that could point the ambush’s lone survivor back to their location. Wordlessly disappointed that his own ride took a stray round to the fuel tank, Mike hops behind the wheel of Jimmy’s Suzuki to take them to safety. Part of what makes such a meaningful contrast between the two men in the aftermath of the shootout is that it’s not just Mike who’s proceeding in a matter-of-fact way: those new bullet holes on the Esteem’s hood are framed as if they’ve been there all along.

In true “You didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!” fashion, Mike quickly dispatches with Jimmy’s trusty sedan, sending it off the cliffside to a rocky repose. With little time left to mourn the Esteem (or the now-unusable World’s 2nd Best Lawyer mug), Mike and Jimmy are forced to traverse the uneasy terrain back to town, with a combined haul that includes Mike’s rifle, light overnight camping provisions, a few gulps of water, and the 700 stacks of cash split between the two bags.

One of Jimmy’s most endearing qualities is his ability to worm his way into situations and circumstances that seem beyond his reach. He’s a serial overachiever, even when that brings him more trouble than it’s worth. So it’s fascinating to see how “Bagman” presents himself with a circumstance that’s fully beyond his grasp. He’s not going to find some way to outwit Mike’s direction. It’s not that Jimmy wants to be disobedient or that he doesn’t trust Mike’s advice. It’s that Jimmy isn’t used to being purely a cog. Even when faced with the scourge of their natural surroundings, Jimmy is trying to retain a shred of his independence.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul”

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

That’s just one example of how episode director Vince Gilligan and writer Gordon Smith still find ways to show that “Better Call Saul” is right at home, even as Mike and Jimmy are robbed of their own comforts. The show can still provide the stable footing of an unconventional needle drop (Labi Siffre wouldn’t be most people’s first choice to soundtrack a trudge across the desert, but music supervisor Thomas Golubić is a wizard) and the reassurance of those tried-and-true time lapse panoramas (this time with an added gorgeous dose of surrealism). In the process, “Better Call Saul” doesn’t have to sacrifice the dramatic heft of Mike and Jimmy’s plight to still have those storytelling connections to everything that’s come before it.

Of course, not all of the pivotal moments in “Bagman” happen outdoors. For all the danger that Jimmy faces, it may very well be that all of it pales in comparison to the storm he unwittingly unleashes minutes into the episode. To the show’s ever-deserved credit, the moment he tells Kim about the drop isn’t overplayed. It may not seem like a great idea for Jimmy to reveal that much in the moment, but it’s also not exactly the first time he’s let the less-than-cleanly elements of his professional work seep into his relationship. It builds up that slow drip of dangerous info to the point where Jimmy and Kim and maybe even the audience don’t realize in the moment that he’s already gone too far.

Jimmy slipping that info into newlywed work talk proves especially dangerous after he doesn’t come back the night of the bail drop. As a result, Kim turns to the one person Jimmy most wanted to keep her away from: Lalo Salamanca. Not only does it break the thin scrim between her and Jimmy’s most dangerous clients, she walks into a showdown that, by necessity, will put her at a disadvantage. There’s no way Kim can explain why she’s asking for help without endangering herself, her husband, and any other individuals caught in this expanding web. It’s a shrewd mirroring of Jimmy’s situation — after a career of overcoming strategic disadvantages, Kim finds herself completely at the mercy of the only person who can help her.

An entirely unenviable position in her case, given that Lalo’s reaction to their conversation is as characteristically unfazed as Mike’s. In this verbal standoff between resolve and nonchalance, Lalo effectively claims victory, choosing to leave the room on his own terms. But again, now matter how or when this encounter between Kim and Lalo ended, the very fact that it happened at all sure seems like a fate-sealing turning point.

A pair of sentiments that bookend Mike and Jimmy’s desert excursion also point to things happening far outside this episode itself. Aside from being timely advice that anyone watching right now can appreciate, Mike’s reminder of “You’re alive. Focus on that” is also a wink to the idea that anyone watching knows that Jimmy’s going to survive this. “Bagman” is never about trying to trick anyone into thinking otherwise. If anything, Gilligan and Smith find more value in giving the audience a chance to pinpoint where that switch between utter, cactus spine-induced despair and urine-aided resilience.

It’s a switch that happens in the wake of perhaps Jonathan Banks’ finest moment of the season, a motivational speech that’s emotionally bare in a way Mike almost never allows himself to be. Telling Jimmy “I have people waiting for me,” it pushes the wayward abogado from a mode of pure self-preservation to one centered on getting back to his wife. Maybe he senses that if he makes it back in time, he can help Kim escape the snooping attention of Lalo’s minions. Maybe the promise of his bagman fee is enough to delude him into thinking that skipping town is still an option at his and Kim’s disposal.

Whatever the reason, if Jimmy’s swig of defiance is a triumph of sorts, it’s awfully momentary. Leaving the space blanket behind, he and Mike trudge along under the unforgiving New Mexico sun, with no guarantee that things will be any better once they arrive at their destination. Regardless of what additional horrors await them, watching this pair make their way through this stretch of it is TV at its most sublime.

Grade: A

“Better Call Saul” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

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