A review of “JMM,” this week’s Better Call Saul, coming up just as soon as lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips…
“But, do you want to be a ‘Friend of the Cartel’?” -Kim
The letters that form the title of “JMM” are expanded three different ways in the episode. First, they are the initials of James Morgan McGill, whose full name is recited by the judge marrying Jimmy and Kim in a brisk civil ceremony. Second, they are the slogan Jimmy coined for himself — “Justice Matters Most” — when Kim gave him the monogrammed briefcase after he had already changed his professional name. It’s a lame motto — in public, Jimmy has already moved beyond it to the “Speedy justice for you” catchphrase — and one that Lalo suggests could be improved to our third version: Just. Make. Money.
We know that Jimmy will eventually use this show’s title as his tagline, but that’s for the benefit of potential clients. Lalo’s suggestion, on the other hand, is the whole ethos of Saul Goodman:
Just. Make. Money.
Don’t worry about the law. Don’t worry about ethics. Don’t worry about feelings. Don’t worry about who gets hurt, and maybe don’t even worry about danger to yourself if the upside is big enough. Just. Make. Money.
It’s a phrase so completely, unquestionably Saul Goodman that it feels appropriate it would be presented in an episode that gives us our first real glimpse of Saul in this series’ present-day action.
Jimmy has used the alias off and on for years, but it was just that. Even this season, operating in public under that name, wearing the suits and working the bluetooth headset, he has still been much closer to the Jimmy McGill we know and love than the Saul we thought we knew so well on Breaking Bad. But in two different remarkable moments in “JMM,” Jimmy goes away so the real Saul can come out to play. It may not be a permanent transformation yet, but the man ranting at Howard Hamlin in the halls of the courthouse seems poised to take over for good — or, rather, for bad — and soon.
Saul’s outburst is one bookend of a fantastic episode that begins, like it ends, in and around a courtroom. We open on a semi-happy occasion: the wedding of Kim and Jimmy, which she so foolishly proposed at the end of last week’s episode. As Jimmy explains it to Huell (on hand as a witness), it’s less a cause for celebration than it is a legal arrangement to create spousal privilege, and he looks visibly uncomfortable as the judge takes them through the ceremony. At minimum, he knows this isn’t the wedding Kim Wexler deserves, nor the reason they should be getting married. Deep down, he surely suspects that this will end badly for Kim, and that she doesn’t deserve that, either. But facing him is a woman who does not seem disappointed by the circumstances in which she finds herself. Kim’s face isn’t exactly glowing, but her eyes are clearly smiling — Rhea Seehorn, you may have heard, is a talented performer — her voice breaks ever so slightly but unmistakably when she says, “I do,” and then she looks genuinely happy at being told that they are now husband and wife. Jimmy assumed she had a dream wedding in mind when she was 12, but we saw in last week’s teaser what Kim had to think about at that age. And we know her well enough to recognize that even though this will surely go badly, all Kim wants is an honest relationship with the man she loves. She believes this hare-brained scheme will give her that.
And it does that — at least, briefly. In the hour’s opening moments(*), she explains — like a lawyer negotiating a contract — that what she matters most to her isn’t justice, but open communication. If Jimmy provides full disclosure, she believes, the rest will sort itself out. When the two are in bed together that night — with a full day’s work sandwiched between the wedding and this non-honeymoon — he at first opts against telling her that Lalo is his client. But there’s enough of Jimmy McGill still at the wheel for him to pause and fess up, including about Lalo’s offer to make him into a Friend of the Cartel.
(*) Among the first images we see (after the JMM briefcase and Kim’s shoes) is Jimmy rubbing Marco’s ring, whose siren song seems to call him whenever he is close to turning into Saul. A few minutes later, Huell asks if Kim will be a McGill or a Goodman. “Wexler,” Jimmy answers confidently. The answer regarding his own name will soon be less clear.
Kim has just had a triumphant day over in the ever-shrinking part of the series having nothing to do with the manufacture and distribution of illegal drugs. She and Rich attempt to patch things up with Mesa Verde, and when Kevin seems dismissive of them — and particularly of Kim, for having the poor judgment to date the man who made a fool of everyone in his office at that moment — she decides to push back. Even though she knows that she created this entire fiasco — and broke her legal obligation to put her client’s best interests ahead of anyone else’s — she calls out Kevin for all the times he ignored her advice in the whole affair with Everett Acker, suggesting their relationship can’t continue with that dynamic. It’s Kim deploying some chicanery of her own, but it also seems to be her finally doing what she set out to when she swept up the broken glass in the parking lot. She has cleaned up her own mess, and perhaps made things better for everyone in the long run. (At a minimum, she has for Acker and Olivia Bitsui.) It’s a moment so satisfying, it left me with the same thought a lot of Kim scenes do: I would be perfectly happy watching a show about banking and real estate law if she was the main character in it.
But Kim isn’t the main character in a show about banking and real estate law. She’s the romantic partner and conscience of the main character on a show about losing your moral compass and breaking as badly as anyone in this universe not called Heisenberg can. As Jimmy tells her about Lalo and his offer, it’s as if the walls between the two halves of the show have crumbled before her eyes, and for the first time she’s getting a look at what’s been happening the rest of the time. It is clearly not a view she enjoys, but it’s for the moment a temporary one. Jimmy assures her he would have no interest in being the cartel’s friend even in the improbable event that it was possible to bail out Lalo.
But fate — or, rather, Jimmy’s once and future partner Mike — has other plans. Team Fring realizes that an incarcerated Lalo is still a danger to the operation, and that Mike’s half-measure with the librarian has to be undone in favor of a harsher solution. So Lalo has to make bail — which could cement the cartel’s friendship with Saul Goodman in the process.
This is a fascinating turn of events, given what we know about Saul and Mike’s relationship on Breaking Bad, and what little we saw of Saul’s pre-Heisenberg business. Saul believed Mike was his investigator/fixer, and was shocked to find out he had another, more powerful employer the whole time. And while Saul was near the top of the Albuquerque shyster food chain, he also didn’t seem like a significant player in the drug world. That’s why he was so eager to play Tom Hagen to Walt’s Vito Coreleone.
Odds are that things with Lalo and the cartel won’t go as smoothly as he presents it to Jimmy in the courtroom. But at minimum, it reframes Saul and Walt’s relationship as a do-over for Saul, rather than his first attempt at playing on this level. And if Peter Gould and the other writers (including Alison Tatlock, who penned this one) don’t already know how they’re going to reconcile what Saul does and doesn’t know about Mike and Gus, I imagine they’ll figure it out before the series finale. (As continuity headaches go, it’s no machine gun in the trunk.)
But Mike and Jimmy’s reunion fundamentally alters the trajectory of Jimmy’s deal with Lalo, and sets up the clearest sign yet that Saul Goodman’s ascension is nearly complete.
Before the judge comes in to hear Jimmy’s argument about witness tampering, Jimmy is distracted by the grieving relatives of Fred Whalen in the gallery. Lalo has forgotten the name of the man he killed and is only concerned with pulling off this latest con(*), while Jimmy looks genuinely wracked with guilt over what he is about to do to this poor family.
(*) Like Jimmy, Lalo is fond of schemes and comfortable working under assumed names, like his forged identity as Jorge DeGuzman.
And then we get the first of the two remarkable moments: like a horrifying magic trick, the transformation just happens. One moment, we are watching Jimmy McGill, lost in melancholy thought as he sits at the defense table, the sound of the courtroom fading into a dull roar; the next, Saul Goodman is standing before the court, passionately arguing to arrange the freedom of the monster he knows he’s representing. There is nothing in between, as if Jimmy went into one of those fugue states Walt once talked about, and out came the true, irrepressible Saul.
Whatever the reason, the next scene suggests Jimmy hasn’t completely vanished yet. Outside the courtroom, he peeks around a corner to watch Whalen’s family absorb the news that Lalo has made bail. Of all the pictures to tell a thousand words over the course of this show and its predecessor, the shot of Jimmy’s face half-reflected in the marble wall is among the most stunning and eloquent. The half face and its reflection should form a whole, but they don’t as a result of the angle of the shot. There is the light side of Jimmy McGill, and the dark side of Saul Goodman, but together they add up to less than the sum of their parts, because something is missing from Saul — something whose absence will enable Walter White to rain death, destruction, and heartache down on a whole lot of people in the coming years.
But still, you can see the part of Jimmy who hasn’t been fully submerged yet. And that’s when we get to the second remarkable moment. Howard snaps Jimmy out of his spell and asks yet again about the job offer he made. Like Rich Schweikart seeing through what Kim and Jimmy were doing with Acker, Howard is not stupid. He has figured out that bad things started happening to him as a result of his lunch with Jimmy, and he is there to rescind the offer. Jimmy McGill tries to play dumb and deflect Howard’s suspicion, but when Howard alludes to Chuck’s death by saying, “Jimmy, I’m sorry you’re in pain,” it is unmistakably Saul Goodman who answers him, shouting at the top of his lungs about how small Howard seems compared to the man he believes he is destined to become as a Friend of the Cartel.
The first time we saw Jimmy and Howard in a room together, Jimmy was jokingly acting out the “primal forces of nature” monologue from Network. Here, Saul seems to be playing it for real, screaming, “I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine! You can’t conceive what I’m capable of! I’m like a god in human clothing! Lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!”
This is the Better Call Saul equivalent of Walt’s famous “I am The One Who Knocks!” speech — only cranked up to 11 in volume and colorful rhetoric. Saul is a better talker than Walt, but he also needs to sell himself more than Walt did in that moment with Skyler. (And Walt was already trying way too hard to intimidate her.) Walt had by that point in Breaking Bad knocked for several of his enemies, where the time for lighting to shoot from Saul’s fingertips is still to come. But you can sense it approaching in the not-too-distant future, just like real lightning is visible well before you hear the accompanying sound of thunder. Like Walt’s speech, it’s spectacular as the words emerge from Saul’s mouth, but also instantly sad. We know where those words will lead him, and we also know the pain and insecurity that’s prompted them in the first place. Walter White killed a lot of people to show the world how powerful he was; Saul Goodman’s going to help him for the same goddamn reason.
Since I first watched “JMM,” I haven’t been able to let go of that abrupt cut from Jimmy in the chair to Saul on his feet. In many ways, this is the scene the entire series has been building up to, and the crucial part of it happens off-camera. Why? Maybe the creative team knew that Bob Odenkirk would get to play a similar Jimmy/Saul switch only moments later in the argument with Howard, and wanted to save it for the episode’s climax. Maybe the vehemence of Jimmy’s response to Howard was so much more blatantly a Saul Goodman scene that all involved felt that it was the true point of no return.
But maybe it’s less about story than about sentiment, and about how Gould, Vince Gilligan, and everyone else found themselves surprised by how much they loved Jimmy McGill, and how little they wanted to let him become Saul — even though the design of the show as a prequel gave them no choice in the matter. I think back to a conversation I had with David Chase for The Sopranos Sessions, about the choice to deliberately pan up from the scene of a beloved character’s murder right before the fatal shots were fired. Chase thought about it for a long time, then admitted that he had grown really fond of the character, and that even though he’d written her into a position where her murder was the only option, he had the director avoid showing it out of “a feeling I had that I didn’t want to see that.”
Is he already Saul for good(man)? This series has offered too many false alarms in the past to say for sure. But if we revist “JMM” years from now as the great episode we’d all been dreading, then we can look at that hard cut in the same way: as a moment that Gould and company were forced to write, but one they didn’t actually want to see.
I can’t blame them.
Some other thoughts:
* In case you missed it, the Rhea Seehorn profile I’ve been talking about the last few weeks is now available for your perusal. Not all good actors are also good at talking about acting; she absolutely is.
* After Mike puts Kaylee to bed with the copy of The Little Prince he bought from the library last week, he offers a belated — and necessary — explanation for why he’s thrown in his lot with Gus Fring. When Stacey notes that he’s seemed more at peace lately, Mike tells her, Mike explaining himself to Stacey: “Decided to play the cards I was dealt.” It’s not so much that his stay in Mexico convinced Mike of Gus’s relative altruism, but that it gave him time to clear his head and accept that he was already in too deep with these people to cleanly quit them. This way, he gets some measure of control — which is more than poor Nacho has — and it’s clear that he’s a trusted employee. For the moment, that’s enough.
* Whatever endgame Mike and Gus have planned for Lalo requires them to make Nacho look good, which means Nacho and Gus teaming up to trash and then blow up Los Pollos Hermanos. Gus’ use of one of his chickens as a delayed fuse — letting it slowly heat up until the accumulated grease slides it down the hot plate and into the fryer oil — is damn near Heisenbergian in its seamless deployment of the materials on hand.
* Before he and Nacho play arson, Gus first has to travel to Madrigal headquarters to inform both Lydia and her boss Peter Schuler about the state of things. Lydia is awestruck by Gus’ confidence and brains, while Herr Schuler — introduced, as he was on Breaking Bad, while dipping fried foods into sauce — is understandably tying himself up in knots over the danger he has placed himself and the company in by agreeing to back Gus and the construction of the Superlab.
* Gus removing his jacket and shoes before entering Schuler’s adjoining hotel room briefly make him seem like an evil Mister Rogers.
* In the Breaking Bad episode “Green Light,” Saul tells Walt that he caught his second wife sleeping with his stepfather. Whether that really happened or was just a tall tale Saul told his most annoying client, we at least know that he wasn’t referring to Kim. When he applies for the marriage license here, he has to present proof of the dissolution of his two previous marriages, which would make Kim into Wife Number Three.
* Two episodes back, Jimmy did a killer impression of Kim in the scene where she impersonated Kevin. Here, he does a hilarious Mike impression right before he finds the genuine article on the other side of his apartment door.
* I failed to mention last week that Detective Tim Roberts, who is the lead investigator on the Lalo case, was an old buddy of Hank’s on Breaking Bad. Among other things, he helped look for Walt after Tuco kidnapped him, and was later assigned to Gale’s murder.
* I love that we linger for a moment after Kim and Rich leave Kevin’s office so that we can see the little smile Paige allows herself. She has always been in Kim’s corner, and no doubt has to deal with even more of Kevin’s bluster than the good people of Schweikart and Cokely. Of course, if she ever found out the real role Kim played in this mess, the smile would disappear in a heartbeat.
* Finally, by the end of Breaking Bad, many of the writers, including Peter Gould, had become first-time directors. Here, Gould pays it forward by giving longtime BB/BCS producer Melissa Bernstein her first time in the director’s chair. A big responsibility, given the import of that final scene, and Bernstein proved more than up to the challenge.
Previously: Girl, Interrupted