A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I justify a giant horse statue…
“I need to be moving forward.” -Jimmy
If “Quite a Ride” was offering us bookends of Saul Goodman’s law career, then this week’s episode — “Pinata” — appears to be doing the same for Jimmy McGill‘s. We open back in Jimmy and Kim‘s mailroom days, when Jimmy’s difficulty comprehending one of Chuck‘s big legal victories — and his recognition of how dazzled Kim, Howard and everyone else at the firm are by it — inspires him to step into the HHM law library. We’ve long known that Jimmy went into the law in an attempt to impress Kim (success!) and Chuck (whoops!), so the scene is no more strictly necessary than last week’s glimpse of Saul and Francesca shredding documents post-“Ozymandias.” But like that scene, it offers a valuable emotional counterweight to the steps Jimmy takes in the rest of the episode on the road from (hat tip to Jesse Pinkman) criminal lawyer to criminal lawyer.
We see that criminal law isn’t even on his mind when we return from the opening credits. Kim, struggling to do Mesa Verde work when all she cares about are her pro bono clients, comes across Jimmy’s sketches for a potential new Wexler & McGill logo, and it contrasts her banking law work with him doing bankruptcy law. (This actually seems like a good specialty for him with eldercare off the table. It still gives him the kind of interpersonal contact he thrives on, even as there’s room for a certain amount of con artistry in helping desperate clients conceal assets.) When he learns that his very first eldercare client — and star of his one and only commercial for Davis and Main — Geraldine Strauss has died in her sleep, his conversation with her nephew is both a reminder of how good he is at connecting with clients, and an opportunity for him to grieve and cry in a way he never allowed himself to do for Chuck. After last week’s criminal shenanigans at the Dog House, he seems relatively snapped back into the do-gooder Jimmy we fell in love with around the time he first met Mrs. Strauss. (Note that when he brings up her Hummel figurine, it’s not an attempt to scam it off of the nephew, but to make sure it ended up where she wanted it to go.)
Jimmy is still on a precipice here, still plotting a good — if slightly more outsized — life as Kim’s professional and romantic partner, and he’s achingly close to getting it 10 months in the future. The problem is that so much of his plan depends on Kim, and she has her own life and desires to worry about, even as she has no idea that she’s the last barrier separating him from the terrible future we know is coming. In an attempt to satisfy her lucrative responsibilities to Mesa Verde and her emotional investment in the pro bono work, she belatedly agrees to join Schweikart and Cokely(*) as a partner, figuring that she can do both with a larger team around her.
(*) Is it a coincidence that the star of Jimmy’s Sandpiper ad dies around the same time that Kim joins the firm that’s defending Sandpiper? The events of last season suggested the case could drag on for a long time, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kim and Jimmy somehow wind up on opposite sides of a courtroom before the series is over.
It’s a great move for her, and one that feels utterly in keeping with the journey she’s been going on at least since the start of this season, if not going back to when she found out how Jimmy helped her land Mesa Verde. But it’s the worst possible news Jimmy could hear. He still respects and cares for her enough to tell her to take the job, but we see in the immediate aftermath of her announcement that the entire foundation of his world has been pulled out from under him, providing Slippin’ Jimmy an easy path to slip on out and cause trouble.
After a stop at the downsized wreckage of HHM — where he still has enough decency to give Howard a tough love pep talk in an attempt to fix what he did to this place he used to care so much about — he spends his paltry inheritance from Chuck’s will on a pallet of burner phones. He is all-in on what Mrs. Nguyen dismisses as a get rich quick scheme, but what he understands is a reliable shortcut to get his own firm set up, since he won’t have Kim working alongside him anymore. And where he went into his first night as a burner salesman impulsively, here he is a con man with a plan to make sure the three punks from the laundromat don’t keep causing him problems.
Jimmy’s revenge on these kids — taping them upside down as human pinatas to be threatened by his masked batmen — is both a thrilling sequence and an unsettling one. It’s by far the hour’s biggest showcase for the talents of Very Special Guest Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), both in the way he shoots the thieves’ disorienting upside-down POV, and the way that one of Jimmy’s assistants drags a baseball bat along the warehouse floor like he’s Marco Salamanca preparing to chop off a DEA agent’s head with a silver axe. After this junior crew smugly took all of Jimmy’s money the last time, it’s momentarily satisfying to see them utterly powerless and frightened — willing to not only lay off of Jimmy in the future, but spread the word to warn off other potential muggers. At the same time, this is Jimmy McGill, relatively good guy and less than a year away from returning to the practice of law, using hired goons to abduct and terrorize three kids so they’ll stop disrupting an extra-legal business venture. This is a gangster move, and far worse a crossing of any legal or ethical threshold than that time he told the ABQ detectives about Hoboken Squat Cobbler. This is exactly what it means to break bad.
Earlier in the hour, Kim confronts Jimmy about his reluctance to go see the therapist, even after he had promised to do so. He insists that he just needs to give his new life a try and see how it goes. She lets him slide on that — emotionally, they’re already too far apart for her to turn this into a real fight — and his argument sounds as convincing in the moment as most of his grifts. But we know much more than Kim about what he’s doing, and whom he’s in the process of becoming. If his decision to tear up the therapist’s number was inspired by seeing how little help Howard’s shrink has been, Jimmy also understands on some level that turning his gaze inward will get in the way of his big and exciting plans. A Jimmy who goes into therapy — and who is honest with his therapist — would be forced to acknowledge the moral realities of that pinata stunt. A Jimmy who has been cut loose in different ways by the two people who inspired him to become a lawyer doesn’t have to answer to anyone, including himself. He can do what he wants, take what he wants, and have a blast doing it. It’s the kind of life Chuck pulled him away from when he got him the mailroom job, and it’s the kind of diabolical power — Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree — that Chuck always feared.
Some other thoughts:
* Some other nice directorial flourishes from Stanton: the lingering shot of Hector’s bell-ringing hand at the end of the scene with Gus (nice restraint on not having it twitch even slightly; we know what that hand will do one day), the world seeming to fall away from Jimmy as he ducks into the restaurant kitchen to absorb Kim’s news, and another jaunty montage about phones, this one with him unpacking them in his old office while Mrs. Nguyen looks on disapprovingly.
* I had spotted Lavell Crawford’s name in the guest credits, and was primed for Huell to be one of Jimmy’s two masked assistants. But I assumed the taller guy was Ira, until the mask came off at the end to reveal a different bearded fellow. This is Man Mountain, played by David Mattey, who was last seen running away from Mike in Season One’s “Pimento” after Mike demonstrated why “Pryce” only needed one bodyguard.
* The opening flashback has people betting on Howard’s End and Scent of a Woman to win various Oscars, which puts it in the spring of 1993, 10 years before the events of this series. That seems about right, as it would take Jimmy a while to work his way through law school part time, and he wasn’t brand-new to lawyering when Season One began.
* Also, it’s amusing that effort was put in to make Odenkirk, Seehorn and McKean (wearing the same toupee he had on in the Slippin’ Jimmy-era flashbacks) look a bit younger than in the 2003 scenes (even if it wasn’t always convincing), while Patrick Fabian was styled exactly the same. Like Jimmy says, Howard never lost that great head of hair.
* Not sure if this was an intentional Breaking Bad callback or not, but when Kim said of her PD work, “I like it, and I’m good at it,” it was hard not to think of Walt and Skyler’s final conversation.
* On the one hand, Gus’s speech to Hector about the Coati he trapped and kept around to watch it suffer was a stellar bit of acting from Giancarlo Esposito, who’s often at his best when his voice is as soft as it was here. And it sets in motion the mechanism for how Gus’s story will eventually end on Breaking Bad as a result of him not letting his nemesis just die. But a season and a half into Esposito’s time on Saul, it really feels like an opportunity is being missed to deepen our understanding of Gus in the same way the show has done for Jimmy and Mike. He is all business, all the time. Even if you assume he had no personal life (when Walter White comes over to his house for dinner, no one else is there), he shows more sides to his personality on the parent series than he has here. Mike is involved in a lot of fan service/Easter Egg storytelling, too, but he’s still given human moments like his awkward reconciliation with Stacey; Gus exists almost entirely to fill in blanks in the larger narrative of both shows.
* As he sets up an entire support system for Werner’s crew (including potential troublemaker Kai), Mike makes his first reference of the series to “my guys,” though I’m told the ones in the security trailer aren’t any of the ones we saw on Breaking Bad. The season is juggling a lot of stories right now, but it does feel like some steps are being skipped here: we’ve gone from Gus asking Mike to do him a favor to Mike acting like a full-time member of the organization, and we don’t see exactly how Mike finds a trustworthy group of guys in a new-ish city where we’ve seen basically all of his previous criminal endeavors.
* Related to that, I wonder if we’ll actually see Kim’s conversation with Paige and Kevin about her joining a big firm. The crux of her original sales pitch to them was that they would be her only client, and they would have her attention 24/7. On the one hand, setting up a firm’s banking division is a violation of that promise — especially since it’s really an excuse for her to focus on the kind of work she hasn’t even told Paige about. On the other, it’s clear that the expansion plans are going to be more than Kim can handle even with Viola’s help, so Paige may be pleased to have an entire outside legal team to go to when the need arises.
What did everybody else think?
Previously: You Can’t Keep a Goodman Down