It would be so easy, as season two of Better Call Saul comes to an end, to be angry with Chuck McGill. But that would be like getting angry at a snake when it bites someone. Or getting angry at Jimmy McGill when he trusts and loves. Chuck’s nature — his sense of strategy and revenge — have made him the real villain on this show since the beginning. In the season two finale, much like in the finale to the previous season, he finally removes the last mask and reveals himself. Chuck’s villainy, and his determination to destroy his younger brother’s life and career, have always lurked in the shadows of Saul, and we as viewers have been lulled at times into thinking that he’s not all that bad (just as creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould did with Walter White on Breaking Bad), but it’s good to be reminded, as we are here, that Chuck is a monster, made all the more monstrous by his knowledge of his brother’s weaknesses.
For the record, Jimmy’s main weakness, his tragic flaw, is his ability to love and trust. His love for Kim and for Chuck (tarnished though it may be) is what gets him into trouble and what, it appears, will eventually be what brings him down. That love leads him to take risks he shouldn’t take, and be honest in situations where it would be wiser to be coy. Honesty and love are good flaws to have, of course, and speak to a deeply sympathetic character, but they also hold the roots of tragedy, especially for someone like Jimmy, who wades into dangerous moral waters for a living. This is evident from the cold open of this episode, which presents a flashback to Chuck and Jimmy sitting beside their mother’s deathbed. Jimmy, always trying to take care of the people around him, realizes that their vigil could last some time and offers to go and get some sandwiches. While he is away, Mrs McGill expires, gasping not for the son who remains with her, but for Jimmy, the wayward one, the one that (to Chuck’s eternal frustration) everyone likes more, even as he acts badly. Later, it’s Jimmy who takes care of his brother in the hospital, brings him home, tends to his needs — and we must remember that Chuck has already betrayed him once at this point, sabotaging his professional success out of sheer spite. When Jimmy sabotaged Chuck’s papers, he did so on behalf of someone else, out of love. When Chuck, in the heartbreaking final scene, reveals his duplicity yet again, it’s all to destroy Jimmy. Chuck’s motivation is revenge and smouldering hatred. Jimmy always acts out of love, even going so far as to confess and apologize to Chuck, which Chuck secretly records in order to bring him down. Never has that quote from Othello, “”Then must you speak/ Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well,” been more apt.
Jimmy’s capacity for love is not only his tragic flaw, but of course, the reason we keep coming back to this series week after week. Even when he’s dealing with doddering old senior citizens, now his professional niche, he’s gentle, teasing but ultimately caring. Watch how he handles the old man on his way out of the office, taking his precious time, fumbling for his sunglasses while the waiting room is filled with clients queueing for their turn with Jimmy. Jimmy is patient and even indulgent with his elderly client, egging him on with, “Oh, get the sunglasses out. Gotta protect the old peepers. Looking sharp.” It’s salesmanship, of course, and we see Jimmy going almost “Full Saul” with his latest commercial, wrapping himself in the American flag and intoning, “You didn’t start World War II, but you sure as heck finished it!” Kim, who has more of a background role in this particular episode, is right there behind the man she loves (Jimmy has stood behind her, as well, so it isn’t a one-way street), praising his commercial and even consenting to getting coffee for the seniors in their shared waiting room. She’s patient, although one has to wonder how patient she’ll continue to be in their professional relationship. After all, their clients and style are substantially different. We’ll see how things develop in that respect in season three.
On the subject of season three, the Mike storyline in this episode blows a door to the future wide open with a wonderfully cinematic sequence set, in old-fashioned Breaking Bad style, in the middle of the desert. Mike’s military-grade sniper rifle might need some adjustments, and he might need to dust off his own sharp-shooting skills, but it’s never a good idea to underestimate the older man, or his abilities. Following Nacho to where Hector and the twins are keeping the driver from the previous episode captive, Mike does his level best to assassinate Hector Salamanca. It’s clearly his goal, since he has other members of the family in his sights and does not pull the trigger. The whole sequence plays out with an almost complete absence of dialogue, locking us as viewers into Mike’s point of view, through that gunsight, on the interaction between characters far away. It’s a hypnotic and tense scene, and Jonathan Banks plays it as only a veteran character actor can, keeping it all inside, playing every subtle look and gesture, hinting at a complex inner dialogue. We’re so focused on the machinations of Mike’s brain, and his quest to disrupt the gangster family who has now become a threat to his own, that it’s shocking, and startling, to see the point of view turned on its ear when Mike gets back to his truck, having failed to take out Hector for lack of a clear shot. Waiting for him on his windshield is a piece of paper with the word “Don’t” written in simple, clear handwriting, his car horn jammed on with a piece of wood to get his attention.
Someone has been watching Mike the whole time. Someone who doesn’t want him dead, but also doesn’t want him to interfere with the Mexican cartel. Someone smart enough to know when to be subtle and unseen, and prudent enough to stay completely out of the limelight, but someone who clearly knows everything that’s going on between Mike and the Salamancas, and probably has known all along. Longtime Breaking Bad fans will know that there’s only one person in the established mythology of the show who has that kind of perspective, restraint and power.
His name is hinted at in this season’s episode titles, which placed side by side amount to the gobbledygook “SCAGRBIFNK”, but which puzzle and anagram enthusiasts have decoded into two chilling words: “Fring’s Back”.
What Jimmy and Mike share, and this only becomes obvious as the season comes to a close, is a blind spot. Neither seems able to see their real enemy, or their real opponent. In Jimmy’s case, his capacity for love and ability to forgive blinds him to Chuck’s hatred of him, and leaves him vulnerable to a horrifying betrayal, revealed in the episode’s final frames. In the case of Mike, his laser-sharp focus and staunch belief that no one is looking at or for him causes him to vastly underestimate the caliber of characters that populate the criminal world into which he is stepping. Season three will no doubt expand upon these basic seeds (and we would love to see that start tomorrow), but it’s possible that we’ll look back at season two of Better Call Saul as the season the show grew into itself, became mature, upped the stakes and carved its own path through the twisted universe previously occupied only by Breaking Bad. It’s the season where the characters became fully human, and their virtues and flaws became readily apparent. It will be the cornerstone on which the future of the show is built, and is, in retrospect, an almost flawlessly executed bit of serialized storytelling. A little masterpiece, hopefully set in the context of a larger one still under construction.