Better Call Saul is going to be a show about ethics. At least, that was the prediction of some of my fellow Breaking Bad scholars that emerged from our conversations last week in Albuquerque. I think it’s also going to be a show about fraternalism, loyalty and resolve, but in this fourth episode, “Hero”, the ethical questions are brought to the fore.
Jimmy/Saul’s great gift is for rhetoric (“You got a mouth on you,” as Tuco pointed out). That skill, to extremely persuasive using only words, can be applied to any number of professions, some ethical (the law, perhaps religious leadership, stand-up comedy), others less so (politics, and finally a “con man”). Jimmy had the skill long before he hand any legal training: the use of flashbacks over the past couple of episodes demonstrates that. And he seems to have spent much of the intervening years trying to find a way to apply that skill in an ethical way, dedicating himself to practicing law in such a way that he’ll never attract big-name or big-money clients. But Jimmy is always tempted by the art of the “con man”, which applies all of his skills only for personal gain. Chuck, his brother, seems to be one of the only people who recognizes this in him, and his disappointment is palpable.
Therefore, “Hero”, since it foregrounds the show’s two basic strengths: Jimmy’s moral dilemmas and the line between being a lawyer and being a con man, and the growing relationship between Chuck and Jimmy, is the best episode so far of Better Call Saul.
The cold open is one of the more remarkable sequences in the Breaking Bad/ Better Call Saul universe because of its tone and setting. Though a very young Jimmy refers to the city in which the scene takes places as “his city”, it doesn’t look much like Albuquerque. Shot at night, in the rain (night scenes in TV shows are always rainy, so the audience can see the reflections of light in the puddles on the street), with Bob Odenkirk sporting a wig of unkempt shagginess, it feels closer to a show like Angel. Jimmy and a friend are lurching home from a boozy evening when they find a wallet in the street. The friend suggests they take off with it, but Jimmy insists they look around for the owner. Sure enough, they discover a chubby man passed out in the alley wearing a suit and spouting random invective. (I don’t know about you, but that’s what I always do when passed out in an alley.) A little moral debate ensues in which Jimmy and his friend discuss whether they should take his wallet or his watch, an expensive-looking Rolex. What finally comes to pass is that Jimmy’s friend insists on taking the watch and giving Jimmy not only all the money in the passed out man’s wallet, but all the money in his as well. Thinking that he’s just bought a $3000 watch for under $500, the man runs away, yelling “Sucker!”.
It’s at this point that the presumably drunken man rises, dusts himself off and reveals himself to be in league with Jimmy. The Rolex was fake. (The big bong hit Jimmy takes back at their apartment seems real enough.) It was, in fact, an elaborate con, designed to get the guy to hand over everything he had to Jimmy, without having to be threatened once. But Jimmy realizes that this is small-time stuff, and only covers “beer money”. The wheels are turning.
This sequence, and the way it encourages the audience to consider ethics, could be (and probably will be) the subject of a paper someday. The ruse is all about Jimmy appearing to be ethical, when in fact being the least ethical person in the equation. (His partner in crime is clearly just playing his part.) And, perhaps most interestingly of all, Jimmy doesn’t have to do much actual talking in order to make the scheme work. He instead lets the victim talk himself into being conned. Even in the world of small-time crime, Jimmy/Saul is among the smartest guys in the room, creating a situation in which he’s able to take the moral high road and still get away with robbery.
When we rejoin Jimmy in the “present day” (2001), he relatively easily convinces the hapless Kettlemans to hand over most of their money to him, which he laboriously assigns to various categories of legal service and provides an itemized invoice. (This is another con, very much in the same vein as Jimmy’s earlier shenanigans. The idea is to legitimize the crime.) Money can only buy Jimmy so much, however. What he really wants, and this has been clear since the first episode of Better Call Saul, is to be taken seriously. To be respected, as a man of the law. Ideally, to be his brother’s equal in the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill. Since he can’t just muscle his way in, he tries an end-run, spending lavishly on a smart new suit and a giant billboard advertising his services as the law firm of “James M. McGill”, with “JMM” in the same exact font and design style used by Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill, or “HMM”. It’s an aggressive mood, and catches the eye of one of the firm’s partners, who never really liked Jimmy anyway.
One of the company lawyers who does like (or at least tolerate) Jimmy is his sometime-girlfriend Kim Wexler, in whom Jimmy has confided a few secrets (such as warning the Kettlemans in the first place). As much as she tries to stick up for Jimmy, and she does appear to have quite a bit of sympathy for him, the firm can’t tolerate Jimmy’s billboard with its rather blatant infringement of logo and copyright. A judge agrees. Jimmy has to take the billboard down.
But you should never count Jimmy out. Instead of quietly removing the billboard and conceding defeat, Jimmy ups the ante, staging a daring incident for his hired cameramen, recruited ostensibly for the purposes of recording a self-pitying plea for his little law firm not to be crushed under the heel of HHM. They are part way into the speech when the worker supposedly removing the sign falls from the billboard’s tall perch and swings, terrified, from his safety line. With the cameras running, Jimmy springs into action, climbing to the top of this extremely vertigo-inducing ladder and saving the man. In the papers the next day, and all over the TV news, Jimmy McGill is a hero.
His scheme fooled everyone, it seems, but Jimmy knows it can’t fool Chuck. Luckily, thanks to Chuck’s “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Disorder”, there’s no risk of him seeing it on the news. But Chuck gets several newspapers, and Jimmy is there on the front page of the local paper. So, he simply steals Chuck’s local paper when he goes to visit, seemingly in a good mood, explaining his new clothes and sudden injection of cash on an upturn in his clients. Chuck is genuinely proud of him, but his suspicions are aroused by the missing paper. After Jimmy leaves, Chuck puts on his tinfoil hat and cape and manages to find his way across the street, where he picks up his neighbour’s copy of the Albuquerque Journal and carefully leaves a five dollar bill as compensation. (Ethics is what this show is about, remember.)
On a small side note: Chuck’s disorder is obviously mental, but no less real for him. It seems to be close to schizophrenia, or some other auditory disorder that is triggered by modern technology. Seen from Chuck’s perspective, it reminds us that it does no good to say to people who believe they’re suffering from modern technology, “Wake up – it’s all in your head!” As Alan Moore says, the only place Gods unquestionably exist is in the imagination, and there they are as real and powerful as anything.
Oh, and the way Chuck’s tinfoil cape trails behind him as he runs across the street is a wonderful, singular and tongue-in-cheek play on the episode title, “Hero”.
The key moment for Better Call Saul comes when Chuck reads the story of the rescue on the billboard. And he doesn’t buy it. It’s all too convenient, and he knows that Jimmy has fallen back into his old con man ways. So, we have ethical choices and the relationship between the brothers defining the show’s moral and emotional dimensions. Finally, in episode four, we’re seeing the show’s strengths at their strongest.