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.