Better Call Saul: “Breathe” (S4E2)

This week’s episode had almost everything I love about Better Call Saul: Jimmy up to his usual nonsense, exceptional Kim content, Mike being Mike, and Gus Fring getting his hands dirty. “Breathe” (written by Thomas Schnauz and directed by Michelle MacLaren) opens in a dark hospital room. The doctor Gus has on his payroll is checking up on Hector Salamanca in secret, with Victor as lookout. The doctor reports to Gus, who is waiting outside, and tells him that Hector is still unresponsive. Gus is displeased with Hector’s progress and the doctor tells Gus that perhaps if Hector was in the care of a world-renowned facility such as Johns Hopkins they might have better results, but that there’s still no guarantee of recovery. The doctor opines that Hector has gotten what he deserves, but Gus is as insistent with him as he was last season with Mike: “I decide what he deserves. No one else.”

Jimmy is up before the dawn, juicing and preparing for a day full of interviews. Kim thinks he should take some time off and is still disturbed by his reaction to Chuck’s death but Jimmy wants to jump right in. His argument is that they could certainly use the money and he needs to get out of her way because she’s using the apartment as her office, but it’s more than that. Jimmy needs to keep his mind active or else he might actually start to feel something. Kim seems disturbed by the fact that Jimmy is not planning on attending the meeting to settle Chuck’s estate, so she decides to go in his absence, as his representative—a role she has been taking on for a while now.

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Nacho’s father arrives at his shop to find Nacho waiting for him. Mr. Varga is still not on speaking terms with his son, heartbroken by the fact that Nacho involved himself with the cartel. The fact that Nacho dragged him into it—even though it wasn’t his choice—seems less important to Mr. Varga than the fact that Nacho was ever involved in the first place. When Nacho tells him that it’s over, his father wordlessly goes to the till and takes out the payoff money that Hector forced on him in “Lantern” (S3E10), placing it in three stacks just as Hector did when he put it on the counter. The stacks look smaller than they were and the look on Mr. Varga’s face tells me that he likely had to spend some of it and is disgusted with himself for doing so. Nacho wants him to keep the money and tells him no one is coming for it but Mr. Varga wants nothing to do with it. All he wants to know is when Nacho is getting out. Nacho tells him he’s working on it, and he is, but part of him knows that you don’t just walk away from cartel business in one piece. He saved his father and his family—at least, for the moment—but I think a part of him knows it’s going to be nearly impossible to save himself.

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Jimmy arrives for his interview at Neff Copiers and we’re treated to a little moment where we see him starting to lose his hair. Can Saul’s comb-over be far off? He’s wearing a muted gray/brown suit, but his pink and purple paisley tie also gives off major Saul vibes. The choice of a copier company for the interview in this episode is a loaded one since we know that Jimmy’s sabotage of Chuck’s Mesa Verde documents was done with the aid of a copy machine. His extensive knowledge of copiers—some for nefarious purposes and some for his legit work in the HHM mailroom—make him a perfect fit for this job, but no Better Call Saul fan can think of a copy machine without thinking of that incredible document forgery montage in “Fifi” (S2E6), which was also written by Schnauz.

An employee named Seymour gives Jimmy a tour through the company’s history, which echoes Jimmy’s own history in a number of ways. He begins with a photograph of Alma and Ollie Neff, who began the company almost 50 years earlier. Another couple who began a family business together around that time: Ruth and Charles McGill. Seymour moves on to a photo of the Neff 6500 color copier, and Jimmy tells him that he worked with one of those machines back in Chicago. We know from Chuck’s conversation with Kim in “Nailed” (S2E9) that Jimmy had a fake ID business in high school. I think we may have just learned what type of equipment he used. Henry tells him that counterfeiters used that model to make fake $5 bills, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Jimmy dabbled in a bit of fake money printing himself, especially given his money-based grifts with Marco.

Seymour moves on to a shelf filled with bowling trophies and tells Jimmy that Mr. Neff once sponsored a kids’ league. Bowling? Sponsoring kids? I’m 99.9% sure that this a reference to The Big Lebowski and no one will convince me otherwise. In fact, this whole scene reminds me of Brandt giving The Dude a tour of Mr. Lebowski’s house. But I digress. Jimmy sees some Hummel figurines, which he’s familiar with thanks to his first elderly client, Mrs. Strauss, who had an extensive collection that Jimmy meticulously catalogued for her will (“Alpine Shepherd Boy,” S1E5). Jimmy looks sad when he remembers her. That was a simpler time, before he discovered Chuck’s betrayal, when he still had hope of an elder law practice with Kim by his side.

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Mr. Neff comes in and calls the trophy case “the wall of crap” and says he’s been meaning to throw it all away, which says a lot about his character. It holds no sentimental value for him, even though it’s all tied into the history of his family’s business.

Jimmy is applying for an office-to-office salesman job with the goal of getting businesses to upgrade their printers. Mr. Neff notes that Jimmy’s resume says he was a lawyer quite recently and it gives him pause, but Jimmy takes what could have (and should have) been a major red flag and spins it masterfully. After all, as he rightly points out, a good lawyer is also a good salesman, but instead of selling products, you’re selling yourself to get business, you’re selling your client’s story to the jury, you’re selling your clients on a deal they don’t want to take, etc. Jimmy is a natural salesman and, as he tells Neff and Seymour, “I’ve been told stubbornness and persuasiveness are two of my top qualities.”

The interview is pretty short, although they seem to like Jimmy. Jimmy is nothing if not likeable, even Chuck could admit that much about him. Jimmy leaves after they tell him they’ll let him know in a week or so but he pauses in the lobby and decides to go back in and give them the hard sell. He talks himself into a job arguing the opportunity cost factor and sells his experience with copiers, which he calls “the beating heart of any business.” His passion and knowledge of the machinery impresses Mr. Neff and Seymour and they offer him a job on the spot. But instead of taking it, Jimmy tells them off, mocking them for falling for “that little song-and-dance” he performed for them. He’s flabbergasted that he was able to sell these men on himself so quickly and without any due diligence on their part. “Suckers,” he says, “I feel sorry for you.”

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This scene is an amazing display of Jimmy’s ability to sabotage himself. He knows he’s good at selling and he flexes his muscles in front of these guys, but it’s not because he actually wants the job; it’s so he can prove to himself that he can get it, and with very minimal effort. It is also to remind himself how many suckers there are out there just waiting to be sold a line.

There’s also a part of Jimmy that doesn’t believe he deserves the job. When he leaves that office the first time, I think it hits him that he may actually get this job, and all that guilt he’s repressing over Chuck’s death—which was, in part, related to a copy machine— causes him to go back in and destroy any chance he might have. But he does so in a way that allows him to actively work through his self-esteem and self-worth issues. That song-and-dance routine is Jimmy McGill at his best. We realize that he would actually be amazing at this job, if only he would act in his own self-interest. But the act of destroying the opportunity feels good to him, because at the end of the day, Jimmy doesn’t believe he deserves anything good, and I’m terrified of the day he wakes up and decides this also applies to Kim.

He immediately calls another business from the classified ads for a sales associate position and sets up an interview for 20 minutes later. Usually Better Call Saul is meticulous in its attention to realistic detail but no one in the history of ever has gotten an interview scheduled 20 minutes after a first phone call—at least, not in this century. But Jimmy is on a mission to bang as many out as possible. At this point it seems as if he’s not going to take any of them seriously, or perhaps he will only want a job if they don’t fall for his song-and-dance. It seems Jimmy is more interested in interviewing potential employers than he is in being interviewed. He said it himself: stubbornness and persuasiveness are two of his top qualities. He’s playing a role here, and that role is a guy who actually wants the job he’s interviewing for, but he doesn’t want to be a sales associate at some regional copy machine company. He wants to be Saul Goodman, he just may not know it yet.

Mike is spending quality Pop-Pop time with Kaylee when he gets a call telling him that Lydia needs to meet with him. I knew after last week’s little security consulting exercise that Lydia was going to be furious that Mike wasn’t just sitting at home collecting his checks and I was right. I was also right to assume that Mike believes that Madrigal’s security issues are a real problem, and that he wants everything on paper to look legit.

Between the New Age-y music playing and the aesthetic of the place, I honestly thought Lydia was having Mike meet her at a spa—and really, would that have been out of character? But it seems as if it’s some fancy hotel where Madrigal has reserved a conference room. Mike is wondering the same thing as I am: did she come all the way to Albuquerque from corporate in Houston just to meet with him face-to-face? It wouldn’t surprise me, but she claims she’s on one of her many stops to meet with distributors. I don’t know how much I believe her (and neither does Mike).

Lydia refuses to see Mike’s perspective; she thinks that his actions raise the threat of exposure while he thinks they lower the chances. Lydia’s problem has always been that she doesn’t think things all the way through. Something happens that isn’t in exact accordance with her plans and she panics. She has knee-jerk reactions to things instead of taking a moment to really think. If she actually listened to what Mike was saying, she would see that he’s absolutely right. After all, she is an intelligent woman. You don’t get to a high-level position at a multinational corporation (or to be in business with Gus Fring) if you’re an idiot—especially if you’re a woman. But she’s also always convinced that her way is the right way, when it very rarely is. Lydia is just as stubborn as Jimmy, but she’s not nearly as persuasive.

She name-drops Gus as she leaves—telling Mike that he has Gus’s respect for the moment and would do well to keep it—but I can’t imagine a scenario where Gus doesn’t agree with Mike on this. Gus Fring has built (and is continuing to build) his business by being cautious and meticulous. Gus would absolutely agree with Mike’s argument that it’s best for him to actually do the job he’s being paid for and would share his legitimate concerns regarding Madrigal’s security.

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While Lydia sees Mike as a problem, Gus sees him as a solution. Later, when Lydia calls Gus to fill him in on the situation, he tells her to just give him a security badge and let him go about his business. Gus doesn’t have time for Lydia’s unfounded concerns about Mike. He believes that Mike is reliable and that’s the end of it. We know Gus eventually hires Mike as a consultant for Los Pollos Hermanos. I think this is the moment that he decides he’s going to do so. I also think this situation is the genesis of the hostility between Mike and Lydia, and Breaking Bad fans know that their relationship doesn’t end well.

The Cousins are silent guardians of Hector at the hospital when a doctor from Johns Hopkins comes in as a result of a “generous grant” to the hospital. Gus is going above and beyond to make sure that Hector’s condition improves. His obsession with revenge against Hector will ultimately be his downfall, and here we are seeing the lengths to which he’s willing to go to make sure that he is the one who controls Hector’s fate.

I’m not entirely sure if the new doctor is aware of what she’s involved in and why, but she tells the Cousins (in fluent Spanish) that they are going to try an approach that involves stimulating Hector’s brain in an attempt to get it to rewire itself. As much as it’s possible to read any emotion on Marco and Leonel, it does seem like they are impressed by her and comfortable with her treating their beloved uncle.

Nacho and Arturo arrive to find the Cousins, which concerns Nacho, but Arturo assures him that they are still running things. His overconfidence regarding his importance to the Salamanca operation will soon come back to bite him, but for now he strolls in like he belongs there. The doctor explains Hector’s treatment plan to them and asks that they speak to Hector because he can likely hear them and it will help to stimulate and repair his brain. After the doctor leaves, Arturo speaks to Hector with that same confidence, assuring him that they have the operation running smoothly. Nacho speaks to him as well, telling him that “no one wants to mess with the Salamancas.” Nacho knows he’s responsible for Hector’s current condition and he has to fake his way through the tough-guy act, both for Arturo and for the Cousins. Really, he wants Hector dead and he forces himself to tell Hector that he’ll be back soon and stronger than ever, which is actually Nacho’s worst nightmare.

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Gus has his people keeping close tabs on the goings-on at the hospital. Tyrus brings him the latest update, including Nacho and Arturo’s visit and the presence of the Cousins. Gus is displeased to learn that there has been no change. When he looks at the medical report that Tyrus has brought him, a light bulb seems to go off. We can’t see what’s on the page he’s looking at because it’s completely out of focus, and we don’t know if Gus has any sort of medical knowledge or training in his past, but there’s something in the way that he responds—his facial expression and the fact that he tells Tyrus to gather Victor for a meeting instead of going back to the hospital—that suggests Gus has discovered some evidence of Nacho’s pill switch. That may be a stretch, but by the end of the episode it is confirmed that he knows what Nacho did. It’s not (yet) explicitly stated how he found out, but I think the answer may be in the report Tyrus brought him.

Kim attends the meeting regarding Chuck’s estate, which is held in Howard’s office at HHM. Rebecca is there and Kim greets her kindly. Whatever her feelings about Chuck, Kim seems to genuinely like Rebecca and feel bad about involving her in their takedown of Chuck. While Kim is kind to Rebecca, she has not-so-thinly-veiled disdain for Howard as he goes through the provisions of the will. Not surprisingly, Chuck left the bulk of his estate (including the property) to Rebecca, who named Howard executor. Howard plans to liquidate the property but he tells Kim that Jimmy is welcome to take whatever he wants from the house. He also tells her that Chuck has set up a scholarship fund, which Howard wants Jimmy to be a board member of, and has left Jimmy $5,000.

Kim isn’t surprised by this, nor should she be. Even if at some point Chuck had left Jimmy a more sizeable amount, he’s the type who would certainly have changed his will after things went south between them. Chuck would also have known, as Kim and Howard do, that the amount left to Jimmy is a pittance in comparison to his net worth but is enough to prevent Jimmy from contesting the will. Kim makes sure that Rebecca knows this as well.

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Kim also informs Howard that Jimmy doesn’t want anything from the house. This is interesting because Jimmy didn’t actually send her there on his behalf. In fact, as of the end of the episode, he doesn’t know she went and she chooses not to tell him. In many ways during this episode, Kim is really taking it upon herself to protect Jimmy—and very aggressively so in this particular scene. She goes after Howard with a vengeance for having unloaded on Jimmy on the day of Chuck’s funeral just to assuage his own guilt. She rightly points out that he didn’t go to Rebecca that day with ideas about Chuck burning himself alive; he saved it all for Jimmy. She picks apart the way he’s handling Chuck’s will, as well, spitting fire at Howard that the scholarship fund he wants Jimmy to help out with is a scholarship that Chuck would never have given to Jimmy.

And then there’s the letter from Chuck—for Jimmy’s eyes only—which I (and Kim) can only imagine is a screw you from beyond the grave. It remains to be seen what the contents of that letter are, and Kim doesn’t give it to Jimmy—at least, not yet. I have a feeling that she never will, but that he’ll find it while poking around for something, and that whatever is inside is going to be absolutely gut-wrenching. I don’t think we’ve heard the final words of Chuck McGill, but Chuck has just as much of a flair for the dramatic as Jimmy—albeit more muted—so I’m sure his final sign-off is gonna be a doozy.

Howard and Kim’s own personal history gives this scene a deeper significance. While she is primarily motivated by her desire to protect Jimmy, Kim’s response is colored by her own feelings about Howard—the man who threw her in the cornfields because the crazy Kettlemans left HHM, who stuck her in doc review for Jimmy’s screw-up, and who kept her there even after she brought in millions of dollars of new business. When it comes to Kim, Howard has always been incredibly selfish. She was his protégé when it made him look good, but all it took was one reputation-threatening mistake for him to throw her away like trash.

In this scene, she’s angry at him about what he’s putting Jimmy through but she’s also just generally reached her breaking point when it comes to Howard. Kim may have been able to swallow her rage and toe the line when Howard’s selfishness affected her, but when his actions hurt Jimmy, she can’t let it go. We saw it when she dared to question him about not letting Jimmy work on the Sandpiper case (“Pimento,” S1E9) and we saw it again when she cross-examined him during Jimmy’s bar hearing (“Chicanery,” S3E5). This is a theme we see with Kim throughout the series: when it comes to Jimmy, she’s willing to step over the lines that she’s set for herself.

How fair any of this is to Howard is debatable. He is truly devastated by Chuck’s death and perhaps wasn’t acting in his right mind when he went to Kim’s apartment. Despite everything that’s happened, I think in some ways Howard does care about Jimmy. He certainly doesn’t hate Jimmy and he didn’t go to Kim’s place with the intention of hurting him. But the problem with Howard is he really doesn’t ever think about other people’s feelings. He’s a smart guy but doesn’t have the emotional intelligence that Kim does. I honestly don’t think it occurred to him that the day of Chuck’s funeral wasn’t the time to approach Jimmy with his suicide theory, and that is Howard Hamlin’s problem in a nutshell.

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I think it’s interesting that Howard has arranged something of a shrine to Chuck in the lobby of HHM. It seems to me this is an exercise in self-flagellation for Howard, who feels completely responsible for Chuck’s death. Chuck is still very much present at HHM—in more than just the firm’s name—even though Howard forced him out. How long will Howard continue to blame himself for what happened? Will he find out that Jimmy was the one who told the insurance company about Chuck’s mental illness? Even if he does find out, I think he’ll always hold himself partially responsible. After all, he was supposed to be the one that Chuck could depend on in the end, once Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship was damaged beyond repair. Even though, rationally, Chuck’s desire to sue the insurance company would have been a disaster for HHM, I think Howard will forever regret not going along with it, at least for as long as it took him to calm Chuck down and convince him it was a terrible idea. Howard took away Chuck’s ability to leave HHM on his own terms, and (directly or indirectly) as a result, Chuck decided to leave this life on his own terms. It was the last and only thing he had control over, and for a control-freak like Chuck, there was no other choice to be made.

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Back at Kim’s apartment, Jimmy reports on his successful day of job hunting—leaving out the details about actively sabotaging his first job offer, of course. He’s acting like everything is fine and dandy but Kim knows that he’s hurting. We have yet to see Jimmy actually express his grief. Contrasted to Howard, who has been absolutely wrecked in both episodes, Jimmy looks like he hasn’t a care in the world. But of course that can’t be true, because he’s not Saul yet; he’s still Jimmy McGill and Jimmy has feelings. I don’t know to what extent Kim has tried to get him to open up and talk about Chuck but my guess is that she hasn’t. She believes that he’ll talk to her about it when he’s ready and her job as his partner is to be there for him.

Kim was in protection mode with Howard and she’s in comfort mode at home. One of the only ways she can console Jimmy, if he’s going to continue to repress his own emotions, is through physical intimacy, and she practically jumps him on the couch. This is the most physical contact we’ve seen between these two in the entire series and I think it’s significant that it comes at a time when Kim wants Jimmy to open up to her but doesn’t know how to break down his emotional walls. In terms of his thoughts and feelings, he’s keeping her at a distance, so she initiates sex to feel close to him as well as to make him feel good physically while he’s suffering emotionally.

Jimmy lays awake in bed with Kim, his mind clearly elsewhere as she sleeps soundly beside him. He gets out of bed and we see him on the computer, looking up the auction price of one of the Hummels he saw in the case at Neff Copiers. The thing goes for over $8,000 and we can see that Saul greed coming out as Jimmy calls Mike and leaves a message. He says he’s got a job for him, and it’s all very Saul Goodman. He’s even wearing a tracksuit, which is classic Saul. I can’t imagine Mike is going to be at all interested—it’s not the sort of petty criminal nonsense he would get on board with—but I’m interested to see how it shakes out. After all, Mr. Neff was just going to throw the “wall of crap” into the dumpster, and Jimmy is all about the “no harm, no foul” rules of engagement.

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The episode ends with some Breaking Bad-style tension and violence. Nacho and Arturo go to the meet with Tyrus and Victor to pick up their share of the drugs. Arturo, still trying to be Hector’s main guy, tells Nacho that he’s going to take six keys instead of five—as they once did before. It’s a power play and Nacho reluctantly agrees. With Hector Salamanca incapacitated and the Salamancas ability to retain control up in the air, everyone is on edge. There’s a tense standoff between Gus’s guys and Hector’s guys, during which Nacho pulls a gun on Victor and Tyrus to pressure them into handing over the extra brick. They capitulate, as they did last time, and Arturo walks out even cockier than he was before.

But it was all a set up. Gus was waiting in the shadows for them and before Nacho knows what is happening, Gus has Arturo hog-tied with a plastic bag suffocating him. This is the Gus we know—the Gus that will slit a man’s throat without blinking. I wasn’t sure exactly how ruthless Gus was at this point in the story, but I sure am now. Nacho watches Arturo suffocate to death right in front of him as Gus reveals that he knows what he did and tells him in no uncertain terms, “From now on, you are mine.” Nacho’s attempt to get out from under the Salamancas was a success but at the cost of his freedom. Now he’s under the thumb of Gus Fring who is far more dangerous. Gus will never let Nacho get out of the drug game because he knows he can use him, but he’ll also never really trust him.

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I can’t see things ending well for Nacho, but I think he’s safe for now. Gus could have easily killed him at any point if that’s what he wanted, but for the moment Nacho is useful to him. He’s got all the Salamanca street-level contacts and a working knowledge of their business. He also knows that if Nacho’s secret gets out, the Salamancas will kill his entire family, and that Nacho has no choice but to do anything Gus asks of him. Gus has him cornered and unfortunately I don’t think Nacho has much fight left in him. But if we see Mike enter the picture soon, he may be able to save him. It always seemed to me that Mike had a bit of a soft spot for Nacho and it remains to be seen whether Nacho has any future with Fring’s operation, or any future at all.


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One Reply to “Better Call Saul: “Breathe” (S4E2)”

  1. Great summary of a fantastic episode.

    I hadn’t thought of any references to The Big Lebowski, but now I see what you mean.

    I think the name Neff HAS to be a deliberate nod to Billy WIlder’s Double Indemnity; Walter Neff is the crooked/hapless insurance man in it (played by Fred McMurray). The Cohen Brothers used the name of Barbara Stanwyck’s Double Indemnity character, Dietrichson, in The Man Who Wasn’t There.

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