This episode of Better Call Saul is a turning point. Forces and story elements that have been building since the series began come to a head here, and Jimmy McGill makes his last stand against the forces of corruption. Plot lines including the Kettlemans, Chuck, HHM and Jimmy’s relationship with Kim all converge here, with the show’s usual blend of superb drama and dark humour. Like all the great episodes of this increasingly superb show, the key questions are about ethics and morality, manifested in Jimmy as his “rules of ambition”. Jimmy is struggling with how much he will allow himself to bend or break the law in order to achieve his dreams, but in this episode he comes as close to his dreams, one senses, as he will ever get. In a powerful late scene, it could be argued that we witness the official death of “Jimmy McGill, esquire” and the birth of Saul Goodman.
First, we have the Kettlemans. I’ll admit that I found the whole Kettleman subplot somewhat forced and confusing early on in the series, but now that it’s reached some sort of resolution, or at least intersects with another major arc, I can see what its function was in the story. The whole Kettleman situation provides Jimmy with two things: startup cash (he took $30000 from their illicit bag of cash for legal services) and mechanism, in the dramatic sense, to demonstrate his own code of ethics. He could have taken the whole bag of cash a few episodes ago, when he caught the Kettlemans trying to hide with it, but instead he made the appearance of ethics by taking only a portion of it and carefully itemizing his charges. As it happens, that may have been a mistake.
The Kettlemans themselves are quite pair, with Mr Kettleman a pliant, defeated civil servant who recognizes his own corruption and is prepared emotionally to accept the consequences, and his insane, deeply delusional, deceptive and hysterically anxious wife. Mrs Kettleman is so stubbornly delusional that she won’t even admit to Jimmy, in a private conversation, that they took the money, even though they have all seen it with their own eyes. She somehow thinks that if she continues to deny that her husband did anything wrong, and pays lawyers enough, they will get away with it. She wants lawyers to make guarantees about jail time that are completely unrealistic. Mrs Kettleman’s insane delusion blinds her to the actual function of an attorney. It’s as if a student said, “I paid tuition, so I’m getting an A”. There are no guarantees: legal proceedings aren’t subject to being bought and sold, at least in principle. So much has spun out of Mrs Kettlman’s control that it seems like she had a psychotic break some time ago and is completely unmanageable.
Jimmy, to his credit, recognizes this after the Kettlemans fire Kim at HHM because she can’t get them a deal that doesn’t include some jail time. They come to Jimmy, but Jimmy being both loyal to Kim and somewhat realistic and rational, honestly tells them they’ve made a mistake and they should go back and face the music. Mrs Kettleman loses it completely and threatens Jimmy. This probably makes Jimmy’s next move – hiring Mike to burgle their house and steal the money – much easier.
The Mike crime sequence, set to 1970s “Cop Show” music, is part of the black humour that permeates Better Call Saul, just as it did Breaking Bad. Especially after the emotional rollercoaster of last week’s episode, telling Mike’s backstory, it’s good to see Mike back in action, doing what we’re used to seeing him do in Breaking Bad. Only, and we forget this while watching, this is the first time Jimmy/Saul uses Mike in this way. It’s the beginning of their long and fruitful professional relationship.
With the $1.6 million in cash in hand, Jimmy gives it to the DA, which forces the Kettlemans to accept Kim’s original deal. So much for the Kettlemans; another example of American ambition and madness.
There’s much more going on in this episode than that, however. They key thing that Jimmy has been developing for himself since the show began was his own name as a lawyer. He desperately wants to be a respected member of the bar, not an ambulance chasing lawyer in a strip mall. With his Kettleman money, and his income from his work with seniors (there’s a wonderful sequence here where Jimmy calls Bingo), Jimmy rents some very classy office space in a tower overlooking Albuquerque. He brings Kim up to see it, and right from the start of the scene, it played like someone showing off a house they had bought to surprise their spouse. Bob Odenkirk plays it with such subtlety that it’s easy to miss, but it comes as no surprise that Jimmy offers Kim the other office in the suite and a place by his side as a partner. Strictly a business partner, but it feels like both characters know it’s more than that. She demurs, saying that she’s close to a partnership at HHM (she’s farther away from that goal by the end of the episode) and gently changes the subject.
Everything about that scene read, at least to me, as something akin to a botched marriage proposal. Or, perhaps less dramatically, an admission of romantic interest followed by a hard detour into the notorious “friend zone”. Kim handles the moment with grace, but Jimmy knows he’s been turned down. It makes his next action easier to understand.
By resolving things with the Kettlmans, Jimmy had to give back most of their money. Which means, no office suite, and it’s back to working out of the nail salon. Such was the price of trying to be honest. Jimmy wants that office so badly he can taste it. He wants to be the kind of man that Kim would never turn down. But he just can’t seem to make it happen. When he breaks down and smashes his office, sinking into tears at the end, it’s because he realizes that being ethical is sometimes expensive, and more importantly that maybe this is as high as he will ever rise.
I believe that this is the moment when Jimmy dies, and Saul is born. Jimmy wanted to reach for the office tower. Saul is fine in the strip mall. Jimmy dreamed of a life with Kim, someone with whom he truly does have a strong and deep connection. Saul is satisfied being on his own. When Jimmy’s phone rings at the end and he answers in his fake British butler voice, it’s Jimmy accepting, to a large extent, his fate.
Both Chuck (who is now working on overcoming his illness and getting outside again, although still deeply worried about his brother) and Kim are nowhere to be seen by the time Breaking Bad starts. Saul Goodman can’t have friends and family like them. Jimmy McGill does, and in this episode he sees where that gets him. Broke, alone, crying in an empty office.
It’s time for Jimmy to call Saul.