This review contains spoilers.
Jimmy McGill should be happy. He should be counting his lucky stars. He knows this better than anyone and with every reminder he gets, from Kim’s withering admonishments to his run-in with a hapless former colleague at the court who could not be more jealous of Jimmy’s newfound legitimacy we can see his misery grow. What happens if you get everything you want right after you lose the very reason you wanted it? Season two of Better Call Saul has examined this to great effect; Jimmy’s initial discomfort at Davis and Main led to the huge mistake that turned his job from a poor fit into an outright trap. Underlings are hounding him about his failure to adhere to a ‘house style’ in his documents and even his relatively innocent attempts to ‘grease the wheel’ of justice are met with outrage at what is construed as an attempted bribery. Jimmy is singularly unsuited to his new job, but he perseveres because he knows he should be happy and, more to the point, he thinks that he would let down Kim if he failed. Or maybe that’s just what he’s telling himself to justify why he’s staying somewhere where he’s clearly miserable. Compared to the hungry Jimmy of last season, determined to move up in the world or die trying, it’s a pretty depressing shift.
It was so easy to lay the blame on Chuck, but Rebecca muddies the waters of just how much we can hate him. Every one of us has felt jealous of a sibling or a close friend at some point, and as the flashback at the start of the episode shows us, Chuck has a pretty good reason to be jealous of Jimmy. As a few people suspected after seeing the name Rebecca on the sheet music Chuck was playing piano from back in the second episode, Chuck was in fact married, and while the glimpse we get of their relationship isn’t unpleasant, per se, what we see is a marriage without much warmth or humour. They make dispassionate small talk about work and minor irritations but we don’t see Rebecca so much as smile or laugh until Jimmy arrives. Her response to Chuck complimenting her food is cool and questioning; when Jimmy does it, she seems genuinely touched, surprised after all Chuck’s warnings that Jimmy is as likeable as he is. Then, just to really rub salt in Chuck’s wounds, Jimmy’s lawyer jokes not only get Rebecca laughing, but she responds with one more crass than any of Jimmy’s. Later, when Chuck tries his own, she seems initially confused then forces a chuckle.
The thing is, Chuck’s anecdote at the end of the episode adds a new level of complexity to his and Jimmy’s relationship that suggests that maybe he isn’t as spiteful as we’ve suspected; Chuck genuinely thinks he has the right of it, and, frankly, he has good reason. He’s been telling people for years that Jimmy is bad news, only for them not to listen. Compound that with jealousy over his brother’s charisma and easy way with people, and it’s no wonder Chuck feels the way he does. It’s complex, painful stuff, but the clearest insight we’ve yet had into why Chuck is the way he is. If a growing distance in his and Rebecca’s relationship led to divorce, imagine how it would feel for Chuck knowing that his miscreant brother could connect with his estranged wife in a way that he never could. It’s the kind of layered writing that makes Chuck so much more than the detestable villain it was so easy to see him as, especially with the reveal that Kim’s mistreatment is purely, as she suspected, a product of Howard’s anger and nothing to do with Chuck.
Speaking of Kim, she got plenty of focus this week as we saw just how hardworking and dedicated she is. She won’t turn off the obnoxious music played by her underlings in the mail room until they’re gone for fear of stepping on any toes and she spends every spare second chasing leads for HHM, eschewing food and sleep in the process. When she finally gets a win, Howard shows no inclination to reward her, no matter the size of the success. The look on Kim’s face in that moment is heartbreaking.
And yet she keeps working. Because that is the fundamental difference between Kim and Jimmy; Jimmy never wanted respectability or advancement for himself, he wanted it to prove to his brother that he was better than he was and when betrayal hit he lost his desire for it. There’s a bitter irony in the fact that Jimmy may very well have cleaned up and become decent had Chuck believed for a second he was capable of it, but his presumption became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without Chuck, Jimmy has nothing to aspire to. Kim, however, does what she does for herself. As she tells Jimmy “you don’t save me; I save me.” She is dedicated to what she wants and plays by all the rules. Even when she comes face to face with Chuck, who she thinks is behind her demotion, she still bites her tongue and gets his coffee. Unlike Jimmy, she has the mettle to stay the course, no matter how hard and devastating it can be.
In all this lies the central tragedy of Better Call Saul. This is a show by and large without heroes and villains. Kim, Jimmy and Chuck are just complex human beings with their own equally valid reasons for doing what they’re doing, and it is the clash of their fundamentally divergent natures that is forging the path to inevitable tragedy. Jimmy’s fate is a foregone conclusion; it remains to be seen if his brother and friend will face futures as bleak.
Meanwhile, we only got a glimpse of Mike this week until the final scene, and while his plot remains separate from the rest it’s now impossible not to be excited about what is to come. It also speaks to the way this series manages to be surprising in its inevitability; of course Mike couldn’t just put Tuco behind bars and wash his hands of the whole thing. Now he has an even bigger danger to contend with, in the form of Hector Salamanca. Breaking Bad viewers know exactly what this man is capable of, and this creates a feeling of menace beneath every polite word he says. There’s never a direct threat in his urging Mike to help Tuco get clear, but there’s enough of a hint in Hector’s casual mention that Mike is an ex-cop. No matter how decrepit and monstrous he ends up being by the time Breaking Bad rolls around, this version of Hector is very smart and very powerful. Mike is in an impossible situation and if he’s not to renege on his deal with Nacho then it may very well be that he needs help, and that help will have to be someone with a particular loathing of the Salamanca clan. Any ideas?
It’s thrilling, powerful and complex stuff. I couldn’t be happier that this show exists.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Gloves Off, here.