[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
Deep down, Jimmy McGill has always been Saul Goodman. The sleazy strip mall lawyer persona isn’t some identity cooked up on a whim; it’s created out of a need for Jimmy to stop trying to convince himself otherwise, and accept the sleaziness within. For all the beer money it was able to bring in, the Slippin’ Jimmy persona was just phase one of a more extensive self-actualization project that needed a decade of disappointment, set backs, and betrayal in Albuquerque to germinate into something much more complex.
That is essentially the idea presented by Better Call Saul, as it wraps up season 1 with Jimmy having a parking lot epiphany in the wake of his friend Marco’s death. An epiphany that sees him walk away from the professional legitimization he chased over the last 10 weeks of television (and was ultimately denied by his brother), to take a different road – one more fine-tuned to emphasize his particular talents.
The final moments of ‘Marco’ tell us a great deal about what this series really is, where it’s headed, and why. Jimmy has never looked more confident or eager than when he tells Mike he’s not going to be a sucker anymore, that he’s not going to let “doing the right thing” keep him from getting what he wants. That clarification of purpose and desire alters the dynamic of the series in a major way, as it pulls Jimmy out of the recursive narrative where success was perpetually at his fingertips, only to see it taken away by one circumstance or another – ostensibly dooming Jimmy to exist in a dismal loop of continuous failure.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, either, as those moments – the Kettlemans, the lost office space, and the Sandpiper Crossing class action lawsuit in particular – had become a brick wall Jimmy was desperately trying to break through, by running at it headfirst. He was never going to get to the other side by tackling the problem head on; he needed to go around.
And so, that is what Jimmy McGill decides he must do after spending a week in Cicero with his former partner in crime, the titular Marco (Mel Rodriguez), pulling scams on the unsuspecting patrons of a local watering hole. The sequence in Cicero might seem like an odd one, considering all of Jimmy’s problems – and the series’ main characters – are back in Albuquerque, but without it Jimmy’s revelation at the end wouldn’t have felt as earned. The week in Cicero shows us who Jimmy is. His attempts to emulate the series’ supporting players are the key to what’s holding him back. Jimmy McGill is not Chuck McGill, he is not Howard Hamlin or Kim Wexler; he’s Slippin’ Jimmy, and soon, Saul Goodman. Jimmy can’t hope to tackle his problems by being like any of them; he has to play to his strengths – which is something a week with Marco teaches him.
Marco comes after Jimmy meets with Hamlin and Kim, handing over not only all of the Sandpiper Crossing documents, but Chuck, too, as the daily maintenance required to keep the elder McGill going now falls on the law offices of HHM. Jimmy reassures Kim that he’s come to terms with Chuck’s betrayal, and that he’s ready to move on. And given the times Jimmy has had to make a U-turn throughout the season, we’re ready to believe him. That is until an epic meltdown while emceeing a game of bingo unleashes the sordid details of how he ended up in Chuck’s employ (and debt, in a way) in the first place.
It is important that Marco happens after Jimmy is put through the emotional ringer, so that, when he finally dons Marco’s pinky ring – essentially the first element of the Saul costume – it serves as much a reminder of his dead friend (with whom he honed the skills that would become his true calling) as it is a reminder of the turmoil he’s just been through. The ring is what keeps Jimmy dishonest; it’s what keeps him from ever walking down the road of doing the right thing when there’s money to be made.
Jimmy’s decision to eschew doing the right thing opens up so many interesting doors for season 2 that it seems as though what we’ll be seeing next year will be profoundly different. That could present some challenges in terms of how the supporting players will factor in to Jimmy’s new outlook on life. But, when the time comes to look at season 1 in hindsight, it will be like Jimmy’s trip to Cicero: Without it, there would be no foundation for the series to move forward.
Better Call Saul might be the spawn of Breaking Bad, but it doesn’t necessarily feel the need to define itself with the same grand dramatic gestures. That’s not to say the finale of Saul is not grand, or that its story is somehow lesser; it is to say that Better Call Saul, like its protagonist, is the kind of show that knows it will find what defines it by going around the brick wall, rather than smashing through it.
In the end, Better Call Saul turned out to be a much stronger and far more compelling series than its status as a prequel to a beloved program suggested it would be. As such, the show doesn’t just give the idea of a spin-off another mark in the win column, but it also suggests that prequels, when done well, don’t have to be an exercise in narrative math. They, too, can create a deep, distinct story on their own.
Better Call Saul will return for season 2 in 2016 on AMC.
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC