This review contains spoilers.
The James McGill of Better Call Saul’s second season is already a significantly different man from who he was last year. This was not immediately clear last week, when it seemed that he was drawing back from his apparent decision to steer away from the straight and narrow for good, but Cobbler showed us a little more of just how damaged he is in the wake of the devastating events of last season’s penultimate episode. It’s a portrait of a wounded man who, even though he’s still trying, is already set on the path that will eventually turn him into Saul Goodman and any chance of turning back is long gone. He’s not there yet, but he’s much closer than he seemed to be last week.
The key to this is the return of Chuck McGill. Last year we saw just how much Jimmy idolised and adored his older brother, and the care they seemed to share in the early episodes was in fact one of the things that first differentiated Jimmy from Saul. This was a man who had made mistakes, sure, but he was decent, kind and selfless when it came to the wellbeing of the brother he admired. This is what made the reveal of Chuck’s true feelings so devastating. The scene was far from outwardly explosive; it was basically two men in a room talking, but the pain and heartbreak illustrated by the pitch-perfect writing and wrenching performances was more memorable than any tense action scene in recent memory.
The confrontation looms large over this season. If the core tragedy last year was that we knew all Jimmy efforts at decency were doomed to fail, this year it’s the fact that he is finally getting everything he wanted but a big motivator as to why he wanted it has been pulled out from under him. Jimmy wanted to prove himself to Chuck, now he knows that isn’t possible. So why be good?
It’s not that he lacks reasons. Jimmy’s desire to be better could not have entirely been motivated by Chuck and I would argue that, basically speaking, he still does want to make a go of a better life. And his growing closeness with Kim certainly gives him a reason to maintain his resolve. But that desperation, that hunger of the underdog to prove himself, is gone. There’s no fervour left in Jimmy. He’s proving himself to his new employer, who could almost be a version of Chuck who actually supports him, but Jimmy knows better than to let himself be driven by what someone else wants him to be.
Removed from that blindness, Jimmy is finding that ‘everything he wanted’ isn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. He’s cooped up, held captive by luxury and the promise of a life he’s no longer sure he wants. And when his new boss tells him that everyone needs a way to unwind, Jimmy’s reality becomes starkly clear. He gave up on guitar because there were ‘easier ways to get girls’. Pulling cons, swindling and lying are the skills and hobbies of Jimmy McGill, the things he takes pleasure in and knows he is good at. The problem is that those skills cannot coexist with the new life he is trying to build for himself.
Kim makes this clear at the end, in a subversion of what was previously some classic Saul Goodman humour. Jimmy’s attempt to get Pryce off the hook by inventing a bizarre sexual fetish and then making the man act it out was laugh-out-loud hilarious, until Kim pointed out the obvious truth that was staring us in the face the whole time; Jimmy fabricated evidence in order to do it, and suddenly all the humour is gone. Much as what Jimmy thought he wanted isn’t necessarily right for him, what we think we want from this show doesn’t always sit right with what we want for Jimmy. We want him to succeed even while knowing he’s doomed to fail, but we also want to laugh and be delighted by some devious Saul Goodman scheming. Better Call Saul has now successfully reached a point where we no longer want what we thought we did from the character, and when we get those moments there’s little joy in them. They’re just harbingers of darker things to come. Last week it seemed that Jimmy’s fall from grace was still a while away, but Chuck’s return removes any doubt in Jimmy’s immediate circumstances. The irony is that Jimmy’s refusal to do what he was doing to make his brother proud of him only reinforces the truth of Chuck’s cutting words. It’s complex, powerful stuff.
For my money though, the most crucial moment was the final one. Granted, I could be proven wrong in episodes to come, but when Kim told Jimmy that she ‘can’t know about this’ it seemed that Jimmy’s response was one of simply stating that he would keep this side of him from her, rather than one of any actual intent to take what she said on board. He’s past the point of undue caring.
Meanwhile, Mike was caught up in dealing with Nacho’s robbery of Pryce, which of course led to the offer that caused Jimmy to fabricate evidence. While this plot ultimately worked and served Jimmy’s development in an unexpected way, the bulk of it felt a little superfluous, and the plotline of ‘Mike is forced to retrieve some baseball cards for a goofy would-be criminal’ isn’t exactly the stuff of riveting drama. Generally speaking it worked and seemed to at least partially imply future collaborations between Mike and Nacho (about whom we learnt a little more this week, particularly that he comes from a decent, hardworking family background), but it just wasn’t quite as dynamic, subtle or affecting as Jimmy’s plot. That’s not to say it was bad, just that when put up against the excellent work the rest of the episode was doing it fell a little short.
With the story still being in progress it’s hard to tell how any of this will pay off in the future, if it does at all. For now however, Better Call Saul is maintaining the sky-high standard set by its debut season, committing to subtle, careful character development over explosive twists. But when playing the long game is this good, it’s hard to want more.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Switch, here.