This review contains spoilers.
If Better Call Saul is fundamentally the tragedy of good-hearted yet flawed Jimmy McGill turning into the callous and unscrupulous Saul Goodman then we’re at the stage where the two identities are caught in a vicious tug of war over the soul they happen to share. All through the show we’ve seen Jimmy wrestle with both his conscience and his deep seated inclination to give in to his worse instincts.
Jimmy needs a job. He can’t be a burden on Kim; he values the relationship too much to take her for granted or let her see just how far he’s sliding back into his old ways. But faced with a year away from the only legitimate job that ever interested him? Working as a copy machine salesman seems like a grim consolation prize.
But he has a responsibility, so he makes a red hot go of it. He shows off his best salesmanship tactics. He demonstrates that not only does he suit the job, he understands it. He walks back in after the initial interview to put an even harder sell on. And then the moment the job is offered to him, he throws it right back at them, calling them suckers for hiring him so easily.
Why? He had the job in the bag. He would have been excellent at it. They even seemed to genuinely want him for it. And even if he went in there not wanting it, why fight so hard for something he was just going to turn down?
Look at how the scene plays out. Jimmy goes in, has his initial meeting. So far, so lukewarm job interview. He leaves. Stops. Turns back, although he doesn’t really look like he wants to. Then he puts the work in. Shows the passion, drive and commitment they want to see. They say yes, he’s taken aback, he turns them down. After walking out, he calls up his next interviewer. And while we don’t see any further interviews, would you want to bet that they played out especially differently?
Jimmy puts the effort in, then he finds an excuse to say no. That way, his conscience is clear. Like letting Howard take the blame for Chuck’s death despite knowing it was partly his own fault, Jimmy can both rest easy in the knowledge that he is working for these jobs while giving himself what he believes to be good reasons not to take them. It’s hardly a betrayal of Kim if he simply has no choice but to turn to crime. And by the end of the episode, rather than take any of those jobs, he’s calling Mike to arrange either a con, a theft, or most likely a bit of both.
It’s easy enough to say that Jimmy should just tough it out at an uninspiring job for a year. But after so long working to become a lawyer only to see his own brother throw it back in his face, then to find time and time again that his old ways present the path of least resistance, it’s pretty clear why Jimmy is seeing things like this. While Walter White’s tragic downfall was operatic and extreme enough to hold at an arm’s length, Jimmy McGill’s has become somehow more chilling because it’s so easy to see these incremental concessions as the kind of thing any of us could do. Breaking Bad started out as a good man deciding to break bad, Better Call Saul arguably was the inverse; two formerly bad men trying to be better. Except better was always just that little bit out of reach. And with the realisation that not only would nobody believe Jimmy’s attempts at self-improvement, they would actively stand in the way of them, it’s very hard to condemn his choice. After all, unlike poor Jimmy, we know where this road ends.
What is Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque but a place where giving in to our worst impulses only ever ends in punishment when we finally arrive at the place where we realise we’ve gone too far? Mike has long since resigned himself to living in that place, and tries to make do with what goodness he can find, whether it’s pride in his work or his loving bond with a granddaughter who somehow seems to be the same age in both 2002 and 2008.
Nacho, meanwhile, has arrived at the point where he finally knows just how tight the noose around his neck is. He might have gotten rid of Hector Salamanca, but that act has only succeeded in putting him in an even more precarious position. Robbing Gustavo Fring of his vengeance has also robbed the chicken man of any mercy he might otherwise have had, and now Nacho has no choice but to, presumably, be a kind of double agent for both Fring and the Salamancas. Nacho tells his father early in this episode that he’s working on getting himself out of this predicament. That job just became a lot harder. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ might as well be the motto of both this show and its predecessor, and nowhere was that more obvious than in Nacho’s plight.
Thank god then, for Kim, whose decency remains intact as she confronts Howard for behaviour I didn’t even recognise as cruel until she pointed it out. The bitter irony, of course, is that Howard’s attempt to use his confession to absolve himself actually ended up giving Jimmy a free pass to do just that. Kim, however, seems unaware of the fact and to be fair the latter crime doesn’t eliminate the former. In a blistering showcase of how very good Rhea Seehorn is in this role, Kim cuts Howard down to size, calling him out in a tirade that is only slightly robbed of its power by the fact that he might not be the man on this show who most deserves it. Although just about every man on this show has a place in that queue.
Since at least season two, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of joining in on the ‘is Better Call Saul better than Breaking Bad’ debate. From now on I’m putting that in the bin; it’s not better, it’s simply as good in different ways. Quieter, slower, subtler and more deliberate. It’s less explosive but more mature. Maybe not as gripping, but arguably richer. I don’t think I adequately stressed last week how great it is to have this show back. It’s hard to think of any other current series that is consistently delivering on the same level as this one.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Smoke, here.