I come away from every episode of Better Call Saul these days saying, “Poor Jimmy”. This, the second-to-last episode in the season, “Pimento”, is certainly no exception. We frankly haven’t seen all of Jimmy’s past transgressions, but we’ve seen a few. Enough to know that there are probably many more just like it, instances of fraud, theft, and all manner of petty confidence crime. “Slippin’ Jimmy” as Chuck puts it. But we’ve also seen Jimmy struggle up from that, through the mail room at HHM and put in intense effort (Kim isn’t wrong when she says he works really, really hard) in order to become a real lawyer, just like his brother.
The story of this first season, in terms of the “present day” narrative, is Jimmy’s building of his career, seeking a name for himself and finally, as at least he sees it, a seat at the table at HHM. He’s proud of his name, and its connection HHM. This episode feels like the end of that story.
We can’t go further without spoilers, but we do get some great Mike action in this episode, proving that a) he’s tougher than everyone else and b) he’s at least as smart as everyone else. Especially in his newly chosen field of crime enforcement. (A subtle change from law enforcement, and he delivers a little ethics lesson about how criminals can be good people, and Police bad.) It can’t be a coincidence that Mike is coming into his own just as Jimmy has, seemingly, reached his lowest point.
There’s one episode left, but the finale, it seems, will only deal with the consequences of what happens here.
We left him last time poised to finally do what he’s always wanted to do: work a big case with his brother, and get rich. Jimmy’s excitement at the coming trial is almost fragrant. Chuck’s slight ambivalence is difficult to read at the beginning of the episode. It could easily be the lingering effects of his hypersensitivity condition, now apparently at least partially under control. The brothers enjoy a good sit on the bench across the street from Chuck’s house, taking in the sun and feeling the grass between their toes.
It’s important, especially because of what happens next, to note that Jimmy really loves Chuck. There’s no guile in his dealings with his brother. He may have lied or simply vanished years ago, but in every scene we’re shown, he’s nothing but absolutely honest when the two of them are alone. Chuck isn’t just a way to a job for Jimmy: quite the contrary, he presumes that Chuck is always on his side. Because he’s always on Chuck’s side, caring for him with a tenderness that we’ve noted many times here. After what happens at the end of this episode, Chuck’s odd reserve with his brother, his lingering wariness, all snaps into focus and makes sense.
In terms of Mike, in this episode we see the beginnings of the Mike we know from Breaking Bad: the enforcer who’s 25 years older than his fellow thugs but unlike them, he doesn’t need to pull a gun to knock someone down to size. Even his actual client in this episode, a hapless small-time pharmaceutical dealer, takes his role less seriously than Mike, who carefully researched every aspect of the deal before agreeing to take the job. He knew more about the customer buying the drugs from Mr Hapless than the criminal himself, and uses that information to his advantage. Mike’s approach to life and work, which reflect some hard-working values and a respect for experience, is something we can call “Mike Culture”. Later, in Breaking Bad, we see Mike Culture at its most refined, when Mike explains with exaggerated patience to amateurs like Walter White how things operate in the real world. Here, we see that Mike Culture is also about doing your homework, being prepared and bringing appropriate force to bear on a problem. (Specifically, don’t bring a gun if you don’t need one.)
As interesting as it is to watch Mike truly become the Breaking Bad edition, the major plot here concerns the McGill brothers. Chuck is clearly taking a leading role in the case as the episode starts, making the key decision to bring the case to HHM. His logic is sound, in the sense that this is a very big case, well beyond the scope of what two people operating out of a suburban house can handle. Jimmy is reluctant, but sees the logic of the situation and agrees, getting excited that he’s finally going to be able to work at HHM.
Only, it doesn’t turn out that way. At HHM, the decision is made to take the case out of the hands of Jimmy and Chuck’s little operation and turn it over to the larger corporate structure. And, most significantly of all, Jimmy will no longer be involved. Oh, he’ll be given a generous cut of the settlement, when and if there is one, and he’ll be compensated for the time he’s already put in, but he won’t be getting an office and he won’t be working at HHM. That was always more important to Jimmy than the money, and he reacts predictably, getting furious, storming out and taking his case with him, blaming the whole thing (and a lot more) on Howard Hamlin, who he views as his nemesis. The slick, blonde lawyer in his expensive suits does seem ready-made for that role.
Unfortunately (and that’s an understatement), it isn’t Howard Hamlin who has been blocking Jimmy’s advancement this whole time, but Chuck McGill. In a heartbreaking scene at the end of this episode, everything Jimmy McGill ever wanted to be crumbles before his eyes. Chuck lashes out, saying he’s not a “real lawyer” and that he never trusted him and he’s just “Slippin’ Jimmy”. Chuck, it should be pointed out, did help out Jimmy at certain key points during his low period, but probably not with the same love and devotion that Jimmy gave him during his self-imposed “house arrest”. It’s beyond betrayal: it’s in fact a shattering revelation for Jimmy, so game-changing that he’s actually at a loss for words.
Yes, you read that right: Jimmy McGill is at a loss for words. And so, I suspect, is much of audience. The tragedy of this character is that no matter how hard he works, seeking redemption and trying to carve his own place out in the world, he’s doomed to be Saul Goodman, the criminal mall lawyer. At the risk of being proven embarrassingly wrong, I suspect that in the next episode, we’ll see Jimmy renounce his birth name and become Saul Goodman, the man he was destined to be, rather than James McGill, partner at HHM, the man he wanted to be. Wanted to be, that is, until Chuck’s revelation made it crystal clear that the dream he had been chasing for years is never going to come true. (By the way, when Kim learns of all this, she treats Jimmy as if he’s been handed a death sentence. You can see the empathy and the love she has for him in that moment.)
Poor Jimmy. He didn’t deserve it.