Better Call Saul: The Rise of Mike The Cleaner and The Fall of the McGill Brothers in "Pimento"
In which we review the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul’s debut season. Spoilers ahead.
The similarities are too glaring to be ignored, but it feels a little too simple to point to the infamous “I coulda been a contender” scene in Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront as a clear inspiration for the final confrontation at the end of “Pimento,” the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul’s debut season.
But it employs the same basic setup: a younger, worn-out younger brother, scrounging for work, betrayed by a much more financially successful brother, ultimately the cause of the younger brother’s dire straits. As far as iconic cinema moments, there are a lot worse examples to ape than that classic—and nodding towards those sorts of famous moments has been a hallmark of Vince Gilligan’s television work. “Pimento” is the best episode in a season that has improved dramatically from compelling prequel fodder to damn near essential in its own right.
From the beginning, it has been abundantly clear that Jimmy idolizes his brother Chuck. He’s the stereotypical younger brother who wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps, just as an adult—going into law because it’s what Chuck used to save Jimmy at his lowest point. He feels so indebted to Chuck that he’s basically an errand boy, doing whatever he can to ensure his brother’s comfort, accommodating his wishes with regard to his fixation on electromagnetism, but also nudging him in a helpful direction when venturing outside. Granted, there’s additional motivation now that there’s a potentially multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit in motion, but the underlying concern is based on brotherly love.
Despite a decent understanding of the law and a willingness to get deals made, or occasionally use some underhanded techniques to force clients to do what’s right, there hasn’t been much evidence of Jimmy’s courtroom prowess. Which is why the argument over a restraining order and Sandpiper seems too important. For Jimmy, it’s a long-awaited victory in court over a much more established adversary. It makes him elated...right up until he talks to his brother, sitting in front of piles of boxes sent over by the opposing law firm, with an idea Jimmy has been dreading. They don’t have the resources to take on a class-action against a big firm intent on burying them in paperwork and fighting small legal battles without making progress on the bigger picture. The case is perfectly suited for somewhere like...Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill. Despite Jimmy’s protestations, he trusts Chuck, and so he’s willing to go along with handing the case to a firm that can actually fight for the elderly being exploited and make a ton of money doing it. But it’s when Jimmy links that compromise with his potential future in an office right next to Chuck that things go awry.
HHM pulls out all the stops for Chuck’s return, even as Jimmy does everything behind the scenes, including sewing the space blanket into the lining of Chuck’s suit for added emotional comfort, to make the triumphant re-emergence go as smoothly as possible. But once in that boardroom, ironing out terms and conditions of handing over the case, things take a turn into performance. Just like the previous cold open when Jimmy passed the bar, then endured a brutal comedown when Howard informed him that a job at HHM just wouldn’t happen. Once again, though he’s done the legwork required to get in the door—discovering a case worth millions of dollars that actually helps people and stamps out injustice—he still can’t get a job offer. But it’s clear here that Chuck doth protest too much. He’s neither sticking up for his brother, nor showing the right kind of indignation to make it come off as genuine. A gifted actor/lawyer like Howard Hamlin can barely maintain his part of the show. If there’s a flaw in “Pimento,” it’s that Jimmy, a guy usually so aware of cons wherever the traps are set, he’s completely blind to this one. There’s a clear reason for it—he’s incapable of clear judgment when it comes to anything about Chuck out of gratitude.
Even Howard can’t keep up the charade forever. When Kim confronts him—of her own volition, out of a commitment to Jimmy as her friend, and because she owes him so much after the Kettleman case—Howard can only keep up the (admittedly well-fitting) image of a pompous, unquestioned jerk for so long. He finally relents, tells Kim to shut the door, and presumably explains the situation. Yet once again, teasing out the dramatic tension, the audience is left to guess, though the most obvious answer seems the only real explanation.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen Kim and Jimmy commiserate at the nail salon many times, and Jimmy has come away from those interactions more dejected at his dismal prospects despite their camaraderie. This time, her motives are somewhat unclear. Yes, Jimmy immediately assumes that when she advises him to take HHM’s deal—a sizable portion of the final settlement profits, plus a fee for his work on the case up to the point he turns it over—and use it to get the office he wanted and progress in his legal career without anything connected to a past that he feels indebted to. It’s a good reward for the least amount of risk, but that’s not what aches Jimmy. He’s sore from never being able to best Hamlin and get what he wants, and by jumping to the conclusion that Kim will somehow benefit from a deal, that after the Kettlemans and this Sandpiper case, everything goes against him, he’s lashing out.
But everything leads up to the final scene in Chuck’s house, after Jimmy looks at his dead cell phone, begins to put the pieces together much later than he should’ve, and finally drags the whole story out of his brother. The saddest part is that it boils down to petty social distinctions. Chuck holds the law in such high esteem, practically worships its sanctity to the point of absurdity, that he can’t reconcile the idea that his law degree from Georgetown and Jimmy’s from the University of American Samoa could be equal in any way. They both passed the bar in New Mexico. They both practice law in a courtroom—well, one of them currently does, while the other holes up doing banal paperwork as a shut-in and rues what could’ve been a career in front of the Supreme Court—but to Chuck, Jimmy will never be on the same level, no matter the blood, sweat, and tears he puts into his work. It’s especially cutting that Chuck continues this tack on a case where Jimmy is not only making an astute business move, but actually using the law for the betterment of those unable to fight for themselves. For all of the ways Chuck is correct about needing to hand the case to a firm with the resources to see it through like HHM, he’s totally wrong about limiting Jimmy’s potential.
At first, Jimmy plays into Chuck’s idealized vision, even letting him do exactly what he did after Jimmy passed the bar and pretend like he’ll wear Howard down into finally extending a job offer. But slowly, all the different layers of deceit get stripped away. Jimmy corners his brother by stating the obvious: If Chuck really wanted to work with his brother, there are very plain ways of making that happen, like threatening to quit and put the existence of the firm at risk. (“If that’s what you want, us working together, you can make it happen easily.”) Faced with that possibility, everything comes crumbling down. Chuck doesn’t want to do that, and even worse, he’s been against Jimmy working there from the start, using a cell phone in the middle of the night to convey his wishes to Howard.
Suddenly, it’s back to the feeling of that HHM boardroom, with Jimmy demanding to know why his brother has been so underhanded about keeping him from a job he’s been working toward and hoping for years to attain. The pressure against the dam of Chuck’s silence builds, as Jimmy unloads the evidence, and berates his brother for not looking out for him, for undercutting his professional progress. And then the truth emerges: “You’re not a real lawyer.” Odenkirk and McKean are at their absolute best in this scene, two comedic heavyweights going toe-to-toe in a dramatically emotional barnburner.
Once the dam breaks, McKean can’t hold anything back. “I worked my ass off to get where I am,” he screams, oblivious to the fact that where he is means trapped in a mind prison deluded into believing that radio waves are affecting his health. Jimmy’s subpar law degree is so insulting, so offensive to his judgment, that he can’t feign pride, turning up his nose at his own brother and casting him down as Slippin’ Jimmy forever.
In a way, it’s comforting to hear the truth, and the relief of finally uncovering the root cause of his misery washes over Jimmy’s face. (“So that’s it then, right? Keep old Jimmy down in the mailroom, because he’s not good enough to be a lawyer.”) It’s the catalyst Better Call Saul has been building to over the last nine episodes. After coming to his rescue in Cicero, Chuck wanted Jimmy to turn his life around, but never to have a chance to equal, or perhaps even better, his own accomplishments. He insists that “people don’t change,” and that his conception of Jimmy as a petty criminal from Cicero, someone utterly beneath him, will always remain in Jimmy’s character. And he takes it a step further, imploring that Jimmy knows his limited conception to be the truth, deep down. His ugly pride and snobbery makes it easier for Jimmy to gracefully give his cruel judgmental older brother one last restock on supplies, and then jet out of his life completely. Howard Hamlin humiliated him again. Kim wouldn’t reveal whatever Hamlin told her, probably the truth about Chuck’s wishes. And worst of all, Chuck not only doesn’t believe in him, but denigrates the very possibility that someone with Jimmy’s past could ever put in the work to be the kind of lawyer who works at what passes for a prestigious firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The other parallel to make here, which I’m sure will also get brought up countless times around the internet, it to the constant bickering between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. To Walt, he would always be the man of superior intellect, saving poor, pathetic screw-up Jesse whenever things went sour. But at so many turns, that hubris turned out to be wrong, and turned relatively simple situations into nearly catastrophic ones. Better Call Saul has proven that it’s adept in turning the boiling rage of Vince Gilligan’s previous series down to a compelling simmer, and this final scene is yet another example of that.
Throughout “Pimento,” Mike has his own morality play going on elsewhere around the city—part of which provides the episode’s title. First, he drops off a dog for his granddaughter, and fields a call for a potential job, the kind offered by the suspiciously crooked veterinarian. Pretty much every one of these plots sets up for Mike to display his badass side while maintaining an effortless cool, so it’s not really a surprise when he beats down a loudmouth would-be bodyguard for a total nerd looking to offload some illegally obtained prescription drugs (most likely pseudoephedrine for producing meth).
It’s even less of a surprise, but no less welcome, to see him go toe-to-toe in a stare-down with Nacho, Tuco Salamanca’s advisor, who Jimmy previously helped, to make sure the exchange of money and drugs goes down accordingly. And Mike continues to prove that he’s worth more than one guy, as he explains his research into Nacho’s business dealings, how he’s working outside his crew and wouldn’t be looking to start something violent.
But the line that sticks out is one of Mike’s little speeches, which have become somewhat familiar, but no less fun to watch.
“I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves; you can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word.”
This isn’t the first time that what’s going on in Mike’s life has resonated with something occurring in Jimmy’s life at the same time. But it’s especially prescient now, when negotiating whether or not doing strictly legal work means that a person is good. Through this lens, there’s a line crossed forever that labels someone a criminal. They can be good, honorable people, but they’re still criminals. Personal change is possible, but there are actions that cannot be erased.
So Slippin’ Jimmy is just like the dork Mike shepherds out to the abandoned power plant for the drug exchange. They’re criminals, and to guys like Mike and Chuck, that means forever forgoing the white knight distinction. Mike’s explanation, however, allows for people who cross that line to still do good things, to be good people, and to work in such a way that, while it doesn’t redeem criminal activity, does benefit others. It’s how Mike will eventually rationalize his actions, by putting money away for his granddaughter.
Though they’ve been on separate tracks for a few weeks, it’s clear that Mike and Jimmy aren’t parallel lines. They’re going to intersect, but whether that will be for favors like Mike recovering the money from the Kettlemans or something more frequent probably won’t be clear even when the second season of the show returns next year. My hope is that they don’t converge too quickly. It took a long time for them to go from petty adversaries at the parking lot to somewhat understanding acquaintances. It’d be a shame if the show abandoned all the purposefully slow plotting and sped up a reason for the two to link up again. With the season finale on the horizon, the first 10 episodes of Better Call Saul have done a masterful job of setting a pace and maintaining a consistent tone, even when experimenting and devoting an episode to Mike. Hopefully next week's episode is willing to lead up to a caesura instead of rushing to get the two familiar characters on the same path now that they've been turned toward darker possibilities.
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