[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
'Hero', the fourth and arguably best episode of Better Call Saul to date, is all about character. The episode examines who the major players in the Saul universe are by exploring the ways in which they respond to adversity and how they rationalize their actions. Essentially, it is about character in both senses of the word.
Like its predecessor, Saul is a show whose characters are preoccupied with the notion of wealth, recognition, and getting what's owed to them. It is a show where individuals are constantly calculating their self-worth, and often times arriving at a number much greater than market value. A lot of the time, as is the case with Jimmy, the number they reach is based on potential – the idea that he will be capable of one day achieving the worth he's set for himself. In the case of someone like, say, the Kettlemans, they tend to overvalue their worth based on what they perceive is an earned, but undelivered sum.
What's interesting about these characters, then, isn't so much that they tend to overvalue their worth, but, like Betsy Kettleman and her comment about slavery, that they genuinely believe themselves when they say they've earned it.
At the end of last week's 'Nacho', Jimmy's confrontation with the camping Kettlemans was interrupted by the appearance of a large sum of money. When 'Hero' picks up with that confrontation, the money becomes a means to an end – for both the Kettlemans and for Jimmy. The character work going on in the interplay between the embezzling couple and their would-be lawyer trying to stay on the straight and narrow is tremendous. To Jimmy's credit, when Betsy offers him a substantial bribe, he is tempted, but tries to spin it into a retainer, making the illegal legitimate as only a lawyer of his caliber can. But Betsy's response that "you're the kind of lawyer guilty people hire" pretty much seals the deal. Jimmy's not getting their business, but he can still profit from them.
Writer Gennifer Hutchinson zeroes in on the characters' wants and needs in this scene, burying the players under layers of temptation, justification, and delusion without losing sight of who they really are. There is something so satisfying about the way Betsy is the one justifying her husband's actions, and she's the one handing Jimmy the stack of cash to keep quiet. There's no flashback telling the audience how it is the Kettlemans first decided to break bad, but it doesn't take much to see the feckless Craig being cajoled into embezzlement by his wife. These are supporting players at best, players who may play a much larger role in Better Call Saul -gh but then again, they may not. Either way, the show has gone to great lengths to make the Kettlemans more than a mere plot device, and here, it pays off in a big way.
The same goes for the flashback sequence at the beginning, when Jimmy almost offhandedly coins the name Saul Goodman, telling his mark (played by Kevin Wiseman) it's a play on words: "S'all good, man."
But the beer money-levelscam Jimmy and his friend pulls isn't just another glimpse at Slippin' Jimmy; it's a peek into the evolution of the character. To see where he started, pulling a back alley con for a few hundred dollars, makes the "PR" billboard stunt he pulls seem all the more impressive. It also makes Jimmy's backslide into criminality seem all the more perilous.
Betsy's bribe is basically the start of a new beginning for Jimmy. It has a snowball effect, the magnitude of which has yet to be seen. Jimmy makes good on his deal with Nacho and manages to flip his warning of the Kettlemans into nothing short of a prescient save by a lawyer so devoted to his client's needs, he prevents him from committing a crime that would have put him away for a long time.
But the bribe also sets in motion Jimmy's plot against Hamlin, the long con to turn his ill-gotten gains into some legitimate business. It's the kind of scheme that plays on the audience's expectation that when a guy like Jimmy – who is covetous of money – finally gets his hands on some cash, he'll blow it all on extravagant purchases, like a bespoke suit and shirts with "real" mother of pearl buttons – just like Hamlin wears. There's even a nice detail where the scene cuts to a red Porsche pulling into Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill that fiddles with the audience's expectation a little. Sure, the show drops hints of the con early on – while also throwing in the Easter egg of the garish orange shirt and tie that will become Saul's uniform – but for the most part, the episode keeps the plan obscured enough that the payoff of Jimmy's heroic save at the billboard works like a charm.
Through it all, though, Hutchinson's script is mostly concerned with the character of its characters – which is what makes the episode so fulfilling. Little things matter, like Kim's excellent taste in movies, and how the interplay between her and Jimmy moves from a friendly chat to an irritated confrontation built on a foundation of concern. But there's also room for a few quirky flourishes, like the predictable way Hamlin is rankled by the provocation of Jimmy's billboard, and the utter lack of self-awareness that's present when he unabashedly mentions the firm's use of "Hamlindigo blue" in their logo.
This is the most "getting to know you" episode of the series so far, and as a result, the hour is loaded with character-defining moments and details that range in magnitude from Jimmy rationalizing the massive bribe he takes to Chuck leaving a $5 bill for the paper he steals from his neighbor. In the end, what 'Hero' demonstrates is: it's the little things that make the character, and the characters are what make the show.
Better Call Saul continues next Monday with 'Alpine Shepherd Boy' @10pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below:
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC