A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I join you at chair yoga…
“I can’t be partners with someone whose judgment I don’t trust.” -Howard
We knew that sooner or later, warm-hearted eldercare attorney Jimmy McGill would become cold-blooded defense lawyer Saul Goodman. The what has never been question; Better Call Saul has instead been playing with the when, why, and how of it. And what we’ve seen across season three is that Jimmy’s moral descent — like that of his most famous future client — isn’t a matter of just one event, one huge decision, but a series of incremental incidents and choices that slowly, painfully transform the guy we root for into the guy we enjoyed but were appalled by.
Recent episodes have slowly but surely separated Jimmy from the people and things that were keeping him on the good path. He and Chuck went to war, and after Jimmy won, he wanted nothing more to do with the brother whom he’d always tried to impress. The short-term suspension has separated him from the clients he felt such empathy for, as well as the steady income that protected him from the temptation to con again. Jimmy’s prideful insistence on not taking handouts (another trait he holds in common with Walter White) has forced him to relentlessly hustle in a manner that has driven a wedge between himself and Kim — who, with Chuck out of the picture, is Jimmy’s last tether to any desire to do things the right way — as has her insistence on taking on more work, whether out of fear Jimmy can’t hold up his end of the expense, a need to take more control over her life, or a simple desire to have a client (mostly) untainted by the feud between the brothers McGill.
Jimmy is isolated and he is desperate, which is a very bad combination for a man inclined to take shortcuts, legal or otherwise, whenever possible. Even with the matter of his ad buy at the TV station resolved thanks to his Slippin’ Jimmy stunt last week, he still needs money, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would remember that he was due for a huge payday from the Sandpiper case.
We haven’t really heard about Sandpiper since Jimmy quit the Davis and Main job last season, but that potential windfall has been hanging out there in Jimmy’s future since he brought the case to HHM. That amount of money — $1.16 million, according to Jimmy’s mental math at the end of the opening sequence — is big enough that the show had to deploy it at just the right moment, and in just the right way. If Clifford Main were to simply call Jimmy out of the blue and reluctantly tell him his check was in the mail, that would have no dramatic weight, and would also make Jimmy so financially comfortable that there might not be much of story for him for quite some time. By making him literally hustle for it — cruelly isolating class representative Irene Landry from all her friends at the retirement home to manipulate her into pushing for an earlier and smaller settlement(*) — the story becomes less about what the money can do for Jimmy than what Jimmy does for the money, and the moral depths to which he’ll sink to pursue his own ends. He does nothing illegal here, and perhaps once Irene agrees to settle, fences can be mended with her neighbors. But Jimmy knows this is wrong. You can see it on his face as he prepares to swap out the usual bingo balls for the ones he doctored to match Irene’s card(**): he pauses for just a moment, considering how sad and lonely Irene looks, before doing it anyway, because he needs her to change her mind for his own sake.
(*) As Howard points out, Jimmy is motivated by self-interest, but it’s unclear if he’s right when he says that the difference in payout to the plaintiffs would be negligible, and that the two law firms are dragging this out just to pad their own bottom lines while preventing a group of elderly people from getting access to the money while they can still do something with it. Both things — Jimmy needing cash ASAP, and the two law firms delaying things more for their own sake than for that of their clients — can be true, and it leaves a little moral wiggle room to what Jimmy does to the class as a whole, even if there’s no excusing the misery he inflicts on Irene.
(**) Better Call Saul: a show filled with murderous drug kingpins and ruthless con artists, yet where one of the darkest moments of the entire series can involve an old woman failing to get any applause when she wins at bingo. Lots of shows can make you choke up when somebody dies; few could make something that small seem so big.
Jimmy is hanging by a very thin thread in “Fall,” but so are most of the show’s major characters, who are trying to go it alone in desperate circumstances, and suffering as a result.
When Hector refuses to accept Don Eladio’s order for all drug smuggling to run through Gus’s operation — and when the fake pills have enough of a placebo effect to quell the angry old man’s latest heart episode — Nacho finds himself with no choice but to warn his father what’s coming, and to confess that he’s working for the Salamancas again. The “again,” and the way that Michael Mando plays Nacho’s shame at the admission (along with the disappointment on Juan Carlos Cantu’s face as Mr. Varga assimilates this new information), tells us all we need to know about the history between father and son, and the very passionate fight they must have once had about Nacho associating with such scum. And what’s particularly brutal about the scene, beyond how drawn and tired and afraid Nacho looks, is that he may have confessed this, and gotten himself kicked out of his father’s home, for nothing, because he can’t get Mr. Varga to agree to trust him and stay calm when Hector and his people approach him. Nacho insists this will all be over with in a few weeks, and the condition that Hector is in during the Heisenberg years suggests some kind of medical mishap is coming, but will it come fast enough to save the upholstery business and Nacho’s dad?
The disbarment hearing, meanwhile, continues to create aftershocks for Chuck and Howard. Jimmy’s stunt with the malpractice insurance agent doesn’t get Chuck’s coverage pulled, but it makes HHM’s premiums so onerous that they might as well have, which leads Howard to try to push his mentor and partner into finally retiring. But Chuck McGill is even more prideful than his brother — it’s hard to imagine him being the most prideful person in this fictional universe, but there’s still plenty of life left — and rather than slipping into academia, or a chance to write that book about the Commerce Clause, he instead threatens to sue HHM for the money he’s owed as a name partner. We know from the show’s earliest episodes that Howard can’t pay that — he indulged Chuck’s extended absence because it was much cheaper than buying him out the way Jimmy wanted — but we also know that even with Dr. Cruz’s treatment, Chuck can only bluff so much, as we see how much pain he’s in from using the blender the second that Howard leaves(*). If the brothers were still on speaking terms, Jimmy would be the ideal sidekick in this operation, but he’s not, and it seems like Chuck is going too far, too fast, for this stage of his recovery.
(*) It’s a much less impressive show of false strength than Gus yelling at Don Eladio’s men while still recovering from the poison in his system, but considering where Chuck was with electricity only a few episodes ago, casually working that blender like it was nothing at all is a real achievement for him.
The episode ends not on any of those desperate men, but on Kim Wexler, dazed and confused as the paperwork she so carefully organized — for a presentation that she admitted to Billy Gatwood had to be juuuuust right in order to solve his problem before the tax burden became too heavy — flies through the desert air in the wake of the single-car accident she got into because she had worked herself to the point of distraction. The car can be fixed, the papers reprinted and collated, and perhaps the meeting can be rescheduled with no harm and no foul, since Kim has a pretty good excuse so long as nobody asks too many questions about the nature of the accident. But Kim is — like her boyfriend, like her ex-boss, and like Nacho Varga — asking more of herself than she’s capable of giving at the moment, and bad mistakes are being made as a result.
Kim didn’t die in the crash, but if she screws up the Gatwood deal, that will blow back on her work with Kevin at Mesa Verde. Nacho may save his father’s life, but sever their relationship in the process. Chuck may be able to outmaneuver Howard, but at the cost of significant physical and emotional pain. And Jimmy may get his Sandpiper money ahead of schedule, but at the cost of another piece of his own humanity.
He’s not Saul Goodman yet, but he’s much closer than I want him to be, dammit.
Some other thoughts:
* In case you missed it, I published a long interview with Peter Gould and Michael McKean on Friday. Much of it is obviously about Chuck and the relationship between the brothers, but Gould also talks a lot about the pace of the series (and how much longer he thinks it can go), the balance between the Jimmy and Mike halves of the show, and a lot more.
* The one major character who is relatively secure in this one — in part because he has a very powerful person backing him up — is Mike, who gets to meet Lydia Rodarte-Quayle for the first time and comes to realize both how powerful Gustavo Fring is and how much this powerful man seems to value their new association. Watching Mike and Lydia’s first encounter inspired me to go back to Breaking Bad‘s “Madrigal” and watch their first scene there, where it’s clear Mike has been putting up with her many quirks and neuroses for quite some time, to the limits of even his famous patience.
* This is British director Minkie Spiro’s first Saul episode. We’re at a point now in pop culture where it’s impossible to film a long take of someone driving a car from the point of view of the passenger seat and it to not end in the driver getting T-boned by an oncoming car, so kudos to Spiro and/or Gordon Smith for at least making this one look different. Though we’re watching Kim from her right, it’s still a subjective POV scene, where she drifts off mentally in the middle of her drive and doesn’t even realize she’s run off the road until the air bag inflates. A very effective use of a jump cut, even though I was expecting an accident of some kind because that’s just how this goes.
* A few notable guest stars here, including Emmy-winning St. Elsewhere alum Bonnie Bartlett as one of the Sandpiper women feeling resentful towards Irene, and Twin Peaks veteran Chris Mulkey (one of the original castmembers who will apparently not be in the Showtime revival) as Billy Gatwood.
* Party like it’s 2003: Remember when Segways were going to change everything about the world? One of the Madrigal employees zips around on one while Mike is waiting to meet with Lydia. Meanwhile, Howard compares Jimmy to Gollum, which could mean that Howard grew up reading Tolkien, or could just be because the Lord of the Rings films had so penetrated the public consciousness at this moment in time.
* In the Breaking Bad days, AMC would allow Gilligan one muted F-bomb per season, expanding that a bit towards the end. Here, Hector drops several in a row, but they’re in Spanish, so the subtitles get bowdlerized, and it sounds like the audio drops out at times during the rant.
* The Sandpiper rec room TV is playing the classic Robert Mitchum film Night of the Hunter when Jimmy starts working the other plaintiffs against Irene.
Finally, a note about next week. For the first time in the run of this show — but not the first time for an AMC/Vince Gilligan show — the finale isn’t being screened in advance for critics. Based on Gould’s answer to my last question in that interview, I’m guessing there is a particularly crazy cliffhanger, or huge alteration in the status quo, coming up, but we’ll see. This means the review will likely post very late that night, if not the following morning if I find myself falling asleep while trying to write it.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com