There’s no point in me doing this if I can’t be myself. Every time I try to do things someone else’s way, it blows up in my face. I’ve been trying to be the person someone else wants me to be for… I don’t know… my whole life.
— Jimmy McGill
The central story in this season of Better Call Saul is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. It’s just as tragic as anything else the show’s creators have shown us, because we know that by the time Breaking Bad rolls around, Kim is out of the picture. The problem in their deeply respectful and loving relationship is their differences in style, moral compass and sense of professional identity. Kim wants to be herself, and Jimmy wants to be Jimmy (oh, does ever want to be Jimmy). They support each other in that impulse, but they’re both discovering (if they haven’t already) that “pure Kim” and “pure Jimmy” are professionally incompatible. They just can’t work together. This episode is all about how hard they’re trying to make an impossible situation possible.
The above quote from Jimmy sums up his whole approach to life, and is not only the central theme of this episode, but probably the whole series. Jimmy’s big idea in this episode is not particularly surprising. He suggests to Kim that they form their own law firm, “Wexler and McGill” — he even has a stylish logo and a business card. To Jimmy, this is the perfect situation, because he’ll get to work with the person he loves and be his own boss. Unfortunately, Kim’s assessment is a bit more clear-headed: she likes the idea, but knows (as Jimmy probably does, too) that they can’t work like that. Jimmy has his style, and Kim has hers, and the two just won’t gel. So, they try to parse the situation and make it work for them. Kim uses the metaphor of being “parallel” rather than working together. She reassures Jimmy repeatedly that what they have in terms of a romantic relationship has no bearing on their professional relationship. (“You’ve got me. Just not as a law partner.”) She appears to have convinced herself that this is true, but Jimmy is skeptical. For him, it seems, a relationship has to be a situation in which there are no secrets and everything is shared. He must go “all-in” or not at all. Kim takes a more nuanced stance, but there’s the sneaking suspicion that she’s trying to have it both ways. She wants Jimmy, but she also wants professional respect and dignity. Jimmy, on the other hand, wants freedom, such as the freedom to wear a succession of Johnny Cochran suits and shoot from the hip, but most of all the freedom to be himself. His hero is the “wacky inflatable arm flailing fun man ™”, and that pretty much describes Jimmy. Of course, he also wants to be with Kim, and therein lies the problem.
There’s another, darker point to be raised just here: consider how different Jimmy’s chosen persona is from Saul Goodman. As I mentioned in the writeup for last season’s finale, Jimmy is the life of the party, goofy, rebellious, always quick with a joke and possessed of a loud personal style, but Saul, for all of his wit and sense of ironic sarcasm, is in the end a paranoid and serious-minded character. Saul is hardly Jimmy’s ideal, which makes Jimmy’s personal compromises all the more tragic. Poor Jimmy — a phrase we’ve used before — just wants to be himself, but that’s the one identity he can’t have. Saul is, in the end, the best he can be.
We do get a wonderful montage in the middle of this episode of Jimmy Unleashed, in his bid to get fired without cause from his job. He does literally everything he can, short of insubordination or incompetence or corruption (all of which would be “cause”) to incur the wrath of Cliff, including not flushing the toilet (“We have to save water!”), giving advice to the janitorial staff and, in an inspired final act, learning to play the bagpipes on company time. He’s fired, he gets to keep his bonus – he wins that little skirmish. And then loses the war when Kim declines his offer to merge professionally and personally. She, of course, still wants to be part of his life, but the notion of setting up two separate private practices in the same building is a bit like marrying your longtime lover and immediately getting separate bedrooms. There’s a whiff of equivocation about the whole affair that has Jimmy’s antenna up. Of course, he’ll go along with it, but we can see, those of us who have been paying attention, that this isn’t a long-term solution to their problem. Jimmy and Kim, no matter how good their last initials look together on a business card, are simply doomed by a basic incompatibility. They’re really trying to move forward, but the way is not clear.
Mike, on the other hand, is moving into deeper and more dangerous waters, for the right reasons. He needs money for his family, and wants to be generous to them, no matter what the cost. If that meta-narrative sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it before on a little show called Breaking Bad. Obviously there’s a huge difference between Mike and Walter White. For one thing, Mike knows exactly what he’s getting into, and the sorts of people he’ll have to deal with. Mike’s daughter-in-law is essentially his “Kim” character, his moral ballast, but he hides things from her in the same way Walter hid things from Skyler. That doesn’t lay a very solid foundation for the future.
The future is always pulling at Better Call Saul. Being a prequel series, we know where this will all lead, and like watching sailors desperately trying to save the Titanic, there are moments here of great heroism, laced with generous quantities of tragedy. Once again, the themes of identity and morality are front-and-centre, making this easily the most subtle and grown-up TV show since Mad Men.