[Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 6, Episode 2, “Carrot and Stick.”]
One of Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) greatest strengths is pinpointing people’s relationship to money. It’s a psychological pressure point that he’s used to his advantage when dealing with people who have everything to lose. As someone who fashions himself a bit of a legal vigilante, Jimmy gives himself a steady dose of self-righteousness, justifying a little ethical murkiness if it separates someone from what they didn’t rightfully earn.
So how better to illustrate that “angle called justice” than a reunion with Albuquerque’s quaintest, nine-figure fraudsters, Craig and Betsy Kettleman (Jeremy Shamos and Julie Ann Emery)? Hurtling toward an ending that’ll likely have far more of the latter than the former, the second episode of Season 6 finds room for a blend of tragedy and comedy. Most of it is centered in the husband-and-wife embezzlement duo that formed the backbone of Jimmy’s inaugural lawyerly efforts on “Better Call Saul.” Of course, considering the circumstances of this trio’s reunion, the line between the misdeeds of attorney and clients is not as defined as it once was in the show’s opening episodes.
After a table-setting season premiere that set up a pair of forces destined to smash right into each other, “Carrot and Stick” upends its own dynamic by sidelining one of those immovable objects. With the possible exception of a tiny glimpse through the back window of a sedan, Lalo (Tony Dalton) is nowhere to be found here. That leaves an antagonist void of sorts, one filled by looking at Gus’ treatment of his former man on the inside as well as the uneasy Goodman/Kettleman/Wexler dance. Rather than spend this final season absolving Jimmy of his mistakes and offering a chance for repentance and make-goods before Saul Goodman completely takes over his life, “Better Call Saul” is shrewdly muddying the waters a little bit.
It’s the kind of zigzagging you’d expect from an episode that starts with Mike’s cold-open dismissal of Nacho’s housemates, delivered in his best “I’m not mad, just disappointed” tone. (It’s always fun to see Poppy Liu on screen — only a few more weeks before she comes back to steal every one of her scenes in Season 2 of “Hacks.”) There’s such trust in Mike here from director Vince Gilligan and writers Thomas Schnauz and Ariel Levine that you don’t even need to see what specs he’s describing as he calls in for a replacement safe. It’s enough to watch a man do his job and do it well without telegraphing the details. Though, sandwiched by him threatening two women and planting incriminating evidence on private property, this sequence doesn’t exactly make him a saint, either.
If most of this episode is further means to bringing about at least one character’s end, then the Nacho portion of “Carrot and Stick” is where life and death consequences really come to the forefront. Nacho’s motel room is even more of a pressure cooker than when we last left him, to the point where he wordlessly susses out that he’s being watched from across the courtyard. The cuts to the window, the smashing of the wall A/C unit (RIP), and the slow creeping around corners are all dialing up the anxiety in this escape plan, bit by excruciating bit.
The standoff with the snacking spy is the stuff that “Better Call Saul” makes look far easier than it actually is. The timing of the phone calls, the hand creeping toward the gun, and Nacho staring down from the shadows is beautifully tense work all around. As Gilligan frames him, Nacho has effectively been reduced to the weapons at his disposal keeping him safe. Maybe Nacho had more to offer his former bosses than a gun and a brain to use it. Now on the run for his life, possibly double-crossed by his only protectors, that gun is practically an extension of himself now and pretty much all he has left.
Whether “Martin Cavallo” (Happy Belated 50th Birthday!) is an identity that Nacho is trying to return to or leave behind for good, the walls are encroaching awfully quick. Here, those walls come in the form of The Cousins, making their second appearance in as many episodes, dead-set on bringing in “the traitor” alive. Credit Gilligan and DP Paul Donachie for setting up Nacho’s Demolition Derby escape from the Motel Ocotillo as one with some real force behind it. There’s one level of desperation that comes with double-wielding pistols and emptying clips out through the windshield. It’s another to rev a hot-wired pickup truck and floor it to ramming speed. This is the portrait of a man with nothing to lose, even if in Mike’s estimation, “He’s not gonna last.”
As the man making some severe life-or-death calls here, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is showing some of the ruthlessness behind the hypercomposed exterior. The triangular staredown between him, Tyrus (Ray Campbell), and Mike is a calibration of sorts. If they see their manipulation of Nacho as a sunk cost already, are they all willing to go one step further to take out Nacho’s father (the former Felipe Cavallo?) to fully cover their tracks? Tyrus seems ready to kill for insubordination, but a prescient phone call from Nacho proves that Mike’s instincts are a valuable tool, even if his moral compass isn’t completely shot.
For all those other unexpected turns, the wildest of cards continues to be Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who continues to use her Hamlin plot as a means to explore her own power. She’s effectively become Saul Goodman’s producer, giving advice on Jimmy’s chosen wardrobe, vehicle, and sales pitches. (The slow pull out from Jimmy delivering his own version of the “I believe in America” monologue, revealing that Kim is listening to how it sounds rather than how it looks, is such an economical series of storytelling choices.) Now, with the Kettleman’s silence in question, Kim gives Betsy a taste of what “that awful woman with the ponytail” is capable of.
Her lying-in-wait approach to the sealing the deal with her law enforcement associates on speakerphone shows that she’s been an even better student than Jimmy realized. Mere episodes after the Lalo showdown, now Kim is the one sitting in a living room, holding the lives of two people in her hands. It’s meticulous (that unbroken eye contact!) and unsparing, but she makes sure that her part in this blackmail effort results in some financial justice for the Kettleman’s victims. The balancing act continues.
Nothing is a coincidence in this corner of the TV universe, so it’s notable that the book we see on Jimmy’s nightstand is “The Time Machine.” A story of hubris, of someone who thinks he can use some shiny innovation to his own advantage, only to realize that he’s flung himself millennia away from everyone and everything that he’s ever loved? Can’t imagine Jimmy will find any lessons there. We’ve already seen that he won’t make it back to his own personal dinner party. We’ll see if that finally starts to sink in when whoever’s trailing in that second car finally catches up with him.
“Better Call Saul” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on AMC and is available on AMC+.