The Fabulous McGill Brothers on Better Call Saul

This episode of Better Call Saul has one of the most devastating cold opens so far. Vince Gilligan’s previous work on The X-Files and of course Breaking Bad reflects a longstanding interest in the power of this uniquely televisual storytelling device. (It’s used in film, but rarely.) Each flashback we’ve seen so far has been cinematically interesting (remember the black and white Cinnabon in the premiere, the almost Angel-like opening of “Hero” and Mike’s Gunfighter entrance in “Five-O”), but they’ve also given us some important character information.

In the openings that deal with Jimmy/Saul himself, each subsequent flashback has made his life before Albuquerque seem smaller and more tragic. The show’s creators are telling us about Saul before even the days of Better Call Saul in a way that simulates, interestingly, how human long-term memory works. We might not remember what we had for breakfast on March 6, 1988 (I do, of course: it was Shreddies), but we do remember major incidents and turning points. We file away the big moments, good and bad, as well as some associated memories and enough random stuff to keep us shaking our heads. Eventually we all put it in some sort of order, and with each piece of that puzzle from the cold opens, it becomes increasingly clear what Jimmy McGill wants, why he wants it, and why he won’t get it.

Before we wander into spoiler country, rest assured: this is a superb episode of what’s becoming one of the best spin-offs in the history of television. We learn important things about Jimmy’s past, learn more about his relationship with HHM and there’s a major Chuck-related development that, in retrospect, seems as logical and earned as it is shocking.

[Spoilers from here]

“RICO”, opens on the day when Jimmy, complete with short-sleeved dress shirt and clip-on tie, receives the news that he’s graduated from law school. Jimmy is working in the mail room of HHM, no less, which is a step up from his previous life as loser and part-time scammer. He’s just received an important letter, and to open it, he goes to his friend and co-worker, Kim. Even in this flashback, they have a very close rapport, best friends at the very least. It turns out the letter informs Jimmy that he has passed the bar exam and is now officially a lawyer. It’s a huge moment for him, and he and Kim celebrate appropriately, but the big moment comes when Jimmy goes to his brother, still working as a distinguished senior partner in his huge windowed office.

It’s here that we get the other half of Jimmy’s tragic character arc. Jimmy, as we’ve noted before, desperately wants to make his brother proud of him. (It’s interesting to note how often that phrase has already been said between the two brothers, in various contexts.) Here, Chuck is honestly proud of Jimmy and congratulates him warmly. Jimmy had kept his time in law school a secret from his brother and tried several times before passing the bar. It’s obvious that his expectation was that he would be hired by HHM upon graduation. It’s equally obvious from Chuck’s body language, before he even says a word, that Jimmy won’t get that job.

A later meeting between Jimmy and Howard Hamlin, one of the “H”’s in HHM, makes it crystal clear that he won’t be hired. Though no one says it out loud, the implication is that they simply don’t trust Jimmy. He just doesn’t “play” like the slick, cultured lawyers that they hire at HHM. Ironically, that’s probably what attracts Kim to him (she, by the way, has paid a price for losing the Kettlemans last week and is moved to a dead-end office). Howard may indeed turn out to be the great villain, moving the pieces behind the scenes to block Jimmy, isolate Kim and keep Chuck on the sick list, which creates a power vacuum at HHM for him to fill.

That’s where we leave Jimmy in the cold open: cut down at what he thinks should be his moment of triumph. Cutting to the Better Call Saul present-day, Jimmy is still sporting his Matlock suit and grinding out a living with the Seniors of Albuquerque with a quiet resignation, even when one of his clients can’t pay him. But he’s no fool: another point we’ve mentioned before is that Jimmy is one of the smartest people in any given room. He starts noting how much the Seniors at one rest home are being charged for basic items like toilet paper and aspirin, and has a eureka moment. This is a clear case of Fraud, and when he discusses his discovery with Chuck, his brother agrees that they could win a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit. Chuck, in fact, makes the case into a “RICO”, which the internet tells me has something to do with Racketeering. Needless to say, Jimmy is fairly excited about all of this.

Before we get to the fascinating effect the legal activity has on Chuck, there’s a little moment involving Kim that further illuminates their relationship. Caught up in the moment of reconstructing shredded documents with Chuck, Jimmy calls Kim for some help and photocopying. It’s a measure of how low Kim has fallen in the HHM food chain that she doubts whether she can even get away with that. The scene ends, as do many scenes in Better Call Saul, on a lingering shot of Kim alone, and lit with shafts of light that evoke a prison cell. I think equally substantial is the way Jimmy causally presumes that she will join the brothers in the document fun, almost as if they were pre-teen cousins, all getting into trouble together pulling some elaborate prank. Jimmy ends the call with, “We’re getting pizza; I’ll save you a slice!” The whole tone of it is as if he were speaking to close family. Kim and Jimmy often interact that way. Here, Jimmy’s boyish excitement contrasts with Kim glumly stuck in her dungeon-like office at HHM. The warm, dusty tones of Chuck’s house reinforces the point visually, contrasted with Kim, in an all-black office with hard lighting, herself dressed in severe black and white.

Chuck and Jimmy host the lawyers representing the Senior’s home (it turns out, a whole network of homes) and Chuck sits uncomfortably at the end of the table. But it’s clear that while Jimmy is doing the talking, subdued for Jimmy but verbose by anyone else’s standards, Chuck is listening intently. When the opposing lawyer tips his hand at the extent of their operation, which gauges Seniors to make huge profits, it’s Chuck who goes for the big hit at the end of the meeting, demanding a $20 million settlement. Even Jimmy is surprised, but Chuck, now animated and reinvigorated, has realized how important this case can be and jumps into the work with both feet.

At this juncture, a longtime viewer might expect Jimmy to be overjoyed. After all, working as a lawyer alongside his brother is what he’s always wanted. But instead Jimmy is reserved, cautious and watches Chuck closely. He has good reason: Chuck has been severely mentally ill and his condition, while being treated, is far from cured. The episode’s final scene, when Chuck needs a document from Jimmy’s car and absently walks out of the house, gets the keys out of the mailbox, opens the trunk, gets the documents and is turning around to walk back inside when he freezes, is either Jimmy’s dream or his nightmare. The episode ends on a long shot of Chuck, frozen, outside the house, dropping his box full of documents as Jimmy watches.

So, Chuck is cured, at least for now. He’s the most surprised of all, but Jimmy’s wary attitude is a perfect reflection of the way Chuck treats him in the numerous flashbacks of their earlier days. They love each other, but are wary, in a quiet and observational way that characterizes the best sort of drama. Better Call Saul is building a mythology for itself, apart from Breaking Bad, and it’s based on quiet character interaction and ethical dilemmas. That’s a most impressive achievement in eight episodes.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for your insight, Ian, as always, its good to read these articles in between episodes and compare them with my own thoughts on what is indeed one of the best spin offs in TV history.

    I got the impression Chuck was the opposite of cured, when he dropped the box, in that very last scene. I’d like to believe he dropped it in a Road To Damascus style moment of joyous celebration at being ‘cured’, but it looked more like he had a mental snap when he realised he’d forgotten about about his ‘Electro-Magnetic Sensitivity’, meaning it was all in head in the first place.

    Only two episodes left in this first season, I already miss it.

  2. Ian Dawe says:

    Thanks for reading! I think that’s an excellent and very astute reading of the final sequence. At the end of the day, whether he’s cured, full-stop, or simply realizes that his disorder is entirely mental, is left ambivalent, but I would argue that the moment he realizes that it’s “all in his head”, he’s as good as cured. He’s on the road, anyway.

    It feels like they’re just getting started, which is great! Considering how a lot of people wondered how far they could stretch this premise.

  3. Cheers, Ian. Having seen the latest episode(Minor Spoiler!), I kinda wish Chuck had went catatonic as his actions and the not entirely unexpected revelation of his duplicity with Jimmy was just incredibly uncomfortable to watch!

    Totally agree with you about the feeling that the show’s only just beginning. In fact, it seems to me that the cast and crew have managed to turn the show’s biggest potential con into a treasure chest of pros(perhaps taking a leaf from Jimmy/Saul’s book!) by staying true to the spirit of ‘Breaking Bad’ while telling a wholly original and engaging story in that world. I doubt we’d even be discussing it at all if they’d went down the half hour comedy route.

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