New realities hit Jimmy McGill hard in “Off Brand”, the sixth episode of this season of Better Call Saul. After the previous episode’s explosive climax, which saw Chuck McGill finally “outed” as deeply mentally ill in front of the court, his partners and his ex-wife, Jimmy and Kim are in the mood to celebrate. Well, at least Jimmy is. Kim’s growing distance from her partner and lover seems to be a key aspect of the last half of this season of Saul. She has ample reason to be hesitant and withdrawn with Jimmy at this point, and her doubts about his character are challenging her faith in him.
Rebecca, Chuck’s very bright and perceptive ex-wife, sees things clearly and speaks the emotional truth. Confronting Jimmy and Kim in their moment of triumph, sharing a bottle of champagne, she rightfully calls him out on how little he cares for his brother, who is, and this now a matter of record, mentally ill. Deeply mentally ill, to the point of being almost non-functional. Even Chuck himself recognizes that in this episode, donning a tinfoil cape and staggering through the streets of Albuquerque to phone his doctor for help. Jimmy’s sympathy is gone (the episode after this makes that point even clearer), and he pours champagne from a coffee mug on the embers of that relationship with no hint of reluctance. (Kim, of course, feels more human emotions, but she hasn’t been through what Jimmy has.) But this episode marks a turning point in another way: Jimmy relaxes into the slow moral slide that will lead him directly to Saul.
The outcome of Chuck’s trap for Jimmy hasn’t turned out exactly how Chuck planned. Jimmy is suspended from practicing law for one year, but that feels like a hollow victory to Chuck, who wanted more than anything for his brother to be humiliated in public. Instead, the opposite happens. It doesn’t matter how expensive the scotch is that Howard brings over (and it looks very expensive indeed), the fact remains that Chuck’s illness is now painfully public, and Jimmy being out of the law temporarily seems like a weak response to that. Howard tries to convince Chuck that this is a win, but Chuck doesn’t see it that way. He was out for blood, and can’t settle for a flesh wound.
Jimmy was out for blood, too. As he himself admitted to Kim in the previous episode, he knew that bringing Rebecca into that courtroom would ruin Chuck, but also ruin the relationship between the brothers. That’s a sacrifice Jimmy was willing to make to get revenge on the brother who tried to destroy his career. But that fight cost Jimmy something, too, and this is the episode where he begins to find out exactly what.
For one thing, Jimmy now has a practical problem: he’s unemployed. When we first met him back in season one, Jimmy was living in the back of a nail salon and driving a car about one oil change away from the boneyard. Now, in season three, his circumstances have improved (although he still has the car), but that’s been due to his success as a lawyer in elder care. Now that tap has been turned off. Kim gently suggests that they move out of the office they share and lay off Francesca, just as a precautionary move. Jimmy won’t hear of it, because after all, it was the dream of running a law firm with his beloved (his “Gal”, as he refers to her) that he was fighting for in the first place. To give that up for whatever reason means giving Chuck the at least symbolic victory. That’s too much to contemplate. But it raises a very practical question: how is going to generate income?
Here we have the beginning of Saul. The thing that everyone knows Jimmy, and later Saul, for is his skill with advertising. It’s another aspect of his personality as a charming huckster, which dates back to the days of “Slippin’ Jimmy”. Lowbrow though he may be, Jimmy knows how to get his name and face on everyone’s mind. Bus stop ads, TV spots and later billboards will all proudly proclaim the name of… whatever name Jimmy is going by at the time. With his three student hired hands from the University of New Mexico’s film school, Jimmy now tries to re-sell his pre-purchased TV ad time to local businesses, complete with production costs thrown in. The problem is that no one is buying, no matter how aggressively Jimmy sells. So, in a fit of desperation and encouraged by one of his students – the makeup girl, who takes pity on him – he chooses to create a new character spontaneously. Based on the phrase, “’S’all Good, man!”, “Saul Goodman” (looking more than a little like Jimmy’s later persona, “Gene”) appears in an ad for (what else?) himself, as the head of “Saul Goodman Productions”, where this temporarily disbarred lawyer operating under an assumed name with student help, a vest and a baseball cap from Panavision (which apparently qualifies him as a director/producer) expertly operates a commercial production company with pre-sold airtime. “Saul” is only slightly more successful at this than Jimmy (as the next episode shows), but that’s not particularly important here, because the point is that Jimmy created Saul to protect what’s left of Jimmy.
A year can be a long time, or a short time. In Kim’s mind, a year is a significant chunk of time in which she has to work on the most important case of her career so far. For Jimmy, a year is just a trifle – a temporary setback until he can come roaring back to victory. So, creating the Saul persona is really just a way for Jimmy to preserve the name and reputation of “James McGill, esquire” and not a true attempt at a new life. The tragic twist that we as an audience know, and the characters do not, is that Saul is sadly permanent. It seems like from the moment of his creation, Saul seems destined to devour Jimmy, leaving this well-intentioned, hard-working but corner-cutting lawyer in the past, replaced by a cynical and slick criminal. That’s why, no matter how funny or witty Better Call Saul can be, this show ultimately is a tragedy. Kim and Rebecca seem to already realize this. Perhaps Jimmy does as well, somewhere deep in his heart. But the needs of the here and now take precedence, at least for the moment. Hello, Saul Goodman. It’s definitely not “all good”.