The last two episodes of Better Call Saul have been titled “Slip” and “Fall”, which pretty much sums up what’s happening to every character (except Gus and Mike). The victories that Jimmy and Chuck thought they had racked up against each other have turned out to be hollow. And Kim, caught up as always in the machinations of the McGill brothers, is trying to carry the burden and not always succeeding. Howard Hamlin – Kim’s opposite number on Chuck’s side – is also trying to adhere to the rules of the real world, while his ally slips deeper into delusion and revenge. One tragedy of the McGill brothers is that they both could be so big and so graceful, but their hatred of each other drags them down and makes them small and petty and drives them to do dishonest and reprehensible things. Jimmy’s criminality takes a more raw, naked form and Chuck styles himself the master of legal manipulation, but the overall feeling one gets from “Slip” and “Fall” is disappointment. These two could have been so much more.
They certainly seem to have come from a good family. The opening of “Slip” is a flashback to the days of “Slippin’ Jimmy” as Jimmy breaks into his family’s old corner store in order to steal some valuable coins he had stashed away there. (Not to sell them, of course, but to con someone into paying an inflated sum for them.) During the small-time caper, he relates a story to his partner about his honest father – so honest, in fact, that when someone pays him with a valuable coin, his first impulse is to give it back and his second impulse is to give it to the church. That level of deep goodness in a parent has a tendency to promote either emulation or rebellion. Jimmy obviously has picked “rebellion”, but so has Chuck. The other brother simply wears the clothes of respectability better. But the fact that they share this upbringing, infused with good old-fashioned family values, tells us that they do know right from wrong, and consciously choose wrong.
We can compare the McGills to Nacho in some ways. Nacho also comes from a good family, dedicated to honesty and hard work. Although he has chosen the criminal life, Nacho never truly feels like a criminal. He has too humanity in his eyes, even has he does everything an enforcer in a Mexican drug cartel should do. But he knows there are lines beyond which he will not go (unlike Jimmy, alas) and takes steps sabotage the success of a vile monster like Hector Salamanca. The elaborate system he develops to switch Hector’s pills in “Slip”, for example, is as important to him as anything else, because while he could simply shoot him in the head, or do something similarly overt, he knows that he has to take Hector out in such a way that no one else gets hurt. Nacho cares about collateral damage and understands that actions have consequences. (This earns him Mike’s grudging respect.)
Consequences are most assuredly not on Jimmy’s mind in “Slip” and “Fall”. In fact, his actions over the course of these two episodes take him closer to Saul than he’s yet been, and it’s not pretty to watch. In “Slip”, he simply fakes an injury to extort the owners of a music shop and get enough cash to handle his half of the bills at the WM office. That’s dishonest, and unethical, but nowhere near as morally egregious as what he does in “Fall” to get money. On a social call to Irene, one of his former clients from the senior’s home, he learns that Sandpiper is almost ready to settle the case, and his share would be a tidy fortune. But HHM, now handling the case, is advising the seniors not to settle, but to hold out for a larger amount of money. Unlike the seniors themselves, who appear indifferent to the payout amount, Jimmy needs money now. So, he concocts an elaborate scheme to go behind Irene’s back (she’s the “class representative” in the case, and will make the final decision to settle or not) and tell all the other seniors that she’s holding out and depriving them of their share of the money. In other words, Jimmy takes away an old woman’s friends, breaking her heart and leaving her in tears, just so he can get his settlement money. And he doesn’t care – he arrives back at the WM office with a bottle of expensive tequila and a big smile. As long as things work out for him, nothing else matters. Even Kim’s health, mental and physical, don’t seem to matter to Jimmy/Saul right now. Rhea Seehorn plays Kim in these episodes with an air of desperation and growing horror. She’s now realizing that sweet Jimmy who worked the mail room at HHM and diligently put himself through law school (“Go Landcrabs!”) is transforming with alarming haste into the legal equivalent of Hannibal Lecter – someone with the powers and skills of a lawyer, but without any of the moral centre. She’s coping with this by, in her way, trying to help Jimmy hang on to Jimmy. She knows that it’s because of the money situation that Jimmy is slipping, so she offers to work more, to take on more clients and bring in more money so Jimmy doesn’t have to resort to crime. Jimmy doesn’t seem to realize that she’s doing it all for him, that she does love him and that she wants him to do good in the world. The look on her face at the end of “Fall”, when Jimmy acts hurt that she doesn’t want to celebrate the Sandpiper settlement because she’s headed out for a meeting with a client, speaks volumes. It’s as if she’s finally seeing that everything she’s doing is a waste of time, and Jimmy’s gone. Her car accident right afterward (apparently due to her blacking out at the wheel) is symbolic on many levels, as her life is careening out of control into literal and figurative rocks. Kim is a true victim, here, and one of the few sympathetic characters left on the show. Ironically, the other sympathetic character is Howard Hamlin, a character I (and others) intensely disliked when Better Call Saul began. But in this season, Howard’s realization of the truth about Chuck and his illness and his long-awaited decisive action towards his partner have shown us that Howard is indeed smart, and does have a spine. This wins him a great deal of respect. (On several occasions during this season, I’ve found myself almost saying aloud while watching Howard, “Where’s this guy been all this time?”) Despite Chuck deluding himself into thinking he’s fully cured (he has been making progress, to be fair), Howard is under no illusions. When the insurance company reveals that Chuck’s malpractice premiums will go up due to his illness, as will those of every other lawyer at HHM, Howard’s patience runs out. It’s now about the bottom line, so he suggests, and later demands, that Chuck resign and take a teaching position. Although Howard is at first the epitome of respectful towards Chuck, Chuck’s vitriolic response (he picks a pointless legal battle with the insurance company and nearly tears Howard’s head off) finally breaks the younger man. Howard becomes the forceful voice of reason, and Chuck won’t listen. It’s interesting to note the difference in the dynamic: Kim says nothing explicit to Jimmy, hoping that Jimmy will get her unspoken point. (Of course, “Jimmy” would. But he’s not “Jimmy” anymore.) Howard, on the other hand, is loud and aggressive, but equally powerless. Where Kim is sad and disappointed, Howard is just angry. Chuck tries to play the sentimental card (“I used to tutor you in law school!”), but Howard isn’t buying it. He now has larger things on his mind than pandering to the senior partner who has lost his mind. Now it’s about his career and the future of the firm. Howard even puts Jimmy in his place as Jimmy begs for HHM to settle (this is before he poisons an old woman’s social life to the same end), calling him a pathetic beggar. And the miracle of that moment is that, for once, we as audience side with Howard, not Jimmy.
I’ve been known to write the words “poor Jimmy” here before, and while my sympathy for the character is deeply eroded, perhaps it’s best to think of Jimmy McGill in the past tense here. There’s a growing cancer on his soul named Saul Goodman, and his desperate attempts to maintain the life he says he wants are, in the ultimate irony, destroying that life. Next week is the final episode of the season, and the series feels like a sinking ship, with all the characters desperately grabbing what they can before it all goes down. For a show in which, for long stretches, nothing really happens, this has been an eventful season, leading up to what will no doubt be a tragic and emotional ending.