Jimmy McGill is angry, Saul Goodman isn’t. Jimmy always has a joke, Saul doesn’t. Jimmy is all charm, Saul is all artifice and business. That first shot of the season, and the series, showing Saul Goodman all alone in 2015 is what the show was always about. How Jimmy McGill found success but lost so much of himself along the way. Perhaps not all of it was lost, exactly. Some of it, as we find out in this episode, was deliberately thrown away.
The whole first season of Better Call Saul has, in an interesting contrast with Breaking Bad, hinged on concealing aspects of the characters, their pasts, and their relationships, rather than, in the parent show, creating tense situations and letting them play out. It’s a much more character-focused show, without an obvious narrative pulse leading to an inevitable conclusion. That makes it a trickier show to create, and it’s a tribute to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould that they were able to make it all work over the course of the first ten episodes.
It did start “strong”, as I mentioned, but in retrospect it was coasting on Breaking Bad goodwill for a while, even bringing in characters like Tuco Salamanca and setting scenes in the desert with gunplay to remind us of the great visual patina of the parent show. Better Call Saul really came into its slowly, and once again in retrospect, the pre-credit sequences were among the most important tools used to make that happen.
The season finale stitches together the “present day” story and the “Slippin’ Jimmy” story, showing us how Jimmy’s journey has brought him from one point to another, with the ultimate target (Saul Goodman) still slightly out of reach. It shows us, and tells us, exactly what Jimmy did to wind up in prison all those years ago, when he had to reach out to his long-estranged brother for legal help, and helps us put all the necessary narrative pieces in place to understand why Jimmy makes the decision he does at the end of this episode.
Without revealing it (we’ll get to spoiler country in a moment), Jimmy’s decision is about what Saul Goodman represents. Chuck McGill, or Kim or Howard Hamlin for that matter, would never take someone like Saul Goodman seriously. He’s beneath their dignity. Whereas the penitent Jimmy, with his head held low, grateful for any scrap of the action at HHM and willing to bow his head and work as a mid-level lawyer in a competing firm, is someone that everyone (except Chuck) would give at least the benefit of the doubt. That’s how the two characters appear to the outside world. But they mean something quite different to the man himself.
Jimmy really plays three characters: “Slippin’ Jimmy”, “James McGill” and “Saul Goodman”. His responses to those characters key off Chuck’s opinion, being probably the most influential person in his life in terms of the creation of self-image. Chuck can’t stand Slippin’ Jimmy, might never meet Saul Goodman (and would detest him anyway) but never quite respects James McGill. He’ll work with him, up to a point. But he’ll never trust him. In this episode, Jimmy is essentially offered those three futures, and it’s very interesting which one he chooses.
I don’t think the choice is a big spoiler, by the way. The show isn’t called “Better Call James McGill”. But anyway…
[Spoilers from here]
The main action in this episode, interestingly, takes place in Chicago, not Albuquerque. That’s where Slippin’ Jimmy used to operate, with his partner, the rotund and character-filled Marco. We’ve seen Marco before, in flashbacks to one of their classic confidence scams, where Marco wears a fake Rolex and pretends to be passed out in an alley and dropped his wallet. The scam works when Jimmy happens to be walking by with a third party and finds the wallet in the alley. The third party picks up the wallet with the intention of keeping the money in it, but Jimmy convinces them to take the Rolex instead and give him all the cash – including all the cash they have, no matter how much it is, since the watch is a valuable item. This is only one of the many schemes they hatch, all elaborate, all involving carefully scripted moments and convincing performances. Confidence scams, like a lot of crime, are hard work. (People who say crime is easy, I notice, are usually the ones trying to catch the clever criminals. If it was so easy, a less intelligent class of person would go into it.)
Marco and Jimmy are together again because, after last week’s rejection, and one last humiliation at the senior’s home, Jimmy simply leaves town. He’s not a child: he humbly goes to HHM and gratefully accepts their modest payment (Howard, it turns out, was never really that bad, and didn’t deserve Jimmy’s scorn). He even continues to call Bingo at the senior’s home, because it seems like that’s in his best interest.
It’s at the Bingo that Jimmy finally has his breakdown, telling a significant story from his past and connecting the dots from that mistake to the state in which he finds himself. It isn’t as if being a lawyer to the elderly in Albuquerque is failure, precisely, especially compared with working in a mail room. But in Jimmy’s master plan, this was a stop along the way to the top of a respected law career, not the summit. The “cold opens” gave us hints (Jimmy was in prison for a horrible crime, but it couldn’t have been that serious because Chuck sprang him), and here we get the full story. Jimmy took what apparently is now called a “Chicago Sunroof”, that is, defecating through the sunroof of a parked car he believed to be the property of an enemy. Only, there were children in the back seat of the car at the time, which allowed the prosecution to bend “indecent exposure” into some sort of sex crime and tar Jimmy’s reputation considerably. Ever since then, it’s been a slow climb back up for Jimmy, which he thought would end working at HHM, so he purposefully severed all important ties with the Chicago gang and went to Albuquerque to make that dream come true. As he’s relating the story, he realizes that this dream is gone forever. It takes him about two minutes to get to the point where he just drops the mic (literally and figuratively) and walks out, heading back to Chicago to find out if he’s lost anything he really misses.
It’s important to put it in those terms because this show is in a large part about the concept of identity. How it’s created for us, and how we can shape it for ourselves. Slippin’ Jimmy was an identity, and although he’s left it behind, it’s worth giving him one last outing, which is exactly what Jimmy does here. Walking back into the bar where he left Marco (the bar, by the way, is called “the Arno” and features an alpine shepherd boy as its mascot, recalling an earlier episode), Slippin’ Jimmy picks up right where he left off.
The extended sequence with Marco is a celebration and a farewell to one identity, but we do see how much Slippin’ Jimmy has in common with Jimmy McGill, the lawyer. He’s rhetorical, carefully rehearsed, and spins the most improbable tales with utter conviction.
He’s also not much like Saul Goodman. Saul is the man with the answers, and he himself is an elaborate construct, but not a figure of fun. Saul always knows “the rules” and the ins and outs of a situation, and carefully plans out activities. Slippin’ Jimmy improvises and plays a much looser game. There’s a great montage here of Jimmy and Marco playing out their various schemes, many of which anticipate internet scams (the “Nigerian Prince” makes an appearance), and the real payoff is a callback to Breaking Bad that will have longtime fans cheering. (Jimmy wakes up and looks into the face of a woman, who promptly says, “You’re not Kevin Costner!” And storms out.) Marco is overjoyed to have his friend back, and their final play, a repeat of the “watch in the alley” strategy, ends with Marco suffering a fatal heart attack and honestly telling Jimmy that this was the best week of his life.
It’s at Marco’s funeral that Kim calls Jimmy and tells him that he’s going to be offered a job at another firm. Having played Slippin’ Jimmy for a week, he’s now being given a chance to play “James McGill” indefinitely, only not on his terms, and not with his brother, who Marco ironically nicknames “Chuckles”. He initially hedges his bets, and takes the offer seriously enough to walk into the building to meet his potential new legal colleagues, rehearsing what he’s going to say to them, but then he changes his mind.
To reiterate: it seems to me that the decision hinges on which identity Jimmy likes the most. Slippin’ Jimmy was a lot more fun than Jimmy the senior’s lawyer, but a lot less lucrative than James McGill could be. But “James McGill” was a character he invented to impress Chuck. It’s inauthentic. It doesn’t allow Jimmy to respect himself, and he was willing to make that compromise as long as it earned Chuck’s respect. Now, knowing that is never going to happen, Jimmy turns on his heel and rejects James McGill just as certainly as he left behind Slippin’ Jimmy.
As Jimmy drives out of the courthouse, pledging to Mike (already thriving in his second job as Mike the Enforcer) that he’s never going to compromise certain things again, it’s a victory. He’s not going to take the path of Slippin’ Jimmy or James McGill. He’ll take the path less travelled by, the one he creates for himself. Two or three episodes ago, that would have been tragic, but in the last moment of this season of Better Call Saul, Jimmy turns tragedy into victory.