Better Call Saul explores survival instinct in "Nacho"
Jimmy and Mike find common ground in "Nacho", episode 3 of the Breaking Bad spinoff.
Perhaps the reason Jimmy is so invested in shaking down the big-time Albuquerque law firm to get every penny from he thinks belongs to his brother Charles McGill is that he was once in the position of so many future Saul Goodman clients: sitting in jail for a dumb crime that could potentially ruin his life. (The “Chicago Sunroof” will soon have many imaginary definitions on UrbanDictionary.) It’s clear that Slippin’ Jimmy’s understanding of the legal system is rudimentary at best. He assumes that Chuck has “a million legal loopholes that we can dance through,” as though he’s a miracle worker instead of a smart, hard-working, and humble man. Sure, there’s a lot of slick wit on the surface, but when the going gets tough, Jimmy drops all pretense and outright begs Chuck to get him out, and in exchange he vows to turn his life around. And perhaps some of the mystery behind how Chuck gets Jimmy out of that pickle is what inspires him to pursue the legal profession in his brother’s footsteps. Well, you can take the boy out of Cicero, but you can’t take the Cicero out of the boy.
What we’re witnessing during this opening salvo of Better Call Saul is James McGill at his moral apex. Before, he was Slippin’ Jimmy, potentially going to prison as a sex offender, calling in his brother for a Hail Mary to get him out of trouble. And the events of Breaking Bad show a future where he went back to that life, only with a lot more preparation and knowledge of how to get away with his crimes. So this a caesura, when Jimmy isn’t above jumping over the line now and again in order to make a play to get ahead, but he’s certainly not committed to criminal activity the way he will be down the line.
In “Nacho,” Jimmy is creating more problems than he’s solving, and finding ways to MacGyver his way out of harm’s way. First, he calls Kim—the woman he shared a cigarette with outside Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill in the pilot, who he clearly has a previous relationship with—and mentions the Kettlemans might be in danger, thanks to his knowledge that Nacho plans to rob them. Then he places an anonymous warning call to the house—which plays out rather like anytime Breaking Bad depicted the couple behind Gray Matter Technologies dealing with something rough-and-tumble. The next day, the whole Kettleman family is gone, including two young children, their house ransacked, and Kim frantically calls Jimmy, who rather cryptically predicted this kind of scenario.
Worried about his own connection to this potentially violent crime, Saul desperately reaches out to Nacho, a sequence of events that includes a comical police chase and ends with Jimmy and Nacho in a police interrogation room, the latter the chief suspect in the Kettlemans’ disappearance. Bad as the circumstantial evidence looks, Nacho insists he was only casing the house. He never went inside. He couldn’t have committed a kidnapping. Worse, he thinks Jimmy set him up to be arrested and gave the robbery to another crew, so now Jimmy’s life is on the line if he doesn’t get Nacho out before the cops uncover anything to do with Tuco’s crew.
That scene in the prison resonates with all of Jimmy’s grunt work in “Nacho.” Though it’s motivated by his desperate survival instinct, he’s learning how to massage the system into providing an angle he can work with. There’s a bit of a missed opportunity here direction-wise, as the opening flashback in the Cook County jail never visually repeats the same framing as Jimmy’s chat with Nacho. In fact, the only two-shot of Chuck and his brother peers in through the observation window, they’re never shown in a balanced frame together. Changing up the actor’s staging but maintaining some kind of visual parallelism might’ve helped. Episode director Terry McDonough—whose first American television credits were on season two of Breaking Bad, including the origin of the character in “Better Call Saul”—creates a handful of great moments, but doesn’t measure up to the first two episodes handled by Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren. Those two are a lot to live up to, so it’s no real slight to McDonough. What “Nacho” does provide are the first inklings of a partnership between Jimmy and former Philadelphia police officer Mike Ehrmantraut.
Jimmy and Mike’s transactional relationship reaches a confrontation as Jimmy circumvents the sticker policy, only to be barred entry the next time he arrives at the courthouse. But that does lead to the cops intervening—the same guys trying to pressure Jimmy into giving up his client. Only upon inspecting the Kettleman residence, and noticing a missing doll, Jimmy isn’t so sure any kidnapping actually took place. The cops put a bit too much undue pressure on Mike, and once again the silent but deadly Breaking Bad stalwart shows he’s got the best instincts of anyone on the show and backs out of helping the cops, since something doesn’t add up.
The climax of the episode begins with Mike and Jimmy in a stairwell, as they find common ground for the first time. Mike tells one of his tales from his time on the force in Philly—about a bookie who tried to get away without paying out bets that didn’t go his way—which gives Jimmy the impetus to go back to the Kettlemans’ place. One hunch from a bumper sticker later, and he’s the one who finds them.
“Nacho” is the first time Better Call Saul dips back into something Breaking Bad depicted in short doses when focusing on Hank Schrader: the corruption of law enforcement. Sure, they’re out to protect the public and go after criminals, but they bend the law too, and it’s precisely that abuse of power, building up like death by thousands of paper cuts, that seems to push Jimmy toward defending those unable to push back against a justice system all to ready to take advantage of those who can’t stand up to the overreach of authority. Nobody but Mike believes Jimmy’s theory that the Kettlemans skipped town, and the police begrudgingly admit that it’s possible but implausible. Jimmy has to admit the flipside that it’s also possible the family was kidnapped, and given the circumstances putting young children in danger, he needs to do something about his client. But seeing as how one option results in Jimmy staying alive and the other leads to certain death, there’s one he’s pursuing with more gusto.
Linked with the moment in the bathroom where Jimmy berates the same prosecutor who took a bag of Fritos as part of a plea bargain for mixing up cases and refusing to negotiate, and there’s the groundwork for why Saul Goodman takes the tack he does with what the majority views as the white hats in criminal proceedings. He’s a thorn in everyone’s side during Breaking Bad, from the DEA to local police to opposing counsel. From the vantage point of Jimmy’s origin story, it’s easy to see how he’d take these events and view himself as a necessary check, a line of defense for those who don’t know how to take advantage of legal defense, to become that miracle worker with all the loopholes he thought his brother to be. But we also know that in the course of transitioning from James M. McGill to Saul Goodman, he pushes too far and, to borrow the words of Jesse Pinkman, stops being a criminal lawyer and starts being a criminal lawyer. What happens in the tent in the wilderness behind the Kettlemans’ house will only hasten that progression.
Extra Legal Advice
- I thought about it during the broadcast, and a bunch of others noticed it too: Though the Edible Arrangements shout out was hilarious, the first one in New Mexico didn’t open until 2006, a few years after the main timeline of Better Call Saul supposedly takes place.
- The title sequence will be changing with every episode, but this is the first time there was a rather important bit of vandalism to the icon invoked: the scales of justice, used as an ashtray. It dirties up a revered and symbolically incorruptible object in just the right way to represent where Jimmy is heading.
- Jimmy confesses a bunch of information regarding Nacho to Kim, which should only complicate their relationship going forward. They clearly worked together before, and have some lingering embers between them, but with her trajectory at a major firm and his slide into the criminal underworld, this won’t be happy in the long run.
- The Cowboys and the Steelers have played in the Super Bowl three times, so which game was Mike referring to?
- It's now been three episodes, nearly three hours of story time, and the only female characters with lines I can remember have been Kim, Mrs. Kettleman, the nail salon workers, the receptionist at Chuck's old firm, and the woman at the courthouse doling out public defender work. If there's one big problem on Better Call Saul so far, it's that there's no Skyler or Marie to balance out the bleak dudeness of yet another dark prestige television drama. Kim better turn into something great fast, or that's going to the be the giant demerit holding this show back even as it's the showcase Bob Odenkirk has waited a lifetime for as a dramatic actor.
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