A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I rent a toupee from the toupee store…
“We can make it zero.” -Jimmy
One of the most surprising parts of Better Call Saul — for both the audience and for the people writing the show — is how lovable Jimmy McGill turned out to be. Saul Goodman was a charming scoundrel, but he was still a scoundrel, where we’ve seen a fundamental core of decency and commitment in Jimmy that’s made him more interesting than anyone expected, and has kept the show from transitioning him into Saul far longer than planned. Jimmy’s still a con man on some level, and he still bends many rules and breaks a few — albeit often with noble motives, like the felony he committed to get Kim the client he felt she had rightly earned — but he took care of his brother even after learning of Chuck’s betrayal of him at HHM, he goes to incredible lengths to support Kim, he genuinely enjoys talking to and helping his elderly clients, and he puts in absurd amounts of time and effort to get jobs done when they need doing right. He’s a good guy fighting an internal battle against going back to being bad, and even though we know he’s destined to lose in the end, he’s held on remarkably well to this point.
But he’s also had things relatively easy until now. He didn’t have many material needs — felt more comfortable living in the back of the nail salon than he ever did in his corporate apartment — he had the support of Kim and Mike and even Howard to varying degrees, got a bunch of money from the Davis & Main job, and found an underserved market in the local elder community. He wasn’t always thriving, but even at his lowest, he was doing okay. And it’s easier to be good when you’re not truly struggling.
In “Expenses,” though, he’s struggling. It’s a vintage “in-between moments” kind of Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul-type episode, pausing the action to deal more thoroughly with the repercussions of Jimmy and Kim’s relative victory at the disbarment hearing. Jimmy’s not going to prison, but he still has to do community service, and that eats into the time he has to drum up business. He’s not allowed to practice law for a year, but can’t get a refund on his expensive malpractice insurance policy — and later finds out that his rates will skyrocket when his suspension ends. And the commercial production business, which seemed a plausible and fun way for Jimmy to pay the bills while serving out the suspension, hasn’t really taken off due to the hesitancy of small business owners to pay too much for his services.
As this iteration of “Saul Goodman,” he isn’t yet the man we knew from Breaking Bad, nor is he Slippin’ Jimmy; he’s fast-talking, but not an outright hustler. He believes in this product and thinks it’s mutually beneficial to him and his clients, because we know how easily he could relieve them of their money if that was all he cared about. But you can see the pressure being exerted on him here starting to sour what’s inherently good about him. The parks department supervisor docking him time for talking on his phone makes him resentful of a situation he had come to accept as his own responsibility, and he later turns the man’s taunt on the poor delivery guy who complains about the tiny tip that’s all Jimmy can afford. And when he takes Kim out for a night of Viktor and Giselle fake grifting, he can’t help but take it all seriously, especially when the arrogance of one of their potential marks starts to remind him too much of Chuck.
Kim is alarmed to witness this, but she’s in a bad emotional place in general. Financially, she’s far better off than Jimmy, but she can’t as easily cast off thoughts of what they did to Chuck to get to this point. When Paige at Mesa Verde laughs about the whole thing as if Chuck got what he deserved, it only puts Kim further on edge, leading to a wildly unprofessional outburst as they go over her compliance paperwork. Paige is easy-going enough to let Kim off with an apology, but Kim can’t let her own actions go — not just in that conference room, but at the hearing.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she confesses, “all we did was tear down a sick man.”
Jimmy doesn’t quite see it that way, and as his life spirals further and further from his hopes — the opening shot of him leaning against the brick wall is reminiscent of him in “Amarillo,” but rather than a dazzling white suit and Stetson, he’s in jeans and a ratty sweatshirt, just waiting for the other offenders to join him.
And when the insurance company rep not only doesn’t give him any money back from the now-superfluous policy, but informs him that his premiums will go up 150% due to the suspension, he doesn’t slink out, but instead decides to pile on Chuck some more, by telling her — in between some convincing fake tears — about Chuck’s breakdown before the committee, just to make sure Chuck’s premiums go up, too.
It’s a nasty little trick, as reflected by the half-scowl, half-smirk on his face as he walks out of the insurance office. It was one thing for Jimmy to publicly humiliate Chuck as the only way to avoid disbarment, or worse; that was self-defense, even if Jimmy committed the various crimes that got him into that jam in the first place. In this case, though, Jimmy gains nothing, save for the satisfaction that Chuck shares in this particular part of his punishment. Even if you’re an inveterate Chuck-hater, this doesn’t seem at all the kind of thing the Jimmy McGill we’ve come to know and like would do to his brother.
When Jimmy showed Kim the commercial at the end of last week’s episode, he assured her that “Saul Goodman” was just a name. At the moment, this is true, given that most of the things we’ve come to think about from the Saul persona have yet to fully emerge. But there are lines we know Saul Goodman will cross that Jimmy McGill at this moment in his life simply wouldn’t. Actively hurting his brother this way, trying to rope Kim into a real grift rather than a harmless one… these take him closer to being Saul Goodman than the name itself.
And for him to fully become Saul, his life — and his behavior — will only have to get worse.
Some other thoughts:
* Hey, it’s everyone’s favorite practitioner of the Crybaby Squat Cobbler! Daniel Wormald returns as the tool Nacho is going to use to slip Hector some fake nitroglycerin pills in hopes of killing him without drawing too much attention from the cartel or the Cousins.
* Mike may have himself a romantic interest in Anita from Stacey’s grief support group (played by Law & Order: SVU medical examiner Tamara Tunie). Anita’s comment about the pain of never knowing exactly what happened to her husband may help explain why, years later, Mike was susceptible to Lydia’s plea to not leave her daughter always wondering. But how did that lead him to change his mind about helping Daniel with Nacho? Is he thinking of Daniel vanishing from his family (we know he has a nephew named Pryce)? Or of the good Samaritan driver who got murdered and disappeared by Hector’s men in the wake of Mike’s truck robbery? Mike can spend the money from that heist on good things like the church playground, but he seems unable to let go of the murder that he inadvertently set in motion.
* Something about Jimmy McGill and identical twin brothers, eh? We haven’t seen the skater boys in quite some time, but comedy twins Randy and Jason Sklar play the co-owners of ABQ In Tune.
* Jimmy continues to insist that he can pass as Kevin Costner, a callback to one of Thomas Schnauz’s earliest Breaking Bad scripts, where Saul tells Walt that he once convinced a woman he was Costner, “and it worked because I believed it!” (This was then paid off in the Saul season one finale where we met the lady in question.)
* I couldn’t remember if Jimmy’s film crew had ever been given names, so I asked Schnauz, who explained, “We only call them Camera Guy, Sound Guy and Drama Girl.” There you have it.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org