Better Call Saul: the feel-good hit of the season? It was tonight, anyway. This week's episode, "Rico," administered a mainline hit of happiness from the start. Hard work, brotherly love, sticking up for the downtrodden, sticking it to bullies in business suits — if you didn't know better, you'd think you'd tuned in to Disney movie about an underdog sports team. But the cinematography, pacing, and performances kept this surprisingly sweet Saul from sliding into schmaltz. You get to watch characters you like do something good, and do it very well. If that doesn't put a grin on your face the size of a James Morgan McGill Esq. billboard, your case is hopeless.
For once, hope's in full supply for Jimmy McGill. In the opening flashback sequence, our hero learns he's passed the New Mexico bar; he runs straight to his big-shot big brother Chuck, a founding partner in the firm where Jimmy is just a mailroom worker. Watch the legal eagle's reaction morph from skepticism to an affectionate pride; it's clear the older McGill never thought his shifty, shiftless kid brother had it in him. Sure, Howard Hamlin poops in the punchbowl by refusing to move the newly minted attorney from the copy machine to casework. But the segment serves as strong evidence in favor of two important ideas that will drive the rest of the hour: The McGills love each other, and the junior partner in that relationship can be genuinely impressive when he puts his mind to it.
For Exhibit B, we refer you to the future Saul Goodman's sleuthing at Sandpiper Crossing Assisted Living. When our Matlock wannabe's kindly old client comes up short for his fee, you wonder if this is the beginning of the end for his career in elder law. (Either they're too poor, or he's too forgiving.) Then, just as he did when Tuco planned to kill those two skateboarding goons back in the second episode, Jimmy turns back, because something just doesn't sit right with him. It turns out the meager monthly "allowance" the good residents of Sandpiper are forced to live off of is just the tip of an interstate iceberg of fraud and corruption. This looks like a job for James McGill, Attorney-at-Law!
Jimmy's quest to stop Sandpiper from defrauding his clients and destroying the evidence ends up turning into a nailbiter. The stakes are somewhat lower than usual; no one will confuse McGill diving into dumpsters with Mike Ehrmantraut shooting crooked cops anytime soon. But there's still a sense that our unlikely crusader is racing against time, and not simply because Sandpiper might lawyer up and shut him down. We've seen the Ghost of Jimmy's Future, and it wears loud ties while serving scumbags. We're not going to get that many chances to see this guy do something good with his talents, so it's edge-of-your-seat stuff to see if he pulls it off now.
But involving Chuck is the real ace in the hole. Once he begins shaking off the sluggishness of his hermit-like existence to help his brother, the case takes on a life of its own. Every time we encounter the older McGill, he's two steps ahead of where we were before: piecing together shredded documents, rattling off legal maneuvers his baby bro hadn't thought of, cackling with glee over the company's violation of federal statutes before the audience in on the joke. He's like a diesel engine that pulls the whole storyline along behind him, his enthusiasm fueling not just Jimmy's but our own.
And Chuck's big moments of triumph are the episode's as well. He's practically catatonic during the first minutes of his big meeting with Sandpiper's attorney (played by Law & Order veteran Dennis Boutsikaris as if he were born in a partner's office). But when he finally speaks up, it's to drop the hammer: "Twenty million dollars. You heard me. Twenty. Million. Dollars. Or we'll see you in court." It's such a commanding performance by the former ace lawyer (and by Michael McKean, here called upon to play yet another side of this strange character) that it leaves Jimmy speechless. Now there's a first.
It's unclear exactly how to take Chuck's episode-ending escape from his psychosomatic allergy to electromagnetism. Yes, it's a rush to watch him heedlessly bound outside to fetch a file — it's the first time in this case that we've figured something out before he did. But will he feel he was living a lie, or that he's miraculously beaten an honest-to-god illness? There are a lot of ways to read how he dropped that box when he realized where he was and what he'd done, and not all of them are optimistic. And from Kim's potential betrayal to Mike's slide into a life of crime, this upbeat episode had its share of downbeat notes. But for one night, we'll give the McGill brothers their moment in the sun — literal and otherwise.
Previously: Room With a View