This review contains spoilers.
Jimmy McGill is nothing if not determined.
His is a pragmatic, low-key determination, to be sure, but it’s his primary motivator, and the driving force of another excellent episode of Better Call Saul. It manifests as an unerring attention to detail, and a real sense of diligence; as Chuck himself says in the opening flashback, Jimmy has “so much drive”. This opening is jam-packed with excellent character details, adding subtle shades to Jimmy, Chuck, Kim (what was that kiss about, eh) and Howard in a way that feels entirely natural, rather than expository. We see Jimmy in a fairly demeaning position, pushing the mail cart around the office of his high-flying brother, wearing a terribly geeky short-sleeved shirt. Does he seem bitter, though? Is he sullen? Certainly not – he knows everybody’s name, and everybody seems to know his. They also all seem pleased to see him, taking the time to say thank you, even the guy who’s busy with a phone call. It’s obvious from this that Jimmy is trying his level best to be the better person he’s sworn to his brother that he can be, but it also turns out that he has something else behind him – that determination. Not just anyone could still be this chirpy after years of working late at night and over the weekend, taking correspondence courses and failing multiple attempts at the bar exam. Well done, Jimmy. You got spirit, kid.
Unfortunately, this makes the coming one-two blow that much more painful. First, Chuck is not exactly falling over himself to congratulate his brother. He manages it, but those little hesitations, stumbles and furtive looks all add up, and Jimmy is not oblivious. It’s telling that he never mentioned anything to Chuck about studying law, but it also says something about the strength of feeling between them that the younger brother is still scrambling for the older one’s approval during their interactions in the show’s present, especially as Chuck wasn’t even the one to come and tell Jimmy that HHM wouldn’t be hiring him as… what? Oh, a lawyer! Obviously.
No, that honour went to Howard, who becomes more boo-hissable by the week. The way he casually swaggers into Jimmy’s little celebration, shamelessly accepts the offer of cake and then shoots him down, in the most blasé fashion imaginable, is quite dreadful. It’s an effective choice to cut the sound and show their conversation visually – witness the subtleties in Odenkirk’s body language as he realises what he’s being told – and the fact that Howard never once loses that winning smile tells us a lot about him (as does his telling Kim to “come bask in the glow”, which turns out to involve standing in his shadow, almost entirely out of shot). It fills in some of the blanks in his and Jimmy’s relationship, but it also illustrates a recurring theme in Jimmy’s life – the guy can’t get a break. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how diligent and determined he is, fate – or some uncaring douchebag in a thousand-dollar suit – saunters along and dumps a bag of filthy rubbish over his head.
He keeps getting up and trying again, though, doesn’t he? Even as we’ve seen him lose opportunity after opportunity, whether through the actions of others or through his own mistakes (or, it has to be said, through his essential good-heartedness), he carries on. But we know it can’t last, and in this episode more than any other I felt the crushing weight of expectation – what is going to happen? What is so terrible that it will finally squeeze the last drop of compassion out of Jimmy? What’s going to become of Chuck? It’s great fun watching them attack a case together, and it’s lovely seeing reciprocal tenderness between them, whether that’s Chuck putting a pillow under Jimmy’s head or Jimmy tying Chuck’s shoe lace, but there’s also such dread present in the background. It’s masterful writing, this tension between really enjoying their interactions and knowing that something bad is going go down. Will it involve Nacho? Or perhaps Howard? Will the issues surrounding Chuck working with an outside partner, something about which Jimmy seems dangerously dismissive, come back to haunt them?
Speaking of masterful writing, and also performing, and directing, and all that stuff really, it’s a testament to the skill of everyone involved with this show that they can make such potentially dry subject matter so compelling to watch. “It’s not that earth-shaking,” says Jimmy, and he has a point. This case ain’t sexy. It ain’t organised crime. It ain’t life or death. But we’re totally on board throughout this slow-burning tale of real estate investment trusts, errant billings, deceptive and unfair trade practices, obscure case law and statutes, because we’re invested in these characters, and in what’s unfolding. I’m not sure exactly when it occurred (great reviewing there, eh) but at some point during these last few episodes I lost my last worries about Better Call Saul defining itself against its parent show – it has, and now I just look forward to firing up Netflix and tuning in.
The subject matter of the case ain’t the only thing that ain’t sexy. Jimmy’s determination also drives him into some pretty un-glamorous situations in this episode, starting with unashamedly faking irritable bowel syndrome so he can scrawl a demand letter on some toilet paper, and culminating in one of the most disgusting – and hilarious – scenes that I’ve witnessed in a TV show for a while. It’s almost too on-the-nose, the juxtaposition of Jimmy literally crawling around in a bin, covered in disgusting debris and flinging aside excrement-stained nappies, with the smooth patter of an impeccably-dressed lawyer in an expensive office, but the show gets away with it. Partly because it delivers such an excellent, if inevitable, punchline – Jimmy crawling free, and seeing that the paper bin is a couple of feet away. Partly because it gives us Bob Odenkirk’s magnificent delivery of first “Magic Flute?” and then “Blow my magic flute”.
But mostly because it shows that Jimmy is willing to go the distance. He’s willing to crawl through the revolting bin. He’s willing to (with a little help from his brother) piece together bits of shredded paper in order to find his smoking gun. He has determination to spare, and he also has the eye for detail that enabled him to spot something amiss in Mrs Landry’s story and get the ball rolling in the first place. At this point, Jimmy is feeling more and more like the kind of lawyer you would actually want on your side – not if you were a criminal, but if you were an ordinary member of society with a legitimate grievance. And I don’t really want this decent, persistent, hard-working guy to turn into Saul Goodman. Which I think means that Better Call Saul is doing its job.
Two final, short observations. First, the scenes with Mike, while brief, also offer both a necessary filling in of blanks (as we see his own determination to provide for his granddaughter) and further mirroring of his and Jimmy’s situations. Both are being pulled inexorably in directions they don’t want to go; it’s destiny for them to end up together, really. I lament for their souls, but celebrate the promise of more excellent television.
And second, kudos to the sound department because this episode features, hands-down, the best coffee-pouring sound effect I have ever heard, on screen or (possibly) in real life. So rich. So full.
What? I liked it, OK?
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, here.
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