Breaking Bad certainly had its share of contemplative scenes, but it still had suspense, action and tension. It’s offspring, Better Call Saul is in an entirely different key, drawing out the slow game, lingering on small character moments and milking every dramatic beat for effect. In its way, Saul is at least equalling Breaking Bad at this point in terms of fascination and quality, which is quite an achievement for a spinoff series starring the parent show’s comic relief.
In this third episode, the major themes continue to unspool at an almost dreamlike pace. Chuck continues to hack away at Jimmy’s strengths, Kim continues to hold Jimmy to a higher moral standing than is convenient for him, and Jimmy himself is feeling increasingly hemmed in by his own rules of engagement. There are many shots in this episode of Jimmy simply thinking, not usually the stuff of TV drama, and we can see the undercurrents of resentment grow ever more restless. Saul Goodman is in there, struggling to get out from under all the artifice Jimmy McGill has constructed in order to, at first, impress his brother, and after that, Kim Wexler.
Bob Odenkirk plays this slow boil, this underlying anxiety, as well as any actor could. His comedic background is probably an important asset. He’s literally playing a man who uses a casual, aw-shucks jokester persona as camouflage to hide ambition and insecurity, and a desperate need to be taken seriously. That’s probably a fair psychological assessment of most stand-up comics, just as relevant to Odenkirk as McGill. Watching him act is always one of the great pleasures of this show.
Jimmy himself in this episode is constantly re-evaluating his situation, and his motivation. Ever since Chuck’s betrayal last season, he’s had to continually make up reasons to not just give up and be a criminal fraud-merchant again. Kim has become the focus of his ambitions — it means everything to him to impress her and to be the sort of guy she wants him to be. She doesn’t have him henpecked: she actually wants the best for him, but she doesn’t know the whole story. There’s a side of Jimmy that has always frightened Kim, we suspect. A darker, morally ambiguous side that loves the danger of the game a little too much. It’s the elephant in the room between them, even in their most romantic moments.
We learn that the Sandpiper deal is progressing, but they need to recruit more of the defrauded seniors than they already have to add heft to their suit. Jimmy has been doing that the way he’s always done it: through personal charm. But in a meeting, Chuck raises the point that this behaviour could be legally out of bounds. Lawyers aren’t, apparently, supposed to actively solicit clients in that way. It’s quite doubtful Chuck is actually concerned about the legality, however. He’s just doing it to hurt Jimmy, by exposing him to everyone else as a simple idiot huckster and to take away his brother’s best tool for success. Jimmy isn’t too concerned about what Chuck says at first (he doesn’t want to impress him anymore), but when Kim agrees with Chuck on the issue, Jimmy does an about-face. (All of this, by the way, is played out more or less in body language, focusing on legs under the conference room table. Fascinatingly creative drama.)
The resentment Chuck shows for Jimmy in this scene is palpable, and the kind of resentment that only seems possible between family members. It wouldn’t be a reaching very far to suggest that Chuck always felt jealous of Jimmy’s skill with people, a talent he clearly doesn’t share. Now that he sees Jimmy profiting from it, his attacks are doubly cutting and vicious. And, as always (it seems), Jimmy figures out a way to slip through it.
Deprived of his best tools, Jimmy has to find another way to recruit clients and his creativity doesn’t fail him. Evoking the future Saul Goodman, he proceeds to make a TV commercial and knowingly programs it when the seniors will be watching Murder, She Wrote. It airs, it works (they get over 100 phone calls from interested parties) and Jimmy, sipping wine with Kim in his smart new apartment, seems to have gotten away with it. There’s only one catch: he didn’t run it by his new boss. The show’s heartbreaking ending has Jimmy being chastised for doing something that, in his eyes, was a great business move. Jimmy, though, doesn’t seem like the kind of person who ever got used to working in a hierarchical organization. In other words, Jimmy should never really have a “boss”. He’s far too independently-minded and improvisational. He believes in his own ideas far too much to run them by someone else. That would just slow down the process, and what’s the point? He already knows he’s right.
One of the most effective themes in all of Better Call Saul is that Greek tragic notion of being brought down by one’s own nature. I’m always reminded here of the Scorpion and the Frog, where the scorpion honestly tries to deny its own deep-seated inclinations, but can’t, and they destroy him. Jimmy, cuddled with Kim at the end of this episode, looks defeated because he knows that he can’t deny himself for very much longer. Like Breaking Bad, only much more quietly, Better Call Saul is providing us with a fascinating study of that awkward balance people have to strike between morality and human nature.