There has been an ongoing discussion among critics as the second season of Better Call Saul goes on about the incongruity of its two main stories: the misadventures in the frustratingly buttoned-down Arizona legal world of James McGill, Esq. and the slow entry of brokenhearted ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut into the Arizona underworld. Absent Mike’s high-stakes dealings with Nacho and the Salamancas, Jimmy’s exploits would make a top-notch legal drama, but it can be hard to focus on the ins and outs of document review when you’re expecting another scene about Mike, The Badass to goose the excitement level a hundred notches.
This week’s episode, “Rebecca,” almost directly addresses that complaint by putting the exciting stuff on ice and focusing almost entirely on Kim Wexler, who is determined to build her career the Right Way, without taking any of the shortcuts Jimmy finds so tempting.
Refusing Jimmy’s latest offer to help her escape “the cornfield” – by suing Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill for extortion – Kim tells her fallen suitor in no uncertain terms to back off: “You don’t save me. I save me.” From there, the episode takes a long look at what doing things the hard way – without any Slippin’ Jimmy-style shortcuts – really looks like as Kim works long hours in document review, skipping lunch to sneak off to the stairwell (because she lost her office), and do the hardest, most humiliating kind of networking there is – hitting up old acquaintances and long-lost roommates and calling the numbers on business cards of the people she met one time at a bar or a dinner party in the impossible hope they just happen to be in the market for new legal counsel.
The episode takes its time with this montage, and while it might be frustrating to the people who are itching to get to more scenes of Mike growling understated threats at drug dealers, that’s entirely the point: the audience’s impatience with doing it the right way very much mirrors Jimmy’s impatience. Though his encounter with the bedraggled assistant DA at the courthouse seems to give him some perspective on his high-class problems, Chuck’s counsel to Kim – “he just can’t help himself” – seems to be a prophecy that will fulfill sooner than later.
Speaking of Chuck, his frustration with Jimmy seems quite a bit more justifiable in light of his story to Kim about how Jimmy skimmed $14,000 from their father’s corner store as a teenager, a heartbreak that Chuck clearly believes contributed to the man’s death not long after. All this time we’ve been seeing things from Jimmy’s side and as uptight and unforgiving as Chuck is, he may actually have had a point about that “chimp with a machine gun.” This episode felt like the first move to realign our sympathies from Jimmy to the people who allow themselves to care for him and wind up disappointed, or worse.
The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman appreciates the time the show puts into showing Kim’s struggle:
Breaking Bad showed us early and often the power of transforming a sidekick into a three-dimensional character. First Jesse, of course, who grew from a bit player who was supposed to be killed off in season one, into the moral axis of the show. But also Mike, and Gus, and through this spinoff that you’re watching now, Saul Goodman. Now the spotlight shines on Kim Wexler. She gets the first truly devastating moment of BCS season two, standing all by herself under the same soul-crushing anvils that the show dropped on Jimmy McGill’s head in season one. And never again will she be just a gold ring for Jimmy to grasp at, a symbol of what might have been. She draws breath, she vibrates with hope and determination, and if you watch that scene at the front door of HHM with Howard in slow motion, you can pinpoint the exact moment her heart breaks.
The key to this transformation is the time that the creators take with it. That long montage of her working her network to bring in new business, Post-Its with possibilities lined up on the window in the stairwell (since she has no office anymore), is a parallel to the montage of Jimmy’s public-defender work that Michelle MacLaren put together in the second episode of the series, “Mijo.” When I reviewed that episode, I admit, I didn’t get it; I criticized the montage as lengthy and repetitive. But now, seeing Kim’s version (set to the Gipsy Kings’ version of “My Way”), I understand completely. Bringing a supporter player to center stage, you’ve got to take your time. For Gilligan and Gould, the way you put a beating, breakable heart into a character is to show her at work. Not just a token glimpse, but over and over, so we feel in our viscera how long it takes, how nobody else notices, how her world shrinks to the boxes of documents she highlights far into the night and the stolen moments where she tries to build a ladder out of that dungeon.
Kim, even more than Chuck, is the BCS representative for Doing Things the Right Way. Chuck talks about it a lot, yes, and in the flashbacks we’ve seen he certainly believes that his rise to the top of his profession was fueled by rigid adherence to principle, but Kim is the one we see actually doing it. She worked her way up from “the cornfield” of doc review once before, and she doggedly sets herself to do it again. She’s determined not to beg, not to whine about just deserts, just—one more time—to prove her worth.
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix marvels at the way the series has moved our sympathies around among Jimmy, Kim, Howard, and Chuck:
There are long stretches of “Rebecca” that just feature Kim pacing and talking on the phone, and it’s a credit to both Seehorn (expertly shifting back and forth between charm and desperation as Kim got on and off the phone) and Saul editor Kelley Dixon that those were as compelling as they were. The time put in — both in terms of minutes of the episode and in terms of how many lunch hours she seemed to devote to this quest — made her victory dance in the parking garage feel extra sweet. And, in turn, it made that moment when Howard casually announces that she’s still trapped in doc review even more painful. (Just watch the way Seehorn’s jaw moves ever so slightly as Kim absorbs this latest hit; it’s brutal.)
That Howard, not Chuck, is the one responsible for her punishment is another reminder that Jimmy often argues for things he knows nothing about, and the latest reversal in sympathies between the two main HHM partners. Remember, for most of the first season, Howard seemed the villain and Chuck the good guy, until we found out that it was Chuck preventing Jimmy from becoming a lawyer for the firm. But Howard didn’t suddenly become a saint from this news — most of what Patrick Fabian was given to play last season came about before the writers decided on the Chuck/Howard flip — and it’s good to get a reminder that sometimes he really is every bit the smug SOB that Jimmy used to accuse him of being.
This all leads to that stunning Kim/Chuck scene, which seems to start off as the latest of her humiliations — now she’s the coffee girl? — until he invites her into his office to chat about their mutual acquaintance. Again, the series has really elegantly switched our sympathies back and forth between the four main legal players, and it continues to do so even within the span of this episode. In the opening flashback, Chuck couldn’t be more contemptuous of Jimmy — or more annoyed that his wife enjoys all of Jimmy’s hacky lawyer jokes — and we seem headed for another round of Snob vs. Slob. But then comes Chuck’s story about their father, wonderfully delivered by Michael McKean, which casts a whole new light on the relationship. It’s not just that Chuck has spent half his life getting Slippin’ Jimmy out of trouble, but that Jimmy’s insatiable thirst for the hustle couldn’t even be controlled when their father’s business was at stake. If I were the one in Chuck’s shoes, I imagine I would say something far less kind about my brother than the words he leaves Kim to consider:
“My brother is not a bad person. He has a good heart. It’s just… he can’t help himself. And everyone’s left picking up the pieces.”
Vulture’s Kenny Herzog looks at the episode’s short-but-sweet coda:
Still, in Kim’s — and probably Chuck’s — wildest fantasies, they’d never fret that remaining in Jimmy’s orbit would place them in perilous proximity to the Mexican cartel. It’s foregone that Jimmy’s and Mike’s paths will cross again as they each stake out their own ethical happy medium. And now, Mike has to contend with the loose ends of his dust-up with Tuco. That means an unsolicited face-to-face with Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) himself. The drug kingpin who would one day blow Gustavo Fring to smithereens is still relatively spry at this point. He’s not yet wheelchair-bound, and doesn’t need to frantically hammer at a call bell to push someone’s buttons. He corners Mike at his favorite diner and strongly encourages him to confess that the gun on Tuco’s person was, in fact, registered to Mike Ehrmantraut, thereby sparing Hector’s nephew a few of those years in the slammer. He’ll even toss the grizzled ticket-booth attendant $5,000 to soothe his conscience. Suddenly, Mike’s beginning to understand why his choice to not stealthily put a slug in Tuco’s brain and walk away with ten times that sum left Nacho perplexed. This may well be the moment when Mike truly adheres to the principle of full measures. Alas, he’s already halfway toward employment via Hector and the cartel.
And, Observer’s Sean T. Collins laments how that coda serves to undermine the power of what’s otherwise one of the strongest Jimmy-centric episodes in the series:
The Jimmy half of Better Call Saul is very good, sure. But the Mike half of Better Call Saul feels like the onset of a panic attack. You can feel it creeping up on you like have your back turned on a menacing stranger, one who’s tracked you down and is walking his way toward you, quiet and full of bad intent. Certainly that’s how I felt as I watched the final scene of “Rebecca,” this week’s episode. As Mike Ehrmantraut sat with his back to the door of his favorite diner, Hector Salamanca materialized from the debris where Breaking Bad left him to gently request that the ex-cop help get his nephew Tuco off the hook. Nothing overtly threatening about it, of course, no visible stick to go with the carrots of a kindly disposition and a bribe of $5,000. Tio Salamanca doesn’t even bat an eyelash when Mike parries back his blandishments with deadpan disinterest: “You see what I’m getting at?” “Not really.” “I would like for you to tell the police that the gun was yours.” “Would you.” No, all the menace comes from the implications of putting these two men, these two murderers, in close proximity. We know where their stories end up, but that does nothing to lessen the tension. Rather, our knowledge increases it, investing the current moment with our foreknowledge of all the awful moments to come.