The latest episode of Better Call Saul is the closest the series has come yet to feeling like Breaking Bad. The cold, meditative opening that’s paid off at the end, the long sequences set in wide-open spaces, the protagonist trying to outwit his enemy and stay ahead of the law — all of this is straight from the Breaking Bad playbook. The appearance of Gus Fring is simply a bonus, after all that stylistic emulation of the parent show. But there are some important differences between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, and one of the most important is the degree to which the audience sympathizes with the protagonist. Walter White was an egotistical criminal, utterly convinced of his own magnificence even has blundered like a rank amateur. He didn’t have the self-awareness of Jimmy McGill, who, after making a terrible mistake in the last episode and committing some serious crimes in front of witnesses, knows that it’s at least partially his fault. His disappointment in himself almost matches his growing hatred of Chuck. White would never have had the emotional capacity to examine his own culpability like that. It’s a key into understanding why Jimmy is such a sympathetic character and Walter was so hateful. And it’s also a key to understanding why the deep character study of Better Call Saul touches notes that the dark saga of Breaking Bad couldn’t.
The Mike storyline makes a key breakthrough here. Mike’s determination to discover who is following him and spying on him has led him straight into the embrace of Gus Fring, who lays all his cards on the table in their first meeting. Well, almost all of his cards, because he doesn’t outright state the nature of his business. And this leaves the door open enough to give Mike his next challenge. It seems that while Fring doesn’t wish Hector Salamanca death, he has no problem with his business being disrupted. Mike correctly guesses that Hector represents the competition, but his curiosity persists about the nature of the business, and he concocts a brilliant scheme to give both him and Fring what they want. Dave Chapelle once joked about how police “sprinkled some crack” on African-Americans in order to frame them. That’s essentially what Mike does here, through an elaborate system of hiding cocaine in a pair of sneakers tossed across a powerline. (A hilarious sequence demonstrates how difficult throwing sneakers over a powerline really is.) Then, as Hector’s truck passes under the sneakers, Mike shoots a hole in the shoes, allowing cocaine to rain down on the truck, not enough to be noticed by the men, but more than enough for a dog at the border to sniff it out. It’s a clever trap, because it serves the ends of everyone involved, and allows Mike to maintain his independence from the situation. Mike doesn’t want to get too close to either Hector or Gus, but we know, based on Breaking Bad, that eventually he will choose Gus (their relationship, even in this first meeting, is respectful and cordial, but both men are stubborn and proud). Watching Mike’s meticulous capers is always entertaining, but the value of this material either depends on, or is at least greatly enhanced by, our knowledge of where all of his will lead on Breaking Bad. The Jimmy storyline, on the other hand, is compelling in and of itself.
It seems as if every week we must make the same observation about Jimmy: he’s not really a bad person. He does morally questionable things, yes, and he often acts emotionally without thinking things through, but many of us are guilty of that. When Jimmy breaks the law, it’s in order to solve a problem, or get to a destination quicker, not to hurt anyone or even bring the public to harm. He’s spent years defending the indefensible, and genuinely believes that anything he’s done is small change when compared with some of his former clients. When he’s caught breaking into Chuck’s house and threatening him, it’s important to note (as Chuck does in his initial legal meeting) that he never actually touches his brother or causes any serious damage other than breaking a door. Chuck knows his brother well enough to know that he wouldn’t actually ever hurt him, but he’s now placed Jimmy in a position to wish him harm. Chuck’s machinations here all depend on his characterization of Jimmy as dumb, emotional and in way over his head. The condescension in the way he interacts with Jimmy is nauseating, as is his display of crocodile tears. He wants to “teach Jimmy a lesson”, not “punish” him, as if Jimmy were an errant teenager. Jimmy doesn’t figure it all out until the final scene, sharing a cigarette with Kim like old times, but once he does, he refuses to play into Chuck’s hands. Jimmy would rather fight Chuck out in the open than agree to a settlement that would cost him his license to practice law. He’ll risk prison time in order to retain the one thing he’s worked so hard all these years to achieve: professional status. And as an audience, we’re with him every step of the way.
Although we’ve written here before in sympathetic terms about Chuck McGill, this latest episode is the final nail in his coffin: he’s a manipulative, selfish, arrogant bastard. In fact, he’s as close as Better Call Saul has to a true villain. (It’s certainly not Gus Fring.) Unlike Breaking Bad, a show that specialized in toying with audience sympathy and didn’t really give us a clear hero (unless one counts Jesse Pinkman), but rather a revolving cast of quasi-villains like a Leone western, Better Call Saul makes this relatively simple. Jimmy is our hero, and Chuck is his antagonist. Characters like Gus and Hector Salamanca might act villainous, but they aren’t Jimmy’s direct antagonists. A safe prediction is that the next few episodes of the series will feature Jimmy in direct legal conflict with his brother, perhaps even some tense courtroom scenes. It would make for more conventional drama than something like Breaking Bad, but with characters this rich, so masterfully played (there are no weak members of this cast), that still works.
Finally, we must give a well-earned nod to Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler in this episode. She always brings up the level of any scene, underplaying beautifully, playing the pauses, listening intently and playing the single most sympathetic character on the show. (Except perhaps Ernesto — and I can’t believe I have yet to comment on his car. There’s a whole other side to that character, based on his ride.) In this episode, Kim is treated terribly by Jimmy (even he knows how much he offended her) and still comes back to him. Because, even though there hasn’t been a “love scene” yet this season, Kim loves him, in a truly, deeply adult way. This is where the title gets its mention: “Sunk Costs”. She has invested so much time and energy in this man, made sacrifices for him, joined with him professionally, turning down other lucrative offers, that even though he stumbles off the path with annoying regularity, she can’t “quit him”. Kim offers her services as Jimmy’s lawyer without even pausing for a moment, and when he turns her down, in court, in front of an audience, her response is to shake her head, pack her briefcase, and walk out. She’s hurt — but in the later scene in which Jimmy apologizes (“You’re wonderful!” he cries) she barely listens, as if she knew all along what he would say. She knows that she just has to let Jimmy play this one out and come to her on his terms, which he finally does. When they share that cigarette, it’s as good as slipping on an engagement ring. She’s committed to him at his worst, and he’s appropriately grateful. For the first time in a while, they are facing in the same direction. Jimmy will need her help in the days to come, and this, one of the most subtle and powerful love stories in the history of television, is one of the many reasons why Better Call Saul continues to be the remarkable achievement it is.