Here we are, back in the world of Better Call Saul, where the themes of ethics and fraternal loyalty are firmly in the foreground. We learn a little more about Chuck’s specific medical condition, and perhaps some of the reasons for it, and Jimmy’s strange, conflicted motivation for aiding his brother. After last week’s episode, “Hero”, in which Jimmy made himself into a folk hero with a publicity stunt, he’s been getting more business, and thinks he has finally found his legal niche.
This is an episode fairly heavy on exposition and character interaction, rather than drawn-out scenes of plot development like the previous episodes, but five episodes in, it’s the sort of outing we as a viewer need at the moment, and it brings up some important questions. For example, what happens to Chuck? Something must happen. He clearly isn’t around for the Breaking Bad years, and Jimmy never mentions him. In this episode we get some rather dark hints to the answer to that and some other questions.
[Spoilers from here]
Let’s start with Chuck McGill, probably the single most interesting character in the whole show not named Jimmy. Last week, he donned his tinfoil cape and, superhero-like, dashed across the street to steal a newspaper and learn more about Jimmy’s escapades. He left $5 for the paper on his neighbour’s driveway (there are those pesky ethics again!), but it’s still a crime, and the police are called. Mistaking him for a meth addict (there’s some irony there), they subject him to the very worst kind of abuse someone with his electromagnetic hypersensitivity could image: a tasing. While recovering in the hospital, we get our first direct look at Chuck McGill vs Medical Science, and thanks to a very clever doctor (played by Clea DuVall), the exact nature of his disorder is revealed. By surreptitiously turning on a piece of electronic equipment in the hospital room (Jimmy shuts them all down to bring Chuck out of his taser-induced stupor), and noticing no change at all in Chuck’s demeanour, the doctor demonstrates to Jimmy that his brother’s condition is psychological. She strongly recommends that he be committed for psychiatric observation, which is no doubt a prudent and justified course of action. It’s made more complicated by the involvement of “HHM”, the law firm, which would be obliged to buy Chuck out if he were to be declared mentally incompetent, a much more expensive proposition than just keeping him “on leave” and paying him a pittance of support. In the end, Jimmy doesn’t give them the satisfaction and brings Chuck home against the doctor’s advice.
Jimmy also, late in the episode, makes probably the most accurate diagnosis to date of the “root cause” of Chuck’s illness when he notices that his brother always gets worse when he does something morally problematic. While Chuck denies it, there’s a pattern there that Jimmy has long since noticed, and it’s not the most bizarre theory he’s had. The notion of Chuck literally being Jimmy’s moral barometer would be far too on the nose in a lesser show, but as always, the acting between Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean utterly convinces.
In the course of the conversation, in fact, Jimmy refers to their shared past, calling himself “Slippin’ Jimmy”, possibly a reference to his con man days, and years spent “back in Cicero”. It’s probably a minor point, but worth mentioning: there’s no “Cicero”, New Mexico, and the most likely town is probably Cicero, Illinois, which fits in somewhat with the flashbacks we’ve seen. And then there’s the added poetic irony of referring to their home town by the name of the great Roman statesman, who had so much to say on the subject of ethics and civic responsibility. As a throwaway reference (it may add up to more than that), it’s a nice little touch.
The rest of the plot here follows Jimmy as he attempts to build on the momentum of his billboard stunt from the previous episode. Rather than bringing him the big-name, cash-rich clients he desires, Jimmy is faced with a string of crazies, like a whiskey-guzzling rancher who wants to secede from the United States and offers to pay Jimmy in his own nation’s currency, or a hapless inventor that invents the most disturbing toilet in the American southwest and doesn’t realize it. Finally, Jimmy notices that the elderly are a growing demographic in need of legal advice, so he watches “Matlock” and carefully designs a replica of Andy Griffiths’ suit. (He even copies some of the famous TV lawyer’s mannerisms.)
Hanging out in retirement homes, delivering jello and pudding with his name on the cups, Jimmy takes a big step towards Saul with this move. Helping old people write their Wills is one thing, but Chuck, the one person who knows Jimmy better than anyone else, is skeptical. He sees what’s happening to Jimmy, as he blends his old “Slippin’ Jimmy” persona into that of a lawyer and sees the beginnings of the lawyer-to-the-crooks, Saul Goodman. Perhaps that’s why Chuck isn’t in Breaking Bad, at least in terms of narrative and character: with each step towards Saul, Chuck gets sicker, and weaker. He’s a living embodiment of the moral trajectory of the show.