Conscience costs quarters. Poor panicked Jimmy McGill must have gone through half a roll of ’em during his frantic attempts to save the would-be clients Craig and Betsy Kettleman, using nothing but Albuquerque’s conveniently located payphones. But whether he was jerry-rigging a voice modulator to warn the family or leaving voicemail after voicemail for their supposed captor, Jimmy gained something even as his wallet lost weight: our respect. “Nacho,” tonight’s Better Call Saul episode, showed that once upon a time, the Man Who Would Be Saul cared about people — which makes it a whole lot easier to care about him.
Granted, Jimmy’s quest to rescue the corrupt Mr. Kettleman’s nuclear family from a meltdown at the hands of the no-nonsense drug lieutenant Nacho wasn’t his first stab at lifesaving. Just last week, he spared the hapless skateboard brothers from certain death courtesy of Nacho’s boss Tuco. It was a hell of a moment, too: After starting to walk away, toward his own freedom, it took what looked like actual physical effort for him to turn around and do the right thing. Remember that bit in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader swivels his helmet-head back and forth, watching his boss fry his kid, before he finally rears up, grabs the the Emperor, and tosses him down the reactor shaft? It was kind of like that, only with fewer fingers shooting lightning bolts.
The comparison is less goofy than it sounds, though. Both Vader and Jimmy were faced with innocents being executed right in front of them. In that situation, the truth of the maxim “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” is as in-your-face obvious as a Saul Goodman commercial. Tonight’s dilemma is different: Jimmy is never anywhere near the Kettlemans, or the crime he fears is about to befall them. By attempting to intervene — first by not-so-subtly tipping off his lawyer friend-with-benefits Kim, then by switching on his “sex robot voice” to alert the the possible victims directly, and finally by begging Nacho to calm down, come clean, and cough up his captives — Jimmy places himself directly in harm’s way. That deserves respect, a concept previously so alien to our understanding of Saul Goodman you’d need one of Chuck‘s space blankets to contemplate it.
And smartly, the show does everything it can to emphasize just how out-of-character this is. Director Terry McDonough repeatedly frames Jimmy so that he’s dwarfed by his surroundings — from the bird’s-eye view of the deserted backstreet where he repeatedly calls Nacho to long-distance shots of him in search of the runaway family. The visuals send the message that this guy is out of his element, a minuscule man compared to the moral enormity he’s facing.
It’s reflected on a plot level as well. Why choose this episode for Jimmy to learn that Mike Erhmantraut is not the harmless old “geezer” he appears to be, but an ex-Philadelphia cop who can kick his ass and get him arrested? Because it’s yet another example of life knocking Jimmy for a loop, revealing unexpected and unpleasant truths he can’t lie his way around. And when Mike ultimately decides to spare McGill from prison, he’s doing a low-key version of what the low-rent lawyer wants for the Kettlemans. After sharing his suspicion that the family’s hiding out near their own neighborhood, the gruff Philly native offers parting words he probably didn’t intend to be quite so haunting: “Nobody wants to leave home.” (There’s surely a long story behind that statement.) But more importantly, it reinforces what Jimmy had known the second he heard the Kettlekids’ voices on their outgoing answering machine message: Schemes and swindles aside, real lives are at stake here.
But perhaps the most pointed illustration of Jimmy’s current crisis comes from comparing him to his own earlier self. The episode begins with a flashback, a portrait of the con-artist as a young man featuring McGill in full “Slippin’ Jimmy” mode. He’s been busted, and it’s bad — there’s talk of charging him as a sex offender — but you’d barely know it to listen to him. When his older brother Chuck, at this point still a top dog in the legal pack, visits him in jail, Jimmy is all but bouncing off the walls. He fidgets and wiggles, swiveling in his chair and faking seriousness like a class clown trying to get out of detention. It’s only when Chuck threatens to abandon him to his fate does he quiet down and tear up for real.
In the “present day” of 2002, by contrast, Jimmy’s nervous energy is the kind that fuels flop sweat and flights of terror from imagined assailants, the source of parking disputes and desperate searches for missing people. He’s neither the brash slip-and-fall specialist of the past, nor the strip-mall celebrity of the future. We’re looking at him through the one narrow window of his life where getting things right means more to him than getting away with things. It’s gonna be hard to watch that window close.
Previously: Putting in the Legwork