Can you have it both ways? Can bad deeds build a good world? Can you cash a big bank’s paycheck and still look out for the little guy in your spare time? This week’s Better Call Saul gets its teeth deep into the questions that have propelled it and its predecessor, Breaking Bad, from the jump. From its opening shot in which Jimmy worms his way into a huddle of construction workers to its serene images of a wounded Mike trekking through the Mexican countryside, ‘Dedicado a Max’ is artfully divided between quiet and commotion, humor and reflection. On the one hand you’ve got Jimmy’s sleazy Craigslist private eye offering to kidnap and torture Kim’s boss, and on the other there’s Mike complimenting Senora Cortezar’s cooking with as much genuine warmth as we’ve ever seen him express.
Kim’s struggle with the fallout of her plan to protect Mr. Acker from eviction is some of the episode’s most compelling material. All her frustration and guilt over Jimmy’s unscrupulous tactics and her boss Kevin’s lack of regard for an old man’s home comes boiling out when a senior partner at her firm gently implies he knows she’s pulling a fast one on Mesa Verde. It’s complex stuff, and actress Rhea Seehorn deftly communicates Kim’s slow-boil crisis of moral identity, biting off every word of her diatribe like she’s speaking in bolt cutter. The parts of her life don’t fit, and on some level she knows that trying to force them together in this way is only making everything worse.
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The Anonymous Benefactor
As Kim is to the beleaguered Mr. Acker, so is fast food mogul and meth kingpin Gustavo Fring to the secluded Mexican village where Mike recuperates from his stab wound. A benefactor, motivated by guilt and unseen by preference. Where Kim tries to use this position to make up for the moral rot of doing a big bank’s bidding, though, Fring has no illusions about the nature of giving with one hand and killing with the other. “It makes up for nothing,” says he says to Mike at the episode’s close, standing beside a fountain engraved with a dedication to his murdered lover, the episode’s titular Max. “I am what I am.”
That self-knowledge, so natural to Jimmy that by now he has retreated almost fully into it, ignoring the consequences of his actions except where they cause logistical problems, is what eludes Kim. A person is defined by the sum of their actions. There are no scales to weigh the soul, and fighting your own conscience is a losing battle taken up only from a place of denial. You can be both the banker’s bagman and a friend to the little guy, but someone still has to come out on top, and then you’ve got to live with it.