Art by Gage Skidmore
Abe Beame saw you kicking bars to cops at the Taco Cabeza.
At the beginning of episode 8 of season 4 of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Walter White is in the staging area of an oncology center waiting for a Positron Emission Tomography paired with a computed X-Ray Tomography scan with another patient who starts making small talk. After Walt explains the science behind the test the two cancer patients are about to take, the other patient espouses a host of conventional aphorisms people in crises like to espouse. Among them is the old chestnut, “Man plans and God laughs”. An offended Walt responds, “That is such bullshit. Never give up control. Live life on your own terms.” This, in many ways sums up the Tao of Vince Gilligan, the head writer, and executive producer of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
The shows are groundbreaking triumphs of style and storytelling that follow the shopworn arc of prestige television, but their meat, what they are obsessed with, is obsessiveness.
Gilligan presents his antiheroes with the same thoughtfulness as Chase or Weiner, but he often expresses their slow moral erosion not in those writers’ mannered details, but in the language of genre. Big, bold set pieces with many working parts and the stakes and tension of a thriller, that mount and ramp up over seasons until the mild mannered chemistry teacher or punchline schleppy ambulance chaser have become supervillain monsters. It’s a shockingly dynamic style that can apparently work regardless of what world Gilligan decides to settle in, be it the crystal meth trade or mundane contract law.
His shows tell rigorous and exhaustively detailed stories about people who are rigorous and exhaustive in their approaches to life in all facets: making drugs, selling drugs, detective work, public defender casework, for any problem life may offer, Gilligan and his writers will find a gleaming Rube Goldberg device solution only his shows are capable of delivering. His joy is creating impossible garden labyrinths to place his imperfect perfectionists in the center of, and constructing unorthodox, elegant solutions only they can conceive of to spring themselves. His characters are puzzle hunters that live for challenges and problems to solve. He builds ships in bottles, Popsicle stick Statues of Liberty, works that pay insane attention to every detail and can build entire worlds out of say, the product code for an industrial air filtration device hastily jotted on a fast casual takeout menu.
It’s become more than a device for Gilligan’s shows, it’s a calling card, a brand. The characters in his universe take no shortcuts in the shortcuts they routinely take. Every season of every one of his shows contain several magician’s tricks dissected to show us each sleight of hand and how they fit together. That this never becomes stale and continues to be wildly inventive and compelling is a testament to his neurotic genius.
Every character, every interaction, every poolside potted plant is Chekhov’s gun in a Gilligan show. No writers on earth know their characters, their history, the minutia of their lives and environments better than these writers know theirs. Every detail they throw into their complex plots comes back and matters in some form, with some payoffs coming years later. The shows operate on daisy chain logic where no action exists without an eventual, often devastating consequence. These shows trade in story that doesn’t round up or down, only exact change.
The following is a consideration of (almost) each and every one of these complex challenges, ordered by degree of difficulty in execution and impact on the characters and their stories. Not everything you could theoretically file under the category of plan, scam or scheme is here. The great Kim Wexler figuring out a tax loophole to get a client out of paying two states for every barrel of oil they produce is brilliant, but it’s also presented as a ready-made solution. This list is dedicated to the multi-part procedure, the taxing emotional gauntlets these characters have to weather. We’re grading on the scope of the plan, its ambition, the coordination of its moving parts, and what the failures or triumphs reveal to us about their architects.
As I itemize this list you may notice the use of over technical language when it comes to articulating chemistry, or biology, or legalese. And that is intentional. In an initial viewing, or even subsequent rewatching, much of the semantics that compose these plots may wash over the casual viewer, but when considered through the lense of the hyper precise nerds who wrote it, it constitutes dozens, if not hundreds of little love letters to process: Researching the chemical composition of meth, the legal expectation of privacy in New Mexico state law, or the Department of Homeland Security’s shipping protocols of aqua methylene across the country in the wake of 9/11. Like any of Walt, or Jesse, or Gus, or Hank, or Jimmy, or Chuck, or Kim’s masterworks of detailed thought and execution over the course of 10.5 seasons of television and a movie, it represents a miraculous list of exhaustive dedications. Edutainments small and enormous, spanning minutes of television in some instances and years in others.
Like any good Gilligan protagonist, I’ve spent weeks painstakingly mapping, and painstakingly ordering each item. I like to flatter myself in thinking Vince himself would at the very least appreciate the gargantuan scope of ambition, and the obsessive cataloging of his work.
39. Breaking Bad s4 e9, “Bug,” s4 e11, “Crawl Space” – Ted Beneke’s IRS Debt
Ted Beneke is the biggest dumbass to ever appear on either of these shows including all the meth heads, so it’s fitting that he was in the middle of Breaking Bad’s least consequential conflict.
During a rough patch in Walt and Skyler’s marriage in an earlier season, she goes back to work as a bookkeeper for Ted, who took over Beneke Fabricators from his father. Skyler observed the company wasn’t reporting all of its income, but Beneke begged her to go along with it because he claimed it was the only way the business would survive, so Skyler signed off.
When Skyler learns the company is being audited by CID and she could be complicit in the fraud, she dresses up like a floozy mistress and shines the investigator to help Ted avoid criminal prosecution. She literally plays dumb. The ruse works, but there’s a $617,000 tax bill to pay and if Ted defaults, the IRS could take another look and risk further prosecution.
With Saul’s help, Skyler fabricates a windfall, a long lost German Aunt died some time ago and left Ted the sole benefactor of her estate, $617,552.33. Ted responds by leasing a Mercedes and makes plans to spend the money on the business. Skyler confronts Ted directly and orders him to repay the IRS bill but he refuses, even when she straight tells him she gave him the money to pay the tax debt. Then, Ted attempts to give Skyler most of the money back, in what feels like a shakedown.
Finally, Skyler has Saul send his goons Patrick Kuby and Huell Babineaux to intimidate Ted into writing and mailing a check, then hang out with him under house arrest until it clears. Ted meekly complies, then tries to escape, tripping, sliding into a wall and breaking his neck in the process. A fitting end for this fucking moron.
This multi episode arc felt like padding. Breaking Bad is one of the most tightly plotted shows ever made, but it came at a time when 13 episodes were standard for a prestige one hour drama and perhaps my critical function has been microwaved by Netflix, and the eight to ten episode season, but I felt it acutely on a rewatch. Even this bit of fluff has a serious consequence, because as Walter prepares to relocate the family, thoroughly beaten by Gus with his brother in law in serious danger, he doesn’t have the money to disappear because Skyler used it on Ted’s payoff. It still feels forced, and plays like a bit of comic relief (but it’s always a pleasure getting screen time with Bill Burr and Lavell Crawford).
38. Breaking Bad s5 e12, “Rabid Dog” – The Gasoline Story
Late in the show, in a rage, Jesse steals Saul’s car, breaks into Walt’s house and starts dousing the living room with gasoline. When Walt gets home, the car is left abandoned in front of the house, the house is soaked with gasoline, but Jesse is nowhere to be found. Walt has a company come replace the locks, repair the door jamb and vigorously clean the rug but it’s no use. The gasoline has permeated the subfloor and nothing short of replacing the rug will make it unnoticeable, with no time for a job of that magnitude before Skyler gets home.
Rather than simply explaining the situation to his wife and partner who has been courtside for the rollercoaster nature of Walt’s work and life for months, Walt creates one of his dumbest ploys, dousing his clothes and even his car with gasoline, disposes of the canister in a neighbor’s curbside trash can and creates an elaborate story around a malfunctioning gas pump and his stupidity leaving the soaked clothes on the rug.
Skyler and even Walt Jr. immediately see through the bullshit. Skyler confronts Walt at the hotel they go to hide out in and he admits what actually happened (to a point). It’s an example of how with only three episodes left in the series, Walt has made little to no growth when it comes to being open and honest with his wife, who at this point there is basically no reason to lie to. Walt is and will always be pathological in his deception as well as his need to arrogantly and paternalistically manage those around him.
37. Breaking Bad s2 e1, “Seven Thirty Seven” – Poisoning Tuco
After seeing mid-level dealer Tuco Salamanca beat one of his own men to death for no reason, Walt and Jesse realize continuing a business relationship with Tuco is untenable. They also worry for their own safety, having witnessed a murder. Jesse’s first response is to pull out a gun and suggest they kill Tuco before he kills them. This coming early in his descent, Walt is still averse to violence and murder, at least a direct, highly risky attempt on a psycopath considering Jesse doesn’t even know how to open the cylinder of his wouldbe murder weapon.
When they reconvene, Walt has a plan: Beans. Castor beans can be processed into ricin, a highly toxic poison that is lethal in small doses, takes time to do its work and is difficult to trace in an autopsy. Walt and Jesse blend the beans in a Vitamix, lightly toast the grounds and mix the powder in with a bag of meth. Tuco is a meth head so their plan is to tell him they have a new formula they’re trying out and hopefully entice him into sampling it.
The plan ends up being a bust. Jesse and Walt are still amateurs and they fuck up a few times trying to deliver the ricin before Tuco is murdered in a completely unrelated manner. But it introduces an important element to the show. Ricin has a huge role to play in Breaking Bad. It’s a key element in two of the most important schemes ever executed on the show, and its very presence in Gilligan’s “No loose threads” approach to story is always a lurking threat. Throughout the seasons, whenever ricin is produced the writers go out of their way to make sure we know who is in possession of it currently and exactly where it’s stashed.
It also shows how far Walt has to go because of how badly he fucks up this relatively simple plan. If not for divine intervention, this would’ve gotten both he and Jesse killed.
36. Breaking Bad s2 e8, “Better Call Saul” – Badger Gets Knocked
Season 2 is primarily concerned with Walt and Jessie setting up their own shop and becoming street level local dealers. The plight of Badger (who along with Skinny Pete are the universe’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern) explores the type of problems that existence invites. Brendan Mayhew sells to an undercover in the most hilarious possible manner.
This leads to The first scam with the great Saul Goodman, who we meet fully formed, slimy and smarmy. Jesse won’t allow anyone to kill Badger, they can’t have him do serious time and he can’t take a real plea without incriminating them. Enter James Edward Killkelly, A.K.A. Jimmy In and Out, who has spent 44 of his last 58 years on the inside as a professional confessor/inmate. He makes a living taking raps for others.
This means they don’t have to kill Badger and he doesn’t have to confess to anything real. He just has to “set up” Killkelly in a bogus sting. There’s a minor issue when Badger picks the wrong white bald guy on the wrong bench to try and set up. Jesse has to walk by and redirect while Walt sets a pick, pulling up on Hank observing the bust in a van, blocking his view of what was almost a botched handoff.
35. Better Call Saul s1 e10, “Marco” – The West Facing Kennedy Half Dollar
After the initial disappointment of the Sandpiper case going to HHM without him, Jimmy goes home to Chicago and meets up with his old scamming buddy Marco, still hanging out at the old dive they would haunt. After a few minutes of lackluster small talk that only serves to pronounce the different directions each man’s life has taken, they get to the real reason Jimmy came home, to run some classic Slippin’ Jimmy cons.
The first involves making loud enough conversation at the bar so a douchey suit can overhear Jimmy bragging about a rare half dollar featuring Kennedy facing in the wrong direction. It’s the work of a rogue technician at the Denver Mint who flipped the direction Kennedy was facing to symbolize hope for an American future. 1000 of the coins made it to circulation, most of which have been rounded up and melted down, but there are still 200 floating around and Jimmy just happens to be in possession of one.
On the open market it’s worth $600-800 but Jimmy’s hard up so he’d settle for $100 from Marco. While Jimmy is in the bathroom, Marco asks the mark for his opinion and he immediately sniffs the bullshit, then Marco “calls” his uncle’s friend, a coin dealer who confirms the authenticity of the coin on a disconnected phone. The two create a fake bidding war and Jimmy parts with his ordinary westward facing Kennedy half dollar for $110.
The con is a poetic piece of writing and a great performance from Bob Odenkirk. It helps explain why Jimmy is such a gifted lawyer and why his gift is so dangerous when applied to his chosen field. It also sparks a hilarious montage as Jimmy and Marco go on something like the kind of bender/binge montages you normally see employed in films or television shows about addicts, which is the point.
At this juncture, Jimmy is frustrated by the legal profession in New Mexico, so he dives headfirst back into his old life with his favorite enabler. But once some of the steam has been blown off, the reality of New Mexico and the life he’s created there still exists, and the sadness of Marco’s life, the life Jimmy could’ve had if fate hadn’t intervened is crushing. At the end of the episode, pulling their old “dropped wallet” scam, Marco dies with a smile on his face, doing what he lived for. It’s a wake up call to Jimmy that this door has closed forever.
34. Breaking Bad s3-e9, “Kafkaesque,” s4-e6, “Cornered” – Cleaning the Money
How to legitimize the drug money is a struggle the writers stay mindful of. Saul pitches a few options late in the third season, a day spa, and a laser tag place. With Skyler’s urging, they end up buying the car wash Walt worked at part time at the beginning of the series. But it isn’t easy. Walt’s old boss, a Romanian named Bogdan Wolynetz, refuses to sell to Walt and Skyler because Walt was disrespectful when he quit.
Walt comes up with a plan to send Kuby to bust Wolynetz, portraying an environmental auditor. He’s being fed his officious spiel by Skyler through an earpiece as he does a phony test on the sight around the carwash. He informs Wolynetz that his filtration system is leeching ammonia, acetone, benzene, and nitrobenzene into the groundwater, which violates the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act of 1978, section 4, chapter 74 part 13, and he can be cited by the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 U.S. Code Title 15, chapter 53, subchapter 1 section 2606. Kuby tells him he’s suspended and he’ll need to replace his filtration system at an expense of $200,000 that will take at least five weeks. Wolynetz comes back to the table to negotiate, at which point Skyler goes down to $800,000 as a “fuck you”, and he has to agree.
Throughout her time as the treasurer/CPA to this criminal enterprise, we watch Skyler trying to manage the increasingly impossible amounts of cash: Vacuum sealing dress bags with stashed bundles, ringing up thousands of dollars in extra sales, and finally, resorting to piling the millions, forming a giant platform in a storage space.
Saul’s main selling point for the laser tag space is it’s run by a manager with questionable morals, someone who can be coerced, and will look the other way. To his, and maybe some of our surprise, Skyler fills that role at the carwash. For Skyler, cooking the books is like cooking Meth. It’s a way for her to assert herself, to provide value to the empire. She finds the work interesting, and she’s good at it. It also clocks Skyler’s slow moral decline. The first season of Breaking Bad had a few C and D stories that made a half hearted attempt to suggest this, “Lives of Quiet Desperation Angle” where nearly every character committed some sort of illicit behavior that suggest a blurry line of what they considered moral. This storyline is a return to that.
33. Better Call Saul s1 e3, “Nacho” – The Kettlemans
The Ted Beneke of Better Call Saul is a couple, Betsy and Craig Kettleman. Craig is a Bernalillo County Treasurer who embezzled 1.6 million dollars and is facing prosecution. He’s also cowed by his wife, a delusional asshole who will sacrifice anything, including her husband, to hold on to the money he stole.
The entire arc of the Kettlemans across Season 1 is a comedy of compounding errors. The original sin is Jimmy trying to scam them into taking him on as an attorney, a con worthy of Slippin Jimmy, involving two skateboarder punks faking injury to extract cash payments. This creates a series of entwined fuckups and coincidences that lead to starting Jimmy’s relationship with the Salamancas, as well as Mike Ehrmentraut.
The Kettleman ordeal is at once a perfect and in retrospect, slightly suspect introduction to Jimmy’s role in the universe. We get to see young, starving Jimmy desperate to move above low level overflow Public Defender cases as he attempts to scam the Kettlemans into taking him on as their representation. We see his early stage humanity and sense of responsibility when he acts against his own interest in warning them they may be in danger, opening Nacho up to prosecution and himself to mortal danger when the family disappears itself. We see Nacho in his early stages as a smart, but immature, willing member of the criminal enterprise that he will soon be a soulful prisoner of.
We see Jimmy’s resourcefulness, Mike’s wisdom and their begrudging yet strangely warm bond as they help each other locate the family camping in the wilderness, then Mike helps Jimmy take back their extortion cash without stealing it for himself. And we see Jimmy’s dogged loyalty to Kim, sacrificing a payday he badly needs because he knows it will hurt her standing in the eyes of her boss.
There’s a bit much dot connecting when it comes to the Kettlemans’ roles in the universe. It’s incredible to consider the Kettlemans are the genesis for many of the foundational relationships both shows are connected to. Without them, the entire story and its players would potentially have never come together. And yet, it’s a testament to how rigorous the approach is. These are mild suspensions of disbelief we’d grant any other show. It’s because of the intellectual integrity of these two series that for a moment, you stop and think, “So Mike just HAPPENED to be working the booth at the courthouse parking lot and Tuco’s Abuelita worked for the Kettlemans?”
32. Breaking Bad s2 e3, “Bit by a Dead Bee” – Reappearance
After the Tuco kidnapping, Walt has to find a way to explain where he and Jesse have been and what they’ve been doing after Skyler reports him as missing. His solution is to feign a chemo induced fugue state by stripping naked at a supermarket. Jesse has to explain why his car was at the scene of a shootout, so Walt instructs him to claim his car was stolen out of a motel parking lot during a bender with a prostitute who backs his alibi.
Walt is committed and placed under psychiatric evaluation, but needs to get out of the hospital to resume cooking. He has to “come clean” to be released to his own recognisance so he creates a second elaborate alibi for his shrink.
The scheme leads to Skyler’s discovery of Walt’s second cell phone, an indicator that Walt is hiding something from her that is causing all the irregularities in their lives and creates a rift between them. It shows Walt’s increasing comfort with coordinated deception on a large scale. In his performance for the psychiatrist, it also displays his flare for inspired, improvisational acting.
It’s a credit to Bryan Cranston, but as the stakes rise, Walt begins to find himself in situations he can’t simply think his way out of. He needs to be able to be convincing with his plays to get what he needs out of the people around him. It’s chilling to watch him cook up a fairly cliche Talking Heads song as he explains to the psychiatrist he just needed to get out of the house and away from the crushing stress of his life (also, not much of a stretch), but you understand why the shrink accepts it because he’s completely believable in the room.
31. Better Call Saul s2 e7, “Inflatable” – Jimmy Gets Fired
After Kim hooks him up with a conventionally great partner track job at Davis and Main in connection to the Sandpiper case, Jimmy realizes pretty quickly he’s not cut out for a square corporate lawyer gig. The problem is he was given a fat bonus, and won’t be able to keep it unless he’s fired without cause. So he goes about getting himself 86’d.
Jimmy goes back to his old garish wardrobe, he gets a loud juicer in the break room and squirts all over two lawyer’s suits, he leaves floaters in the toilet then cops to doing it in front the entire office, he lectures the night porter in faux racist, broken Spanish even though the porter is from Michigan, and the last straw is buying a pair of bagpipes he plays in his office literally, “to blow off steam”. It’s about as much fun as we get to have in the first two thirds of season 2.
Much like Jimmy returning to Chicago after his gig at HHM gets tanked at the end of Season 1, the Davis and Main opportunity shows us that there isn’t really another option for Jimmy to become anything but Saul Goodman. Davis and Main is a plum gig the show constantly tells him he’s lucky to have, but he never gets comfortable. The firm never accepts him for his unique skill set or acknowledges his needs, and no one is shocked when he willfully detonates the relationship.
30. Breaking Bad s1 e6, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” – The Fake Meth Bomb
When Jesse first approaches Tuco to begin supplying to him, he’s beaten badly and robbed. Walt decides to go to Tuco in an attempt to get paid and begin a legitimate business arrangement. He knows he’s taking a risk walking directly back into a place where his partner was just assaulted so badly he was hospitalized, so Walt’s plan is to bring what looks like another bag of meth with him, which is actually a bag of fulminated mercury.
The compound is made by dissolving mercury in nitric acid and adding ethanol. The insanity of the play, along with the threat of Walt dropping a bag that I imagine would turn the entire block into a smoldering hole in the ground, is enough to earn Tuco’s respect and get the $50,000 for the meth he took from Jesse, in addition to $35,000 for his expenses, and suffering.
The surprise explosion makes for a great scene, and Walt’s first foray into the politics of drug dealing, but ironically the science of it has always bothered me. He detonates a mini bomb at his feet powerful enough to blow out the windows of the building, holding an entire bag of equally sensitive mini bombs, but he’s unharmed and the rest of the fulminated mercury wasn’t dirsturbed? I got a B.A. so take this with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t make sense.
29. Better Call Saul s4 e10, “Winner” – Mourning Chuck
After Jimmy gets rejected from his first attempt to be reinstated after a year-long ban from practicing law, he attempts to manufacture remorse over Chuck’s death. Jimmy puts an ad in the paper announcing it’s been a year since his passing and spends a day performing grief at Chuck’s gravesite. He then writes a $23,000 check to dedicate a Chuck McGill reading room at the University of New Mexico. It’s the patronage of an “anonymous donor”, but Jimmy’s camera crew is in disguise as caterers. They make it well known as they circulate that he put the money up for the tribute. He also, after ignoring the offer in the immediate wake of Chuck’s death, ends up sitting on the board awarding college scholarships Chuck had established in his will. Jimmy advocates for the less obvious candidate, a young woman who has a shoplifting charge on her record, and is roundly voted down by the rest of the committee.
What’s heartbreaking about this con is the lengths Jimmy has to go to in order to feign sadness over the loss of his brother that he’s too broken to understand he actually is devastated by. When he uses Chuck’s letter in his reinstatement hearing as a prop to tear up, and, “speak from the heart” about what Chuck’s name and legacy means to him, it’s the point of no return for Jimmy McGill as he transitions fully into the Saul Goodman persona.
28. Breaking Bad s1 e7, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type-Deal” – The First Methylamine Heist
Through the first season, Walt and Jesse manufacture methamphetamine using pseudoephedrine, a nasal/sinus decongestant that has been qualified as a precursor for meth and as such, it’s distribution is tightly controlled by drug stores and pharmacies. To get the necessary amount of pseudoephedrine, Jesse has to make 400 mile round trips, buying sinus medication off “smurfs”: Scavengers who buy in small amounts for cooks from scattered locations.
As their operation scales up this has to change, and does when Walt has the idea to begin making phenylacetone via reductive amination to make the meth in weight. The missing ingredient is methylamine, a compound categorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a List 1 Precursor, thus held under lock and key.
Jesse tracks down a lead on a warehouse holding barrels of methylamine that can be broken into and robbed. Walt and Jesse collect aluminum powder from several Etch-A-Sketches and mix it with powdered iron oxide to create thermite, a composition of metal powder that will eat through metal when ignited by heat. Specifically, through the lock of the warehouse door where the methylamine is stored. After using bungee cords to trap a security guard in a port-a-potty, they break in and steal a barrel.
Much of the humble first season focuses on simply finding time and space for production and gathering the means. This is the most concrete example of the challenges that can pose. Walt and Jesse’s playing at criminality is still amateurish. It’s also fun. We get to see Walt in prime Fun with Science mode as he explains the chemistry behind thermite to Jesse, contrasted with the idiocy of their execution. They shlep the barrel back to their RV carrying it on each side, but as Hank later points out reviewing the security footage, it’s a barrel. They should’ve just rolled it.
27. Breaking Bad s5 e6, “Buyout” – The Restraint
With the DEA stalking him, Mike wants to get out. His plan is to take his share of the stolen haul of methylamine and sell it to a dealer in Phoenix. Jesse wants out as well, but Walt of course refuses and threatens to tank the deal. The meth syndicate in Phoenix will only take the methylamine if they’re getting all of it, so at gun point, Mike sits Walt down in their headquarters the night before the deal is going down and keeps him there so he can’t fuck everything up. Mike has to leave Walt to meet with the DEA with Saul in order to get them off his tail long enough to make the sale, so he leaves Walt restrained, tied by one hand to a radiator with a heavy duty cable tie. Walt immediately begins attempting to free himself so he can move the methylamine.
What follows is a few silent minutes of great filmmaking, watching Walt’s brain work as he takes inventory of the space and calculates what he can use to spring himself from his predicament. There are two filing cabinets next to him barely in reach, the furthest has a coffee pot on top. By kicking the cabinets he first tries to dislodge the pot, theoretically to break it and get a loose shard to free himself with. When he yanks the cord, the unbroken pot goes skittering across the room.
Walt then fashions a torch by ripping the cord open with his teeth and fashioning a weld with the two ends of the sheared electric cable, Macgyver style, badly singeing his wrist in the process but accomplishing his goal.
The sequence is a rare instance of laziness in the writers room, first in the wildly convenient voluntary timing of the DEA meet setting the events in motion, then betraying cautious, seasoned Mike by expecting us to believe he’d leave Walt unattended to in a position to free himself without much resistance. Still, the fun of watching Walt puzzle his way out of his imprisonment with intellect and grin determination is a microcosm of the show itself.
26. Better Call Saul s2 e3, “Amarillo”- s2 e9, “Nailed” – The Commercial
Throughout the second season, Jimmy keeps shooting clips of an illicit commercial with a crew of film students. He poses a convicted public masturbator as a WWII war hero to gain access to an army airstrip to shoot with a fighter plane in the background, and he talks his way onto an elementary school playground where he claims to be making a documentary about Rupert Holmes (Of “The Piña Colada Song” fame) who Jimmy alleges went to School there in 1964 despite the school being built in 1971 and Rupert Holmes being English.
The end product is a gaudy, cheesy but effective commercial that has a payout stretched over most of the season. The commercial shoots are fun and frivolous comedic asides, but they also show Jimmy running a scam, orchestrating a crew, improvising on the fly, in his element, doing what he loves. Something the writers highlight throughout the run of the show is Jimmy’s love of film, and media. His love language with Kim outside of work is hanging out and watching TMC with beers and takeout. He’s a master propagandist.
Time and care what is taken in conveying Jimmy’s specificity in taste when it comes to designing his shots and the lengths he’ll go to getting them, in coaching his actors, in the technical speak he uses when directing his camera person. It’s all in service of Jimmy’s love of fantasy and the selling of dreams that makes him a great lawyer, or a great something.
25. Breaking Bad s3 e6, “Sunset” – The RV
The end game of season 3 begins as a traumatized and obsessed Hank has a lead on Walt and Jesse’s original meth lab, a 1986 Fleetwood Bounder RV, and hopes a tail on Jesse will bring him to it. Walt catches wind of Hank’s plan and runs to the repair yard where Jesse has been garaging it, to dispose of the RV. Badger happens to be there and calls Jesse to warn him, which brings Jesse, with Hank on his tail, running to the lot, creating a pot boiler as both Walt and Jesse (at this point estranged) end up trapped in the parked meth lab with Hank on the outside, on the verge of barging in by prying the door open with a tire iron.
The shaggy old owner Joe materializes and plays jailhouse lawyer with a stunningly astute argument of what constitutes an illegal search and seizure. Hank doesn’t have a warrant, is trespassing on private property, and is trying to break and enter the locked RV. Hank counters that he has probably cause, which Joe once again swats away because he states it generally applies to traffic stops, not a parked domicile, as Joe qualifies it, when the two get into a hilarious semantic argument over whether the RV is a vehicle or a home, which would place it under the protection of the Fourth Amendment.
Hank attempts a different approach, taking the duct tape off some old bullet holes in the door and claiming that it will pass as PC. Walt begins coaching Jesse from inside the RV. Jesse argues Hank couldn’t have known they were there before he took off the tape, meaning the holes weren’t readily apparent, disqualifying Hank’s argument, and together, they litigate Hank away from breaking in. This buys Jesse and Walt time, but they still have to deal with Hank, parked directly behind the RV waiting on a warrant to legally enter.
Walt has Saul use his receptionist to call Hank, informing him his wife, Walt’s sister in law, has been in a car accident and is being airlifted to Los Ranchos Medical Center, sending Hank sprinting from the scene, and giving Walt and Jesse the breathing room to properly crush and dispose of the RV. Hank’s residual anger leads to him assaulting Jesse, getting himself suspended, and sidelining himself for the rest of season 3 and half of season 4.
The lawyerly dispute outside the RV isn’t just funny, it’s a preview of the type of technical mastery and legal gymnastics the writers will dive into head first with Better Call Saul. Its resolution, getting Hank away from the repair yard by faking his wife’s injury, is also a major violation of Walt and Hank’s relationship as family, a sign of Walt’s growing ruthlessness, and one of the main grievances that will enrage Hank when he ultimately uncovers Walt’s enterprise.
24. Breaking Bad s2 e9, “4 Days Out” – The Dead Battery
Jesse and Walt are in the RV at the end of a long cook. After Jesse leaves a key in the ignition, killing the RV battery, a fire kills the back up generator. Jesse and Walt are left in one of Gilligan’s favorite places, stranded in the desert with no transportation, no communication, no drinking water and 1.3 million in crystal meth. After Skinny Pete gets lost on his way to come give them a jump, they’re in dire straits. It’s a major foreshadowing of the odyssey Saul will find himself in during season 5 of his prequel. Jesse even directly references a guy who gets stranded in the desert and has to drink his own pee.
With Walt about to lose all hope, Jesse inadvertently comes up with the idea to build a battery from scratch. Walt fashions 6 single cells of a battery, using loose change, sponges and the available scrap metal in the RV. Miraculously. It’s enough.
23. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie – The El Camino
At long last, after five and a half seasons, it’s Skinny Pete’s time to shine. Taking place in the immediate moments after the action of the show, Jesse escapes the Nazi biker meth lab in the titular car, absconds to Skinny Pete’s house, and has to figure out how to dispose of the hot vehicle. He calls Joe, their old partner at the repair lot who comes to tow the car before discovering, as he scanned the ride for radio signals, the car’s Lojack was activated.
Joe bails and Jesse runs for the Camino before Pete intervenes. With brilliant quick thinking, Pete sends Badger to ditch his T-Bird near the Mexican border, somewhat hidden but easy enough to find, throwing the cops off the scent by giving them the impression Jesse had the car. He gives Jesse the keys to Badger’s Fierro, and realizing the authorities are already very aware of the precise location of the Camino, Pete devises a perfect alibi on the spot. That Jesse showed up to smoke a bowl, and swapped pink slips. Badger and Pete both give Jesse all the money they made shining laser pointers into Gretchen and Eliiot’s houses to help Walt in the finale (Yet another wildly considered and perfect touch).
Skinny gives Jesse his beloved skully to mask his identity, tells him he’s his hero, and Jesse rides off in the Fierro.
22. Breaking Bad s5 e1, “Live Free or Die” – The Laptop and the Magnet
After dispatching with Gus and the lab, Walt, Jesse, and Mike realize they left one loose thread: The footage from the security cameras in the lab. It was all recorded on a computer in Gus’ office that is seized and locked in the evidence room at APD, Northwest Area Command. The center, and its evidence room, is heavily fortified and manned. There’s no realistic lane for extraction, but what they can do is wipe the hard drive.
Based on Jesse’s suggestion, Walt devises a plan to get a super powerful electromagnet from the car crane at the repair lot where they used to stash the RV. The crew starts experimenting with range, battery power and amperage to see how close they need to be to wipe the hard drive. They begin with 21 daisy chained batteries operating at 252 volts. Then, they supercharge the magnet with double the amount of batteries.
Mike sets up the op by blacking out the security camera and breaking into the control box on the perimeter gate, allowing Jesse and Walt to get in with a rented box truck containing the batteries and the giant magnet mounted against the inside of the truck wall. The plan works perfectly, but the magnet proves too powerful as Walter cranks it, and creates a field so powerful he tilts the truck up against the wall of the Command Center. Fortunately, Walt wipes down the truck for prints, makes sure there was no paperwork or identification on the equipment that could link the truck back to the salvage yard, and with Jesse, abandons the truck in front of the precinct with the laptop shot to shit.
The genius here is in the conception, not in the execution. Jesse comes up with an unexpectedly genius concept, and Walt makes the execution work, however flawed.
21. Breaking Bad s3 e13, “Full Measure” – The Gale Dilemma
A messy dispute between Walt, Jesse and two of Gus’ asshole dealers creates an issue that makes Jesse and Walt expendable. But Gus still needs to figure out how to replicate Walt’s product. The solution is Gale, a libertarian chemistry nerd every bit as proficient as Walt, without his litany of erratic personal issues and inconvenient attachments. He quickly learns Walt’s cook, and thus becomes a threat to Walt and Jesse.
The duo anticipate that Mike is going to come to Saul looking for Jesse, so Saul is ready with a phony address written down on his day planner in a desk drawer when Mike comes to beat Jesse’s location out of him. This gets the pressure off Jesse, Walt, and Saul long enough to orchestrate a meet at Saul’s shady laser tag space. Walt is able to convince Jesse to track Gale down, believing there’s still time for Walt to dispatch with Gale himself. But before Walt can eliminate Gale, he’s kidnapped by Gus’ henchmen Victor and brought to the lab. At the lab, he’s met by Mike and realizes he’s about to be killed. Walt is able to buy some time, and a phone call, by claiming he can give up Jesse. But with his few seconds of contact, he’s able to alert Jesse to his predicament, and puts him on killing Gale, explaining if he doesn’t, Mike and Victor will kill him.
This is one of the instances that become increasingly prevalent through the end of the series, where the audience is led to believe Walt has an unexpected, untimely fate coming for him, only to discover he’s anticipated the latest development, and is actually a step ahead. It reinforces the Godlike powers he’s imbued with as the show progresses. It also reinforces the uncharacteristic attachment Walt slowly develops for Jesse, perhaps out of an intuitive sense of self preservation. Their codependent, tortured bond is what defines the last 1.5 seasons.
20. Breaking Bad s5 e13, “To’hajiilee” – Entrapping Walt
Hank and Jesse finally outsmart Walt by getting to Huell and leaning on him until he gives up that he helped pack Walt’s money into seven 55 gallon industrial waste cans. Walt then took the van those cans were loaded into and buried them in the desert. Using this information, Jesse sends a screenshot staged by Hank and Steve Gomez of a look-alike dummy barrel buried in Hank’s backyard. The dirt doesn’t match, but the pair counted on Walt flying into a rage and not paying attention to detail, and that bet paid off.
Jesse tells Walt Huell gave him up, which led him to the van they rented, which had GPS that they tracked to the site where Walt buried his fortune. There was no GPS, but they count on Walt leading them to his bank in a panic, and he does. He also confesses to every major crime he’s committed over the phone with Jesse, in a fit of rage.
This is a welcome turn because we get to see Walt, who has controlled and manipulated Jesse and Hank throughout the show, finally getting outsmarted, and ultimately ruining himself, in a completely unhinged moment. There’s a touch of convenience to this entire sequence, with Walt uncharacteristically sloppy and stupid, but he was always emotional, and particularly with how much he sacrifices to save Jesse down the stretch, you kind of see why the betrayal and prospect of loss of fortune drives him to momentary insanity.
19. Better Call Saul s4 e5, “Quite a Ride” – Building the Lab
Gilligan exhumes a piece of Breaking Bad’s history on BCS to show the origin story of the nirvana lab Jesse and Walt work in for Gus, and eventually burn to the ground. Gus wants to build Max’s meth superlab beneath his existing laundry business. The problem is the industrial laundry, Lavanderia Brillante, already exists, and no work can be visible from the surface. This makes the construction an impossible task, like building a boat in the middle of the ocean.
Gus enlists Wener Ziegler, a German engineer, to take on the job. Zigler has to support the laundry with secant walls from CFA piles topped by I-beams constructed completely underground, before he can excavate. Then, he must perform a massive transfer of Earth, 1700 cubic meters, or 200 truck loads. Werner anticipates hitting rock, which means blasting. They’ll run an 18 wheeler around the perimeter during these controlled blasts to mask the sound. Then, once the space is cleared, they can pour concrete, roughly 150 meters worth. Zigler estimates the job will take somewhere between 6-10 months requiring 10 hours of work a day.
To house the crew of Germans Zigler brings in to work the job, Mike and Gus set up housing in a cavernous hanger. It’s fenced in with a heavy surveillance system and a round the clock staff monitoring them. On Mike’s urging, anticipating how long and hard the job will be for the homesick laborers, the hanger is stocked with all the comforts of a functional existence, as the men will have to live in quarantine: A makeshift gym (with wholesale treadmills, this crew will tear right through consumer grade), a fully stocked bar, an entertainment center, a pool table, a foosball table, pinball machines, and a basketball hoop.
I like to think initially, the lab was something the Breaking Bad writers room created as a device. It was the perfect environment for Walt and as such, shows no matter how ideal the setting, he’ll find a way to fuck it up because he craves chaos, and destruction. Perhaps Gilligan and co. went into Season 4 of Breaking Bad knowing a prequel show about Saul was coming, to give them an opportunity to build it out, but what it at least feels like is a work of reverse engineering.
When working on storylines for Better Call Saul, they went back and looked under every rock for material in the existing universe, and they settled on the exhaustive construction of this plot device we were fine just accepting and building story around when we were first introduced to it. It’s like Rogue One, as a construction story told from the perspective of the architect methodically piecing together his war machine. In addition, they wring real character and story development out of the situation, as the dommed arc of Zigler and and Mike’s friendship is one of the more tragic, moving plotlines in either series, and constitutes as the first real strain in Gus and Mike’s relationship. It’s also the beginning of Gus and Lalo’s rivalry, which is why Gus begins to lean on Nacho. It’s a marvel of economic, historical storytelling.
18. Better Call Saul s5 e4, “Namaste”- Destroying Howard Hamlin
In the first season, Howard Hamlin is set up as the show’s big bad, the gatekeeper who refuses to grant Jimmy the opportunity and approval he desires. We come to find out Howard isn’t the problem, that behind the scenes Chuck has been pushing to prevent Jimmy from getting a foothold at HHM and Howard is generally a decent guy who seems to genuinely like Kim and Jimmy.
And yet even since that revelation Howard Hamlin has been the rim of Better Call Saul because he seems to exist exclusively to get fucking dunked on. In a storyline that presumably begins here and looms large over its final season, Howard offers Jimmy the position at HHM he pined for when he was desperately trying to win Chuck’s approval and make his way as a lawyer. Saul responds like any normal person. He goes to a pawnshop and after methodically testing much of the inventory for its heft, buys three bowling balls for $75. He then, after getting a job offer and no small amount of praise at lunch, drives to Howard’s house at night and decimates his 1998 Jaguar XJ8 with one missed and two perfectly launched balls. Then Saul sends two of his prostitute clients to embarrass Howard at a lunch with Cliff Main.
In the season finale, Howard confronts Kim about Saul’s aggression and potentially unhinged mental state. She laughs it off and the dark final revelation of the season is the prospect of ruining Howard had piqued her interest. Saul and Kim also realize if they are able to compromise Howard, they will finally get the payday from Sand Piper Saul has been waiting for because it will send Cliff Main running to the table to finally agree to the settlement.
Both Kim and Saul’s behavior toward Howard has served as an odometer measuring how far they’ve fallen. One of the best and most subtle scenes in the entire series comes after Saul has gotten his two prostitute clients off. They are walking away from him and Saul has a moment alone. In what is an absolutely stunning piece of acting by Odenkirk, we see him come up with the idea, dismiss it for any number of very logical reasons any sane adult would, then finally break and compulsively chase the women to the exit, paying for an hour of their time to embarrass Howard.
It speaks to all the things Howard represents to Jimmy, his brother, the prestige and hypocrisy of soulless elite corporate law, and something he has to destroy, through his unconventional methods or simply ruining whatever target he locks on to. For Kim, he’s a project to collaborate with her now husband on. An exercise she can use to flex this new muscle she’s discovered and realizes she likes. It’s like watching a future addict take a second or third hit and it’s heartbreaking.
17. Breaking Bad s3 e10, “Fly” – Killing a Fly
After Jesse leaves at the end of a day of work, Walt is stuck on a mysterious yield discrepancy when a fly suddenly appears in Gus’ sealed lab and Walt has to kill it. He’s creeping slow and patient, swinging wildly with a clipboard, throwing a shoe that shatters a light, swings a broom from a 15 foot catwalk and falls, it’s some real Wile E Coyote shit.
The fly is a metaphor for the impossibility of ever filling the hole at Walt’s core, for the human element that separates him from the perfection he’s desperately seeking in a random and chaotic universe, for the relentless enemy he’s facing in the greatest bottle episode ever made, but it’s also not just a metaphor, it’s an actual problem.
The fly is contaminating the lab and Walt needs to kill it.
Walt stays in the lab all night and creates a vacuum by turning up the ventilation in an attempt to pressurize the lab, suck up and spit out the fly. Jesse goes on a Duane Reade shopping spree for household pest killing products when he shows up, horrified by Walt’s current state of frazzled, sleepless obsession. Jesse drugs Walt’s coffee to knock him out so he can cook, but he finally locates the fly and takes one last shot.
Jesse props a ladder on two tables on castors to reach the fly when it finds a resting place on the two story lab’s high ceiling and finally dispatches the fly with a rolled up paper in his back pocket. But not before a soul searching, confessional exchange about Jane in which both Jesse and a heavily sedated Walt acknowledge their helplessness in the circumstances they’ve found themselves in.
16. Better Call Saul s3 e6, “Off Brand”- s3 e8, “Slip” – Don Hector Salamanca’s Heart Medication
With Gus successfully disrupting Hector’s supply chain, Hector approaches his capo Nacho Varga and demands they start leaning on his father’s upholstery business as their new means of smuggling drugs through customs. Nacho’s dad is decidedly not in the game and Nacho is extremely protective of him so he comes up with a plan to take Hector out.
Nacho approaches Daniel Wormaid, a schmuck IT guy at a pharma firm they’ve been doing some low level drug deals with to procure empty Lydistrel capsules containing Hector’s Nitroglycerin controlled-release heart medication for him. Nacho fills them with ibuprofen, dummies that won’t relieve his angina when he starts suffering from chronic chest pain when aggravated. The night before his next collection day with Don Hector at their usual space, Michoacano restaurant, Nacho punctures the condenser coil of the restaurant’s AC unit to ensure Hector will take his coat off. He keeps his heart medication in his coat, so the plan is to swipe the pills, replace them, then return them without raising Hector’s suspicion.
When Mike catches wind of the plan, he becomes concerned for Nacho’s well being and accompanies Wormaid to talk the plan through with Nacho. Mike’s recommendation is to switch the pills back after the op to remove any suspicion.
On the day of, a nerve wracked Nacho manages to make the switch, mainly because Don Hector is fucking oblivious but also when he’s returning the substitute pills to the coat pocket he hits a sweet shot banking the bottle into the pocket. In the middle of a subsequent dispute over the supply chain with Gus and Juan Bolsa, Hector flies into a rage, collapses, and suffers the stroke that will render him mute and largely crippled.
Nacho executes 99% of the plan, but Gus sees him desperately cleaning up the medicine in the aftermath of the collapse, then has him followed to a bridge where he’s observed throwing the dummies into a river. Gus uses this and Nacho’s father as leverage and lands him back in the service of another ruthless member of the cartel, with the added risk of having to become a double agent.
The Hector Salamanca sting is fun because like building the lab, it fills in a piece of existing lore, where did this evil, hate filled old stroke victim come from? It’s like watching Darth Vader don the mask. The actual operation is a bit lackluster, and apparently according to one pissed off reddit pharmacist, the science behind Nacho’s plan wouldn’t even yield this result. (However, this is a contentious point amongst the very online BCS community.) Still, impassioned responses like his show why this work is so well matched to its moment. The completist fanboys writing the show have inspired a legion of completist fanboys to comb over every centimeter of plot with a magnifying glass and a smartphone. We care so much because it’s so obvious how much they do.
15. Breaking Bad s5 e2, “Madrigal”- s5 e8, “Gliding All Over” – The Loose Ends
When Gustavo’s empire goes down, 11 men are left vulnerable who could expose Jesse, Walt, and Mike. Previously, each man had made a deal that when you work for Gustavo Fring, if something is to happen to you personally, in terms of prosecution or jail, you and your family will be taken care of. It’s insurance to guarantee no one flips. Mike is committed to keeping them alive and providing for their families, as promised by Gus, but not everyone is on the same page. Mike makes these payments work with the help of a lawyer who regularly drops them off in 11 safe deposit boxes. Until Hank tails the lawyer on a hunch and nails him, then the lawyer flips, and everything goes to shit.
This sets Mike fleeing into motion, which ends with fucking Walt murdering him for no reason. But with Mike and the lawyer out of the picture, Walt decides he needs to somehow get to the 11 men in prison. All of them. With a two minute window. This need introduces us to dead eyed Todd’s Uncle Jack, the head of a run of the mill, New Mexican neo-Nazi biker syndicate.
Uncle Jack briefly debates the proper method for the coordinated hits. He eliminates the gym, the cafeteria line or in the yard as potential spaces for murder because there’s too many witnesses. It will be a simple series of pass-byes in hallways, shower rooms and cells. (You can imagine a writers room sitting around spitballing what would make the perfect coordinated series of prison murders). It’s an enormous job that deserves higher ranking, but all we as an audience really get is that superficial discussion and a brutal montage executing every hit perfectly. There’s a rare lack of logistics involved.
The Nazis represent the barbaric pragmatism of the actual drug trade. Much of the show operates in this logic that the goal of the industry is to produce the platonic ideal, highest quality meth and accompanying high, leading to a better, stronger business, which is an idea Stringer Bell would laugh at and shit on. The Nazis don’t give a fuck about anything but muscle and money, brute force. As they come to overwhelm and define the second half of the final season, until the very last moments of the show, their philosophy wins out.
14. Breaking Bad s5 e3, “Hazard Pay” – The Next Lab
Once Gus’ lab goes down, Walt, Jesse, and Mike need to find a new one with Saul serving as their commercial real estate agent. They start visiting locations, beginning with a wood treatment warehouse, a tortilla production facility, a laser tag space (of course) and finally, Vamonos Pest, an exterminator company’s HQ. The space sucks, but it gives Walt the inspiration that infestations provide the opportunity to tent houses and create a mobile meth lab.
The pest control agency is run by B&E artists, their corruption makes them trustworthy. They tent 3-4 houses a week and the crew can simply pick the most ideal house for their cook. The tent will either prevent, or give a plausible explanation for the odors on the street, and after the cook, Vamonos bombs the house to erase the smell.
It’s a great combination of plan and technical innovation, reminiscent of the burner cell phones from The Wire. Walt comes up with a novel idea that is impractical but doable, Mike does all the due diligence and background, asking the questions no one else might think to, and Saul is working his connections by finding the perfect sideways business to partner with. It’s a shame these guys couldn’t work together for long. They made a great team.
13. Breaking Bad s4 e10, “Salud” – Taking out the Juarez Cartel
One of the central ongoing conflicts in both series is the tension in the Juarez Cartel between its American supply arm, operated by Gustavo Fring, and its muscle, the wild, brutal Salamanca family. The relationship began with a pre-stroke Hector Salamanca killing Gustavo’s lover, business partner, opening chef of Los Pollos Hermanos and meth cook Max Arciniega when he first connects with the Cartel at Don Eladio’s villa in Mexico. This was also the beginning of the Cartel seeing the potential for meth. It was Gus who brought them their first quality product.
So there’s bad blood and resentment, but from the moment his partner is killed, Gus becomes obsessed with destroying the Salamanca family and Don Eladio. This moment comes to fruition towards the end of the fourth season when the Juarez Cartel demands Gus comes to Mexico with his cook, teaches their chemists how to make the Blue, and opens up his business, splitting profits 50/50. Gus agrees to this after several episodes of having his legal and illegal businesses targeted by the Cartel.
Jesse, Mike, and Gus all go to the villa in Mexico, with Jesse first showing the chemists the cook, then Gus cementing the agreement at a celebration by the pool, where Max was murdered right in front of him. Gus brings a bottle of Zafiro Añejo, which Don Eladio pours out for his capos and henchmen. Zafiro has a sneakily important role in the Gilligan Universe. It shows up throughout both shows at crucial moments in its characters’ evolutions.
This Zafiro is spiked with a deadly poison. When Don Eladio attempts to give an ignorant Jesse a shot, Gus is able to step in and intervene, claiming Jesse can’t drink because he’s in recovery. Gus takes a pill before ingesting his shot along with the rest of the Cartel, waits a few minutes, then goes to a bathroom and forces himself to vomit with his knees on a neatly folded towel in front of the toilet, and still nearly dies. Of course, with this being Gus, there’s a medical tent set up and waiting nearby that is able to save him.
This plan is fine, but it’s not really worthy of Gus, the most meticulous thinker in either series. He settles for a lot of chance for someone almost inhumanly risk averse despite, you know, running a vast meth empire. For the scheme to come off, Gus needs to drink poison, counts on all of the major players of the Cartel to do the same, needs to be able to fight his way out of the compound with Mike and Jesse, and get to the medical tent in time to save himself. So, a lot of variables. We also never discover what poison the Zafiro is spiked with, a surprise from a show that revels in minutia and science.
12. Better Call Saul s1 e1, ”Uno”- s4 e10, “Winner” – Saul Goodman
The architecture for Saul’s nome de plume is in fact, a scam. One set into motion in the very first episode of the show. His older brother Chuck, of the prestigious Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill, hands him a matchbook with his name on it and suggests using Jimmy’s own name is infringing on Chuck’s firm’s brand. In this, Jimmy finds his name a burden, a tie to his past, the institution the forever contrarian is rebelling against.
Despite the similarities in arc, as a show, Better Call Saul has a very different goal than Breaking Bad. It’s an argument for the broken nobility of an ambulance chaser, the anatomy of a very American scam, but one that often leads with good intentions and a heart in the right place, at least for now. And this is why, in consideration of both, (with one that still needs to stick the landing but at this point it would be stupid to doubt Gilligan and his brain trust) Better Call Saul is the better show, or achievement.
From a perspective of craft, there’s a much higher degree of difficulty building a series with real stakes and tragedy revolving around the moral decline of a lawyer, as opposed to a drug lord. But also, by the end of Breaking Bad Walt is a straight up monster, the show tells us he always was. There’s nothing left to debate about what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, it’s a 5.5 season horror film. With Saul, you have a person who is like Walt in that he does morally questionable things because he has a talent for it, but he’s often acting on behalf of the defenseless at the mercy of a fucked up legal system. The elderly, the young, the poor, the uneducated.
Saul Goodman ends up being Jimmy McGill’s Heisenberg. A way, as Chuck suggests in that first episode, for Jimmy to create his own identity, and also to compartmentalize and disassociate himself from the morally ambiguous behavior he gleefully commits because, like Walt, it’s what he’s good at and he enjoys it. What about limitations? Restrictions? Morals and ethics? S’all good man.
So how do we tie these two disparate threads? On one hand you have a person with moral fiber, with real convictions and beliefs, fighting on behalf of the little guy. On the other, he’s a lying, manipulative cliche constantly playing an angle. My conclusion is, the most effective monorail salesman is the monorail salesman who truly believes in the value and efficacy of his monorail. Saul believes in his cause, and most of the time we see the logic in what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, why his ends often justify his means, in his mind. Whether it’s getting off Huell, or getting his elderly clients to settle their class action lawsuit, or to beat his girlfriend in a negotiation using her own plan, against her wishes, but for her own good (!!) as well as the good of his clients, we see Jimmy/Saul’s intentions and question his methods but respect his heart.
Like Walt convincing himself that everything he’s doing in the meth trade is for the good of his family, it just so happens that Jimmy/Saul is great at all the palace intrigue and morally flexible maneuverings that lean into his particular skill set, and he genuinely loves doing. He just so happens to be committing these acts of altruism that almost always coincide with his self interest.
11. Better Call Saul s3 e9, ”Fall”- s3 e10, ”Lantern” – Isolating Irene
When you consider almost all the deaths and beatings handed out in either of Gilligan’s series are all for individuals who are, “In the game,” it’s possible the most subtly evil act committed in the universe is Jimmy’s destruction of Irene Landry’s social life.
Jimmy needs his payout from Sandpiper Crossing, so he executes what is his most wantonly evil scheme on the show thus far. HHM has a generous offer on the table they think they can pump a little higher. Jimmy, suspended from practicing, needs the payout to keep himself afloat. He’s desperate to hold onto his joint office with Kim, which he seems to view as his relationship with her. Or at least her tacit approval of him, his standing, and his methods.
He approaches the class representative in the class action suit to try to force Howard’s hand. It’s Irene Landry, a kindly old milky pale woman with a Golden Girls perm. Jimmy goes to visit Irene with a plate of frosted cat cookies, methodically laid out by color and sorted for quality, with several cookies that were damaged in the plastic clam shell left out. Jimmy attempts to talk Irene into taking their standing offer of $17.4 million. It’s a large offer, and as he puts it, the members of the suit want as much time as possible to enjoy the settlement money. But Jimmy’s former persnickety tutor at Davis and Main has Irene’s ear, and the firm is willing to drag this out to exact a maximum payday. Without Irene pushing to settle, it will take years for Jimmy to get what would be a $1,160,000 pay out.
So Jimmy targets Irene’s friend group: Rose, Myrtle, and Helen, with a plan to alienate her from them and hopefully bring her to the table. He plants himself in a hilarious sweatsuit and headband ensemble as a mall walker who happens to run into them coincidentally. The group all love Jimmy, and they’re clay in his hands. Jimmy starts by gifting Irene a pair of MBT physiological rocker bottom shoes he happens to have an extra pair of for his girlfriend. In return, he only asks Irene doesn’t share where she got the shoes from with the rest of the ladies.
Jimmy is, unsurprisingly, a master of stoking class resentment. It’s something he feels acutely, so it makes sense he’s great at manipulating it. He approaches the friend group separately, (mall walking, playing pool, doing chair yoga) and explains Irene is holding up the large settlement, using her terms and the general unfairness of the class action settlement system as his talking points. He says these things like any good lawyer walking a witness through direct, guiding them where he wants them, and creating the impression they got there on their own. Before long. he’s effectively isolated Irene, shown in a pretty fucked up scene where she tries to join the group mall walking and they all ignore and ghost on her. The look of hurt confusion on her face is incredibly sad.
As a coup de gras, at home Jimmy rigs it so Irene will win the game of Bingo he hosts at the center as a form of shadowy client outreach. He does this by methodically injecting select ping pong balls with magnetic primer. Jimmy gives Irene a card with the rigged balls lined up for an easy win, and she gets it. As she celebrates, the room falls under a stony silence, and she runs out of the room crying. Jimmy follows Irene out, and in an agonizing scene, steers the lonely and distraught old woman into taking the settlement.
With Irene properly incepted, Jimmy then tries to fix the relationship, but the damage is done. The women see Irene as selfish, and all of Jimmy’s efforts on her behalf as proof he’s a saint and she’s a monster. In the end, Jimmy betrays his interest, staging an unmasking and “pretending” but also kind of telling the truth about the depth of his manipulation of the women on a mic piped into a conference hall they can all hear. It’s not just a kindness on Irene’s behalf. It’s also a major sacrifice, and a career turning point, because by willfully throwing away the Sandpiper community, Jimmy loses the elderly as a client pool. The women decide not to settle, leaving him dependent on the shadier side of his business, that will eventually lead to his undoing.
Jimmy’s early work with Seniors plays to all the qualities that make him so compelling and slippery as a protagonist. It is an empty, transactional relationship on its surface but for Jimmy in many ways it’s the perfect relationship. Every interaction is entirely built on charm and bullshit that never really breaks the surface. What the show complicates is we see Jimmy truly invest in and care about his clients, even as he’s shamelessly ripping them off. He’s never being genuine and he’s never lying, he’s always working in his own interest and he’s always exercising kindness and empathy. He exists in this gray space vacillating between selfishness and altruism that is impossible to fix to one side or the other
As he delicately fills ping pong balls with liquid metal using a syringe, we see that while the end goal isn’t lost on him, what Jimmy lives for is the pursuit of the scam, the rush of getting over and outsmarting his adversary that Kim slowly warms up to. He so enjoys the process that for a moment, Jimmy seems to completely lose sight of the fact that the adversary in question here is a sweet old lady and he’s ruining her life. When he realizes this, he pulls back and corrects the course, but his ability to commit to the plan in the first place makes you wonder where the bullshit stops where, or if, anything else begins for him.
10. Breaking Bad s5 e5, “Dead Freight” – The Train Heist
Much of Breaking Bad borrows from the language of the Western, but the closest they ever come to explicitly making one, down to an actual Jesse James reference, is “Dead Freight”. Returning to one of Breaking Bad’s first dilemmas, Walt, Jesse and Mike’s syndicate has a methylamine supply issue. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Gus’ old methylamine and shipping plug) and her company Madrigal are blown by the DEA, but she puts them onto the source, a tanker car full of the chemical leaves from Port of Long Beach on a freight train every Wednesday, moving east across the country, passing through New Mexico. There’s a three mile stretch in McKinley county, near the crew, that is a dead zone. But it’s not easy. They don’t want to set off alarms with the FRA, TSA and DHS, and they don’t want to leave any bodies. Every train is manned by two operators.
Jesse ends up coming up with the plan. First, they need to stop the train. Kuby leaves a truck “stalled out” on the tracks, causing the train to break, while the crew mounts it from a bridge. They extract the methylamine using a hose attached to the bottom of the tank car holding 24,000 gallons, and simultaneously replacing it with water pumped in from the top so no one realizes the train has been hit when it’s weighed (adjusting for the discrepancy in weight between water and aqueous methylamine, which weighs slightly less). The crew is only replacing four percent of the total volume so even when the diluted methylamine is detected, the blame will be on China for sending watered down shit.
Of course, there’s always the impossible to anticipate. The first variable is a pickup truck randomly shows up, and “helps” Kuby by hauling his truck off the track, removing the obstruction, and cutting the time they need to finish the heist. They should cut it short, but Walt pushes it to the max to exact his 1000 gallons and nearly gets Jesse and Todd killed. Still, they get their whole 1,000 gallons of methylamine, and come out having run a pristine op. That is until they catch the second variable, a young kid that was out on a dirt bike parked on the other side of the bridge who saw the entire heist. Before there can be any debate concerning how to handle the potential witness, Todd pulls a gun and kills him with a chest shot.
In spite of the disasters, the train height was a well orchestrated and coordinated operation. The highpoint for the team of Walt, Jesse, and Mike putting their heads together and working as a unit. What’s fun about the scheme is watching the crew with Lydia as they’re formulating the plan and she raises hypothetical objections in real time, floating problems that could possibly arise and solving them. It’s like a peek inside the writers room as they produce these hurdles for their characters to surmount.
9. Breaking Bad s1 e1, ”Pilot”- s1 e3, “…And the Bag’s in the River” – Krazy-8
The very first problem Walt and Jesse face is arguably their biggest fuck up. After they survive Walt improvising phosphine gas as he pretends to show Krazy-8 and Emilio his cook, they have to kill Pinkman’s partner’s distributor, and they really make a meal out of it in a three episode arc that opens the show. This is almost quaint in how the duo belabor disposing of one body and eliminating another, but it’s probably the most realistic drama in Breaking Bad before we descend into comic book supervillain territory.
Pinkman needs to restrain Krazy-8 while they figure out what to do with him, so he settles on a support beam in the basement with a U lock secured around his neck. After a coin toss, Pinkman has to dispose of Emilio’s corpse, while Walt is left to kill and dispose of Krazy-8. Pinkman attempts to dispose of Emilio in Hydrofluoric acid in the bathtub when he can’t find an appropriately sized plastic tub, creating a gaping hole in his ceiling and spilling pieces of the corpse all over his hallway.
Walt spends days agonizing over his decision, and ends up bonding with Krazy-8. After discovering Krazy-8 grabbed a shard of plate as a shank, Walter decides to kill him by strangling him with the bike lock. It almost feels like a dilemma beamed in from another show. The drama is so elemental, related in these almost Russian terms as good and evil urges battle for Walt’s soul with an intimately violent resolution. It’s something more Hitchcock or Peckinpah than Jack Kirby, but no less riveting.
8. Better Call Saul s4 e7, “Something Stupid,” s4 e8, “Coushatta” – Defending Huell
Huell Babineaux is working security for Jimmy’s burner cell phone hustle when he mistakenly assaults an undercover cop. This creates a conflict in which Kim has one way she’d like to defend Huell, and Jimmy pushes for another (The assaulted cop has a bit of a record and Jimmy wants to push that angle, to convince him to drop charges). But Kim implores him to let her try to do this her way. The Assistant D.A., Suzanne Ericson, is a hard ass who is out for blood and a near max sentence specifically because of Huell’s association with Jimmy, a disbarred, “scumbag” attorney selling phones to drug dealers. This insult visibly pisses Kim off and precipitates what’s coming.
When she meets Jimmy in front of the courthouse, she explains their predicament and that Huell will probably have to face some time. Jimmy ominously agrees, but it’s clear he has something skirting legality up his sleeve. Kim doesn’t want that, or for Huell to run. After some thought and a shopping spree at an office supply store, she calls Jimmy and tells him to put his plan on hold. She’s got something.
Kim arrives at the proffer with three associates from her corporate firm, Schweikart and Cokely, flexing the full muscle at her disposal. She requests 3-6 months probation and time served. When Kim’s offer is rejected, she asks for a continuance to gather evidence and prepare Huell’s defense. She is making it clear they will drag this out and make it an involved, time consuming case for the already overburdened assistant D.A. They also submit a motion to compel discovery, opening the officers personnel file as Jimmy suggested. It’s suggested this case could be opened up to civil litigation as a civil rights violation.
Meanwhile, Jimmy takes a bus to Coushatta, Louisiana and pays the entire bus of passengers to engage in a letter writing campaign to Judge Munsinger, who will be ruling on the Babineaux case. With his standard eye for detail, Jimmy meticulously edits each post card and scrap of paper for content and tone. When the judge receives the avalanche of mail, he’s clearly annoyed, then terrified at the idea of a contingent from Coushatta coming to the trial and packing the court. He makes it clear to the A.D.A. he expects a resolution. As someone she relies on to play ball with several times a week, this goes beyond a request.
A flustered and angry Suzanne grabs one of the many bags of mail, and begins sorting through it at her office. Some phone numbers are left on the correspondence, so she calls several, and eventually finds a member of the congregation Huell is a part of in Louisiana. When she looks up the Free Will Baptist church at 434 Bogan Lane in Coushatta, there’s a website, a fund set up for donations for Huell’s legal defense, and pictures of Huell in choir robes on the website’s front page.
The numbers all lead back to Jimmy’s office, where 45 cell phones are laid out and labeled with voice mails set up. Jimmy’s camera crew from UNM is sitting in the office waiting for the occasion that an officer of the court would call to check the authenticity of the letters, and they’re prepared with accents and backstories of Huell’s otherworldly kindness as a pillar of the community in Coushatta. Suzanne can’t conceive of a conspiracy this vast and elaborate enacted for a petty thief who hit a cop with a bag of sandwiches. She’s convinced, and ends up settling for four months probation and time served.
When Kim gets the settlement, she responds by leading Jimmy to a courthouse stairwell, pushing him against a wall and making out with him. It’s something of a surprise, as throughout this entire scheme, Kim seemed unhappy with Jimmy and the lengths she had to go to defend his associate. She went to incredible lengths to keep Jimmy from going full illegal (They committed ex parte communication, contempt of court and several hundred counts of mail fraud in addition to Kim jeopardizing her standing at Schweikart by abusing resources). Their relationship seemed on the verge of rupturing, until their euphoric post game pillow talk that sounds like two athletes reflecting on a great game.
Of all the schemes in the history of the two shows, this is the funniest. There are multiple laugh out loud moments (Hard to choose one joke, but Odenkirk flexing some old improv muscle as Creole fried Pastor Blane Hansford is tough to beat). There’s a white board in Jimmys office they barely even focus on in a few quick shots, but it’s a list of talking points in the event someone actually calls to check the authenticity of the letters. The amount of thought, money and preparation thrown at getting Huell off this dumb incident that consumes half of the entire show for two episodes is staggering, and a testament to the lengths the writers and set designers will go to in service of leaving no detail unattended to.
Gilligan and his writers are great at creating worthy adversaries for their creative genius bastards, they’d have to be for this model to work after 10.5 seasons, and Suzanne is one of the best. She’s a bit of a hardass, but a generally decent, smart and hardworking A.D.A. who isn’t going to be impressed or intimidated by Kim and the fireworks surrounding the case. She’s simply, eventually overwhelmed because she has no idea what team she’s dealing with.
This is Kim’s first real Jimmy style scam and she clearly gets off on the rush of out working and out thinking her adversary. Before the op is explained, we see Kim go to Staples and fill a cart with all the items they will use to forge the letter writing campaign. The scene is shot lovingly, taking great care to show Kim sorting through pens, stationary and envelopes. A somber score plays. In retrospect, it’s like watching a drug addict taking a first hit. As Jimmy says in bed afterwards, it’s like watching Roy Hobbes smash out stadium lights. In other words, she’s a natural.
7. Breaking Bad s5 e16, “Felina” – The Final Play
The last half season, the writers seemed to understand for the show’s payoff to have any semblance of emotional weight, to avoid the Tony Soprano conundrum and that show’s somewhat ambiguous (But not really even remotely ambiguous) conclusion, Walt needed a redemption of sorts. And so he becomes somewhat irrationally fixated on “saving” Jessie, taking risks and eventually giving Hank all the rope he needs to bring about his downfall because he can’t stand the broken, empty shell Jesse has become after a year of torture at Walt’s hands.
He also, in spite of catastrophic consequences on his life and business, ends up sacrificing his fortune for Hank when even Hank knows he’s about to be assassinated by Todd’s Nazi biker gang family. Getting Hank killed is the sin his wife and son can’t forgive him for, what costs him his family, and Walt is left in a remote, frozen corner of New Hampshire, with a still considerable drum filled with money he can’t move, because he’s the most wanted man in America, and his remaining family won’t speak to him or touch the riches he’s told himself he amassed for them.
And this is probably how the show should’ve ended. Walt dies alone, unloved by even his family, his treasure taken by a stranger who wouldn’t spend an hour with him for less than ten thousand dollars. It was all for nothing, a fitting send off for an arrogant, repulsive egoist who left hundreds of lives destroyed in his wake in service of his empty ambition. It’s the most Russian ending, at any rate.
But this is America, and even though it would’ve been poetic and tragic, I understand why you can’t end your 5.5 year, cultural zeitgeist show in that manner. Walt refuses to die without achieving two final impossible objectives: Getting the $9,720,000 he has left to his family, who won’t speak to him and want nothing to do with his fortune, without the feds taking it, and taking out the biker gang that killed Hank.
He achieves the first goal by confronting Gretchen and Elliot in their suburban McMansion, and demanding they clean his money by creating an irrevocable trust for Walt Junior, which is his to do with as he sees fit, with the hope he uses it for college and the betterment of his family. Walt comes with a Morning Show human-interest worthy narrative to explain the trust: Gretchen and Elliot, already famous for their altruism, have taken pity on Walt’s innocent family, victims of his monstrous crimes, and donated this charity to their former partner’s victims to relieve the guilt they carry over their role in his crimes.
To ensure they take the matter seriously even after the death coming for him in the next few hours he all but predicts, he tells them he’s hired elite hitmen to watch them, proved by two red dots that appear on their chests as he delivers his threat. The dots are courtesy of Skinny Pete and Badger, hiding in the bushes with laser pointers, but it’s just the sort of gangster fairytale a bourgeois couple like Gretchen and Eliiot would believe about their nefarious ex friend.
To achieve the second goal, Walt has to infiltrate a fortified and heavily armed Nazi biker death camp, which he does by talking his way into a meet with Lydia and Jesse at the cafe where he used to meet with Lydia, knowing her to be a creature of habit. Walt claims he’s synthesized a wonder drug that doesn’t require methylamine to pique their interest. They accept the offer just to get Walt into the camp and kill him, but he buys himself enough time to get Jesse into the “office”, then unleashes his trump card: a high powered rifle on an automated oscillating stand that conveniently takes out the entire inner circle of the gang, in a strike reminiscent of the poisoning of the cartel in season 3.
He manages to free Jesse, and we find out he’s killed Lydia with the long lost ricin capsule stirred into her drink with stevia at their meet the day before. Jesse speeds off into the night, and as the cops close in, Walt collapses amongst his beloved gleaming chrome meth lab equipment as the most conceptually perfect song imaginable plays him out. It is the most COMPLETE and TOTAL (not to be confused with the best) ending to a series ever produced.
6. Better Call Saul s1 e8, “RICO,” s1 e9, “Pimento” – Sandpiper Crossing
In season 1, Jimmy is nickel and diming. He scrapes by writing wills for his elderly clientele, when he’s shown a monthly invoice and discovers Irene Landry is being systematically defrauded by Sandpiper Crossing, the retirement community housing them. When he goes back to the facility to amass evidence, he’s refused entry and finds the company shredding documents in their office. Jimmy pleads to use the bathroom and hastily scribbles a demand letter on the back of a legal pad, rendering their shredding illegal destruction of evidence (or spoliating). It’s ineffectual and he’s thrown out. Jimmy goes back later that night and grabs the bags of garbage filled with the shredded documents taken out of the office, which is not theft because the garbage was stored in public in an unlocked bin, which creates no reasonable expectation of privacy.
Jimmy, who conveniently brings his homework to Chuck so an action hungry Chuck can start it for him, begins to tape together the shredded slivers of documents to reconstitute his evidence. Chuck’s hawk eye discovers the smoking gun, an invoice for syringes from Morrissey Medical Supply in Lincoln, Nebraska, (which means Sandpiper accepted shipments across state lines for its enterprise, opening it up to interstate commerce and creating a RICO case) then is prepared with the legal precedents they’ll need to begin cross referencing in attacking the case (18 U.S.C. 1961-1968, 30-47-1 from NMSA 1978). This is the beginning of the case that will bring Chuck’s animosity towards Jimmy out in the open, lead to Chuck’s death, and create Saul Goodman.
The fun of Better Call Saul is an embrace of ivy league research obsessed tech speak. The wizardry of legalese replaces Walt’s feats of ingenious manipulation of chemistry. It’s a form of alchemy no less remote or inaccessible to the laymen, and explored with just as much rigor as the Breaking Bad writers room dove into science and crime. Just think of the mental steps you’d have to take to get to writing a hypothetical case that relies on price gouged syringes being shipped across state lines from Nebraska, and how many shows you’ve ever seen that could work that detail as a major plot point.
It’s a moment Jimmy realizes some semblance of ambition, and decides to go big game hunting. It’s also an opportunity for Chuck to flex, really for the first time in the series, in a manner other than as a nutcase with Julianne Moore’s psychosomatic magnetic field allergy from Safe. We get to see what a great team Chuck and Jimmy could’ve been, with Jimmy’s people skills combined with a refusal to take no for an answer, and Chuck’s granular mastery of the law, which he accesses in all sorts of unorthodox ways not unlike how his brother uses his own unique genius. It establishes a bond between Chuck and Jimmy they will later use to rip our hearts out
5. Breaking Bad s4 e7, “Problem Dog” – The HEPA Industrial Air Filtration System
With nothing more than an oddly placed fast food menu in organic/vegan/neat freak Gale Boetticher’s apartment/crime scene after his murder, Hank’s suspicion is arroused, and begins the end game that will eventually uncover Gus’ Southwestern meth empire. The menu has a parts number jotted on it, which leads to the piece of equipment Gale ordered for the lab, the aforementioned air filtration system, a very specific item that would be ideal if you were trying to say, construct a secret, high tech meth lab. Hank tracks down the manufacturer, Madrigal Electromotive, that shipped the piece of equipment in question to Albuquerque, where Boetticher signed off on the delivery.
When Hank tries to find out who paid for the equipment purchase, he gets stone walled by the distributor, so he begins to look into the manufacturer itself. They supply diverse industries: industrial equipment, global shipping, major construction and bizarrely, a small foothold in American fast food, specifically a regional Latin chicken concern. But what to make of it all? The initial discordant article of evidence, the chicken menu at the vegan’s apartment, continues to haunt Hank, until finally on a hunch, using prints he pulls off Gus when visiting a Hermanos location with Walt Jr. on reconnaissance that links Fring to Boetticher’s apartment, he settles on the correct target, the mastermind Chicken franchise owner with ties to the DEA masquerading as an upstanding citizen, hiding in plain sight.
It’s an incredible piece of trademark exhaustive, detailed writing (delivered exquisitely by Dean Norris), right up there with The Wire’s infamous “Fuck” scene as McNulty and Bunk walk through a cold case. This detective work is no less meticulous and inspired.
Hank’s discovery, and his pursuit, is a marvel for several reasons. Up to this point, he hasn’t been much more than a crass punchline, an all American dude bro for Walt to measure his masculinity against. In this brief monologue, as he walks us through the pursuit of this obscure lead, we become privy to a wildly diverse skill set. He has a detective’s soft eye for detail, charm and people skills to get a foot in the door and coerce what he needs from people charged with protecting information, stubborn, relentless dedication and inspired intuition that points him in the right direction with gut and hunch. It’s a late entrant into the arena as one of the players who will pose a threat to Walt’s dominance, one of Gilligan’s most stunning reveals.
4. Better Call Saul s5 e3, “The Guy For This”- s5 e6, “Wexler vs. Goodman” – Everett Acker’s Eminent Domain
Mesa Verde, an expanding New Mexican bank branch, is Kim’s biggest client, a miraculous blue ticket account she pulled at HHM, took with her (with some help from Jimmy) and has largely defined the period of her career covered by the show thus far. They are her most significant professional relationship, and they want to build a call center on lot 2375, a plot of land where a small group of houses lie. The rest of the renters occupying the land take payouts from the bank and vacate. But there’s one holdout. Character actor Barry Corbin is Everett Acker, who seems like he was once a corpse reanimated by the energy from every Western Howard Hawks and John Huston ever made. Acker is currently 30 years into his 100 year lease, but there’s a provision that he can be bought out if the owner sells the land at a fair market place, plus $5,000.
Infinite Jest style footnote: *(In my own nod to the community of devoted and at least partially insane obsessive Gilligan Redditors out there who have created a vast internet library of scholarship on the two shows, that were an immense help as I spit and duct taped this piece together, I’ll briefly contribute my own insane fan theory I haven’t seen elsewhere: Mesa Verde, or the green table is also a 1930s ballet by the German choreographer Kurt Jooss about the futility of peace negotiations and the horrors of war. Message? Coincidence? Who’s to say?)*
He’s a salt of the Earth, no bullshit hardass type, so when Kim comes to try to coerce him into moving, he stonewalls and sees straight through her various approaches, telling her things about herself that, whether or not they are true, connect and get to her.
Kim tries several different tacks to persuade Acker. She comes with the increased buyout, which isn’t nothing, but as Acker points out, is certainly not enough to make up for the inconvenience of packing up his life. She attempts to emphasize with him, sharing a personal anecdote about her own poor upbringing, and how devastating it was to be forced to move from one home after another. She plays hardball, revoking the offer and explaining that the courts have already ruled in Mesa Verde’s favor and if he doesn’t vacate, he’ll be compelled to do so by the cops. She attempts to help find him some nice, reasonable places to move to.
Nothing works. Acker has icy silence or a cutting retort for every effort. He’s impervious to her charm. Kim becomes desperate for his approval, because even though his insults are lazy and obvious, cribbed from “All lawyers are soulless sharks” stereotypes, his plight is the exact type of situation that made Saul resist corporate law. Acker is the avatar of Saul and Kim’s class resentment and it can’t be placated.
And so, when she sees he won’t be persuaded, Kim decides to take up his cause. She goes back to Mesa and asks them to consider the other site for the call center they had been considering at Tulkum Carrey, but Mesa President Kevin Wachtel is an equally hornery Southwestern cowboy boots and gaudy belt buckle type who won’t back down from a pissing match over property he owns. So Kim goes to her secret weapon, the king of bullshit, hoping Saul will be able to successfully fight for Everett’s claim, which would allow herself to be recused from the case.
Saul shows up to win over Acker with a proposal that is a drawing of a man fucking a horse. The two immediately recognize kindred spirits and go to work fucking with Mesa Verde. The police and construction crews show up ready to escort Acker from the property and demolish his house, but Saul starts running interference, causing weeks of delay.
They try to evict Acker, who lives 1240 Arroyo Vista but discover the address now reads 1130 Arroyo Vista. The house number has been removed from the residence and Saul is ready with a faked piece of mail. Saul argues there was a flaw in the original land grant from 1846, that the prime contractor is an escaped felon, that there’s radiation so the police and the construction crew have to keep their distance, he fakes a religious miracle on the side of the house that briefly creates a tourist attraction, he has an archeologist come and dig the property and finds phony artifacts that could provide protection under the New Mexico Cultural Properties Act. Every ploy is successful and requires associates time and attention to challenge and get dismissed. It’s a masterclass in procrastinating.
Saul and Kim hire a private investigator to dig into Wachtel’s past in search of black mail material. He comes back with little to nothing, but by breaking in and taking pictures in his office, inadvertently gets a shot of a photo the bank ripped off for its logo decades ago without permission. Kim sees it and immediately recognizes what it means, that Mesa Verde is guilty of copyright infringement.
As the time comes for Saul to come and broadside Mesa Verde with their play, Kim gets cold feet. Her boss, Rich Schweikart, who has been a mentor and friend, sees something is up with Kim and tries to take her off the case, but Kim can’t acknowledge she’s actively working against her own client. She drops in on Saul in the process of wrapping up filming the attack ads they’ve been working on, and tells him to back off, that she’s going to kick in to Mesa’s offer, upped to $45,000, and increase that to $75,000 out of her own pocket if necessary, to convince Acker to settle, much to Saul’s horror.
At the settlement negotiation the next day, Saul ambushes Mesa Verde, Schweikart and Kim by requesting 4 million. Kim urges an immediate shut down of the meeting, but Saul drops the hammer, the brilliant and messy plan of attack he and Kim designed together. He shows Kevin the ads he’s been working on, artfully grotesque acts of absurd slander that may or may not skirt libel because the “victims” delivering their testimonials of outrageous misfortune committed by or occurring in the bank, never say Mesa Verde by name. The commercials may not be legal and may have to be taken down, but as they drag out the debate in court, the ads will run and the mud will be slung (or the story is shopped to local news outlets and the ads are run for free there).
The ads are particularly effective because they use footage of an old ad featuring the bank’s founder, and Kevin’s father, Don Wachtell, (portrayed by Odenkirk’s fellow Mr. Show alum, Jay Johnston) increasing the embarrassment, and likelihood Kevin will overpay to settle.
In addition, Saul gets Kevin to indemnify himself by admitting the photo used to create the Mesa Verde logo was purchased by his father, but it was only a copy of the photo and not the rights to it, making the use of the logo copyright infringement and a misuse of the artist’s intellectual property. Saul tracked down the 92 year old Navajo artist, Olivia Bitsui, and has already filed an injunction, meaning the bank will have to take down or cover any use of its own logo for years as Saul promises to drag out both cases in court.
As if Saul had a lute he was playing as he skips from the stunned conference room to his car whistling “We’re in the Money”, Kevin follows, negotiates in the parking garage and makes a handshake deal on the spot. Acker gets to keep his house plus $45,000 along with a public apology, and Olivia Bisui gets $200,000 along with all future credit for the inspiration and use of her photo from Mesa Verde (along with another public apology).
If you hadn’t seen this episode before, and I told you it ends with Kim proposing marriage, you wouldn’t believe me. Watching Kim go through the stages of rage as Saul expertly, obnoxiously executes their own plan but still manages to surprise and humiliate her in front of her boss and biggest client, has all the makings of a relationship being willfully detonated by its toxic protagonist in real time.
But in retrospect, it makes sense that this is Kim’s point of no return. The Acker situation lays bare all the problems Kim has with her relationship with corporate law. The desire of one man to simply keep the home he’s lawfully renting can be erased by a bank with a team of expensive lawyers and infinite resources who decides, even with other options, they can put their call center on his land simply because its powerful CEO wants it there. We watch Kim try every possible avenue to talk Acker into swallowing this bitter pill. Charm, empathy, financial reward, threats, but nothing works. And she knows, on some level, it shouldn’t have to.
So she turns to Saul, who has always known on some level the law is a cudgel wielded by the rich and something that has to be finessed if you’re truly interested in concepts as lofty yet essential as justice and fairness. Together they conceive of a plan that weds both of their strengths. Jimmy’s sleazy private detective gets them footage from Wachtell’s study. Kim’s eagle eye and encyclopedic command of the law catch the framed picture on the wall and registers what it means and exactly how to employ it as a weapon. Saul’s gauche yet effective use of media, and his basic understanding of people and how to manipulate them, gets them the commercials, at least theoretically coached to withhold what would qualify them as condemnable libel by Kim. It’s an incredible team effort, till one team member decides to pull back and the other doesn’t.
The episode, “Wexler vs. Goodman” opens with a flashback to Kim’s childhood, which is something we’ve never seen before, and had only heard mentioned for the first time when she brings up how unstable her living situation was in an attempt to make a connection with Everett Acker. Kim is waiting alone, at night in a frozen school lot with a cello and an anxious look on her face. Her mother pulls up late, driving erratically with music blasting, drunk. Kim decides she’s walking home, and as her mother attempts to get her to compromise and get in the car, her final aggravated insult as she drives off is, “You never listen!”
What Kim sees in that moment she decides to propose to Saul is that with him, she will always have a weapon at her side to use and it will be impossible to do her job properly. That her life in corporate law will be filled with these morally compromising situations and inevitably she will skirt the law and her responsibilities to her firm and their clients in order to do the right thing. That even though she told him to do something, Saul resisted because he had a win, and he felt it was the right thing to do. That in his fucked up way, Saul has firm principals and he too won’t listen. He would also walk three miles home in the cold, if it’s what he believes is right. By the end of the season, Kim will be out of corporate law, married to Saul, and plotting to destroy Howard Hamlin.
3. Better Call Saul s2 e8, “Fifi,” s3 e10, “Chicanery” – Jimmy vs. Chuck
Chuck and Jimmy McGill have been at odds to varying degrees their entire lives. And this specific entry is a big tent operation that stretches over two seasons. It involves a scam by Jimmy, Chuck investigating that scam, then a showdown in a bar hearing with no shortage of maneuvering, but it’s really one cascading chain of events that destroys one (already badly strained) relationship between brothers, kills one of them, and really effectively destroys both lives. So the entire saga is being entered as a single entity.
When Kim leaves HHM and an offer from Schweikart and Cokeley on the table to start her own practice alongside Jimmy, a tug of war ensues over who represents Mesa Verde. Spurred by Chuck, who exposes himself to serious pain to feign normalcy and steal a win from Jimmy, HHM wins. Kim is crushed and begins to question her decision, threatening the future Jimmy has envisioned of them to work together. So Jimmy decides to get involved.
He goes to visit Chuck, incapacitated from the Mesa Verde pitch. While alone with Chuck, Jimmy swipes thirteen documents (including a letter of authorization, project description, a map, application paperwork and a vendor notice, among others) leaving labeled Post-it notes so he knows precisely where to return everything to. He takes the docs to Valiant Printings, a 24-hour print shop, and armed with an exacto knife, a wood ruler, one 20 lb ream of Hammermill premium paper, a glue stick, a magnifying glass and Valliant Printings best copier, Jimmy painstakingly flips addresses on the documents, changing 1261 Rosella Drive to 1216 Rosella Drive (one after the Magna Carta) in Scottsdale, Arizona, dozens of times, on every document, through an entire night.
When Chuck, Howard, Kevin Wachtell and Paige Novick (his Senior Counsel), meet in front of the New Mexico State Banking Board, reviewing their application to expand across state lines, the discrepancy in the filing leads to a six week delay, and Mesa goes back to Kim. It’s an incredibly mundane scam with overwhelming consequences, a bumper sticker for the Gilligan approach to television making.
In the end, Jimmy’s plot is not undone by lack of attention to detail, but his own emotional attachment to his brother. After Jimmy’s paperwork doctoring hack, Chuck immediately (and a tad ridiculously) recognizes the entire scheme and begins attempting to ensnare him to win back Mesa Verde, prove his competency, and most importantly, catch and punish Jimmy for trying to outsmart him.
After some back in forth, Jimmy is in the clear with Chuck unable to get the proof he needs to nail Jimmy. So in a turn worthy of Walt’s best dramatic, manipulative performances, Chuck lures Jimmy to his house and turns on the waterworks (Just need to take a moment to mention that in a career full of incredible performances, this is Michael Mckean’s best. He’s incredible, start to finish), announcing he will quit the legal profession because of this alleged typo, provoking Jimmy into confessing, as Chuck secretly tapes him.
The tape is completely inadmissible, but Chuck is playing 12 dimensional chess, counting on Jimmy to fly off the handle when he discovers the entire interaction was a set-up, and Jimmy obliges. When he snaps and comes to confront Chuck and destroy the tape, the private investigator Chuck hired to bear witness to Jimmy breaking and entering, then committing intent to destroy evidence, is there waiting, along with Howard, just by coincidence.
In the fallout, Chuck finagles the charges against Jimmy down from criminal, really only interested in getting Jimmy disbarred to teach him a lesson. Kim represents Jimmy at the bar hearing and puts the relationship between the brothers at the center of her defense. How Jimmy has been a good, loyal brother who has taken care of Chuck through tough times.
Jimmy has Rebecca, Chuck’s ex-wife, fly in for his testimony. Chuck has hidden his illness from her, that manifested itself after their divorce in what appears to be a cheap ploy to throw Chuck off his game. Jimmy works the cross examination on Chuck and delves into Chuck’s illness. Chuck doesn’t shy away, he explains he has electro-hypersensitivity. That electric fixtures or devices that are not current flowing don’t bother him. That because the court made a concession for him and killed the lights and had everyone in the court hand over their devices, he’s perfectly comfortable at the moment. It appears as if he’s parried Jimmy’s thrust and he’s headed for disbarment.
Until Jimmy’s big reveal. As a, pre shadowing? Post foreshadowing? Jimmy uses Huell to plant a cell phone battery on Chuck (an hour and 43 minutes prior to Chuck’s testimony) to prove definitively his illness is a mental illness. He’d been unaware the battery was on his person for nearly two hours. This shouldn’t have any bearing on the case, but Jimmy knows being unmasked as being mentally ill will be too much for Chuck’s pride to handle, particularly in front of Rebecca, and he’s right.
Chuck has a complete meltdown, going over his lifelong grievances in front of the court and making it clear how petty and personal this issue is to him. Belatedly, Chuck realizes he’s been raving in front of the board, tarnishing the reputation of his firm, and ending his career. The destruction is complete and total.
What’s so crushing about this entire incident is how both men weaponize their history with one another. Jimmy and Chuck’s outbursts are mirror incidents of each other. Chuck knew precisely how to get Jimmy to react in a stupid way that would put his career at risk, and Jimmy knew exactly how to get Chuck to blow up, ruining his life. It’s devastating how intimately these two brothers know each other, and how they use this intimacy to tear each other down.
2. Breaking Bad s3 e6, “Sunset” – s3 e8, “I See You” – Hank and the Salamanca Twins
Let’s consider a version of Breaking Bad starring Gustavo Fring, a Chilean gangster with a genius for business simultaneously running a legitimate American fast food franchise and contending with a Mexican drug cartel, for whom he serves as the American distribution arm, and is secretly plotting to destroy (Note to Vince Gilligan: I would watch this show!). You have discovered a talented yet highly volatile and problematic meth cook whose product you want to build your brand around in your newly minted, mass production facility in America. You want to start your own separate entity but you know the cartel will never let you fully branch off on your own, producing and distributing your own product without giving them a wet beak.
The cook has a family, including a brother in law in the DEA. As a result of this relationship, a low level Salamanca family member (Tuco) is killed by the DEA agent. The cartel wants the cook’s blood because going directly after a DEA agent means bringing the weight of American might down on your organization. You tell the cartel for now, the cook is too valuable to the entire operation. You ask to give him a temporary pass until he’s no longer needed. The cartel obliges, but two of their most dangerous hitmen, cousins of the departed, go rogue. They start harassing your respectable business, making threats that could disrupt all your plans. What do you do?
The answer is Vince Gilligan’s second greatest scheme of all time, 1A to the best ever, really. It’s a jewel box with a staggering number of moving parts that displays otherworldly calculation. It’s the single move that made Gustavo Fring so fascinating, so formidable and so dangerous as he owns this entire mini three episode arc and announces himself as the biggest threat Walt, or anyone on the show to this point, has faced.
Much of the drug world storylines in both series revolve around the tension between Gus, the cartel’s valuable American distribution arm, and the Salamancas, an entire family of sick fuck, ruthless enforcers. Gus sets those hitmen, the Salamanca twins, loose on Hank in what becomes a double coup. As Hank leaves his hearing following his incident with Jesse Pinkman, he receives a scrambled anonymous call tipping him off to a coming hit. It’s from Gus, whose goal is setting Hank and the twins against each other and hoping they cancel each other out. It works. Hank is able to kill both twins but sustain injuries that effectively sideline him for the remainder of season 3, and the first half of season 4.
In one stroke, Gus removes the potential risk his head chemist presents with his family ties. He also puts heat on Juan Bolsa, the Cartel’s front facing liaison with Gus. Juan is assassinated by a seriously pissed off DEA after the cartel attempted to kill one of their agents on American soil. This gives Gus an opportunity to sever ties with the cartel and corner the meth market in the entire South Western corner of the United States. He elevates what appears on its face to be a relatively minor skirmish between a cop and two hitmen into a tectonic shift for his empire. It’s a masterstroke of political spycraft, playing the cartel and the DEA off each other to achieve his ultimate goal.
It’s also a means for him to test Walt. Walt is unable to deliver on his weekly 200 lb commitment as a result of the botched hit on Hank, laid up in the hospital. Walt doesn’t realize Gus is aware of their relationship and tries to lie to Gus about why he can’t deliver. Gus then shows up with a large lunch delivery for the DEA and the family, and an announced $10,000 reward for information about the case. He shows Walt he can’t be lied to and can get to Walt’s family whenever he wants.
His complete and total own of Walt in the hospital lobby is one of the show’s best moments. It announces how dangerous and formidable Gus is. He can’t be outscienced, he’s a sociologist. He understands people, he understands pressure and he takes a macro approach to operations and their multitudes of moving parts. He understands what makes these parts move and how to oil them. To beat him, Walt will have to up his game significantly.
1. Breaking Bad s2 e11, “Mandala,” s4 e13 “Face Off” – Killing Gustavo Fring
If the Gilligan Universe had a religion, its spiritual avatar would be Gustavo Fring. He embodies the discipline, the careful thought, the tireless effort and the respect for efficiency, the love of a job well done, that exudes from both shows. Walt is messy. He’s emotional. He’s egotistical. He makes rash and even stupid split decisions. When he wins, it’s because the intelligence, ruthlessness, asshole and/or crazy deficit is so great he’s able to overcome his limitations. This is why the greatest obstacle of Breaking Bad is Gus. It’s Sistine Chapel is finally beating him.
Gus is the perfect-brain version of Walt. He has no emotional attachments. He is singularly focused on the chessboard and where the pieces are located at all times. He’s a master tactician, not just ordering his pieces from square to square, but understanding their inner-workings, where their allegiances lie, what makes them tick and how to wind them. It’s why he never wanted to work with Walt. He can take stock of a man with little more than a handshake and he immediately saw Walt for what he was. But then, there’s the product.
One of the most important people in Breaking Bad only gets one scene. He’s Maximino Arciniega, Gustavo’s lover and partner who was murdered by the Juarez Cartel long before the events of the show. In the flashback to the fateful meeting where he is killed, (An all-time great for television, not just this show: Season 4, episode 8, “Hermanos”) we understand everything that motivates Gus to ignore his instincts and work with Walt. As they’re being admonished for selling meth out of the original Los Pollos Hermanos on cartel turf, Max and Gus explain their operation to Don Eladio. Gus handled the business side and Max was the chef/chemist.
Max made a product that was crystalline and incredibly pure when the market was flooded with “biker crank”, and his dream was to set up a state of the art lab where he could produce his own methamphetamine. They had given samples to cartel henchmen to set this meeting up, to propose going into business with the cartel, a mutually beneficial relationship that would quadruple the cartel’s coke profits. Then, for their hubris, and to make it clear who Gus will be working work for, Hector Salamanca blows Max’s brains out and Gus has to watch as he bleeds out, into Don Eladio’s pool.
And that’s what makes Gus a perfect tragic hero, an Achilles (aside from Giancarlo Stanton who is on fucking fire). His one weakness is his pain, his lost love the Juarez Cartel stole from him. His one non-professional indulgence, the one thing he gets satisfaction, if not pleasure from in his life, is the living torture of Hector Salamanca as he burns the Juarez Cartel, and the entire Salamanca family down around him. And in the end, this flaw, his heel, is the one thing Walter finds and uses to destroy him.
Walt’s checkmate against Gus after being rooked over and over again is an incredible flex, one that combines Walt’s Mr. Wizard style with Gus’ supernatural powers of foresight and manipulation. It’s a true work of Shakespearean psychology, a brilliant logic proof that requires a deep rooted understanding of all the pieces on the board.
With the tip of a pawn, Jesse’s girlfriend’s son Brock is sent to the emergency room poisoned by lily of the valley, a plant with mild poisonous properties that Walt has growing in his backyard by the pool. Walt knew this would present as ricin poisoning by having Huell lift Jesse’s cigarette, which makes Jesse think Walt took it somehow as some sort of revenge ploy, which is part of the plan. Walt manipulates Jesse into wanting to kill him, which he then uses to convince Jesse this was all a set up, the work of Gus framing him, that Gus is a ruthless grandmaster who has gamed them both every step of their relationship, and has now achieved his ultimate goal: getting Jesse to eliminate Walt by his own hand.
Walt uses the entirety of the last two seasons to create a narrative that everything Gus has plotted has brought them to this very moment and final payoff. He weaponizes Gus’ own brilliance and uses it against him. And Bryan Cranston has never sold anything harder. You barely blame Jesse for biting on it even as he’s guessed at the actual machinations. On a first watch, the audience had no idea where any of this was heading until the plot was revealed. It’s the final resounding clip in the Gilligan HOF highlight reel, the first sentence in his obituary.
For their first attempt on Gus, Jesse helps in luring him to the hospital, saying he won’t cook until Brock is out of the clear. While they’re inside, Walt rigs Gus’ car with a bomb he makes out of ammonium nitrate drained from cold packs. But at this point, displaying borderline extra sensory instinct, Gus sniffs out the trap and ditches the car at the hospital parking lot.
Then Jesse finally gives Walt the perfect location, Casa Tranquila, the retirement home where Hector Salamanca spends his days stewing. Walt is able to piece together the nature of their relationship and he comes up with his final great plan. Walt makes a deal with the hateful old man who Gus has spent years torturing and Hector contacts the DEA, specifically Hank, because he knows it will set off Gus’ alarm and without knowing the nature of his disclosure, will send him to Casa Tranquila to kill Hector himself.
Walt rigs the bomb to Hector’s wheelchair so even after an in-person sweep by a henchman, it’s missed. Gus, blinded by hatred, and the memories of loss vividly communicated through Stanton’s stoic but tortured expressions, can’t see the set trap until it’s too late, as Hector rings his bell, the bomb’s trigger.
With his final breath Gustavo Fring walks out of Salamanca’s destroyed room and straightens his tie, an incredible feat considering half his face is missing. In death, as in life, he displays superhuman determination and complete command of his environment. There was no other way for Vince Gilligan’s greatest, most emblematic character to say goodbye.