If there’s a dominant streak in this first half of the “Better Call Saul” farewell season, it’s the idea of surveillance. Aside from the fact that we’re all (in our own weird way) complicit in spying on the most vulnerable moments of these characters’ lives, they’re already doing a pretty good job of doing it to each other: guys stationed in squad cars tucked just out of view, massive battle stations’ worth of security cameras trained on every inch of the Fortress of Fringitude, and — as we see in this midseason finale — Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) peeping through a pair of binoculars at the massive laundry operation he’s convinced is the disguise we know it to be.
They’re all waiting for a moment of weakness, one tiny slip-up to give them just enough of an advantage to pounce. One of the masterful strokes of “Plan and Execution” is that it’s not built on mistakes. If anything, the episode’s tragic downfalls and shocking ends come as a direct result of justified confidence. Everyone in this somber swirl of misfortune is convinced that they can see the full picture. Arguably, the only one who really does is the man in complete control in the final seconds, flashing a sliver of his trademark nefarious grin while standing over a body he just took the life from.
Even while adopting his Pennywise-like storm drain perch, across the street from Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) top-secret construction project, Lalo is a man who is staking out his foes on his own terms. He may be forced to take naps in a truck stop parking lot, but he’s the one setting the timer. He may have to leave and enter his hideout from opposite sides of a manhole cover, but he’s the one holding the hook. It’s only when he realizes that a phone bug is keeping him from talking to Tio (Mark Margolis) that he decides to change the gameboard to his liking.
It’s the first hint of the danger to come that, even with all the preamble and the second-guessing leading to Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) “D-Day,” it’s Lalo that gets the cold open treatment. It’s easy to forget when that attention shifts, even as their collision seems inevitable, that he’s still lurking around the edges of Albuquerque. Kim manages to block it out of her mind for long enough to focus on finishing her chosen task at hand: turning the Sandpiper mediation on its head.
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To that end, the similarity in the photos that Jimmy and Howard had at their disposal last week turned out not to be a coincidence after all. After Jimmy’s double-agent private investigator (Lennie Loftin) delivers the photos laced with last week’s contributions from Dr. Caldera, the final pieces are in place. Although the extensive process to reshoot those “incriminating” photos brings one more lighthearted chance to meet up with the UNM team (the fake foreground foliage on the boom mic is a really nice touch), there’s just as much time spent with Howard, unaware that he’s preparing the scene for his own demise.
Watching a composed and full-of-purpose Howard consult Irene (Jean Effron) and reassure her of the realities of the case, it’s almost impossible not to see how much overlap his technique has with Jimmy’s. Again, this is a man that recognizes the power of performance and of getting people to buy in, however that happens. Howard’s only flaw in going toe-to-toe with Jimmy is underestimating just how much and for how long that resentment had been brewing.
Because, as soon as the hammer blows start coming — the sweating, the picture swap, the heartbreaking reaction from Casimiro (John Posey) himself — Howard is someone with enough wits to see exactly what’s happening to him in real time. In some ways, it makes his end at once more tragic and more dignified. Whether or not his reputational dive-bomb was warranted or not, “Better Call Saul” gave him the clarity of seeing who was responsible for pulling the whole row from the bottom of his life’s Jenga tower.
So it’s a credit to episode writer/director Tom Schnauz that the payoff to this mediation disaster comes almost devoid of triumph. There’s no massive twist in how it plays out, especially after the previous six episodes were so meticulous in how they laid out every single detail that was going to be relevant here. It’s not a look of confusion or disgust on the face of Richard Schweikart (the always-welcome Dennis Boutsikaris) as he leaves. It’s overwhelming sadness. “Plan and Execution” values his and Cliff Main’s (Ed Begley, Jr.) reactions as much as Jimmy and Kim’s.
Sure, Jimmy fancies himself a little bit of a maestro as he pantomimes conducting the proceedings from afar. But like the dog that catches the mail truck (and before their success acts as a kind of twisted aphrodisiac), there’s definitely a moment when the reality of what he and Kim have done starts to sink in. It’s not that the two of them haven’t considered the consequences and haven’t had to justify to themselves that what they’re doing has value. In Kim’s eyes, though, you can see the faint glimmer of second-guessing whether the coming collateral damage was all worth it.
For those brief candlelit moments spent with Judy Holliday (it’s been fun seeing that Jimmy and Kim’s late-night go-to is whatever’s on TCM), it is. Where their career decisions have taken them on diverging paths, this is husband and wife finally in symbiosis, not in planning an elaborate hoax, but preparing to enjoy the spoils: hearing their target admit defeat. And it happens, when Howard arrives with a bottle of Macallan doubling as a drinkable white flag.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
At first, the pair play dumb as to why Howard’s there, letting him lay out the full explanation of his own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day before they start making tiny concessions (i.e., Jimmy’s backhanded “You’ll land on your feet”). On some level, you get the sense that Kim and Jimmy were prepared for some level of personal attacks — “You two are soulless” seems to glance off of them without leaving a mark. It’s not until the revelation that this is all being piled onto a man going through a crumbling marriage that there’s another crack in the veneer of self-satisfaction. That, in turn, makes Kim’s insistence of “You need to go home” even more sinister, considering that they know they’ve now effectively choked off his last place of refuge.
It also has immediate consequences when she tells him to leave seconds later, this time with a far more dire tone of voice. Lalo appearing through their front door feels like something more from an outright horror film than last season’s apartment showdown. This time, there doesn’t seem to be the steady hand of a friendly sniper hovering as backup. (Though, as Mike did say a few weeks ago, His Guys are keeping watch whether Kim realizes it or not.)
Nacho got the liberty to exit this story on his own terms. The same isn’t true for Howard, but you could hardly ask for a better “Better Call Saul” swan song from Patrick Fabian. The certitude in his office before the mediation, the steady pressure-cooker build-up of the accusations, the monologue he gives as he’s taking down the glasses for the whiskey — all delivered with the strength of someone who knows he’s down to his last few scenes. Yet, Fabian doesn’t overplay any of them. Even down to the “Who are you?” Howard gives Lalo (a perfect delivery that somehow gives some levity to an impossibly tense situation), he never tips that the end is coming right around the corner.
It’s not the first goodbye in Season 6, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. It remains to be seen how much “Better Call Saul” will stick to the same “surprising, but inevitable” level of mastery it’s shown to this point and is evident here. Suffice to say, Howard’s death marks an undeniable shift for the home stretch. Now begins a long seven-week wait, one with a lot more than “talk” waiting on the other side.
“Better Call Saul” will return for the final episodes of Season 6, beginning on July 11. All previous Season 6 episodes are available on AMC+.