It wasn’t the biggest twist of the night, but it was up there: Howard Hamlin may be the best friend Jimmy McGill ever had. Powerful, successful, and so smug it’s surprising that no one’s added his picture to the word’s wiktionary page, Hamlin had spent the season as the go-to bad guy. At first, tonight’s episode, “Pimento,” appeared to take their mutual loathing to borderline irrational levels. Was Hamlin’s hatred for his one-time mailroom employee really so strong that he’d blow up the case of a lifetime just for the sake of a grudge? And is he really such a dick that he wouldn’t even offer the once-and-future-Saul a single word of explanation as to why?
Not guilty of both charges. However much Howard may loathe the series’ resident loser-turned-rainmaker, he didn’t hate Jimmy enough to emotionally destroy him for it. So like a bleach-blond messiah, the head Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill shouldered the blame that rightfully belonged to the favored McGill son, Chuck. He even persuaded Kim to play along, risking her own friendship with Jimmy in the process. Given the dogged determination our hero showed in assembling the case in the first place, they should have known that he’d get to the bottom of it, that it would all be in vain. But sometimes, it really is the thought that counts.
Transformations like this powered “Pimento” from start to finish, and in Mike Ehrmantraut‘s case, the evolution was inevitable. Given all we’ve seen of his effortless badassery over the past few years, it’s not like we couldn’t see the outcome of his first job as a criminal-for-hire coming. Watch as the old man reduces his rival, a motormouth mercenary, to a human-shaped puddle of humiliation on the pavement! Listen as he successfully overpowers the dangerous dealer Nacho while armed only with his monosyllabic monotone! Nod in approval as he explains that not all “bad guys” are criminals and not all criminals are bad guys to a nervous nebbish in glasses, one whose archetype is all too familiar to viewers of a certain teacher-turn-meth-lord series. As antihero TV goes, this stuff’s a hoot.
But there was something refreshingly bleak about the ease with which Mike slipped into his new life of crime. All it took was five words on his cellphone — “Yeah. Sure. Yep. Got it.” — and the henchman’s henchman took his first step on the road that will lead to the business end of Walter White’s gun one day. Call it smart or simply sadistic, but the show staged this scene in a shadowy corner of his beloved granddaughter’s backyard. Both literally and figuratively, he slipped into darkness when he answered that call.
While observing the craggy former cop play to type was alternately thrilling and depressing, the opportunity to witness Howard go against the grain was enriching. He never let his mask of douchebaggery slip when dealing with Jimmy — but Kim is a different story. When she comes to his cavernous office demanding to know why he’d treat her friend so unfairly, the lawyer hands her a verbal beatdown so odious he can’t bear it himself. “Stop,” he says to her as she leaves, guilt creeping into his face and voice for the first time. Hardball earned him his spot at the top, but even he’s ashamed of the game Chuck’s got him playing.
The older McGill was the night’s real revelation — or maybe that should be “Revelation” with a capital R, considering just how Biblically beastly he turned out to be. Here again, the show handled its character subversion with a mix of “of course” and “what the fuck?” The list of people who might have been on the other end of his sneaky 2am cellphone call was a short one; since Kim seemed as clueless about the death of the deal as anyone, it had to be Howard he dialed. So the whodunit aspect of this storyline was really just a matter of Jimmy catching up with what the audience had already guessed.
The whydunit is a different story. How could this guy sit there faking sympathy as his younger brother — who’d spent years shepherding him through a debilitating illness — watched his dream go up in smoke? How could he hear the wretched little choke in Jimmy’s voice as he said “You go to hell, Howard. I’m not giving you my case” and look himself in the mirror knowing he was at fault?
For the answer, you really only had to look at him. When Jimmy finally confronted him with the truth, Chuck’s usual open-book of a face snapped shut, his mouth a tight grimace, his eyes narrow slits. Even before he delivered that final devastating monologue — “What a joke! I worked my ass off to get where I am, and you take these short cuts and you think suddenly you’re my peer?” — his feelings were clear: When he sees his brother, he feels nothing but resentment, fury and contempt. The work being done by both Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean is absolute dynamite. Who’d have thought one of the most powerful dramatic scenes of the year would take place between two comedians?
“Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun,” Chuck concludes, condemning his kid brother’s con-man past. “The law is sacred. If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game! You have to know, on some level I know you know I’m right. You know I’m right!” Thanks to Breaking Bad, so do we. The tragedy is that the older sibling had the opportunity to prevent that awful outcome by letting Jimmy go legit. By stabbing his brother in the back, he’s creating the very future he sought to avoid.
Previously: Family Business