It’s not always easy for a show to exist within a construct whose finale we already know. Prequels are particularly difficult, because a show has to rely on source material while also becoming its own thing. A&E’s Bates Motel has done an improbably excellent job of this over its seasons, as Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) slowly turns into the monster we know him to be from Psycho. It has taken its time in allowing him to develop, with hints turning into certainties, and stakes being raised all the time.
Better Call Saul does a similar thing, but where it differs is that Jimmy is everything to the show. In Bates Motel, Vera Farmiga steals all of her scenes, and Bates has done a fair job of opening up the world around Norman that allows for other characters to carry their own stories. In Better Call Saul, there is just Saul. Or rather, this incarnation of Saul known to us as Jimmy.
Because of that, the story of Saul/Jimmy’s slippery slope back to criminal enterprises is completely linear and engrossing to watch. Everything is connected, and the line between cause and effect is clear; any prior knowledge we might have fades away. The cold open, where Slippin’ Jimmy (a.k.a. “S’all good, man”) pulled a fast one on a guy who can’t tell his Rolexes from his Rolaxes, sets up a con man history for our hero-of-sorts that is harkened back to throughout the episode. But it also laid out Jimmy’s bigger aspirations.
“Hero” was, essentially, one long con, but what’s mesmerizing is watching the causal web unfold around Jimmy, and how he always manages to leverage it to his advantage. He finds the Kettlemans in order to square things with Nacho, but ends up getting a cash bonus from them for his silence. But he still struggles with his conscience and his moral code — he won’t accept a bribe, but he will accept a retainer. Later, he catalogues the stack of cash meticulously, so that every dollar is accounted for. This time, the justification is mathematical.
The tired adage of it being about the journey and not the destination is the truth when it comes to Saul. Besides a few visual clues here and there (the horrendous combo of the orange shirt and red tie, for instance, which catches Jimmy’s eye — and which we know he will be drawn to later in his career), Jimmy’s journey is in the moment. In some ways it began with pitching — and being rejected by — the Kettlemans. But in other ways it started much, much further back, to when Jimmy was running schemes in back alleys and doing a simple Chicago Sunroof. Though he tells Chuck it’s hard work that’s gotten him his influx of cash, it’s not the kind of honest work that Chuck both expects and requires of him. “It’s just showmanship, Chuck,” Jimmy says to the version of Chuck that resides in his conscience. But despite his seven messages and three consultations before lunch, he’ll have to face the real Chuck and his disappointment next week.
Jimmy has tried the straight and narrow and has found, like Walter White did, that sometimes it just doesn’t pay the bills. But Better Call Saul‘s particular spin on this, with Jimmy’s slick schemes and revolving door of clients, is delightfully funny, even as we hurtle towards Cinnabon tragedy. Jimmy sitting next to Hamlin in his exact same suit was hysterical, as were his instructions to the salon ladies about how he wanted his hair done (while he whitened his teeth). But Saul never lets it get out of control. Conversations like the one between Kim and Jimmy at the salon ground the absurdist humor with a quiet naturalism. Or sometimes, it’s the small moments like when Betsy Kettleman tells Jimmy he’s the kind of lawyer guilty people hire. It was a hard comment that cut to Jimmy’s core, but it also triggered something we know from Breaking Bad. The beauty (and ultimate tragedy) of having prior knowledge flickers back into play: he will leverage this, too. “As they say in Silicon Valley: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” Destiny calls.
Episode Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I find Jimmy’s salon office weirdly cozy.
— “Upon this rock, I will build my church” – Jesus, by way of Slippin’ Jimmy.
— “Hamlindigo blue.” Amazing.
— Notice how Jimmy turned the whole trademark issue with the judge around to be about him being able to keep using his name.
— “You want to talk about legal, slavery! That used to be legal! Human slavery!” – Betsy Kettleman.
— “If there’s one thing kids love, it’s local print journalism” – Chuck.
— I love how Jimmy was so desperate to talk more about the craziness of his case, but Mike was just not giving it to him.
— Tony Curtis, bath scene from Spartacus. “Stop talking and make me beautiful!” – Jimmy. ::falls slowly in a circle and dies::
— Chuck venturing out to grab the paper and leave a $5 in its place was so bizarre yet perfectly handled from his point of view (loved the shot of the neighbor watching him, too), though it felt a little out of place in this episode. Clearly, it’s setting up a big fallout for Chuck next week, though.