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‘Better Call Saul’ Is Officially a Show About the Cartel

The thrilling midseason finale brings two important characters to Jimmy’s doorstep, with their fates previewing where the series will go in its final episodes

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Spoiler warning

Of the myriad possibilities for the midseason finale of Better Call Saul’s final season, “Plan and Execution,” let’s give the show credit: Surely nobody anticipated the parallel arcs of Howard Hamlin and Lalo Salamanca. But against all odds, two characters from completely opposite ends of the series—the legal and cartel sides that have overlapped more with each season as Jimmy McGill transforms into Saul Goodman—found themselves desperately searching for proof to support outlandish claims against their enemies, and arrived at the same destination. Howard and Lalo’s respective journeys land them at Kim Wexler’s apartment before the credits roll, and it ends well for only one of them. Given their professions, you can probably guess who got more than he bargained for.

Let’s start with Howard, who finally found himself on the receiving end of Jimmy and Kim’s long-gestating scheme to tarnish his career. Their plan hinged on the latest meeting about the Sandpiper Crossing retirement home case that HHM is handling, and which is being mediated by a retired judge with a striking handlebar mustache. Jimmy and Kim hired a lookalike to portray the judge and make it seem like he was being bribed by Jimmy, staging photos for Howard’s private investigator to deliver to him. But as revealed in “Plan and Execution,” Howard’s P.I. has been working for Jimmy and Kim the whole time. And when the P.I. handed the supposed evidence over to Howard, the photos were covered with the mysterious topical substance that Jimmy and Kim acquired in the previous episode from Dr. Caldera, something that temporarily causes a person’s heart rate to skyrocket and pupils to dilate. After Howard touched the photos, it basically looked like he was coked out of his mind.

When the judge showed up for the mediation session, Howard made a wild-sounding accusation that the mediator was being paid off by Jimmy and said that the photographic evidence was up in his office. Naturally, though, the fake P.I. switched out the photos with some shots of Jimmy handing over a frisbee to a college student with a handlebar mustache. (Out of context, those frisbee photos would feel right at home in an I Think You Should Leave sketch.) The humiliation of the sequence is punctuated by Howard’s dilated pupils and his sweaty, manic appearance: compelling proof that there’s something seriously wrong with him. With the mediation cut short, the judge storms off and Cliff Main informs Howard that they’re going to have to accept the current settlement from Sandpiper. By extension, even though the main objective of the scheme was to ruin Howard’s image, Jimmy gets a cushy payout from the settlement that could go a long way toward decorating the garish law office he’ll have in Breaking Bad. (Apologies to Francesca and her lovely interior design.)

“This is a campaign by Jimmy to take me down!” Howard assures Cliff, but his accusations do no good. Howard is left to suffer a similar fate as Chuck McGill in Better Call Saul’s third season, when he angrily testified against Jimmy and came out the other end looking totally unhinged. The tragic irony is that, like Chuck, everything Howard claims that Jimmy has done—forged photos with a lookalike, hired a con man to be his P.I., drugged him—is true, even if he can’t prove it. After years of being sympathetic to Jimmy over the way that Chuck treated him, including offering him a job at HHM last season, Howard has finally borne the brunt of one of Jimmy’s signature grifts. Despite having bowling balls thrown at his car and being accosted by sex workers at business lunches, Howard has been admirably levelheaded in the face of Jimmy’s antics—a fitting response from someone who has a “Namast3” license plate. But Jimmy and Kim have gone too far, and Howard’s ready for a long overdue confrontation.

Meanwhile, Lalo has returned from his relaxing German getaway with a clearer understanding of Gus Fring’s plans to create his own meth lab. The problem is that he needs to bring proof to Don Eladio, who has no reason to suspect one of his top earners of any wrongdoing. So Lalo spies on Fring’s laundromat business from a drainage grate, hunkered down in the Albuquerque sewer system like he’s Pennywise the Clown. We can say this for Lalo: The dude is committed.

For Better Call Saul, the Lalo conundrum is twofold: the show has created an amazing villain who’s been brought to life with scene-stealing charisma by Tony Dalton, but he never shows up in Breaking Bad and we already know that Fring’s meth lab will be operational in the future. (Fring also claims in Breaking Bad that all the Salamancas are dead, which doesn’t exactly help Lalo’s odds.) All signs point to Lalo meeting his doom—not only is he greatly outnumbered by Fring’s men, but the Chicken Man has kept a gun hidden in the still-incomplete lab in the event they have their inevitable confrontation underground.

But Lalo gets a lifeline in “Plan and Execution”: When he calls to give Hector Salamanca an update, he hears a faint static over the line. The phone in his uncle’s room at the retirement home has been tapped, so Lalo no longer has the element of surprise against Fring and must regroup. It’s at that moment that Lalo spots a cockroach scurrying in the sewer. That might seem innocuous, but in last season’s “Bagman,” Lalo reassured Kim that nothing was going to happen to Jimmy in the desert because he’s a “born survivor” like the cucaracha. And seeing as Lalo already had one memorable standoff at Kim’s apartment in Season 5, he knows exactly where to find him.

Howard is the first to show up at the apartment, which Jimmy and Kim already expected. It’s a tense scene, not least of all because the specter of Lalo looms large over it. But there are still brilliant little moments reflecting Jimmy’s inner turmoil. When Howard mentions he’s suffering through depression and marital problems, Jimmy appears genuinely surprised and looks over at Kim, the real mastermind behind the operation. Deep down, Jimmy knows that Howard probably doesn’t deserve such punishment. The fact that they’ve been piling on a guy who’s losing his wife and clinging to his career to feel any sense of normalcy is especially cruel. “You’re perfect for each other,” Howard says. “You have a piece missing. I thought you did it for the money but now it’s so clear: Screw the money, you did it for fun. You get off on it, you’re like Leopold and Loeb, two sociopaths.”

As Howard promises to dedicate his life to exposing the truth about them, Lalo arrives. Unsurprisingly, Jimmy and Kim are both terrified, while Howard is oblivious to the mortal danger he finds himself in. “I just need to talk to my lawyers,” Lalo tells Howard, to which he responds: “You want my advice? Find better lawyers!” It’s a grimly funny exchange that almost immediately curdles into bone-chilling terror, as Lalo attaches a silencer to his pistol and Howard slowly realizes that he’s out of his depth. It’s a feeling he won’t hold on to for long: With a swift shot to the temple, one of the H’s in HHM has been wiped off the board. Just before the credits roll, Lalo reminds Jimmy and Kim why he’s there: He wants to talk.

For viewers who have been critical of Better Call Saul’s relatively leisurely pace to start its final season, “Plan and Execution” is a proverbial headshot that sets up a tantalizing cliff-hanger ahead of the six remaining episodes. (Good thing we only have to wait until July.) And like Nacho Varga’s tragic sendoff earlier in the season, the final stretch will have to make do without another series mainstay in Howard Hamlin. Among the many great performances on Better Call Saul—here’s my regular reminder to the Television Academy that Rhea Seehorn deserves an Emmy nomination for this performance—it’s easy for Patrick Fabian to get overlooked. But the actor did an exceptional job of making the audience loathe Howard at the beginning of the show and later sympathize with him. Caught between wanting to do right by Chuck and his own misgivings with treating Jimmy like crap—and later reckoning with his law partner’s probable death by suicide—Howard constantly found himself in existential turmoil that he barely hid behind the facade of a polished, high-end lawyer. This reaction shot from Season 4 is an all-timer:

As for Jimmy and Kim, it’s hard to say what Lalo’s dramatic reemergence portends, or what they can do to help him get a leg up over Fring. (Again, it’s not like Lalo can do much when we know Fring will be alive and the meth lab will be open for business in Breaking Bad.) If nothing else, we do have a better idea of why Saul was so terrified thinking that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were sent by Lalo during his introduction in Breaking Bad.

There’s also the small matter of Kim finding out that Lalo was still alive earlier this season from Mike Ehrmantraut and declining to tell Jimmy, and whether that will put a strain on their relationship. Mike told Kim that he didn’t think Jimmy had the stomach for this line of work, and that she was “made of sterner stuff.” Perhaps, given her absence in Breaking Bad, it’s Kim who’s hit a breaking point.

In any case, Howard’s death means that Better Call Saul has reached a point of no return. With Jimmy and Kim being pulled further and further into Albuquerque’s criminal underworld with every season, the legal side of the show had been increasingly hanging on by a thread. Aside from the immense toll that Howard’s death will have on its primary characters’ psyches, Better Call Saul is now completely subsumed by the cartel-related conflicts: a fitting development as we inch closer and closer to Breaking Bad’s timeline. (Not to mention the ongoing black-and-white adventures of Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic.) We know that Jimmy-cum-Saul is going to come out of his latest encounter with Lalo unscathed—he is, after all, the cucaracha. But with Howard lying in a pool of his own blood and Kim nowhere to be seen in Breaking Bad, all other bets are off.