Here is a fun fact; this episode of Better Call Saul was not originally meant to be a mid-season finale. The decision to split the final season into halves came after all this was written and filming was in process. You would be excused for thinking otherwise. After a slow-burn first half of the season, “Plan and Execution” blew everything up with one pull of a trigger.
As Peter Gould said, “That’s the story of the rest of the series: What do they take away from this horrible incident that happened right in their living room?”
Said incident, of course, is Lalo shooting Howard when Howard confronts Kim and Saul in the aftermath of the Sandpiper mediation. We spent most of 50 minutes watching everything Saul and Kim planned play out perfectly. We find out that Howard’s private investigator was a plant by Saul, and he supplies fresh new photos of Saul “bribing” the guy they disguised as the assigned Sandpiper mediator. They also lace the photos with the amphetamine supplied by the vet.
The second the judge walks into HHM’s conference room, a visibly intoxicated Howard loses all restraint and makes a complete fool of himself with accusations about said bribe. The meeting is ruined, Howard’s image is tainted, the case is bombed, and Cliff Main is hastily accepting a lowered settlement agreement. It’s over. Saul and Kim won.
It all would have worked out perfectly if Lalo never noticed a single damn roach crawling through the sewer.
(For those who do not remember, Lalo likens Saul to a cockroach when Kim visits him in jail.)
I suppose there are different interpretations of the aftermath of Lalo’s revelation about Gus bugging Hector’s nursing home. Perhaps he intended to visit Saul anyways. I think the symbolism was fairly clear, though. He had resolved to return to his original plan for dealing with Gus, then he sees the roach, and now he visits Saul. Whatever anger-fueled revenge he originally had in mind is replaced by something else.
We have waited all season for the moment where Better Call Saul merged its two worlds. Well, this was it. Howard’s death practically puts the legal side of the show to rest. He is gone, Chuck has been gone for 3 seasons, Sandpiper is settled, and Kim has abandoned the idea of legally and ethically building a pro bono practice. Even if she changes her mind in the aftermath of Howard’s brutal death, it does not matter. She is just as deep into this as Saul. She is in cartel territory, as is whatever remains of Better Call Saul.
Whatever Lalo intended, this worked out perfectly for him. Howard’s death will not go unnoticed. The disappearance of someone of his stature in the legal world and general community will demand a widespread investigation. Even if, say, Lalo frames it as suicide, there will be questions and a trail to follow. And now Lalo has Saul and Kim tied up right in the middle of it. He holds power over them.
The only options left to Saul and Kim are to cooperate, run, or die. We know Saul stays, but we don’t know what in the world happens with Kim. I doubt Kim knows what will happen with Kim at this point.
This is twice now that her involvement in Jimmy/Saul’s scams have resulted in a death. The parallels between Chuck and Howard are unavoidable. Both times, Saul started out small and with some plausible sense of self-preservation. Because she loved him, Kim helped and even expanded upon the effectiveness of the original plan. This involvement led to professional humiliation in the form of ill-timed rants in front of the wrong people. Howard and Chuck’s rants even contain similar elements (Howard claims Saul switched the PI photos, much the same way Chuck claims Jimmy switched the addresses on his documents).
In neither case did Saul or Kim ever imagine that Howard or Chuck would end up dead. They did, though, and I cannot imagine Kim handling this incident any better than she did when Chuck died. It is directly their fault, and there is no avoiding that truth.
Better Call Saul usually provides Kim some level of plausible deniability to her actions. Here, there is none. She turned down the offer of her life in order to help screw Howard over. She was getting off on it with Saul as the disastrous meeting came to an end. Kim reveled in the scheme, and there are no two ways around it. It does not matter what she meant or not.
In the end, Howard was not a bad man. He was not even a vindictive man seeking Saul’s professional disgrace the way Chuck was. Howard supported Jimmy McGill. He offered jobs, he offered help, and he took completely unfair abuse along the way. It was not until this season, when Saul threatened Howard’s very livelihood, that Howard in any way retaliated. Even then he sought to halt the schemes, rather than create his own to make Saul suffer.
Howard deserved absolutely none of this. The only mistake he made was one last moment to confront Saul and Kim with their own corrupt actions.
Much like with Nacho, I am not ready to say goodbye to Howard Hamlin. From nemesis to friend and everything in-between, he has remained easily among the most deftly well-written and complex characters that Better Call Saul has to offer. So much credit goes to Patrick Fabian, who portrayed endless nuance and layers beneath Howard’s obsessively crafted image. It was the small things that made his performance work so well. The way he would work up to smiles in the moments before entering a room, the way he would move in a suit, those brief glimpses where Howard’s mask would fall.
After all, this was Howard’s gimmick. He was not a good lawyer, he was a salesman, and a symbol. He was a man who hid himself in order to be whatever the people in the room needed him to be, and who represented everything HHM must be to the public. The needs of his law firm took precedence above everything else, including, as we saw this season, his marriage. This made Howard an endlessly intresting person to watch.
In one scene, Better Call Saul would have Howard tearing into Kim to protect Chuck and be one of the most hated people on the show. In another scene, he would value Jimmy’s work ethic and want him to join HHM. He could be endlessly charming when he remembers Irene’s name, or he could be an asshole coercing her into a wheelchair she does not want so that she looks weak and frail before a judge.
“Plan and Execution” was the epitome of this swing between loving and hating Howard. We all wanted him to fall to Saul and Kim, but none of us wanted him in that apartment.
The Breaking Bad universe is full of fantastic acting, but Fabian’s work as Howard Hamlin stands out for his restraint, and for being arguably the most realistically human person among a cast of bombastic personalities and melodrama. It would have been so easy to just make Howard basic. Thank goodness Better Call Saul went in a different direction.
I’m going to miss Howard Hamlin. I know I’m not alone.
Images Courtesy of AMC
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