Remember when the idea for Better Call Saul first floated around in television production gossip, and it was conceived as a half-hour comedy? There has been a lot of controversy over the new rules for category eligibility at the Emmys, with Shameless making it into Comedy despite its hour-long runtime and decidedly serious worldview, and Orange Is The New Black finally shifting over to compete in its rightful category as a Drama. I had a screenwriting professor who worked in Los Angeles throughout the 90s and 00s, and was still livid that Ally McBeal got to compete as a comedy when it was an hour-long dramedy that had no business going up against sitcoms.
Those are all semantic arguments about categorizing shows when there's a lot of mutability. But imagining a world where Better Call Saul isn't 45 minutes of deliberate, enthralling dramatic irony, holding a hopeful carrot out in front of Jimmy when the audience knows there's a banana peel waiting to catch his foot, makes me shudder with would've been lost.
The cold open to "RICO" is one of my favorites so far this season, because it succinctly encapsulates the futile tragedy of James McGill. Better Call Saul eluded to the fact that Jimmy worked in the HHM mailroom, but here it's on full display, as he cheerfully delivers mail to everyone around the office, with the added bonus that he knows pretty much everyone's name. But the reason the show ventures to this moment in McGill history is because it's the day Jimmy believed his life would change: when he passes the bar and becomes a lawyer in the state of New Mexico. He worked tirelessly in almost total silence, never letting on to anyone but Kim that he was chipping away at a law degree from the University of American Samoa. (Go Land Crabs!) He believes that this will finally put Slippin' Jimmy far in the rearview, with ample opportunities ahead of him to become like Chuck, the man he so clearly idolizes and to whom he owes his freedom from incarceration back in Cicero.
But everyone judges him based on his past and his job. Chuck, rendered here in the past as a corner-office law partner at the top of his litigation game, can barely offer the modicum of pride Jimmy so thoroughly desires. Kim, ecstatic as she is in private to share the moment of acceptance with Jimmy, and hang in the mailroom with the other guys to celebrate, later doesn't view her more-than-friend as an equal, since she's on the path at a big firm like HHM. And Howard is the worst of them, not only slighting Jimmy at every turn and purposely keeping him down, but continuing to hold the hate torch years later. Jimmy may later embody the very archetype of the scummy lawyer as Saul Goodman, but Howard Hamlin is in many ways the worse human being at this point in the Better Call Saul narrative.
Maybe it's just a bad time to hire more attorneys, or they don't want to hire someone from the mailroom on immediately since Jimmy is totally unproven, and hasn't gone through the typical summer associate route. But this moment makes the audience feel Jimmy's aching disappointment, that even after toiling away in the shadows for years to reach what he sees as the same level as those around him, everyone else still looks at him as less-than. It's slights like this one from Howard that have built up inside Jimmy, and made him long for the day when he can stick it in their faces that he's capable of accomplishing something great even starting from where he did as Slippin' Jimmy. That, "Let's reassess in six months" is just a callous reminder that he'll never been regarded as anything more than an insignificant mailroom attendant at HHM.
"RICO" director Colin Bucksey helmed four episodes of Breaking Bad—most notably second season penultimate episode "Phoenix" (you know, the one where Jane…you know), and "Buyout" in the first half of the final season, where Jesse shares a most awkward meal with Mr. and Mrs. White. I've spent a lot of time marveling at the patience shown by directors, cinematographers, and editors to allow moments to develop this season. That praise is well-deserved. The nearly two minute take that closes this opening sequence, as the camera tracks in when Howard arrives, cuts out his speech to Jimmy with the door closed, and then drags back to leave Jimmy receding in the frame, becoming as small as he feels in that moment, is one of the best shots so far this season.
My favorite movie of all time (a different category than "greatest," but that's a discussion for another day) is Cameron Crowe's debut directorial effort Say Anything. Which applies in the case of this episode because it means I know a little bit about plots that involve fraudulent business practices at retirement homes.
What separates Jimmy from ruthless sharks like Howard Hamlin is that he displays genuine compassion to his clients, so much so that he's willing to sacrifice his own dire financial circumstances in order to accommodate others. But in dealing with an elderly woman who doesn't have enough cash on hand to pay for the will Jimmy draws up, he stumbles upon the concept of an allowance he doesn't understand. The people he deals with get pensions and Social Security—they shouldn't be scrounging for singles. It's a genuine moment of discovery, as Jimmy accidentally happens upon an honest to goodness injustice going on at Sandpiper Crossing Assisted Living. He got into elder law because it was the only thing he could break into and his unflappable charm made headway—but now there's an actual issue at stake, one that is potentially worth millions of dollars.
So far, Jimmy and Chuck have always been on opposite ends of the professional spectrum from each other. In flashbacks, Chuck was the shooting star and Jimmy the total screw-up; in the present, Jimmy is a struggling working attorney and Chuck is a reclusive shut-in with a mental illness preventing him from going outside. "RICO" finally brings them closer together, as Chuck gets drawn into the case when Jimmy seeks his advice. What turns the scene, and Chuck's mindset toward his brother's abilities as a lawyer is probably the moment right after the frame above, as Chuck realizes Jimmy caught the fraud and he didn't when going through the files Jimmy left at his house to "Tom Sawyer" him into completing it. ("This was in work I did?")
Although Chuck is willing to get more involved—he likes having his brother's company around the house more often, since he needs space to work—it's Jimmy doing the dirty work, to an extreme extent. Jimmy is the guy so desperate to hold onto what might actually be his first big, legitimate case that he's willing to literally surround himself in shit and other disgusting garbage in a dumpster order to do whatever it takes—within the boundaries of the law, but right up to line—to move forward. The cruel, hilarious irony is that the rigmarole, from suppressing his gag reflex and whispering while on the phone with Sandpiper's lawyer as he hides in the dumpster, was totally unnecessary. Jimmy finds bags of shredded documents—since the Assisted Living facility caught wind of his potential legal action—and plans to go all Argo on it to reassemble what he can. (Forgive the anachronistic reference, since this show takes place long before that mission was declassified and revealed in a WIRED article, but taping together shredded documents is a rather iconic action.)
The excitement on Chuck's face as he gets his brain going over how to help Jimmy's case is such a thrill—but it comes at a price. Last week, everything seemed to be going Jimmy's way, just as it had before in similar ways, before the rug got pulled out from underneath him and he sat broken and weeping on the floor of an empty office that would never be his. So it's understandable that yet another turn of good fortune—uncovering a potentially lucrative class-action lawsuit and working alongside his brother—would incite more nervous skepticism than relief.
And the seeds of doubt are all over the place. Chuck still works at HHM, and as Kim points out, his partnership agreement is unclear about whether he can work with Jimmy on such a big case, especially when using HHM funds to print off a bunch of case law for research. It certainly seems like the kind of thing Howard would put the kibosh on, or worse, steal the case from Jimmy outright instead of giving him due credit as a growing attorney.
Yet they steamroll ahead anyway, sending off one of the salvaged documents to Sandpiper's lawyers, which immediately turns a potential sanction over perceived shakedown tactics into a settlement discussion. Once again, in a reversal of that cold open, Jimmy psyches up Chuck, who doesn't know if he can sit at a table and conduct business anymore, so frightened of the time he's been away from his law firm. Opposing council (led by veteran stage actor Dennis Boutsikaris) tries to rattle Chuck by recounting the story of a litigation triumph, and how it foreshadowed a potential career arguing in front of the Supreme Court, a snide backhanded compliment.
But sitting at the table with so much at stake for the first time, Jimmy holds his own, bringing out the important documents and naming the titular legal act that scares off the lowball offer, swinging and taking punches—until Chuck flutters to life and tags in to drop the hammer with a $20 million line in the sand. It sends the other lawyers out the door, and gets them into the realm of potential evidence discovery. So enthused are they in the wake of that first bit of success in what could blossom into a meaningful, significant case, that Chuck gets up and wanders outside to Jimmy's car in order to grab some documents, before Jimmy runs after him and all the stability Chuck earned over the course of this hour hangs in the balance.
It's unclear whether Chuck is simply marveling at how he ignored the elements outside that previously left him near-catatonic, or if he's so shocked that he's about to keel over and end up in the hospital all over again. That moment of uncertain dread leaves a wicked cliffhanger for Better Call Saul to pick up next week, either in a moment of triumph and possibility, or yet another almost-there that ended in catastrophic failure.
Extra Legal Advice
- Another brilliant, potent image for the title sequence tonight: a tarantula crawling all over the garishly colored ties that become part of Saul Goodman's trademark ensemble. Though the creators continue to tout how tossed-off the sequence was, it still has the ability to impart layered and meaningful takes on Odenkirk's character and the show's core theme of navigating the permeable line between right and wrong.
- As for Mike Ehrmantraut, he's slowly inching his way back into his daughter-in-law's life, helping babysit his granddaughter while she's at work. He gives the all-clear to use the wad of cash his son left behind after his death, but his daughter-in-law's tone when ruing the cost of everything as a single parent drives him to seek out the vet who stitched up his bullet wound when he first arrived. It's clear that Mike will soon get into the kind of work he does throughout Breaking Bad. That's a shame, since the story of James McGill has so far revealed a completely different and compelling character than the Saul Goodman façade who appears in Breaking Bad. As great as Jonathan Banks has been here, he's not playing anything different from Mike on the previous/later-in-the-timeline show. It'd be nicer if it took as long to tease out Mike's story as it has to tease out Jimmy's.