Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television/
To the extent that he’s even tried to restrain himself, Jimmy McGill has been fighting a losing battle with his own nature. As his brother Chuck once said, “Slippin’ Jimmy” with a law degree would be “like a chimp with a machine gun.” Though the analogy greatly disrespects his extraordinary gifts as a con artist, Jimmy cannot be expected to walk the line for too long, because running scams is who he is. While a complex set of circumstances led him to adopt the “Saul Goodman” name, it turned out not to be just a character he needed to play, but the fullest realization of who he really was, freed from the moral and ethical baggage of being a McGill. He’s not Jimmy McGill. And he’s certainly not sad ‘ole Gene Takovic. He’s the chimp with the machine gun.
And with that, the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe comes full circle. Tonight’s episode is called “Breaking Bad,” and it serves as a fascinating echo of a Breaking Bad episode from season two, called “Better Call Saul.” In “Better Call Saul,” we’re introduced to Saul when Brandon Mayhew (Matt L. Jones), a.k.a. “Badger,” is pinched in a sting operation for selling meth to a cop. (In a hilarious scene, Badger not only correctly suspects his buyer is a cop, but identifies the two nondescript vans nearby as police vehicles. He winds up selling to him anyway, under the false belief that an officer must identify himself as a cop when asked.) At this point in the series, the DEA has a strong interest in the pristine blue meth Badger is pushing and wants to cut him a deal for information leading to his mysterious supplier, Heisenberg. This sends Walt and Jesse into a panic.
Before Walt meets Saul for the first time, skeptical that this tacky TV yahoo could represent them, Jesse offers a memorable piece of advice: “You don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.” Tonight’s episode kicks off with a flashback to the aftermath of that first meeting in Breaking Bad, with a masked-and-taped Saul bumping around in the back of Walt and Jesse’s RV as it heads to the desert. Walt and Jesse have abducted Saul because they don’t want Saul to recommend that Badger take the plea agreement to rat out Heisenberg to the DEA, but Jesse doesn’t want his buddy to do time for him, either. Out of this desperate, comically amateurish scheme, Saul hatches the creative third option of Badger giving the DEA a different Heisenberg, some aging jailbird willing to do the time for a $30,000. (Saul gets $50,000 for arranging it.) That’s why you hire a criminal lawyer — to get you out of jams like this.
When Saul Goodman became Gene Takovic, however, he had to quit cold turkey. He was Gene, the manager of a mall Cinnabon in Nebraska, as inconspicuous as Saul, with his loud suits and wacky TV commercials, could never be missed. Pulling off last week’s burglary scheme was set up almost like the “Half Measures” episode of Breaking Bad, where you might expect that Jeff and his partner would cause trouble for Gene again after promising they were “done.” But it was really a case of Jimmy falling off the wagon and becoming Saul once again, quickly reacquiring a taste for creative criminality. There was a sense that Jimmy had considered these two a couple of pathetic small-timers, but now he’s bringing them back for an elaborate identity-theft scheme, seemingly because they’re the only people he knows.
There are still more Breaking Bad echoes. Like Walter White at the beginning of that show, Jimmy’s ostensible problem is money. After getting a likely terminal cancer diagnosis, Walt enters the meth business as a means to pay the enormous out-of-pocket treatment expenses that would leave his family saddled with debt when he dies. While there are innumerable asterisks to that motive, connected to Walt’s pride and masculinity, he has bills to pay, including the $80,000 he owes his shady lawyer for getting him out of the Badger situation. As Jimmy learns from his longtime receptionist Francesca early in this episode, the cash he had tucked away in various business fronts and offshore holdings had been discovered by the Feds. So he needs to use his illicit talent to raise the money he lost. The management track at Cinnabon isn’t getting it done.
Then again, does he really need the money? He’s a single person with a deliberately spartan lifestyle in an extremely affordable area of the country. Learning from Francesca that his secret stashes are gone serve as a catalyst for criminality in the same way that the cancer diagnosis was for Walt, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In “Breaking Bad,” as with last week’s episode, we’re reminded — and Jimmy is also reminded — how good he is at plotting and executing scams, and moreover, how much pleasure he gets out of it. This is the person he was meant to be, and it’s perhaps an uglier person than we might have hoped to see based on his better moments. Uglier than even his two-bit partners, one of whom ultimately doesn’t have the stomach for it.
Better Call Saul has the dramatic courage to crush the assumption that Jimmy would tap the brakes on the identity-theft scheme when he encounters a man who’s taking pills for pancreatic cancer. We have witnessed plenty of instances on the show when Jimmy has used trickery to achieve justice for the type of people ill-served by the system, but it’s a corrosive practice over the long haul. It took Howard’s murder for Kim to make that realization, but even that was after she made a deliberate choice to follow through on a big con rather than take a meeting that would have advanced her noble legal aspirations. The thing about breaking bad is that you eventually break all the way: Walt cannot stop weeping and apologizing to the first person he kills in cold blood Breaking Bad — a dealer who tried to kill him and would do so again — but it gets easier as he goes along.
Now that “Saul Goodman” is back in action, Jimmy’s distance from his own humanity has widened once again. By finally linking the show to Walt, Jesse, and the Breaking Bad universe, Better Call Saul suggests that Walt and Jimmy’s lonely fates, tied to their talents and impulses, may be aligned.
• Outstanding sendoff for Tina Parker as Francesca. Her entire exchange with her pothead tenants is gold (“Your whole space smells like a skunk’s butthole”), but the most Francesca moment may be her last, when she hangs up the phone before Jimmy can even finish the line, “I guess this is goodbye.”
• I enjoyed the spinoff El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, but it’s probably not a great sign for its cultural longevity that I had completely forgotten about it until Francesca mentions that Jesse’s car was found by the border.
• Jimmy’s attempt to call Kim at Palm Coast Sprinklers in Titusville, Florida, is staged a lot like Robert De Niro’s final call to Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver, which goes so badly that the camera pulls away and peers down an empty hallway. Whatever Jimmy is hearing on the other end upsets him greatly, too, but we don’t know what and we don’t know who, either. The chances that Kim herself is on the other end of the line rejecting him seem slim.
• Jeff’s reaction to Jimmy’s proposal (“So we’re back in business? Oh hell yeah!”) is akin to Michael Jordan asking some guy from the YMCA to play on his pick-up basketball team. He gets to learn at the foot of a master.
• Smart to bring Walt and Jesse back in such a limited way. This isn’t their show. They’re just a piece of Jimmy’s story, however pivotal.
This article has been updated to remove an error.
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