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‘Better Call Saul’ Review: Masterful ‘Bad Choice Road’ Sets Up a Season-Capping Standoff

Once your elevated heart rate has finally subsided, let's talk about what led to that jaw-dropping showdown.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 9 - 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 9, “Bad Choice Road.”]

It’s common practice for a TV drama to let a season’s penultimate episode be the powerhouse. Whether it’s the 9th or 12th or 21st chapter, these often have the gut punches, the crescendoes, the left-field wallops that make the finales that follow feel more like a transition to a new reality. Ever ones for sneaky misdirects, the “Better Call Saul” braintrust almost had everyone fooled that last week’s exodus through the desert had served that function instead, effectively setting up a two-part finale that dutifully finished out the rest of the unmade Season 5 moves.

The first four-fifths of “Bad Choice Road” certainly function like a deep breath before the final plunge. It’s dotted with the graceful touches “Better Call Saul” seems to be overflowing with these days: the quizzical glance from the woman who sees the bail amount Jimmy is about to plop on her desk, the nonchalant way that Lalo informs Jimmy that he knows about Kim, the sight of Mike Ehrmantraut wearing a T-shirt that’s not a neutral color.

Even as dominoes start falling, they topple in a noticeably straight line. Gus starts putting some pieces together about who orchestrated the bail money ambush. (At this point, Giancarlo Esposito is playing all the hits — “I just spoke to the man responsible for this attack” is pretty much his “Glory Days.” May a simmering-with-rage Gus Fring never be anything other than transfixing.) Lalo consults Hector at the nursing home, where Tio sure looks like he’s living through his own personal hell. Nacho sees a potential opening for a new start and to cut ties with his current employer.

With all the tumult at Schweikart and Cokely in the preceding weeks and the constant guilt about ditching clients in need to serve corporate whims, Kim’s sudden decision to quit seems like a natural extension of the concerns she’s had for a while. Maybe the particular breaking point was an unexpected one, but with her husband’s clientele taking a substantial pivot, there wasn’t going to be room for both of them to feel ethically compromised and emerge with their psyches intact.

If there’s one sequence that seems slightly disjointed from the rest of the episode, it’s the deluge of insults that Jimmy suffers from the plaintiff lawyer in the case that draws him back early to the courthouse. Even when the other guy is smushed up against the other side of the door, Jimmy’s once again forced to endure a situation that he can’t easily extricate himself from. Still, if the goal is, like with Gus’ Madrigal diversion a few weeks ago, to show how “Better Call Saul” draws character strength from the people who treat their work less like a game and more like a collection of human consequences, then emphasis made.

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul”

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

With his spirits burned as badly as parts of his body, Jimmy again seeks wisdom from Mike. The juicer-induced panic attack back at the apartment points to a Jimmy that might not return to his chipper, fatally optimistic self any time soon. He looks to Mike for a timetable.

Giving Jonathan Banks his second straight episode with a pep talk monologue would be overkill in plenty of other situations. But considering the one here is given as an answer to Jimmy’s sincere ask (as opposed to last week’s, which doubled as an act of self-preservation), Banks has the chance to change tack a little bit. The result is a beautifully delivered treatise on trauma and regret and, to some extent, denial. It’s essentially Mike’s “It will shock you how much it never happened” and Banks earns every sentence of it.

When Mike’s calming words reappear later in jumbled form in a kitchen fight with Kim, it underlines how much Jimmy still has left to process himself. We’ve seen Jimmy twist and rework the wisdom of others for his own purposes, but this is the verbal equivalent of running around with a flyswatter. The composure under duress that’s been his trademark is now visibly gone. He’s pawing at the place on his chest where a bloodstain used to be the day before.

There’s a line in their earlier conversation, when Jimmy brushes off Kim’s invitation to tell him exactly what happened out in the desert, that tips how far in Kim is ready to go. Her insistence on “no judgments” is not only a reminder that Kim has no way of knowing the whole truth, she’s essentially promised to forgive him of whatever he’d done to survive the journey back home, even if that includes killing someone. You can almost see her cycling through (and making peace with) all those worst-case hypotheticals as she’s waiting by her cell phone when Jimmy finally calls in the episode’s open.

All of those pieces are in place for an episode-ending spat that finishes off with each of them saying something they want to take back, with the prospect of a relationship-straining secret adding to Jimmy’s compounding traumas.

Then Lalo shows up.

What follows is impeccably braided sequence, with three threads woven together at a point when a blade threatens to slice each one of them to bits. For a sequence with so little movement, there’s a certain choreography at work here that goes beyond simple blocking. Every inch matters when there’s a sniper sight trained on the man with a gun in the living room.

Lalo clearly has the advantage, not just with the weapon at his side but in the space he’s able to take up. Sitting comfortably, he effectively monopolizes the whole couch (and most of the living room along with it). When Jimmy argues that this isn’t Kim’s problem, he’s doing so while trying to shield her as much as he can without overplaying how far he’s willing to go to spare her from what might be coming.

Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca- Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul”

Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

There’s a reason that Lalo is the perfect catalyst for a scene like this. He’s Anton Chigurh, only the coinflips are happening in his head. Better yet, he’s consulting his own internal algorithm with different inputs dialed up or down according to his second-by-second whims. He has the unpredictability of his impulsive, petulant brother combined with the faux geniality of his chicken CEO rival. He’s spontaneity and meticulousness in one deceptively volatile vessel. Tony Dalton makes that poisonous, affected smile work, especially when it’s coupled with Lalo’s blatant disregard for bodily harm. (The earlier leap down to the Esteem — rather than climb to the ditch floor — is just enough on the line of negligence to show that’s where he thrives.)

The arrival of Lalo forces all three people in the living room (and Mike listening in on a surreptitiously placed cell phone) to weigh in real time the information that they have at their disposal. Lalo knows about the Esteem and Jimmy knows about the potential reinforcements.

But it’s Kim — on a streak of recent strategic gambles that have ended up in her favor, from fudging municipal planning documents to standing up to Kevin Wachtell — that decides to put her life savings on 00 and let the roulette ball ride. Sensing an opening for her legal persuasion expertise, she starts to cross examination the homicidal witness standing mere feet away from her kitchen counter. Her explanation is just enough of a logic jump from one explanation to the next that, with the help of a little input from Jimmy, provides both a cover story and a reason to keep the abogado alive for any future murky deeds. Whichever prong of that argument rings true most for Lalo, Schrödinger’s Kingpin decides to leave the McGill/Wexler apartment without incident.

It’s a testament to Rhea Seehorn that this outcome even seems viable in retrospect. Call it bold or reckless or evidence of a true shift in her life’s focus and priorities, Kim’s passionate argument only works well enough to send Lalo away without a word if she’s delivered it with enough conviction to prove both her and Jimmy as more than a minor obstacle. In effect, she’s done what few in her situation have been able to do: sway Lalo’s intentions so far that it sets him on an entirely new path.

That last sequence is what you get from seasons’ worth of deliberate planning. Even at a point when this ending seems tailor-made to be that surprise second-to-last-episode gut punch, that it’s fated to be Kim Wexler’s goodbye, “Better Call Saul” has afforded itself some deserved unpredictability. There’s still ample evidence that all Kim has done is delay the inevitable. A good chunk of it is in her eyes as she turns around to look at a petrified Jimmy. The two of them may not have bought themselves much more time, but goodness what a haggle to behold.

Grade: A

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

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