Recap Digest: Better Call Saul 1.9, “Pimento”

The beauty of Better Call Saul is in the way it manages to surprise even when you know where it’s headed. We know that Jimmy McGill is going to change his name to Saul Goodman. We know that he’s going to establish a law practice with considerable, shall we say, ethical compromises. And after last week’s episode, we had a pretty good idea that the class action suit against Sandpiper was going to be, if not the last straw, a very big one, as the show telegraphed that Howard Hamlin would somehow steal the case away from Jimmy and Chuck and leave Jimmy in the cold.

And that is more or less what happened. But I for one did not expect Chuck to be the bad guy. I thought he would grudgingly go along with Howard’s wishes; I didn’t realize that it would actually be the other way around, with Chuck imploring Howard to play the heavy for Jimmy’s benefit, to keep Jimmy out of the firm because, as Chuck finally tells his little brother that he’s “not a real lawyer” and that “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.”

It’s hard to imagine anything more hurtful. It’s been clear throughout this season that Jimmy’s entire law career has been an effort to win Chuck’s approval, and with this rejection it’s clear that that approval is never coming. And after Jimmy has spent months (years?) catering to Chuck’s insane “electrosensitivity” or whatever, to boot. I didn’t expect Jimmy to change his name this season, as his intentions are still so good, but it sure feels like Chuck just poured the foundation for The Law Offices of Saul Goodman, Esq.

Roth Cornet looks deeper into Chuck’s point of view at IGN:

The truth is, Chuck was the one person who truly could have saved his brother – and he didn’t. He didn’t, because – as mentioned in last week’s review – to do so would have been an affront to his identity; his ego. Chuck’s underlying vision of the world as it relates to his dynamic with Jimmy can be distilled down to this idea: “I am a person of worth – you are a screw up.”

Nothing Jimmy did would change that, because Chuck just couldn’t abide the idea that his life’s work, his consistent effort and ability to stand up, do right, and achieve, would be comparable to Jimmy’s last-minute turn around. No, they are not, and never will be equal in Chuck’s mind. He is the adult man of worth to be admired, and Jimmy is a laughable pet monkey that he’s been burdened with. Even in the face of his brother’s consistent care, Chuck could not let go of his pre-conceived judgments. It was likely even more of a challenge for him to let go of his deeply held notions about their relationship, as his illness was already causing him to feel vulnerable and “less than” his former self. Perhaps Chuck even has a point. Jimmy is a man who has made shortcuts a way of life. Is it not disrespectful to expect to rise to his brother’s level without having put in the years of rigorous study and experience?

The New York Times’ David Segal goes deeper:

But Chuck’s most compelling point centers on a question that animated Breaking Bad as much as Better Call Saul: Can people change? They sure can, said Breaking Bad, and demonstrated the point by transforming a benign chemistry teacher into a homicidal thug. In Better Call Saul we’ve seen another lead character evolve, though less dramatically — from scam artist to earnest plaintiffs’ attorney, with the occasional moral lapse.

But if the writers of the show believe people can change, not all of their characters do. Chuck can’t imagine that his brother has risen beyond his youthful roots as a con man nicknamed Slippin’ Jimmy.

“I know what you were, what you are,” Chuck shouts. “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!”

We know this isn’t true. Jimmy is a force for good, if we can judge by his ventures in elder law. But now he can’t have a perch at a corporate firm and the respectability that it confers. I assume it is this knowledge — that he will never shake his reputation as a morally dubious man — that will drive him to become Saul Goodman.

But I’ve said it before: predictions are a mug’s game on this show.

Alan Sepinwall at HitFix sees both sides:

And here’s the thing: both brothers are right in a way, even if the end result is very wrong. We understand exactly why Chuck is afraid of Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree, because we’ve seen in Breaking Bad exactly what can happen when Jimmy gives in to that hustler side of himself within the legal arena. But at the same time, Better Call Saul season 1 has offered ample evidence that at this stage of his life, Jimmy McGill is sincere in his desire to do things the right way, both to impress his brother and because it’s the right thing to do. But we can add his own brother to the list of people in this world who have no interest in a good version of Jimmy McGill. The irony is, Chuck’s fear of Slippin’ Jimmy is what is likely to inspire the creation of Saul Goodman. Had he not placed that call to Howard, Jimmy might have spent a long, fruitful and honest career as a civil attorney. But whether it happens next week, or in some later season, we know Saul Goodman is coming, and we have now have a pretty good idea of what motivated his creation. If even Jimmy’s brother — whom he has protected and cared for throughout his prolonged illness, and even come up with a way for Chuck to go back out into the world again — can’t trust him enough to be good, then who can? And what’s the point of trying?

The heartbreak of Chuck’s betrayal is leavened in the episode by the B-story, where Mike takes a protection job brokering a drug deal between Price, a novice whose naivete seems awfully familiar, and a buyer who turns out to be Nacho. Entertainment Weekly’s Kevin P. Sullivan reads between the lines:

Price has some questions, though. How did Mike know not to bring a gun? He did his research and looked in Nacho’s affiliations. Since this was a side deal, Nacho would have wanted everything to go smoothly. Mike ends his lesson with some beautiful and insightful dialogue:

Mike: “The lesson is if you’re going to be a criminal, do your homework.”
Price: “But I’m not a bad guy.”
Mike: “I didn’t say you’re a bad guy. I said you’re a criminal.”
Price: “What’s the difference?”
Mike: “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. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.”

Here, I think we’re getting a peek into Mike’s psyche in the wake of Matt’s death and how he’s casting himself as a good criminal. Though it was Mike’s insistence that his son take the money and go dirty, he’s able to reconcile his current and future actions by the outline he presents to Price and his knowledge that it will ultimately help the innocent, Kaylee and Stacy.

Donna Bowman ties the threads together at The A.V. Club:

Appearances are deceiving; that’s the obvious theme of Mike’s plotline tonight. “Dealing with some of these ethnic types, the blood tends to run a little hotter. That’s just science,” as the fronting goon blathers. It’s those kind of confident, blinkered prejudgments that lead to trouble—and more importantly, to insecurity, as revealed by the goon’s ridiculously oversized cache of weaponry. But Mike’s real skill and clear perception puts him in his place. Jimmy has skill and perceptiveness too, and he knows that it’s hard work that matters, not big offices or impressive credentials. If he can get past his wholly justified rage and team up with someone of like mind, he could lawyer HHM under the table. God, I hope we get to see him try.

And Vulture’s Mike Powell sees an archetypal struggle:

For all the accolades heaped on Gilligan et al for helping to create a new, richer kind of television, there are moments in Saul — and in Breaking Bad, too — that feel very old, masculine, almost biblical: two brothers, turned on each other; a good man forced to make a difficult decision; morality plays about the pitfalls of pride and envy. No surprise that when we find out that it’s Chuck who told Howard Hamlin not to hire Jimmy, it’s in part because he thinks the law is sacred, as though he lived under divine mandate to protect it. “You know I’m right!” Chuck shouts at Jimmy, who, like us, can barely believe what he’s hearing. But as the show points out, right and wrong aren’t always opposites, and sacred is a pretty old-fashioned word.

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