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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Better Call Saul: “Hero”

Illustration for article titled iBetter Call Saul/i: “Hero”
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The tragic arc of Walter White results from his conviction that he harbors unrecognized greatness. When the opportunity arises to prove that he is more than a chemistry teacher making ends meet with a soul-sucking car-wash job, he takes itto show them all, everyone who never believed in his genius (even if, with true Sartrean irony, they could never actually know about it). But the tragic arc of James McGill results from his suspicion that he is exactly what he seems to be. He has spent many years trying to live up to others’ hopes for himto make them proud, to repent, to leave an errant past behind. Finally, though, it’s time to face facts. When the Kettlemans refuse his legal services, telling him he’s the kind of lawyer guilty people hire, he takes it as a profession of truth. Never mind that they too are guilty; they’re successful enough to afford their delusions. Not him. He’s Slippin’ Jimmy, now and forever.

“Upon this rock I will build my church,” he mutters as he totes up the Kettlemans’ bundles of cash into imaginary legal services. It’s what Jesus said when Peter identified him correctly as the Christ. Jimmy has finally decided that he can’t build a successful legal practice on Chuck’s model of hustle and noble service. But he can build one on the truth about himselfthat he’s a bribe-taking, corner-cutting, bottom-feeding last resort for people who carry around their money in duffle bags.


The only problem is that to make more than “beer money,” the way he did with his scams in Cicero, he has to think big. Let no one say that Jimmy McGill lacks courage. The stunt on the billboard may be orchestrated, but our Jimmy has to climb every inch of that 65 feet and dangle over the side to pull his confederate to safety. That’s what you get from Jimmy that you don’t get from those other guys: “Passion. Commitment.” And maybe in his mind, that entitles him to accept the epithet of “Local Lawyer, Local Hero,” just as Betsy Kettleman felt that Craig’s long hours earned him an extra million or two over his salary. If you can’t get it on the up and up, there are other ways. Sticking to what’s strictly legal or ethical? Empty semantics. “Slavery, that used to be legal,” Betsy helpfully points out. “Human slavery.”

And when Jimmy stands up to Nacho’s threats, you’ve got to admire the man. Warning the Kettlemans wasn’t the work of a rat, but a caring citizen who saved not only the Kettle-kids but also Nacho himself. “You should be thanking this good Samaritan,” he insists, “because whoever he is, he did you a favor.” Even from his vantage point at the bottom of the barrel, there are truths that need to be told. They may serve a dual purpose, deflecting attention from the less savory aspects of his situation, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. Kim does deserves a job where she’s appreciated. Howard Hamlin has no right to bar Jimmy from using his own name. When Jimmy’s clients are in trouble, they do know he’s there for them. Getting that message heard requires a little showmanship, that’s all.

One of the very long list of reasons for Breaking Bad’s greatness is the way Gilligan and his team of writers and directors allow us to observe Walter’s thought process. We watch him making judgments — both spur-of-the-moment and carefully plottedabout what skillset to employ at any given moment, about how best to seize the opportunities in front of him. (It’s about one delightful “science, bitch!” for every ten manipulative bullshit speeches, if you’re keeping track.) Here we also get the pleasure of watching Jimmy’s gears turn. Provoke Howard Hamlin, get slapped with an injunction, provide the papers with a David-and-Goliath story (“I wouldn’t characterize this as a community health risk, but … Yes, the war is an important story as well …”), and when all else fails, a little slip-and-fall with the cameras rolling.

And it works! “You have seven new messages,” the voicemail lady announces, and we can’t help but cheer, having seen Jimmy hustle just as hard in previous episodes and get no return on his investment. There are only two problems with his decision to stick to his knitting and concentrate on his core competencies, as the business gurus say. One, he’ll disappoint Chuck. And two, he can’t control the class of guilty people who will hire him. It’s not going to be all necrophiliacs and drunks and the occasional lucrative embezzler. His matchbooks are circulating on a whole different level of Albuquerque society. And their business is going to put even Jimmy’s much-reduced sense of integrity under some serious stress.


Stray observations:

  • It’s a complicated scam Jimmy (or Saul for “‘S all good, man,” as he first calls himself here) and Alley Guy (Mel Rodriguez from Getting On) are running on drunken night-owl Stevie (Kevin Weisman from Alias) in the opening flashback. But it’s also a classic gameplan: preying on the greed of the mark, the con man allows him to think he’s the one doing the conning. Allowing the other person to think they’re in charge recalls how Jimmy talked the skaters out of Tuco’s clutches. And I imagine we’re going to see that particular trick from him again.
  • Oh man, you’ve got to love the story the Kettlemans are telling themselves, about staging their own kidnapping “for the kids” and concocting a camping story because they shouldn’t be crucified in the press for the “teensy mistake” of running away. Actually, it’s Betsy telling it to her seemingly henpecked husband, who meekly accepts her definitions of reality, like how they’re entitled to the money because “weI mean Craigearned it.”
  • Chuck has to take a harrowing space-blanketed expedition across the street, under the humming electrical wires, to retrieve the Albuquerque Journal when he realizes that Jimmy is hiding it from him. (“Maybe some kids grabbed it,” Jimmy suggests of the missing paper, and Chuck quips drily: “Because if there’s one thing kids love, it’s local print journalism.”) I’m of the opinion that Chuck’s condition is physiological and not psychological, despite the lack of medical evidence for electromagnetic hypersensitivity; he shows no other sign of mental illness, at least not yet. In any case, the difficulty he has leaving the bill in his neighbor’s driveway recalls Jimmy chasing the dropped coins at the payphone. People on this show are always stooping awkwardly to clutch at money.
  • Jimmy and Mike have a little reconciliation based on the help Mike gave in finding the Kettlemans. “You assume that criminals are going to be smarter than they are,” Jimmy muses. “It kinda breaks my heart a little.” Clearly Mike became immune to that kind of heartbreak years ago.
  • Tonight’s tone-deaf movie reference: Jimmy wants his hair done in ringlets, like Tony Curtis in “the bath scene in Spartacus.” Uh, do you mean the one where Laurence Olivier tells Tony that he likes both snails and oysters? Not exactly an alpha-male look, dude. (On the other hand, Kim shows she has excellent taste in eighties movies by inviting Jimmy to The Thing.)
  • I wonder where Jimmy got the list of fashion terms he consults when instructing the tailor about his bespoke suit? “Super 170 Tasmanian wool,” “finest Sea Island cotton,” “white club collar and French cuffs” … it sounds like something that might have appeared in a society-pages profile of Howard Hamlin, perhaps. Meanwhile, he’s eyeing a bright orange button-down that we superfans know is a lot closer to his future style.
  • Hamlin can’t own all the fonts out there, but he does claim ownership of “Hamlindigo Blue,” the color of the firm’s logo.
  • “They’re rich. They’re powerful. I’m just one man.”
  • “It’s a given you don’t do it in her ear.”

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