Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have joked since Better Call Saul debuted that the opening title sequence was tossed off and deliberately designed to look shoddy. But it has stealthily become one of the most thematically potent moments of each episode in the first season. In "Marco," it's a ten-second shot of a coffee mug emblazoned with "World's Best Lawyer" falling to the ground in slow motion, where it shatters into pieces, spilling black coffee everywhere. There's no need to put a fine point on it—by the end of the finale, and the improbably compelling first season of this Breaking Bad prequel, Jimmy McGill makes his first choice in years solely designed to benefit his own happiness, a path which inevitably leads to Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer. The white knight possibility shatters into a million pieces, with darkness seeping out, and though thanks to the prequel setup the audience knows where this ends up, it's almost impossible not to feel thrilled for Jimmy, finally out from under everyone else's thumb, free to use all of his skills, from Cicero to the University Of American Samoa, in pursuit of what he wants.
Mel Rodriguez has been a stellar guest star and supporting player on television for years now, but he's really stepped it up in the past 12 months. First on Fox's Enlisted, cancelled far too soon, then on the second season of HBO's Getting On, and now on Better Call Saul and The Last Man On Earth. As Marco, Jimmy's friend and partner in petty crime back in Cicero, he's the stand-in for the kind of life Jimmy could've had if not for Chuck swooping in to save the day. But what "Marco" argues, subtly, over the course of an hour without ever coming out and saying it directly, is that the price Chuck exacted from Jimmy all those years ago may have overcompensated for the life Jimmy was leading as a petty con man. In yoking Jimmy to a job in the mailroom, he thought he'd have control over his brother's destiny, but instead he both gave Jimmy ambition to alter his life considerably and a spot to aim for that Chuck could never accept due to his tragically limited view of Jimmy's abilities.
When pulling the Rolex con, Jimmy and Marco had great fun, and Jimmy's friend did nothing but admire the hell out of Jimmy's talent. For him to see Jimmy skipping town to impress and serve Chuck, a guy with a stick up his ass about everything, is tantamount to "Miles Davis giving up the trumpet." But it was the price Jimmy had to endure in order to not go to prison for a Chicago Sunroof. Back when Jimmy tracked down the skateboard moron twins, he told them the origin of Slippin' Jimmy, and over the course of this season, flashbacks have revealed what it was like for the younger McGill back in Cicero to keep the Old Style flowing. But until now, the precise nature of the dire straits Jimmy found himself in a decade before this series have remained a mystery.
The centerpiece of the episode is Jimmy's most epic monologue all season. Back in the second episode, as Jimmy begged for his life and for his skateboard dolt "clients" to get leniency from Tuco, it was clear that he could reel off a convincing argument when necessary. But this is some next-level stuff, going on and on as Jimmy works himself into a malaise at his situation calling out bingo numbers at the old folks' home, then unfurling a personal tirade on an unsuspecting crowd. When leaving HHM after giving over the case and taking his money, Jimmy is nothing but calm. Howard offers a brief bit of praise—he used to call Jimmy "Charlie Hustle," which is both Pete Rose's nickname and a great little nod to McGill's past—and Kim attempts to console Jimmy while noting his lack of vitriol at the situation.
It's not until Jimmy is faced with his professional future—the bleakness of building a life on something that he thought would impress his brother, but doesn't do anything to change that the world perceives him as less deserving and incapable of great change—that he breaks down and the truth comes out.
Back in the day, there was a "Cicero connected" guy named Chet, who slept with Jimmy's ex-wife (the first of two in the Saul Goodman history, for those keeping track on a Bingo card at home). Feeling wronged, Jimmy took an opportunity when he saw Chet's car double-parked in front of a Dairy Queen, and defecated into the sun roof—without knowing that two children were in the back seat. Those connections led to Jimmy being brought up on trumped up charges instead of misdemeanors. In his state of downtrodden terrible luck, Jimmy keeps trying to reframe this as a story where he's the victim—the guy slept with his wife, drove an ostentatious car, had windows tinted too dark for the state of Illinois—but which don't absolve his drunken behavior. But in Jimmy's world, it was just another in a long line of instances where he got the short end of the stick, and it took him out of a cycle that was unglamorously allowed him to eke out a living. If he didn't have that run-in with the law, then Chuck wouldn't have needed to come rescue him, setting in motion the entire sequence of events leading to Chuck berating Jimmy for not being good enough and not being a real lawyer. It's a sprawling, sad spiral for Jimmy, who finally drops the mic and leaves ABQ for a Chicagoland vacation.
It doesn't take long for Jimmy to fall back into the cycle of pulling small cons, first with an exhilarating and brilliant scheme involving a faux-rare coin, then later a montage highlighting several ridiculous cons that Jimmy and Marco are deft enough to pull off with various marks. It's an entertaining montage, to be sure, but I'm most interested in how it ends, with Jimmy checking his voicemails, and still heeding the call of professional obligation. After a weeklong sabbatical, he feels beholden to his clients, needing to get back to work at something that he's supposed to find fulfilling. Marco points out that since Jimmy's not raking it in, perhaps he's not doing the lawyering thing right. It's hard to argue with that one, considering that Jimmy lives in essentially the same squalor as Marco does in Cicero, only with a law degree.
The "one last job" ploy is the start of many an ill-fated caper narrative, but the one here is particularly sad. Marco practically begs Jimmy for one last ride, saying he's got nothing else in his life in Cicero. That tempts Jimmy back into the game for a final victory lap, but the possible farewell celebration never comes. In stark contrast the previously masterful execution in a flashback, the coughing fits over the course of this hour foreshadow Marco's heart attack mid-con, where he's not playing dead, but instead actually dying in that dark alleyway.
All seems lost, but then miraculously, while standing outside the funeral of his friend, Jimmy gets a call from Kim, and in a moment of somewhat forced narrative resolution, gets the kind of job offer he's been after all season. It's not from HHM, but it's an interview at a partner firm Howard brings in to help handle the case Jimmy brought in, still ballooning because it's such a good class action. But it's too soon—I kept looking at the time, and once I realized the finale couldn't end on this moment. Somehow that gilded ending wouldn't ever happen. That's the kind of reaction Vince Gilligan and his staff have condition viewers to reach, not taking a good outcome at face value, expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment.
"Marco" brings Jimmy to the precipice of the success he has craved for so long. He gets within a few hundred feet of the meeting that would change his life. But as he feels the weight of his friend's ring on his finger, he begins to wonder just whose dream that is nagging at the back of his brain. Is it really James M. McGill who wants a partner track job at a law firm in Santa Fe, or is it Jimmy's lingering guilt that he should still be trying to impress Chuck?
Jimmy has money, job security, and clients who recognize and appreciate him lined up. But though it would provide better compensation than Marco's dead-end job in Cicero, it still gave him the same low level of satisfaction. If there's anything that trip home taught Jimmy, it's that wheeling and dealing and the thrill of a con makes him feel accomplished, in the same way that well executed legal work makes him feel like he's contributing in a way he's uniquely qualified to provide.
The grand question of Better Call Saul's first season is whether it's possible to change, or whether humans will always revert back to some kind of innate personal conduct. Is Jimmy always Slippin' Jimmy, or can he be James M. McGill, Esq? The answer—as that beat up car streaks out of the parking lot, leaving the two yellow lines on the road as a preview of next year's second season—is that Saul Goodman represents a mixture of the two. He's Slippin' Jimmy armed with all the knowledge Jimmy takes from his servitude with Chuck. And now he's out to get what's his.