Warning: Spoiler Alert
Coming into the halfway point of Better Call Saul’s first season, elaborate groundwork has been laid to explain the backstory of the man known as Saul Goodman from the legendary Breaking Bad series. Viewers could reasonably extrapolate that the young Saul, then still known by his birth name of Jimmy McGill, was going to be portrayed as having the same kind of guts and guile that he would portray in his prime years as a local celebrity. But the decency and humanity underlying the character has been greatly amplified in his backstory, portraying the tale of a man who was always a hustler – but not always crooked, if that hair-splitting distinction makes sense.
Inevitably, Jimmy McGill was going to have to start shedding the reluctance to embrace “the Saul within” and the moment that Betsy Kettleman put a handful of stolen lettuce under his nose in Episode 1.4 signaled the beginning of the path in earnest. And now that the tableau of Jimmy’s career origin has been charted, viewers understand how the relationships around him will now be affected going forward: greater unease with his hyper-ethical-but-sidelined lawyer brother Chuck, full-on war with Chuck’s slick yuppie partner Howard and increased weirdness with apparent friend-with-benefits Kim, who works for Howard. Plus, the dangerous Nacho wasn’t too thrilled with him the last time we set eyes upon him – and since Jimmy’s excuse for not working with him in crime was that it was beneath him ethically, Nacho’s not going to be quick to understand Jimmy’s transformation – so that’s not going to be good for business.
In short, although Better Call Saul had a hard act to follow in Breaking Bad, it also had a much lower bar of expectations, since Saul’s transformation from comic relief on that show couldn’t be assumed. But with the depth of storytelling that was provided coming into Episode 1.5, Alpine Shepard Boy (named for one of the collectibles being left in a will by one of Jimmy’s new elderly clients), it’s clear that the prequel is going to have a web of intrigue no less compelling than the original.
However, while Jimmy’s acceptance of the Kettleman cash marks his first step towards “breaking bad” in his own right, the immediate aftermath of his billboard scam is something of a retreat back towards the mundane. Granted, the hucksters who seek him out to represent them repel him quickly (a fan of secession who wants to pay with his own, personally-branded currency and an obtuse family man trying to patent a “sex toilet”) and as such, the safe haven of handling wills and living trusts at least offers the potential of the stability that his career has yet to produce. His film study of the sartorial choices of TV character Matlock, combined with his decision to start advertising at the bottom of Jello cups and his nursing home trawling for clientele provides a glimpse into “the Saul path not chosen,” if indeed it weren’t. But we know that it will be.
And when it happens, sticking it to the likes of Howard Hamlin may well be a prime motivation. The flashpoint between Jimmy and Howard flares again after the police visit Chuck. It seems that the old lady across the street, lacking any sense of proportion, dropped a dime on him for taking her newspaper. Chuck does not want the police in his home, simply because he doesn’t want any change in his routine, but when they are confused and disturbed by some of the anti-technology tools that they spot through the window, the front door comes down and the poor man’s resulting panic attack puts him in the hospital. Kim learns of this via a call from Howard and she kayfabes her partner with the assurance of “telling Jimmy when she finds him,” as he is in fact in the middle of painting her toenails at the Asian salon after hours. Once Jimmy and Kim arrive at the hospital, the younger brother tries to turn off all of the technology in the room, alarming the doctors until Kim intercedes. Jimmy and Chuck try to calmly explain the “medical condition,” which one of the doctors proves is psychosomatic by turning on technology (unbeknownst to Chuck) that does not affect him adversely as Jimmy watches. Nevertheless, Jimmy is very defensive and protective of Chuck and shows greater signs of buying into his brother’s issue as a legitimate malady than we have seen before. It’s clear that Kim, who has been known to roll her eyes at his antics, is impressed by his efforts, as she is also very fond of Chuck – who it should be assumed has treated her very well at work over the years. In the hallway, a doctor tries to convince Jimmy to have Chuck institutionalized so that he can hopefully be cured – to no avail, until Howard shows up on the scene. Bristling at his brother’s partner’s attempts to insert himself into the situation, Jimmy threatens to have Chuck committed so that he can obtain power of attorney and force the cash-out from the law firm. However, when Kim confronts him privately about acting for the wrong reason, Jimmy admits that he was just trying to put a scare into his adversary. Later, at home, in trying to ease Chuck’s mind somewhat, Jimmy assures Chuck that he’s not backsliding to “Slippin’ Jimmy,” notwithstanding the billboard matter. Chuck seems to remain somewhat dubious.
Also somewhat resistant to buy in to Jimmy’s charms is his later cohort, Mike the Cleaner, still Mike the Ticket-taker at this point. Now that Jimmy knows of Mike’s Philly cop background, he’s friendlier to the old guy, but the attitude is not really reciprocated. Speaking of the Philadelphia days, after mysteriously tailing a young woman, the police show up on Mike’s doorstep – neatly bookending the episode with such visits – along with someone who Mike appears to recognize from the East Coast era. And that’s where they leave us.
Ultimately, the creative team threw in some nice misdirection early on with the scammers and weirdos looking to retain Jimmy’s services. Viewers appeared to be seeing a continuation of Jimmy’s path from last week (“upon this rock I will build my church”), only to find him retrenching a bit to a more stable if boring path when the old folks seemed a safer bet. But his forthcoming involvement in Mike’s matters – which will be the culmination his own backstory – should help speed the tale further down the destination to Saultown in the second half of the initial season.
In the end, this episode was more of a place-setter, with less forward action than any of the others to date. However, fans of Breaking Bad are used to seeing the creators insert such chapters into the show as a means of pacing and if anything, it’s to their credit for waiting this long and spending four episodes driving the plot forward relentlessly. So while it didn’t have any scenes with the raw excitement of Tuco’s desert abduction or the pulse-pounding billboard climb, it served its purpose. And by the looks of the preview for next week, which will apparently be very Mike-heavy, business is about to pick up again very quickly.