Forget the navy blue pinstripe jacket, the tasteful light-blue tie, and the club-collar shirt with real mother of pearl buttons (“none of this fake plastic crap”). Jimmy McGill‘s strong suit is scumbaggery, even when he spends a small fortune to make it look otherwise. To Jimmy, nothing works quite so right as doing wrong, and that’s the super 170 Tasmanian wool thread that holds tonight’s episode of Better Call Saul — “Hero” — together. To quote the Betsy Kettleman, Jimmy is “the type of lawyer guilty people hire.” And to paraphrase Jimmy, it seems that the show’s first season will be about the legal eagle realizing “that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”
Take the Kettlemans themselves, another pair of white-collar criminals in deep denial of the fact. Jimmy can’t persuade them to take him on as their representation or to use their stolen money as a bargaining chip — or even to admit the cash was illegally obtained at all. (Craig didn’t embezzle it, he earned it, see?) Their one-step escape into the wildnerness behind their house has no Step Two, so McGill provides it for them: They didn’t run, they went on an impromptu camping trip. If the house gets trashed and the door gets kicked down on their way out, hey, “it’s a free country.” The kind of lawyer guilty people hire? He oughta be, given the golden advice he just gave these two nimrods.
Then there’s Nacho, his nominal client in the whole Kettleman-kidnapping fiasco. When the drug lieutenant threatens Jimmy for ratting on him to his intended target, the lawyer’s having none of it. He’s reminded that casing a prospective victim’s house night after night in the same blood-spattered van is a great way to get thrown in jail — luckily, someone was there to intervene. “You should be thanking this good Samaritan,” he barks (into the face of a man who could obviously kill him, no less), “because whoever he is, he did you a favor!”
Both scenes show us the embryonic version of Saul Goodman struggling to emerge from his expensive-cotton chrysalis, and it’s the sequence that takes place in between that shows how it’ll happen. As Jimmy returns to court, he reaches out to Mike, whose instincts about the family’s location had proven correct. “You assume that criminals are gonna be smarter than they are,” the lawyer laments to the laconic toll-taker. “I dunno…kinda breaks my heart a little.” But it’s the kind of heartbreak that pays. Stealing over a million dollars from the county government or becoming a high-ranking member of Tuco Salamanca‘s drug operation requires a great deal of shrewdness. (As does making the purest crystal methamphetamine the Southwestern United States has ever seen, for that matter.) But how do you survive your success? Answer: You become the smartest guy in the interrogation room.
Even his attempts to better himself invariably point down that crooked path. Yes, turning himself into a Howard Hamlin clone and buying a billboard that swipes his rival firm’s logo is an act of personal spite. But it also reveals Jimmy’s vision of himself — the kind of man who eyes the loudest shirt and tie in the store, only to set them aside in favor of finer things. How does he pay for his makeover and ad campaign? With the dirty money the Kettlemans gave him to buy his silence. How does he recoup his investment after Hamlin predictably shuts him down? By staging a slip-and-fall accident and a daring rescue (on camera, of course) that lands him on the front page of the Albquerque Journal‘s metro section. When the calls start rolling in, it’s James M. McGill they’re looking for, but it’s Saul Goodman who got them to pick up and dial. He made himself into Hamlin’s mirror image in order to avoid looking himself in the face.
Truth be told, Jimmy has always been better at being the slick operator than anything else, as we learn in the opening flashback sequence that explains the origin of the name. He’s “Saul” as in “S’all good, man,” just the kind of easy-going hey-bro banter required to put a mark at ease before the big con. The staged, bogus watch-and-wallet theft works because it convinces its victim that he’s the one conning the con artist, making off with a fake Rolex in exchange for just north of $500 real dollars. If criminals really were smarter than they are, he’d be out of a job instead of making easy money. “You wanna talk about brilliant?” gushes his partner, whose name reads “Henry Gondorff” on his probably fake ID. “I mean, you’re the man. Me, I’m just…I love watchin’ you work.”
And who wouldn’t, when it looks this good? Just four episodes out of the gate, Better Call Saul is proving to be one of the most visually striking and well-acted shows currently on television. When Saul and his patsy drunkenly discuss wolf howls outside their town’s shut-down bars, or when Jimmy stands inside the Day Nail & Spa salon at night, the shots are like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Michael McKean continues to impress as Jimmy’s mentally ill older brother Chuck, selling both the man’s pride in his baby bro’s supposed accomplishments and his crushing disappointment after risking (he thinks) his life to find out whether they’re true. As Kim, actor Rhea Seehorn has an easy rapport with Bob Odenkirk, playfully slapping his hands away from the controls of her massage chair when she comes to visit him. (She wants to go see The Thing on the big screen? She’s a keeper.) And there’s Odenkirk himself, playing an orange shirt/magenta tie man in a Haml-indigo Blue world. It’s going be a thrill to watch him suit up for real.
Previously: Do the Right Thing