[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 4.]
“Better Call Saul” Season 4 was more focused than ever on answering the question at the show’s core: By the time “Breaking Bad” Season 2 begins, how did attorney Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) become criminal lawyer Saul Goodman? The season ably answered that inquiry, but required a pretty significant body count.
It has always made sense for “Better Call Saul” to be a less-violent series than its sister show, at least in the early seasons, as that’s when many of these characters are still on the verge of becoming part of the brutal Albuquerque drug scene that consumed Walter White and his many associates. However, that also meant escalation was always a part of the show’s future. Season 4 brought the increased presence of the Salamanca cousins, Lalo and Nacho, whose actions made the drug business even more brutal. Mike committed his first on-screen murder since the flashbacks in “Five-O.” And of course, the season began by confirming what was implied by the Season 3 finale: the death of Chuck McGill.
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However, the most important death of the season might have been another that took place off-screen. That would be the loss of Jimmy’s one-time client, Geraldine Strauss, collector of Hummel figurines and star of Jimmy’s first major TV commercial, who died at some point in the lead-up to Season 4, Episode 6, “Piñata.” Up until that point in the season, Jimmy’s reaction to his brother’s death skipped a whole lot of steps in the grieving process, and that denial factored into his sadness over Mrs. Strauss’s unexpected passing.
In an inversion of the classic trope, building his relationship with Kim into a real partnership didn’t make Jimmy a better person. (It may have dragged him further down into the grey zone, in fact.) The truth is, Jimmy was at his very best as a person when he was practicing elder law, a legal speciality that is not one of the more glamorous ways to use a law license. But running bingo games, remembering the names of grandchildren, and offering comfort utilized Jimmy’s skills as a con man to help a demographic that is often overlooked.
Jimmy’s engagement with this side of the legal world was far from purely altruistic — the Sandpiper class-action case, which stood to earn him a lot of money, was a major factor in his interest. And to date, the very worst thing that Jimmy McGill (not Saul Goodman) has done on this show may have been manipulating Irene (Jean Effron) into accepting the Sandpiper settlement. However, it’s an act he makes up for in the Season 3 finale by publicly exposing his scheme in front of the entire retirement home community, while ensuring he’ll never regain the trust of Albuquerque’s elderly.
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With 13 months passing between seasons, it might be easy to forget this aspect of his career. However, the Hummel caper he executes with Ira (Franc Ross) proves a brilliant reminder of Jimmy’s visits to Mrs. Strauss (while making sure that her death is no less a gut punch). Chuck’s death is a complicated stew of emotions for Jimmy, toying with both his better angels and darkest impulses. Mrs. Strauss dying serves as a formal farewell to his former life.
News of Mrs. Strauss’s death immediately precedes Kim telling Jimmy that she’s joining another law firm instead of waiting for them to restart Wexler-McGill. Not only is elder law no longer a real possibility for him, but Wexler-McGill is also gone, and those factors push him to jeopardize the reinstatement of his license by revving up his burner-phone side hustle.
If all of those events didn’t conflate, would Jimmy have descended as far as he did down this path? Would he have decided, at the end of Season 4, to keep practicing law under the McGill name? The what-ifs are many, but the reveal in Mrs. Strauss’ death isn’t what it told the audience about Jimmy; it’s what her death opened up in him. By the end of the episode, he’s proven himself capable of terrifying acts. The same Jimmy who remembered the Alpine Shepherd Boy isn’t the same Jimmy who hired Ira and Huell to turn punk kids into piñatas.
For the rest of the season, Jimmy keeps up the appearance of wanting to reinstate his law license, but “Piñata,” and Mrs. Strauss represent the season’s key turning point. Much changed this year, for all of these characters, but the biggest change was within Jimmy himself.