This review contains spoilers.
“I’m no hero,” says Jimmy McGill. Well, no Jimmy. You aren’t. But bless you for trying.
Much of Better Call Saul’s third episode – more low-key than last week’s, which is no bad thing – concerns entanglement; specifically, the entanglement of Jimmy’s drive for self-preservation and his attempts to do the right thing by others. The fact that we already know that Jimmy is going to end up becoming Saul Goodman gives weight to his desire to do right (or as right as he’s capable of doing), as we know that somehow, probably through a combination of rotten luck and his own character flaws, it’s a desire that’s going to be more or less stamped out of him. It lends an almost tragic edge to the character’s arc, and it means that this episode’s cold open, in which we flash back to a time when Jimmy needed to be bailed out of prison by his brother, is that much more effective. Not only do we know where Jimmy is going, but now we know more about where he’s coming from, and his choices, his actions and their consequences have that much more significance as a result.
One interesting thing about the cold open is seeing Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean playing a different version of the sibling dynamic that we’ve seen in previous episodes. It’s not entirely different – in the present-day scenes, Jimmy still seems to defer to Chuck; the older brother, despite his weakened condition and fairly pitiful appearance, has superiority. But it shows us both a much stronger, more authoritative Chuck and a much less mature Jimmy, an as-yet unchastened character who is still acting very cocky despite being in prison for something potentially serious. It’s a clever touch that he announces himself confidently with “here’s Johnny” at the beginning of the episode when he has absolutely no reason to be confident, only to do it again at the end when he absolutely does have a reason to be confident; using the same line to book-end proceedings works nicely. Additionally, I’m intrigued by this misdemeanour that he attempts to laugh off as “a simple Chicago sunroof”. I tried to find out what this phrase might mean, suspecting it to be some variety of lewd act, but none of the entries on Urban Dictionary had been posted earlier than Monday, so it seems it was born in this episode. Can’t wait to find out what it means (I think).
The opening also fills in some of the history between Chuck and Jimmy. Although they haven’t seen each other for five years, as soon as Jimmy starts his “lousy brother… big screw-up… letting myself down” speech, it’s made fairly obvious that this is a gambit he’s tried before, and that Chuck isn’t having any of it. In fact, he refuses to consider helping Jimmy out until his younger brother starts acting with some genuine contrition, recognising that he’s messed up his life and that he needs to make a real effort to change – is that the key moment when Jimmy decides to go straight? Or will we see further flashbacks to him fumbling in the meantime? Either way, it’s an illuminating scene.
Anyway, back to the present day (in the Better Call Saul timeline, anyway), where Jimmy is trying to do the right thing, with increasingly disastrous results. It’s interesting to note that whenever Jimmy is doing dodgy or suspect deals, his wordplay and flim-flam are incredibly fluent, rolling off his tongue like a modern day P.T Barnum, but as soon as he’s attempting to act morally he seems physically unable to say or do anything convincingly. See his thunderously un-subtle attempt to tip off Kim (with whom, it’s implied, there’s some kind of sordid sexual backstory, possibly involving sex robot voices – colour me intrigued) about the possible threat that Nacho poses to the Kettlemans’ lives, for example, or his even less subtle tip off to the Kettlemans themselves, involving some delightful business with a makeshift voice changer constructed from a paper towel holder. Or the painfully transparent phone messages that he leaves for Nacho from a payphone. It’s all a bit pathetic, and an indication that Jimmy really isn’t used to following his conscience.
The constant use of payphones works as a neat visual emphasis – rather than the flip-flop burner phones that they repeatedly used in Breaking Bad, the fact that Jimmy has to keep fumbling with loose change and payphones makes him look that much less professional. Coupled with the scene of him scrambling around in the toilet trying to make a deal with someone who can’t even be bothered to remember what he’s talking about, it conspires to make poor Jimmy McGill cut a particularly low-rent figure, and it’s impossible not to empathise with him.
It’s when the Kettleman situation starts to escalate that Jimmy’s key drives start to get seriously entangled. While he’s clearly concerned about the family’s safety, he chooses to try to sort things out directly with Nacho rather than telling the police what he knows. He doesn’t want to make himself a possible accessory to anything. Then, when Nacho tells Jimmy that he didn’t kidnap the family – and at this point it’s pretty obvious that no kidnap occurred at all – his self-preservation instinct becomes even more heightened. This isn’t just a potential legal matter any more, it’s about Jimmy saving his own skin – and what’s more, if he doesn’t sort it all out that very day, he’s a dead man. There’s nothing like a death threat to motivate someone, and Thomas Schnauz’s careful script makes all this escalation feel incredibly natural. It’s also very different from the mounting tension of Mijo – Jimmy’s life is still in danger, but rather than the nail-biting dread of that episode it’s much more of a subtle slow-burner, and it’s impressive to see such different approaches to similarly high stakes two episodes in a row.
Anyway, enter Mike Ehrmantraut – yay! Finally, after two episodes, Mike leaves his toll booth. The way Better Call Saul has taken its time showing tensions rising between Jimmy and Mike again makes this all feel very natural, so when he ends up being the key that helps Jimmy solve the mystery it wasn’t forced, as though the writers were attempting to shmush the plot into a certain shape because of mechanical concerns. In a few deft strokes we also learn a few things about Mike – he’s not above being petty (although you could say he’s just following the rules when he refuses to give Jimmy any leeway whatsoever) and will avoid confrontation unless attacked, or disrespected (it’s funny that “geezer” seems to be such a potent term of abuse in America, when its meaning is so different here in the UK).
That being said, what he won’t do is pursue a vendetta against Jimmy and use what happened between them to help the cops nail the lawyer for something else. The two things, Jimmy’s toll booth violations and whatever “good” the cops patronisingly ask Mike to help them do, simply don’t intersect in his mind, and it’s an example of the pragmatic, logical, clear-headed approach he has to the world, something that comes in handy here and must inevitaby come in handy again – I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful (well, maybe not beautiful exactly) friendship (well, maybe not friendship exacty). “Nobody wants to leave home,” says Mike, and it’s that bit of insight from his days as a cop in Philly – plus a judiciously placed car bumper sticker – that finally lead Jimmy to the camped-out Kettlemans, accompanied by a very funny, if on-the-nose, music cue. Speaking of music, Dave Porter’s incidental music in this episode is also great, as is the pitch-perfect, if very short, theme by Little Barrie (who are an ace band that you should check out, by the way).
And it all ends with a hilarious game of tug-of-war with a bag that bursts, showering money everywhere. Which, let’s be honest, is how all episodes of TV shows should end.
Read Stefan’s review of the previous episode, Mijo, here.
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