This review contains spoilers.
Is Better Call Saul a tragedy? For a while I was sure that was the case, knowing that the hard-working Jimmy McGill’s desperation to become legitimate would inevitably fail, thereby turning one of Breaking Bad’s funniest characters into one of its saddest, but as season two has continued I’m starting to have second thoughts. Because as Jimmy takes matters into his own hands and, over the course of a brilliant montage, gets himself out of the perfect job that he hates, it occurred to me that what we might actually be seeing is the story of a man becoming the person he really wants to be. And if all his motivations for respectability were driven by other people, then what were they really worth?
Actually, quite a bit. As fun as it was, Jimmy’s spectacular tanking of his job at HHM ultimately amounts to him spitting in the face of a decent man who took a chance on him. It results in Omar turning down his offer for a drink to go home to his family while Jimmy returns to his cramped room in the nail salon. And finally and most painfully, it results in the realisation that his relationship with Kim is doomed. Because while she may understand who Jimmy is and how he wants to do things, she isn’t the same. She might find enjoyment in the carefree chaos of Jimmy’s way of doing things, but that doesn’t mean she wants it to be a permanent state of affairs. And while she considers Jimmy’s offer, his honesty ironically scuppers what he wants; he will be “colourful”, Kim will play it straight. That ripped-up business card means more than a professional division; it’s a personal one that hits home for Jimmy at the end. Kim can’t even say outright that they’re dating. The end is coming, Jimmy has chosen who he wants to be and now he has to deal with the consequences.
That is why Omar gets to go home to his family at the end. Because while Omar might have chosen the path of drab respectability, he gets companionship, he gets the settled and stable life that Jimmy’s very nature will always keep away from him. Choosing not to compromise always comes at a cost. Is Better Call Saul then the story of a man who refuses to grow up, a story that refuses to indict or laud him but rather just presents his complexities as they are, with all the thrilling highs and tragic lows that that entails?
Better Call Saul is too smart to depict who Jimmy is and what he does as wholly good or wholly bad, but the truth is, of course, the series ultimately has condemned Jimmy. Jimmy chose a colourful life, and it landed him in that Cinnabon in Omaha. The morality of Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque is always absolute, and it will be fascinating to see where Kim’s own play for autonomy will land her.
Better Call Saul is always subtly surprising. My initial impression of Kim accidently calling her new boss Howard was that it would ruin her job before she’d even started, but the reality was that it was the exact moment that Kim realised what she wants, and what she wants is not another Howard stringing her along. Like Jimmy she wants to be her own person, but that person can’t line up with Jimmy. Is there any way that the two of them sharing an office doesn’t end in disaster? Both characters have decided to embrace who they really are; Jimmy even opts for a down-to-earth voicemail instead of a contrived fake one, but ironically that honesty is what will drive them apart. Back in episode two Kim told Jimmy that she couldn’t know about his criminal enterprises, and the tragic reality here is that their relationship only works when they aren’t being honest with each other.
Dishonesty might be the air Jimmy breathes, but it suffocates Mike. Just look at how uncomfortable he is trying to change his story, and how enraged he is when Jimmy attempts to console him by saying that he would have “done the same thing”. Mike is honest, steadfast and comfortable in who he is; this dishonesty, even for Tio’s money, is appalling to him, and being in any way comparable to Jimmy is probably the most offensive thing anyone can suggest to him.
It can’t help that his daughter is law is quite clearly manipulating him, and Mike is very aware of it. His lingering guilt over his son’s death and his love for Kaylee constrains him from saying or doing anything about it, rather he just accepts his lot and gets on with the job, but that doesn’t mean he will accept the noose the Salamancas have placed around his neck any longer. What was going through his head when he drove up to Tio’s haunt? I don’t know, but it won’t end quietly.
In the opening scene the grifter tells a young Jimmy that he has to decide whether he’s a wolf or a sheep. That encounter might have stuck with him, but the world is more complicated than that. Jimmy might want to be a wolf, but to Mike he’s a cockroach. He’ll survive by the skin of his teeth when everyone else is gone, but it won’t be worth much. Jimmy McGill has crossed a lot of thresholds, but this week he made a choice and saw the reality of the consequences. Losing Kim is where it starts. The end is still a long way away.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Bali-Hai, here.