It’s easy to forget, when watching Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman in action, that he’s one of the smartest guys in any given room. Jimmy’s street-tough use of language, his lack of “cool”, his too-formal suits all reek of some smarmy, incompetent, immoral mall lawyer. In this third episode of Better Call Saul, “Nacho”, we begin to see how Jimmy uses all of that superficial buffoonery as misdirection, or at least is a skilled enough dancer to slip through hoops that trap lesser minds. The key to having a good relationship with him is to respect that skill, which, back in the Breaking Bad days, Jesse Pinkman did, as did Mike Ehrmantraut. (Walter White certainly never did, and that’s part of his character’s tragedy.) Jimmy might seem as if he’s pulling theories out of thin air, but he has the annoying habit of being right. And here we are, three episodes into Better Call Saul, with a rapidly-emerging pattern of Jimmy being right, and also not being taken seriously, except by truly wise people who know how to think outside the box.
The cold opening is daring and interesting – another great scene between the brothers Jimmy and Charlie McGill. Except this scene is set long before the beginning of even Better Call Saul, sometime in the 1980s, judging by Charlie’s suit and haircut. Charlie is the cool, competent, professional lawyer and Jimmy… Well, Jimmy is in prison, charged with some sort of sex crime. A few bitter lines establishes that Jimmy has been out of touch with his family for some time, and clearly drifting through life rather unsuccessfully. There’s little hint here that Jimmy will ever become a lawyer, but if this “80s Jimmy” character ever became a lawyer, the only lawyer he could ever be is Saul Goodman.
Back in the present-day material, the drama here has been swirling around the Kettlemans, the family introduced in the first episode who seem to keep popping up. In that first episode, Jimmy is trying to recruit them as clients, since they may (or may not) have stolen a large chunk of cash from the country treasury. Unlike his usual clients, the worst sort of low-life that he’s forced to defend, the Kettlemans are a picture-perfect WASP nuclear family, upper middle class, polite: just the kind of people a jury would love to find not-guilty. Jimmy clearly thinks that if he can get reduced sentences for punks and obvious small-time criminals, he can get the Kettlemans off any sort of hook, and establish his reputation with a different sort of clientele. Of course, the big law firm at which Charlie is a partner also would like the Kettleman business, and eventually gets it.
And at this point Nacho steps in, offering to Jimmy a “finder’s fee” if he helps steal the money that the Kettlemans embezzled. Jimmy says no, but now he realizes that Nacho and his gang are aware of the criminal possibilities surrounding this respectable family, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to slaughter them all if the bag of money was large enough. As this episode begins, Jimmy is placing anonymous phone calls to Mr and Mrs Kettleman, telling them to run. Meanwhile, Nacho has indeed been watching their house, and his car was spotted outside, though he hadn’t actually done anything, nor was he planning on it. He was simply watching, waiting and studying.
As if the plot-counterplot wasn’t already rich enough, the police get involved, and looking at all the evidence at their disposal, conclude that Nacho kidnapped the Kettlemans and arrest him. Jimmy, his lawyer, knows his client is innocent (for once) but also knows that he can’t say too much without incriminating himself. Jimmy has to negotiate an extremely narrow path through the maze of logic, police work and the law itself to get out of this one. He tells as much of the truth as he can, screaming at the police over and over, “They ran!”, but since there’s no evidence that they ran, and plenty of evidence that they were kidnapped, the police apply Occam’s well-sharpened razor. Usually, conspiracy theories like the one being proposed by Jimmy (the Kettlemans trashed their own house as a ruse and secretly ran) don’t add up to much, if for no other reason than they’re staggeringly complex. Sometimes, though, they turn out to be exactly right.
Mike Ehrmantraut, of all people, turns out to be the one that saves the day. Because, as I mentioned right of the top, he doesn’t underestimate Jimmy. He listens to the scenario being proposed, recalls a very similar scenario he encountered during his days “Back in Philly” and concludes that Jimmy could very well be exactly right. The Kettlemans might be hiding out in their own backyard, but created the ruse of the kidnapping to throw the police off. As Jimmy explains, when someone runs, people presume they’re guilty. The Kettlemans’ only real weapon is their squeaky-clean image, so running would tarnish that. But a kidnapping would only enhance it. Police in this show, and in others, seem to have a hard time accepting that someone would be out to deceive them, especially a wealthy white family in the suburbs. People like Jimmy and Mike have seen enough criminals and enough of humanity to know that anyone is capable of deception, probably the squeaky-clean folks most of all. That ability to empathize, to respect that people who commit crimes are intelligent and creative, is what makes them so good at what they do. Here in this episode, we see the beginnings of the long and fruitful Mike and Saul professional relationship.
Of course, Jimmy was right. The Kettlemans are criminals, and they’re desperate criminals. Which, to him, is kind of comforting. In the final scene, you see all the doubt and anxiety fall away from Jimmy as he learns all the secrets. Now he knows exactly what to do, and how to move forward.
In its continuing exploration of ethics, morality and the criminal mind, Better Call Saul is succeeding. Even if its pacing still seems a little off, and the creators seem to be struggling a bit with exactly how pathetic to make Jimmy (he is by turns confident and a complete mess), Bob Odenkirk keeps the tone right and there are more than enough plates spinning to keep it compelling.