Like many a Midwestern actor before him, Bob Odenkirk studied improv under Del Close at Second City, which later led to Saturday Night Live and the immortal Mr. Show with David Cross, two powerhouses of sketch comedy that required cavalcades of characters. It's becoming clear that in flashing back to the origin story of Saul Goodman, Better Call Saul takes full advantage of Odenkirk's chameleonic talent for shifting at the drop of a hat. In Breaking Bad, Saul is a smooth operator presenting a professional slimeball image who masks an alternately flippant and fearful petty criminal—but his character has solidified. Walt ultimately terrifies Saul, but he's largely the same scummy lawyer he was during his first appearance.
James McGill allows Odenkirk to drift through many layers of performance. In another cold open flashback, Slippin' Jimmy runs a rather ingenious scam on an unsuspecting drunk in Cicero with his buddy played by Mel Rodriguez. It's a gambit based on Jimmy initially seeming friendly and jovial, before moving into innocent skepticism as the wallet is discovered and robbery broached. But once he lifts the expensive looking Rolex, the stranger is more than willing to part with the watch and hundred of dollars in his own money to obtain the dubiously valuable timepiece. The payoff isn't just more money for beer and bong hits, it's the way Rodriguez's accomplice reveres Jimmy. Sure it's a small-time gig, but the recognition makes it worthwhile.
At his closest to purely ethical, which is still perhaps a foot over the line, Jimmy is an overeager lawyer desperately trying to earn business of that one notable client that will honestly push his name into the minds of potential clients. That's his main goal in the wake of discovering the Kettlemans are as guilty (and stupid and uncaring) as he presumed. Though he's intent on winning business and using that to start raking in money, he refuses many times when a petulant Mrs. Kettleman foists a hefty bribe plucked from embezzled money upon him. But she won't budge—he will not be their lawyer. It has nothing to do with work ethic, or size of law firm. It all comes down to image, and Jimmy looks like "the kind of lawyer guilty people hire." The irony of that sentence doesn't occur to a woman who also cites "human slavery" as justification for her husband embezzling what they believed he was owed by the county as an overworked employee.
With Nacho free from custody, Jimmy slips into another developing role, the police skeptic. By the time he becomes Saul Goodman, he'll be police enemy number one. But he's making his first forays into defending the rights of accused criminals here. Just one catch: Nacho isn't buying that Jimmy had nothing to do with the Kettleman's impromptu camping trip. Only this time, instead of retreating in fear, Jimmy has learned to whip some sense into Nacho, arguing that whoever called in a warning to the Kettlemans actually saved him from getting arrested for a bigger crime since the neighbors already spotted him.
When listing off all the things Nacho did wrong, he might as well be giving an early version of one of his grinning rebukes to Walt and Jesse, or any number of other unaware criminals. Jimmy is legitimately scared of what he saw when he got roped into Tuco's world, but he certainly learned quickly how to look someone dangerous in the eye, mount a logical and respectable legal thought process, and get away with being a smart guy facing down a violent one.
In what is perhaps the best shot of the episode, the camera catches Jimmy as he sits down to calculate the bribe he ultimately took from the Kettlemans. He creates some phony billing information, and voila, he's theoretically insulated from some scrutiny. But when he makes a big show out of going to a fancy tailor and requesting specific fabrics and mother of pearl buttons, it looks like he's making the classic mistake of showing off the purse too soon. But Jimmy's not trying to upgrade his wardrobe in order to look less like a guilty client's lawyer. He's making himself the thorn in Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill's side once again, taking aim directly at Howard Hamlin. We got to see Jimmy resist taking the bribe in the first place, but he does take the money, actively becoming an accessory to the Kettleman's crime and covering it up with falsified records in order to ease his burden and start growing his business.
Jimmy is playing another role, the David to Hamlin's Goliath. And much like professional athletes and their critics on Twitter, the best option is not to respond, because acknowledging the existence of a pest only gives that pest power they wouldn't have otherwise. But Hamlin is too vain and arrogant, deciding to respond to a mocking billboard—Jimmy poses for a photo as the spitting image of Hamlin, suit, hair and all—with a cease and desist letter delivered by Kim and an injunction hearing in front of a judge. It's basically a prank, but because Hamlin can't let it go, it allows Jimmy to tease the discomfort out long enough to have another brilliant idea.
The entire billboard stunt echoes the cold open, as it's all just one long con, only blown up on a massive scale. Instead of petty crime in a dark alley for a few hundred dollars, this time Jimmy turns a bribe from clients who would rather pay him handsomely not to represent them into a prank on Hamlin, which snowballs into a PR coup. He falsely concocts the perfect human-interest piece for the local news, using a couple UNM media students looking for quick cash and a worker who's easy to bribe as well. The monologue Jimmy delivers to the camera is self-mythology of the highest order, also hitting a bunch of Americana touchstones for broad appeal to the mainstream viewership.
It's essentially the wallet scam blown up to a massive scale. Jimmy saves a guy he paid to take a fall, attracts the media attention he craved, and finally gets messages on the answering machine in his nail salon boiler-room office. He got the same recognition he got from his buddy back in Cicero, only magnified and attached to his identity as a lawyer. I think Jimmy genuinely wants to help stand up for the little people, because he's been stepped on so many times. But every now and again, he's willing to compromise his morals in order to seize a little territory from the Goliaths of the world. As he grows more comfortable with that, and it leads to more success, it'll be interesting to see just how quickly his relationship to Kim and his brother changes.
The final scene, as Jimmy visits his brother Chuck and attempts to keep his newfound local fame a secret, harkens back to some unique cinematic style employed on Breaking Bad. Chuck works up the courage to venture outside his house in order to retrieve a copy of the local newspaper, and suddenly we get POV shots and herky-jerky editing to approximate Chuck's mental state when confronted with sunlight and the outdoors. It's not that different from how Nicolas Cage's character in Matchstick Men reacts to the outdoors at the beginning of that film.
But it's the cut to his neighbor's house that really elucidates Chuck's condition. Up until now, Better Caul Saul didn't tip its hand as to whether the audience should sympathize with Chuck's reclusive lifestyle or find it totally insane. The nearly silent shot from an elderly woman's point-of-view watching Michael McKean scamper back to his house draped in a shimmering space blanket leaves no room for doubt that whatever ails Chuck, it's psychological, and not some as-yet-undiscovered medical condition.
And then there's the unfurling of the paper. The crestfallen look of realization that creeps over McKean's face says that he's disappointed, sure, but not exactly shocked beyond belief to see the lengths his little brother has gone to in order to make a splash in the Albuquerque legal industry. Moving out to New Mexico, working at HHM, putting himself through law school—all of these things are built on top of the core flimflam man that is James McGill. No matter how fancy the costume Jimmy puts on to play a part, he's going to go back to that garish orange shirt with an equally ugly tie and become Saul Goodman. That's his comfort zone, and he'll be climbing down there one rung at a time whether he's looking or not.
Extra Legal Advice
- The emerging friendship between Jimmy and Mike continues, as Jimmy makes small talk and gives Mike credit for telling him the story that led to finding the Kettlemans.
- My biggest problem with how slow the plot of this first season is moving mostly involves Kim's character not becoming a bigger part of the story as quickly as I'd like. I hope she's not just the love interest from Jimmy's past at HHM.
- "Yeah, this is right up there with that."