Better Call Saul Gives Us A Chilling Look At Howard In 'Sleep Mode'
And Kim a chilling look at what her future at HHM might be.
If the mark of a well-conceived TV show is that you can imagine being interested in an episode built around any of its characters, then Better Call Saul is one of the all-time greats. There's no question in my mind that we'd be fascinated to enter the world of Erin, Jimmy's Davis & Main colleague/noodge; or find out exactly how Nacho gets through a day's (wet)work; or learn why Mrs. Nguyen is so stingy with her cucumber water. But ever since the penultimate episode of Season 1, when we found out that it was not Howard but Chuck who'd impeded Jimmy's ambitions of working at HHM as an attorney, I've been dying for an episode where we really get to know what Howard's deal actually is. How did it happen that he and Chuck aren't peers, but puppet and master? Other than her paying the firm back what it spent on her law school tuition, what are his expectations of Kim? Aside from Chuck's orders, what does he think about Jimmy?
Or, as one key moment in this episode suggests, is it actually the case that Howard has no inner life at all?
When we rejoin Kim at HHM in "Bali Ha'i" -- after she's hung back at home long enough to catch Jimmy's rendition of the titular song, the last installment of his "weeklong tour of South Pacific" -- we see that she's moving back into her office. But she doesn't get long to think about where she might like things to go this time, because Howard immediately summons her for a meeting with Mesa Verde, the client she brought to the firm in the last episode. At first, when he addresses her, Howard is brisk but cordial.
But that is, it seems, only because other people can hear him. As Howard and Kim make their way to the conference room walking side by side, he is completely silent.
It's not even an icy silence; he's just...a void. As a human person, Kim can't help noticing his demeanour and tries to defuse some of the tension.
To no avail.
Howard keeps on his haughty mask with Kim right up to the moment he's about to round the corner to the conference room, where Mesa Verde's Kevin and Paige are waiting...
...whereupon he snaps on a friendly, welcoming smile and prepares to greet paying clients. Retroactively, it gives new layers of meaning to the moment in the last episode...
...when Howard very deliberately struck a perfectly upright pose to make a very specific, studied first impression for Kevin, even snapping his heels together when he's gotten it just right. He's like an action figure getting clicked onto a display stand.
Kim ends up having to do a miniature version of Howard's Donning Of The Game Face herself.
But it's because Howard, on the short walk from her office to this conference room, has robbed Kim of any pleasure or pride she might take in working on this case for a client she really, really toiled to land for the firm. I mean, he already did that in the last episode, by letting her sit in the initial meeting for appearances' sake and then banishing her back to doc review, reminding her that hard work and evident results were insignificant in the face of HHM's partners' prejudices and caprice.
And as the episode progresses, Kim continues encountering reminders that working at HHM is not where she's going to find her joy in life. She's sent to a Sandpiper hearing alone, arguing a probably doomed motion without any institutional support, even just for the optics. Sandpiper's defense counsel Schweikart takes her out for lunch to tell her a story of his own past experience being mistreated by senior partners at his first firm because he was a grunt and they had golf plans. But when he offers her a job at his own firm, it seems she greets it with about as much enthusiasm as Jimmy did his offer from Davis & Main: though she knows she should be excited, taking it would mean she and Jimmy would no longer be working together on the Sandpiper case (since, coming from HHM, her knowledge of the plaintiffs' case would present a conflict of interest at the defendant's firm). When she finds herself back at the same restaurant Schweikart had brought her to, drinking one of the Moscow Mules he'd raved about to her, she's not really thinking about the offer, and the prospect of starting a new job with new people who will probably just end up being basically the same bunch of dicks she works with now.
She's eyeing a well-dressed man as he sends off his lady friend, and sizing him up as a mark. Can Jimmy blow off work in the middle of Erin's proofreading to meet Kim in downtown Albuquerque, where she's got "a live one on the hook"?
He sure can.
And it's just as effective an aphrodisiac as it was the last time. It's at this point that Kim finally gets around to telling Jimmy about Schweikart's job offer. He assumes she's going to take it: "Please let me be there when you tell Howard." But even though she knows she should be excited about it, she's not, for the same reasons Jimmy hasn't loved being at Davis & Main despite the perks he enumerates in this scene, trying to seem satisfied: the "steady paycheque...place to live that's more than, oh, five square feet...car that's all one colour." Jimmy's known all along that his true gift is as a con artist; Kim only learned in the season premiere that she was a natural too, but based on her impetuous return to the game in this week's episode, she hasn't been able to stop thinking about it. Can the small, respectable victories of practising law compete with the thrill of talking an engineer out of $10,000, even if you never plan to cash the cheque? Can you get it up for the chance to work with some other middle-aged Albuquerque-based senior law partner dude -- one who'll probably also shut down on you some day when he's decided you let him down or don't matter -- when part of you would rather try your hand at partnering up with your soulmate and grifting your way around America's five-star hotels on some chump's credit card?
I predict that Kim stays at HHM, not out of loyalty or nobility or to honour her commitment to pay back her law school debts, but because her return to the short con has only convinced her that her life's true happiness may come only in her stolen moments with Jimmy. In her rational mind, she knows grifting is too dangerous, so staying on the same side of the Sandpiper case at least gives a respectable context for their collaboration (and footsie). In that walk from her office to the conference room, Howard may have accidentally given her a terrifying look at his true face -- or, rather, the fact that his true face is no face. That may have temporarily caused her to give some thought to the foundations she's built her life on. But maybe it's not worth trading the old pigfucker for a new one.