It’s astounding how much pressure hierarchies impose upon us. It isn’t a pressure that is necessarily inherent in hierarchical systems (though that could be debated); rather, it primarily comes from the ways that people impose pressure on one another in order to either put themselves at ease or to gain from that imposition. The more that we’re under that pressure, the more that we believe that we have no choices in the world, the more desperate we become for some semblance of control over our lives. And, often enough, that leads us to break rules, which leads to further control being imposed upon us. It’s a cycle that repeats, again and again, until some sort of breaking point.
Better Call Saul is a show where the end game is the breaking point, the finalization of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman. But it’s not the focal point of the show. The focal point centers in on the way that institutions impose their will on people, why and how that happens, and how people respond. It’s a very sociological perspective on a simple premise, how somebody can “break bad” and wreak havoc on the status quo as a result. “Bali Ha’i” continues the slow burn that the rest of the season has imposed so far, slowly cranking up the pressure on Jimmy, Kim, and Mike, showing us how they respond and why they’re being put under so much pressure.
Mike’s character is one that seems removed from the rest of the season, but his storyline echoes the pressure that Jimmy and Kim are under. I’m still unsure how I feel about the plethora of Breaking Bad characters that are populating this season of Better Call Saul, but as of right now, they’re being put to great use. The pressure against Mike is pressure imposed by this criminal world, unspoken rules that Mike simply does not want to abide to. We saw in “Five-O” how Mike murdered two men because his son was killed, and we see now how he doesn’t want to commit horrific violent acts anymore because he knows the hole that sinks him into. But “Bali Ha’i” cranks up the stakes, first having one of Hector’s goons try to scare him, then having two of his goons break into his house and try to scare him, then having The Cousins (some of my favorite Breaking Bad characters) threaten his family. He’s told to either get out of the criminal world by taking the deal or to double down on the unspoken criminal rules by loading his gun and getting to work. And while he implies that he’s ready to concede, we know he is going to push against that decision.
Jimmy is still being followed around by the junior associate that reports his every move back to his superiors, and he feels more and more trapped every day. He feels so trapped that he can’t sleep, haunted not by his choices, but by the anger he feels towards Davis and Main. They ran their own commercial for the Sandpiper case, and it’s not really that different from what Jimmy produced. Ultimately, Jimmy believes that his punishment is more about keeping him controlled than anything else, and that is what keeps him livid while he works there. Of course, that’s only a component of his punishment. Davis and Main needs to believe that it has ultimate control over its lawyers in order to function properly, but more than that, the partners at the firm are human and hold grudges against those who defy their rules. Jimmy’s punishment, while certainly about breaking rules that actually affect the firm, is also personal, a way for the partners to impose their will and feel powerful.
But the star of the show here is Kim, who is torn between dutifully remaining with HH&M and her mentor Howard and breaking off with Schweikart, the law firm in opposition to HH&M on the Sandpiper case. Firstly, Kim’s character is phenomenal and has been crafted beautifully in this second season. She is an incredibly strong female character in that she wants more than anything to be validated as a professional. She is hard-working, incredibly intelligent, and wants her employer to see that in a way that rewards it. But will she ever get the validation that she’s looking for. When she argued in court to have the defendant’s medical records off the record, she loses, and she isn’t backed up by Howard or the partners at all. Howard has a personal vendetta against Kim, just as the partners have a vendetta against Jimmy, and Howard treats her poorly as a result. Schweikart offers to pay off her loans, to place her on a partner track, but she wonders if even that will validate her. In the end, she ends up pulling another con with Jimmy, feeling the rush of validation that taking back control gets her. She starts to empathize with Jimmy, understanding how her feelings are something that Jimmy is also experiencing. And even though she has to get back to work, back to being under Howard’s control, she has this new perspective both on her professional aspirations and on how Jimmy is feeling.
Last week, I said that “Rebecca” might be the best episode of the show yet, but here I might have to say it again. “Bali Ha’i” might just be the best episode of Better Call Saul to date, and this second season is turning out to be much better than the first. There’s a level of thematic clarity here that is even better and more focused than the first season, and the show completely defies convention by remaining interesting and fresh despite replicating quite a bit from Breaking Bad. At this point, I don’t even mind waiting for the characters to “break bad”. I’m content just to kick back and enjoy the ride.
So what did you think of “Bali Ha’i”? Are you as pleased with the season as I am? Let me know in the comments!