May 19, 2018
Better Call Saul: Jimmy Drops the Mic
It’s the season finale of Better Call Saul! After going bonkers at bingo, Jimmy visits his hometown and sees an old friend. The boys get into some mischief, but no arrests! Also Jimmy gets a job offer, and we finally find out what a Chicago sunroof is.
How can we move forward from last week’s devastating reveal of Chuck’s betrayal? By moving backwards, of course.
We’re back in Slippin Jimmy’s old stomping grounds—Cicero, Illinois—at the bar where he runs small time cons and scams. Jimmy’s stopping in to say a quick goodbye to his friend and occasional partner in crime, Marco. Chuck is waiting in a taxi outside. This is right after Chuck got Jimmy out of jail and a big jam. Jimmy tells Marco he’s moving to Albuquerque to get a job in Chuck’s firm. “Time to grow up.”
Marco is not pleased to be losing him or that Jimmy is determined to give up his grifting ways. He begs for one more blowout. But Jimmy says no. When a horn beeps and Jimmy says he has to go, Marco comments, “His master’s voice,” but Jimmy insist it’s his decision. “Chuck’s giving me an opportunity, and I’m grabbing it.”
Marco tells him, “It’s like watching Miles Davis give up the trumpet.”
And then we jump to show’s present, maybe later the same day as that awful morning when Jimmy confronted Chuck. Jimmy’s downstairs at HHM. Kim greets him. He tells her he knows, and he’s giving the case to HHM. He asks why she didn’t tell him. “I didn’t want you hating your own brother.”
He talks to Howard, who suddenly seems like much less of a sleaze. He even apologizes for calling Howard a pig-fucker. (And hearing the word “pig-fucker” again was only one highlight in this outstanding episode.) Then he gives Howard the extensive list of instructions for Chuck’s care and feeding—which, of course, can be handled by an underling. Howard realizes that Jimmy has been doing all this himself for over a year, and there’s a look in his eyes of both pity and respect. He gets Jimmy his check for $20,000 and reminds him there’ll be a bigger payout down the road.
On the way out, Jimmy talks again with Kim and apologizes for yelling at her. She hugs him. “That was nice,” he says. When Kim asks him about Chuck, he says, “He’s my brother. He thinks I’m a scumbag. There’s nothing I can to change that. What else is there to say?” So we see no immediate dedication to the dark side yet.
In fact, the next time we see him, he’s back in his Matlock suit calling bingo and charming the olds. But the fates are conspiring. He’s not picking any winners, and all the numbers coming up start with B as in brother, as in betrayal, as in Benedict Arnold. He’s like a comic bombing. He’s focused on his own pain and losing his patter, the old people are losing patience, and nobody is winning. Then, in an almost painful reference to Breaking Bad and what we know is Jimmy’s future, he picks another ball, “B as in Belize,” he says, the place he would someday euphemistically suggest Walt send his brother-in-law to.
Jimmy looks out at the looming sun and says, “None of us is ever leaving this godforsaken wasteland.” An old man shouts out, “Excuse me, are you gonna read that number?” He throws the old man the bingo ball, and then asks if anyone knows what a Chicago sunroof is. And then he tells them.
How does his explanation—the continuation of an already long monologue—not come off like a stagey info dump? Part of it is the way they’ve built the character, making his gift of gab a superpower. Some of it is the camera work, moving from the reaction shots of the bingo players, the balls themselves spinning and spitting out of the machine, and the expression of the sullen, silent young woman assisting him. But most of the credit goes to Odenkirk, for a tour de force bit of acting that should get a special Emmy for best solo performance.
The story begins with the idea that Jimmy was wronged. A man owed him money and may have slept with his wife while she was still his wife. And so when the opportunity arose and he saw the BMW of his nemesis double-parked in front of a Dairy Queen, he decided to defecate through the open sunroof. How was he to know there were two children in the back seat? Ever the counsel for the defense, he mentions the windows were tinted so dark they weren’t even legal in the state of Illinois. He knows it wasn’t his finest moment, but the DA had added charges making it a sex offense. It looked like he’d go away for a long time, but instead he wound up in this “Georgia O’Keeffe hellscape.” And then he invites the olds to take whatever prizes they want as he drops the mic and walks away.
Where does he go? He tries to go home again, returning to the old bar in Cicero, where Marco is sleeping on a stool, like he hasn’t left it since the last time Jimmy saw him. It’s been ten years (not that anyone looks different), but immediately they’re in their old rhythms. When Marco mentions how pale he is for a man living in the desert, they start doing dialogue from Lawrence of Arabia. Marco has a job through his brother-in-law, one that involves wearing a uniform but apparently also allows for mid-day stupors.
There’s an awkward moment when Marco realizes that Jimmy was in Cicero with Chuck for his mother’s funeral three years before and didn’t come by. Jimmy changes the subject. And then Jimmy spots a well-dressed stranger (who just maybe has the same smug upstanding citizen look as his brother) and asks Marco if he’s a regular. He isn’t. Jimmy takes out a coin. “You’re buying. I’m selling,” he says, and we watch him go to work. He didn’t need to rehearse this in the men’s room like he does in court. Marco was right. Jimmy is a natural. It takes them minutes to sell a fifty-cent piece for $110 to a mark, in a con that couldn’t happen in the age of smart phones. Then they buy a round for everyone.
This week’s inevitable montage sequence was the best of the season. To an early 60s Henry Mancini tune that has a swing era feel, we see nightspots with lots of neon, city lights, and dark alleys; we hear the patter as they pull off one scam after another, all based on the same premise—make the mark think he’s getting something for nothing. It’s a grift binge/noir short that ends a week later when a woman wakes Jimmy up, carefully looking at his face in the sober light of day and announces, “You’re not Kevin Costner!”
Jimmy checks his cell. Fifteen messages. Clients who want help with wills, a woman mentioning her mother in assisted living. It’s a reminder that this elder law thing isn’t a con but a way Jimmy could use his talents to help people. He has responsibilities and tells Marco their weeklong party is ending. He has to get back to his clients. “Clients?” Marco asks, “What are you a gigolo?”
When he fesses up to being a lawyer, Marco has the same reaction as Chuck: “Slippin Jimmy a lawyer!” Only it sounds like a good thing when Marco says it. Still, he can’t get his head around the idea that Jimmy is not a rich lawyer, that he’s “building something.” He doesn’t understand why he can’t be a lawyer in Chicago. But Jimmy has obligations and is determined to head back. Marco shows him the last fake Rolex and begs Jimmy to pull it with him one more time. He tries to say no. Even offers him money. But it’s not about the money to Marco. It’s about watching Jimmy work and getting to be a part of it. It’s jazz, it’s comedy, it’s art. Jimmy gives in, not out of greed, but out of kindness, and that’s how we know it won’t end well.
We see the setup like we saw it before, but this time we start from Marco’s point of view. He’s beginning to hum Smoke on the Water, getting ready, when he hears Jimmy and the mark come up the street. Jimmy is using the same patter. Even the howling is a signal. The mark finds the wallet and picks it up. They notice the body. Jimmy goes towards Marco with a stick, but Marco doesn’t wake up. And then Jimmy touches him and realizes something is wrong. He tells the mark to call 911, only the mark takes off with the wallet. Jimmy calls 911, and Marco comes around long enough to tell Jimmy it was the best week of his life. He dies with a smile on his face.
Outside the church, Jimmy is talking to some other seedy guy. He tells him Marco’s mom gave him Marco’s ring. He’s already wearing it on his pinky. (It was part of Saul’s regular attire on Breaking Bad). Kim calls, referring to him as Ferris Bueller—because she gets that geeky movie maven part of him. She gives him what sounds like great news. HHM is partnering with a big Santa Fe firm for the case, and that firm wants to hire him on the partner track, contingent on an interview. They’ll be meeting at court on Thursday at 11:00 a.m., so he just has to show up. He doesn’t quite believe it, but she tells him how the old people love him. He worries what Chuck will think, but Kim is basically screw Chuck.
When he gets back, he stops by his brother’s, but he doesn’t go in. He sees Ernie from the mailroom, who’s gotten the assignment and is just leaving. Ernie says hello. Chuck watches from the doorway. It looks like he’s about to touch the door handle and call out to Jimmy, but Jimmy drives off before that happens. It’s a moment where maybe everything could have been different if Chuck had acted.
Jimmy heads to the courthouse. Mike’s in his booth, talking on the phone about one of those side jobs, as he opens the gate for him. (So glad we get to see Mike in the finale.) Jimmy parks and starts walking. He’s in a non-Matlock conservative suit. He’s rehearsing the meet-and-greet out loud and also feeling that ring on his finger. And suddenly he turns around and drives back to the parking gate. He reminds Mike of that time he had $1.6 million on his table and they could have just split it and done anything. “What stopped us?” he asks.
Mike tells him, “I remember you saying something about doing the right thing.” Then Mike explains why he didn’t take it. He was “hired to do a job, and that’s as far as it goes.”
Jimmy tells him, “I know what stopped me. And you know what? It’s never stopping me again.” Then he drives away, humming Smoke on the Water.
Was this a satisfying finale? Hell yeah. The writers had to take us at least part way on Jimmy’s journey to becoming the Saul Goodman we knew and loved on Breaking Bad—a character who wasn’t just a grifter, but a ruthless criminal lawyer who wasn’t above suggesting the easiest way to deal with an arrested street dealer who might talk would be a shiv. Jimmy still isn’t that man. He has further to fall, but his fall was inevitable. He’s a confidence man who lacks confidence in himself. He doesn’t have an internal code like Mike. For a while, he followed Chuck, like Chuck was his personal Jesus, but once Chuck turned out to have feet of clay, Jimmy’s reasons for trying to change seemed less solid. But something happened on that grift binge, and Marco’s last words solidified it. Jimmy didn’t have to rehearse being Slippin Jimmy. He was good at it, and it felt great. He could be a fake lawyer—a chimpanzee with a machine gun—or an authentic con artist. He could work hard and build something slowly, or he could have the best time of his life. He may have been playing a role even as a grafter—but it was the role he was born to play.