Better Call Saul giveth and taketh away from Jimmy in "Bingo"
In order for Better Call Saul to inch closer to the timeline it’s trying to meet, James McGill’s difficult life has to fester into bitterness. He’ll do anything to escape it.
That requires not just breaking Jimmy down by battering him against the sharp rocks of life, but first building him up and making him believe his luck is going to change right before he crashes. It's unpleasant business, but Breaking Bad wasn't exactly a picnic either. James McGill doesn't become Saul Goodman until all other options are exhausted, and at the beginning of "Bingo," everything is looking up. But the rhythm of a Vince Gilligan show readies viewers for skepticism anytime it appears that a character has arrived at a plateau of successful complacency. Even when things seem to be going Jimmy's way, it's all so ominously close to slipping away.
The opening scene—with the dull hum of fluorescent lighting underpinning everything—essentially continues last week's Mike-centric plot for a brief bit of connective tissue back to Jimmy. Mike and the older detective have history, and after the younger hothead gets his notebook back (with Jimmy hastily making up a story that covers their tracks), all that's left is for Mike to explain that he's leaving his fate in his daughter-in-law's hands. That's all we need to see—Mike and a detective, with a board full of "Wanted" posters overhead—to understand that while the stereotypical criminals are out around Albuquerque, Better Call Saul is right now hiding a few more in plain sight. With that bit of narrative ellipsis in place, the episode shifts back to Jimmy's life and concerns, including Chuck, Kim, Hamlin, and the Kettlemans.
It's not a subtle symbol to show a caterpillar creating the chrysalis it will use to transform in the foreground as Jimmy drives up to Chuck's house. It's an image-conscious comparison that Jimmy might make himself. He's got clients, new clothes, and Chuck is even venturing outside for brief periods of time. (Sure he says it's to acclimate to electromagnetic fields like ingesting poison builds up an immunity, but at least he's actually setting foot in the light of his own accord.) And Jimmy does one other important thing here: he leaves behind client files, which he observes Chuck examining. It's unclear what's going on there, whether Jimmy just wants his brother to help out with his work, or if it's a part of some master plan to stick it to Hamlin and sever ties with that firm to force a buyout. Or perhaps it's just to give Chuck something to do while he attempts to deal with the condition in his mind.
In the wake of Jimmy's slightly booming business specializing in elder law—he runs bingo down at the senior center, continually drumming up clients—Jimmy is on the verge of occupying some swanky office space with picturesque views. He brings Kim there to check things out—it's clear he doesn't just want to pitch the idea of a legal partnership; he wants to impress her on a personal level as well. But that moderate success, and the extreme effort Jimmy puts forth in order to keep it going, all stems from dirty money he accepted from the Kettlemans. Vince Gilligan has demonstrated a peculiarly fascinating talent for assembling writers who can come up with hilariously inept criminals. The Kettlemans are no exception, especially Betsy, who is a fiercely incompetent criminal blissfully unaware that her husband has failed at every turn to cover up his crimes. This couple is an astoundingly hilarious example of the kinds of dumb criminals Gilligan and the other writers have come up with over the years.
Kim, being the talented lawyer she is, finagles a plea deal for Mr. Kettleman that would have him in jail for just over a year—provided they give back the embezzled funds. But stubborn Betsy continues to insist the money doesn't exist, going so far as to fire Kim and take the family's business to Jimmy. That puts Kim in the doghouse at HHM, but it also puts Jimmy in a bind. Betsy and the human doormat she's married to blackmail Jimmy, since giving back all the money would mean revealing the bribe they more or less forced on him. So instead of convincing them to go back to Kim and doing her a huge favor, he tries to make an honest go of finding a way to successfully exonerate a man who Kim describes as, "guilty as sin."
Despite his charm with the elderly and surprisingly agile legal maneuvering around cops, Jimmy is exactly the kind of mediocre attorney he appears to be. There's no smoke and mirrors game to be played. He's not going to suddenly come through in the clutch, turning into a movie star lawyer at the big show for the first time, to save the day for the Kettlemans somehow and abscond with his cut of the money. Instead, he's flipping through a legal dictionary he checked out of the library to look up "embezzlement" again while sifting through pages and failing to formulate a case. The incredibly studious archetype just doesn't fit Jimmy—so he calls in his chit with Mike.
The tense action scenes were undoubtedly among the peak highlights of Breaking Bad, at least in part the reason the show ascended so quickly in the popular consciousness during its later seasons. That's something that Better Call Saul has lacked—instead favoring of some of the best deliberately methodical television I've ever seen. There are other slow moments here too, and as more episodes pile up it's easier to take the pacing and say that very few shows are comfortable depicting characters in quiet moments in this way. The camera often observes characters from a distance, intellectually lost, but also physically staged to appear insignificant in the space around them.
I'm getting a little too conceptual—let's get back to the best scene of the episode: Mike's stakeout. He observes the Kettlemans in their home, slowly consuming apples and listening to his radio as they wind their way to bed. Like the skateboard jokers' act in the pilot, the action here has a significantly different tone than in Breaking Bad. The music is a dead giveaway—it's a silly recon caper, as Mike tags a stack of bills, waits for Mr. Kettleman to discover it, then sneaks into the house and uses a UV lamp to track down the hoard of cash underneath a sink in the upstairs bathroom. This all recalls how invisible Mike the Cleaner will be years down the road, but for now, Jimmy calls on his newfound acquaintance in order to minimize legal repercussions.
In a final confrontation with the Kettlemans, Jimmy makes the tough decision to give up his newfound cash flow, help Kim regain the clients that will restore her two-year plan, and insulate himself from as much recourse from the Kettlemans crimes as possible. He returns all the money to the DA—which begets an incredible shot as Jimmy waits for Betsy to scamper upstairs, discover the missing money, then turn her rage back on him. It finally puts things in perspective for Mr. Kettleman, as he finally comes to grips with the reality that he has committed a crime, and needs to take responsibility for his malfeasance. This crushes Betsy, and though Jimmy has reveled in knocking this idiotic family down a peg or two, he's still not happy about the best-case scenario he worked out here.
He does the right thing by Kim, getting her clients to take a deal she worked hard to put together. He gets rid of the ton of bricks floating above his head in the form of stolen cash in a shoebox in his ceiling. He employs Mike in the first of what will turn out to be many eerie and yet alluring odd jobs.
It's just…in order to do the "right thing"—Jimmy literally uses quotes around the phrase when he says that to Mike—he has to give up all the benefits he was about to reap. Sure, it was atop the foundation of an illegal bribe, but Jimmy was at least somewhat enjoying the honest work. "Bingo" almost goes out on an image of Jimmy walking through what could have been his office, slightly dejected that he won't get to have the space, but content that he did the right thing.
And then, a minute before the end of the episode, it takes a brilliant turn, as Jimmy kicks the corner office door shut in frustration and collapses to the floor to commence sobbing. It's not quite the gravitas of Jonathan Banks' performance last week, but it's no less impressive that Bob Odenkirk can continue to summon such a pathetic character and imbue him with such winning charm that everyone roots for the ferret-like lawyer to win out in the end.
That money gave him a billboard and new suits and the ability to try and corner the Albuquerque elderly law market. With all of that gone—and he may have even hocked the Matlock suit to scrimp everything back together in that moneybag—he's not satisfied with the moral high road. He's angry as hell that not one break can go his way, and that he doesn't get more than a moment to wallow in his misery before answering his phone as his fake receptionist again.
This isn't rock bottom, but Better Call Saul suggests that the lowest point isn't the worst—it's clawing tooth and nail to the threshold of success and comfort, only for it to be snatched away. For Jimmy, it's his own nagging conscience and affection for Kim that leaves him descending to the low rung of the ladder once more. But what's clear is that after getting so close, Jimmy might not let another opportunity to rise up slip away, no matter the questionable legality of the scenario.
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