Better Call Saul Season 2, Episode 4:

Half-Measures

If there were any doubts about the nature of Jimmy McGill’s feelings for and commitment to Kim Wexler, the latest episode of Better Call Saul lays them to rest. Jimmy has made mistakes, and will face the music, but ever since losing the love of his brother Chuck (if indeed he ever had it), Kim has been his inspiration, his motivation and his last link to the legitimate world. Perhaps many longtime viewers sensed stirrings of rebellion in Jimmy all along, and questioned his level of commitment to leaving “Slippin’ Jimmy” in the past, but it seems there can be little doubt now that Jimmy gave the straight and narrow a serious chance. He’s willing to give up everything he has built, just to save Kim’s career. He can let himself be taken down by his own transgressions, but he is emphatically not willing to drag Kim into the gutter with him. He has too much love and respect for her to do that. The awful, all-pervasive tornado of pathos that has always hovered above Better Call Saul touches down at times in this episode, sweeping Jimmy and Kim up in its wake and takes us one step close to the inevitable tragic ending of the series.

As if the Jimmy storyline isn’t enough, with its themes of loyalty and sacrifice and tremendously uncomfortable social interactions (if the scene of Jimmy being disciplined by his new bosses doesn’t make you squirm with its horrible accuracy, you’re very lucky to have never been on the receiving end of such treatment at work), the “B story” brings Saul as close to Breaking Bad as it has ever been. Just as he was on Breaking Bad, Mike Ehrmantraut is Better Call Saul’s secret weapon. A lesser show would have cast Mike in the role of the enforcer, which on paper describes the job he does for Saul Goodman and Gustavo Fring in later years. A cold, Charles Bronson-like characterization was all that was strictly called for. But the creators of both shows instead chose to play Mike’s moral questioning, his professional pride and his own version of tough-guy pathos out with Jonathan Banks’ subtle, restrained and terribly effective acting. The Mike we know in Breaking Bad is somewhat different from the version of Mike in Better Call Saul, and the latest episode reminds us of how much this character has to learn and grow before he’ll be ready to both save the day and face his end in the coming years.

Mike may understand criminals, but he himself is not quite yet one of them. He still has moral lines that he won’t cross, namely committing cold-blooded murder. Here, Nacho hires Mike to take out a character we know all too well from Breaking Bad: Tuco Salamanca. With his dead-eyed stares (which Nacho calls his, “lie detector”) and sudden outbursts of violence, Tuco is one of the most enjoyable villains in the Breaking Bad universe. Nacho is more rational, more calm and more decisive, but willing to play along when Mike chooses to simply arrange for Tuco to be arrested and sent to serve a short stretch in prison, rather than shooting the gangster dead. That sort of thing is what Mike would later call “half measures”, and it comes in this episode at a painful price. Mike has to take quite a beating in order to avoid killing someone, and by the end of the episode, it’s probable that he’ll never be willing to make that compromise again.

Perhaps the most important Mike moment of the show is in the time-honoured “buying a gun in  a hotel room” scene; a direct homage to Taxi Driver. Mike is shown a series fearsome-looking weapons (while I know next to nothing about firearms, I’ve no doubt that everything the gun dealer says is factually accurate), finally ending on a standard army rifle, which he grips like an old friend. After expertly handling the weapon and growling out some lines about how the rifle used to operate in the jungle, he puts it down and makes the choice not to use it. This small insight suggests volumes about Mike, particularly the suggestion that he’s a Vietnam veteran, or at least has served in combat situations. Mike’s tortured, violent past is what allows him to face the criminal underworld with an unflinching gaze, but the experiences have also clearly left their scars on his relationship with his family, his career and his own self-respect. His odd decision to draw back from fully committing to his criminal present (and future) speaks volumes of his deep-seated desire for redemption. In a show like Better Call Saul (or, for that matter, Breaking Bad), redemption is in short supply. At least, a lot shorter supply than that of consequences. It’s a lesson Mike is learning the hard way.

And, of course, so is Jimmy. That first, cringe-worthy scene is really Jimmy vs the Corporate World and predictably, Jimmy loses but somehow thinks he’s won. At one point, one of the senior partners in the room says with exasperation to the others, “He really doesn’t get it, does he?” She may indeed be correct. Jimmy honestly thinks that the ends justify the means, and running the unauthorized TV spot brought in hundreds of new clients for their class action lawsuit. So, as Jimmy would say, the headline here is good. As many times as his corporate bosses try to explain to him that all advertising must be approved by them, and they’re thinking about more than just this case but rather the brand identity of the entire firm, Jimmy can’t believe it. In his world, which has always been a bit hand-to-mouth, you do what you have to do to survive and succeed. That’s what he did, and in his mind, he succeeded. Jimmy simply isn’t used to being part of a larger team and having to play by their rules. It’s only through the exaggerated and thoroughly tested patience of Ed Begley Jr.’s character that Jimmy avoids getting summarily dismissed.

Jimmy can deal with his own fate, even losing his new job (he later offers to sacrifice much more than that), but when the scandal over the TV spot leads to Kim being disciplined over at HHM, and reduced to digging through stacks of old cases in the basement, Jimmy snaps into action. It’s interesting just here that Kim is very, very angry with Jimmy but doesn’t break things off with him entirely. As much as she resents the fact that her association with him has lowered her professional standing, she does still love him.

Jimmy senses Chuck behind this action and, for the first time in a while, visits his brother’s house, carefully leaving his electronics at the door. He finds Chuck in the worst condition he can remember, huddled under his tinfoil blanket, writhing in pain. Though his disease might be psychological in nature, it is no less real to Chuck. Something in Jimmy’s nature can’t bring himself to hate this suffering man, so he helps Chuck through the night. The next morning, of course, he realizes that nothing has truly changed. Chuck denies having anything to do with Kim’s discipline, but Jimmy refuses to accept it. He offers to quit both his job and the law itself – to destroy his license and never practice law again. He basically concedes everything he thinks Chuck ever wanted from him, all in return for allowing Kim to return to her senior position at HHM. Tellingly, he doesn’t tell Kim he’s willing to make that sacrifice, or that he’s going to make the offer. That wouldn’t be true love. Instead, he tosses himself on the fire out of a genuine lack of concern for himself. It’s all about her for him. Like it was all about Chuck last season. There’s the core of why we, as an audience, will always forgive Jimmy. He’s a generous and loving person, cursed with, as Jim Morrison once put it, the “soul of a clown, who always blows it at the last minute”.

The future of both Jimmy and Kim, as lawyers, and Jimmy and Kim, as lovers, is in doubt at the end of this episode. As Mike’s soul continues to erode, and Jimmy grows desperate, the path to Saul Goodman seems more appealing than ever.

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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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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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