Better Call Saul returned this week with one of the show’s very best episodes – “Bagman”. This episode is set after Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) sets Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) the challenge of getting his $7 million dollars to achieve bail. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) passionately asks him not to, pleading that he is not a “bagman” for drug dealers. After getting the money from “the cousins” (Daniel and Luis Moncanda), a group of gunmen arrive, being tipped off about the money exchange by an informant. Mike (Jonathan Banks) saves him from the gunmen, but unfortunately, as the car was wrecked, they must return home on foot. What follows is an survival-type story in which Mike and Jimmy try to survive against the horrors of the desert.
This episode was written by Gordon Smith and directed by Vince Gilligan. Gilligan was the show-runner for all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad, and although, he co-created Better Call Saul, he has gave over the majority of show-running responsibilities to co-creator, Peter Gould. That being said, he still comes into write or direct episodes now and again, and this time, he has come into the direct one of the most perfect episodes of the show, and one of the best TV episodes to come out in a long time.
It is quite rare for a sole episode of a TV show to feel remarkable in it’s direction. Often, TV directors get less creative control, as they must operate within the look and feel of an existing television show. This could be different if directors are given a whole season, but, just for one singular episode, it is hard for a director to be singled out for their direction. This is not the case for Gilligan, however – this episode feels quintessentially Vince Gilligan from beginning to end.
The film is remarkably similar to the Breaking Bad episode “4 Days Out” (which was also one of the best episodes of that show), in which Walt and Jesse get stuck in the desert, and have to figure out how to get back home. The episode also feels very influenced by the Coen brothers’ 2007 thriller, No Country for Old Men, in it’s desert setting and stunning cinematography. It also constantly referenced the classic Lawrence of Arabia, especially in how Jimmy wraps himself in a Peter O’Toole-like headdress. All these influences feels very reminiscent of Gilligan’s cine-literate mind.
What’s really brilliant about the episode is just how tense and suspenseful it is. Breaking Bad often toyed with suspense, but Better Call Saul has never quite played with this, as it is often more interested in being a lighter and more melancholy show. This episode plays out almost more like an episode of Breaking Bad. One of the earlier scenes, in which Jimmy is also shot by the group of gunmen is brilliantly directed in just how tense it is, especially in how we all know that Saul is going to survive and be fine.
One of the latter scenes of suspense is also utterly brilliant. This is at the end, in which Jimmy distracts an car with a gunman in, so that it will give time for Mike to shoot and kill him. This scene is also tense and suspenseful, and ultimately ends up feeling very cathartic as Mike shoots the car and saves him. This scene is very big-budget, which is also very fun as it gives the episodes a real blockbuster feeling, very uncharacteristic for a show often so quiet and slow.
This episode is also so wonderful for the relationship between Mike and Jimmy. The two characters are two polar opposites – Jimmy is more flamboyant, lively and (at the moment, anyway) naively optimistic, and Mike is more pessimistic and grumpy – and this pairing makes for really entertaining viewing. It was nice seeing the two back together as they have been apart for a while, and that was how we started off the show, to be fair.
Mike also has some wonderful moments in this episode. He has a brilliant speech, in which he talks about the people who “need” him on the outside, and that is why he must escape. This is the real genius of his character as although, he is quiet and rarely speaks, when he does speak, it has real depth and heart. Odenkirk is also really great in this episode (as he always is), and it is especially great to see him being scared and vulnerable, as we rarely see it. Ultimately, it is really great to see the two of them together, as they have real chemistry, and make a good buddy-comedy partnership.
The real genius of the episode, however, is Gilligan. He is a real steady hand with his direction – the episode feels very paced, punchy, exciting and thrilling. The plot of Better Call Saul is very labyrinthe and complex, but the great thing about this episode is that you never, ever feel that. Also, the cinematography and camera work is also on point – it’s always good, but it was on another level here.
Better Call Saul is sometimes in the shadows of it’s iconic predecessor, but with “Bagman”, the show has definitely reached that show’s heights, and many even exceeded it. Along with the season 3 treat, “Chicanery”, this episode will be one of the show’s best, and will probably be known as one of the best episodes of television to come out for a long time.