AMC’s Better Call Saul is often discussed in terms of when its protagonist Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) will “become” the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad, to which it acts mostly as a prequel. Unsurprisingly, Saul’s sixth and final season has played to that crowd over the last few weeks as a massive influx of new criminal clientele—attracted by Jimmy’s relationship to cartel heavy-hitter Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton)—heralds the arrival of several unmistakeable signifiers: a bluetooth earpiece, a strip-mall office, and the return of acerbic receptionist Francesca (Tina Parker). One of the most interesting remaining gaps between Jimmy and Saul, though, is his apparent reluctance to fully embrace it.
When he expressed moral concerns about representing Salamanca in last season’s standout “Bad Choice Road,” Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) responded by drawling out a tidy speech: “We all make our choices. Those choices put us on a road.” Breaking Bad was always more concerned with the consequences of decisions, but its prequel uses our inherent awareness of those consequences to mount a more nuanced exploration of the circumstances surrounding the decisions that led there. This particular choice, which continues to look like the most consequential one on the road to Saul Goodman, is a fundamental non-choice made at gunpoint. It’s also one that brings Saul Goodman the kind of personal and professional validation Jimmy McGill had been desperately grabbing at for the majority of the series.
Largely, Better Call Saul has been about that pursuit, of very literally making a name for oneself. Its parent series made similar use of Walter White’s increasing attachment to the pseudonym “Heisenberg” as a symbol of the long-denied recognition his methamphetamine operation offered for his talents as a chemist. The invention of Saul Goodman, on the other hand, has always been marked by Jimmy’s non-choices and a more personal sense of loss that accompanies a world slowly narrowing around other options, beginning in his introduction with an earnest attempt to break good after a previous taste of notoriety.
That struggle is outlined at first by the use of two other names. The first, “Slippin’ Jimmy,” was one he earned as a prolific and talented con man in Illinois before he went a step too far and got arrested. In exchange for legal help, Jimmy agreed to clean up his act and take a job in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm in Albuquerque, where impressed managing partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) dubbed him “Charlie Hustle.” The former had been a proven path to recognition, while the latter appeared to be an attempt to correct course.
A flashback in the show’s eighth episode, “RICO,” shows “Charlie Hustle” using the qualities that once made him a great conman—a patient, dogged tenacity and easy trust-inspiring affability—to schmooze his way around Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill as he delivers the mail. We learn he’s finally passed the bar after 10 years in online law school, and he asks his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) to put in a good word about an entry-level legal job. It’s our first glimpse at a path that might have led away from Saul Goodman, a vision of genuine excitement and patient humility about building a legal career from the ground up, rather than resignedly trudging through a solo practice.
It turns out Chuck McGill will largely be the one responsible for blocking that path; Chuck quietly insists that Howard deny Jimmy from any opportunity for upward mobility at HHM. “An online course? What a joke!” he sputters when forced to justify his meddling. “I worked my ass off to get where I am, and you take these shortcuts and you think suddenly you’re my peer?!” “I know what you were, what you are.” he spits. “People don’t change… Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!”
Despite being shown going to almost unreasonable lengths to plan and execute elaborate schemes, Jimmy is frequently mischaracterized in this way, as someone looking for a shortcut. He had already overcome notably larger obstacles just in getting his law degree after deliberately leaving behind a ready source of instant gratification in Illinois. Chuck’s failure to see the appeal that life might have had for his insecure brother, let alone his relative achievements there, leads him to arm the chimp himself when his attempts to keep “Slippin’ Jimmy” away from the law effectively just prevent his brother from ever seeing a return on investment for the straight-and-narrow path, putting him at a disadvantage that made the proven methods of “Slippin’ Jimmy” his only recourse for getting ahead.
By initially scapegoating Howard, Chuck also encourages a series-long grudge against the partner at HHM who saw the potential of “Charlie Hustle,” which escalates into actual hand-to-hand combat in a boxing ring in last week’s “Black and Blue.” Howard’s retaliation, after five-and-a-half seasons of patient, sympathetic cheek turning, is as crucial a turning point as any of the season’s more direct gestures. After Jimmy’s dead end at HHM, Howard became a persistent, sometimes frustrating reminder of an alternate future for Jimmy by turning the name “Charlie Hustle” into a sort of affectionate, apologetic affirmation of his respect for Jimmy. When the show makes a rare narrative hiccup at the end of Season 1 by jumping the gun on a full commitment to “Slippin’ Jimmy,” Howard is essential to the course-correct by working with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) to secure Jimmy a cushy job at HHM’s partner firm Davis & Main.
Though Jimmy’s faith in the patience and humility of that path has shattered, he gives “Charlie Hustle” one last shot out of affection for Kim, a former HHM coworker who was actually offered an opportunity in the legal department and has become a formidable lawyer. For a brief period before he begins an indignant campaign to get himself fired, there’s a painful earnestness in Jimmy’s confused frustration at his failures to fit into the corporate structure there, trying to work up the courage to present ideas to his superiors which he knows they’ll find inappropriate, but which he sees as exhilarating proof of his unique potential as a lawyer. Kim, too, becomes frustrated with those power dynamics at HHM and eventually even in her solo practice, and begins indulging in small-time scams with Jimmy as a way to soothe her ego and let off steam. Their shared resentment for Howard makes him a frequent target.
Moments after Jimmy’s encounter with Lalo, he’s approached by Howard with an offer to finally take a job at HHM and responds with the kind of screed that might have finally made Chuck McGill proud. “You know why I didn’t take the job? ‘Cause it’s too small!” he shrieks, advancing on Howard. “It’s nothing to me! It’s a bacterium! I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine!” Big words for a man who just tried to talk his way out of the line of work he’s seemingly referring to, but Jimmy seems all at once to recognize the challenge implicit in Lalo’s seemingly impossible demand to get him off on bail for a murder charge. Whether or not he had a choice, he was now on a path that offered him, for the first time, an open chance to prove his skills as a lawyer.
No matter how much Howard might have believed in second chances, Jimmy was always going to struggle to fit into his world. The last time we see Jimmy set foot in HHM is a season earlier when Howard invites him to sit on the board for a scholarship in Chuck’s name, where Jimmy makes an impassioned case for an otherwise promising candidate, Kristy (Abby Quinn), with a mark on her criminal record for shoplifting. Howard soaks in the argument with genuine admiration and calls for another vote, which still favors against her. Even if not for Chuck, we realize, any of these other HHM bigwigs—Howard excluded—still might have used Jimmy’s past indiscretions as a justification for denying him redemption and forcing him back onto the “bad choice road” he was trying to stray from. It takes a long time to realize that from the beginning, a criminal demographic was the only one who would ever accept him unconditionally.
Built on a sprawling ensemble cast, Better Call Saul is a portrait of Albuquerque crowded with ambitious nobodys for whom the criminal underworld offers a surprisingly open platform for personal vindication. By the time Jimmy embraces that, he’s got a deep chip on his shoulder from years of futile attempts to prove himself in defiance of that path. That spite will likely drive Jimmy to seize his opportunity a little too eagerly in the subsequent eight episodes, trading in his remaining moral hangups for obnoxious, unavoidable proof of his success.
We’ve always known Jimmy’s path ends in a golden toilet, and from the first moments of the show we also know that Saul Goodman’s path ends in Gene Takavic, an identity he assumes to hide out from the consequences of his actions in Breaking Bad. As Gene, he’ll eke out a meager existence in Omaha managing a food-court Cinnabon and privately finding comfort by reminiscing on his days as Saul Goodman, all while experiencing debilitating panic attacks at the mere thought of being recognized in public. But as each season paints a more dynamic picture of the circumstances leading there, the question of whether it was all worth it for Gene starts to feel beside the point.
After the scholarship meeting, Jimmy runs out of HHM to catch Kristy on her way out. “You made a mistake, and they are never forgetting it,” he begins, his tone teetering unstably between apologetic and off-puttingly personal. “I mean, they’ll smile at you, they’ll pat you on the head but they are never ever letting you in… You’re gonna do whatever it takes, do you hear me? You’re not going to play by the rules.” The inevitable image of Saul Goodman fades into focus. “You rub their noses in it! You make them suffer!”
Tommy Ordway is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY with bylines in Paste and Hullabaloo. He disdains sweet potatoes and loathes the dreaded parsnip. You can find him on Twitter @tommyttommmy.
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