“Chemistry,” Walter White explained in “Breaking Bad’s” very first episode, “is the study of change.” But over the course of the show’s five seasons, “Bad” showed us that who Walter White became was who he always was. Creator Vince Gilligan said often that his intention was to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface, but the show’s flashbacks gradually filled in a picture of a frustrated, spiteful man who would have been Scarface much sooner if he’d only had the chance.
But “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” prequel that follows the early career of Walter’s ethically flexible attorney, really is a study of change, of onetime con man “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill’s transformation into a struggling small-time lawyer, and, eventually, of his evolution into “Bad’s” Saul Goodman (as in, “‘S’all good, man”). Over the course of its first eight episodes, we’ve watched Jimmy scrape and claw his way out of the muck, engaging in some creative media manipulation but otherwise hewing close to what he calls, with air quotes, “the right thing.” Walter White was a bad guy who tried to be good. Jimmy McGill is a good guy who the world turns bad.
With millions of “Breaking Bad” fans in its pocket, “Better Call Saul” has developed at a much more leisurely pace than most freshman dramas, but it’s come fully into focus in its last few episodes. We’ve learned that Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), after his initial career as a petty criminal, set out to reinvent himself in line with the classic archetype, literally working his way up from the mailroom at Hamlin Hamlin McGill, the high-powered law firm where his brother, Charles (Michael McKean), is a partner. He toiled away at a mail-order degree from the University of American Samoa — Go Land Crabs! — passed the bar on his third try, then presented the results of his clandestine labor to his bosses, who let him down with a half-hearted “Maybe in six months.”
In “Saul’s” heartbreaking “Pimento,” the penultimate installment of its initial ten-episode season, we learned why. The show has built Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) into a despicable antagonist, a cross between Gordon Gekko and a snotty frat boy from an ’80s sex comedy. But it turned out that, as much as Howard loathes Jimmy and everything he stands for, the main obstacle in Jimmy’s path has always been his own brother. Even after Jimmy spent months caring for Charles as he suffered from a psychosomatic “allergy” to electromagnetic radiation, even after Charles helped build Jimmy’s discovery of fraud in a nursing-home chain into a potential $20 million class action suit, Charles still reached out to cut him off at the knees. HHM would take on Jimmy’s case, which likely couldn’t be won without their resources, but he’d have to make do with a consultant’s fee instead of a job.
The reason, as Charles explained after Jimmy confronted him with evidence of his betrayal: “People don’t change.” He may answer his phone “James McGill” in the voice of a fictional British assistant, but to Charles, he’ll always be “Slippin’ Jimmy,” and Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is the equivalent of “a chimp with a machine gun.” Most reviewers seem to feel the argument between McGill brothers is a draw, or at least that both make solid points, but I’m on Jimmy’s side. Charles may huff about the law being “sacred,” but his insistence that Jimmy hasn’t done the work doesn’t square with the facts. (What would you call putting yourself through law school while working in the mailroom?) The most inglorious things he’s done, like dumpster diving for shredded paperwork, are a function of a lack of resources, not character. Jimmy’s a huckster, but he’s not a crook.
The baked-in tragedy of “Better Call Saul” is that whenever Jimmy gets too close to a major success, we know it has to fall apart. We know he’ll end up working for criminals, not senior citizens, and that eventually he’ll fulfill his own prophecy of “managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.” But where “Breaking Bad” was a classical tragedy about a man undone by his fatal flaw, “Better Call Saul” is a modern one — the story of a man who thought he could live the American Dream, only to find out it’s all used up.
Reviews of “Better Call Saul,” Season 1, Episode 9: “Pimento”
Donna Bowman, A.V. Club
What hurts Jimmy the most is that Chuck subjected himself to the agony of fishing out the quarantined cell phone to call Howard, just to make sure Jimmy wouldn’t get anything a real lawyer might get. “The phone must have felt like a blowtorch in your ear,” Jimmy seethes. That’s how important it was to Chuck to keep Jimmy down. And as loathsome as Howard has been so far, the revelation of Chuck’s longtime sabotage campaign actually puts his Hamlindigo Blue ass in a new light. He’s played the bad guy so Chuck can continue to pretend to be on Jimmy’s side — which, when he explains it to Kim after she protests Jimmy’s treatment, makes her realize how much more it will hurt when Jimmy learns the truth.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
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?
Kevin P. Sullivan, Entertainment Weekly
The full scale of this story’s tragedy has revealed itself. This is the tale of how a low-life turns his life around, until the world tells him, “No. You can’t be good. You can’t be one of us.” There’s no reason that Jimmy couldn’t work for a firm like HHM and have the kind of office that he was close to renting. Despite his low beginnings, the only thing keeping him from ascending are the people above him, unwilling to accept someone who took a different path. It’s a relatable, sad story and one that only gets sadder when we consider that Jimmy, in becoming Saul, ultimately listens to them.
Mike Powell, Vulture
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.