Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut (Photo: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Last week I began my review by talking about the pleasure of watching Mike Ehrmantraut at work. This week shows us Jimmy and Chuck at work—at Mike’s work, that is, super-secret spy stuff. The contrast, dear readers, is delightful. And all the more so for the juxtaposition taking place not in the same episode where we watched Mike methodically tracking his trackers, but a whole week later.

Let’s talk about Chuck’s rickety ploy first, because it’s the one whose prologue I missed on my first viewing of “Mabel.” As many alert commenters pointed out, the whole Ernesto-hears-the-tape scene was a staged performance by Chuck, designed to send Ernie running to Jimmy with the news that a tape exists, so that Jimmy would (the way Chuck imagined it) break into Chuck’s house to steal the tape. Accordingly, Chuck’s gotten Howard to fund round-the-clock investigators so that Jimmy’s act of self-incrimination will be witnessed properly, and the whole shebang will become admissible in a court or disbarment proceeding.

An astute reader last week (and now I can’t find the comment among the thousands, so please speak up and take your bow) noted that the characters on this show construct perfect crimes—only to be undone because someone else knows them too well. That’s a terrific insight. But it goes further than that: The characters often make mistakes because they are too certain that they know each other inside and out. And that smug certainty leads them to project their own traits on their marks. Here Chuck thinks Jimmy is slippery and conniving, methodically plotting in the darkness to bring down the enemy. He doesn’t understand the searing existential anger of a brother betrayed—until Jimmy busts down the door in broad daylight, right after Chuck has conceded to Howard that maybe the investigators can be limited to nighttime hours to cut costs because Jimmy will act “under cover of darkness.” If Ernie had waited one more day to pass along the message to Jimmy, or if Jimmy had stewed for a few hours after hearing about it, Chuck’s plan might have failed. Instead, it succeeds despite his miscalculation, beyond his wildest dreams. “For this you destroyed our family? For nothing!” Jimmy hurls his counter-accusation at Chuck. But all he hears is the acknowledgment of guilt that he sought, and he calmly draws the noose closed: “Howard, you were a witness to what happened here?”

But the centerpiece of the episode is the extended sequence of Jimmy acting on Mike’s behalf at Los Pollos Hermanos. It’s a masterpiece. Contrast Mike’s patience as he tracks his Caprice wagon’s gas cap to a drop box under a highway overpass, then to some giant conduits under a power substation, then to the restaurant—where the tracker stays, even after the knapsack and Blazer head out. You can’t find out everything in one go. You lie low and find out what you can, then devise a plan for finding out more. Too hasty, and you reveal yourself. If your marks see you coming, you’ve lost already.

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Jimmy’s more of an on-the-fly type—see an opening and grab it. Don’t leave without the goods, without closing the deal. That makes him prone to run risks. He’s not exactly subtle as he casually moves around the restaurant trying to keep Gus’s subordinate and his knapsack in view. Whether it’s an exaggerated lean that triggers the soda dispenser or an upsetting amount of sugar packets in his coffee, Jimmy doesn’t know how to keep a low profile. He never even pretends to eat his Pollos Classic, no upsize. And then when the target leaves without tipping his hand, Jimmy panics and starts pawing through the trash, head through the flap, heedless of the presence we’ve been watching over his shoulder, closer and closer.

Jimmy thinks on his feet, no doubt about it—he pulls off his watch before untangling himself from the trashcan so he has an excuse to be digging around in there. But next to ice-cold Gus Fring, his lack of chill is painful to behold. Mike sent Jimmy in there because he’s an anonymous third party; as the target of the tracker, he can’t appear himself lest he reveal what he knows. Jimmy couldn’t help trying to do too much, though. And now he’s on Fring’s radar. So much for keeping your distance.

We’ve seen that Jimmy can work his ass off, hours upon end, when he really wants something. The grifter has to put in the time, after all, to gain his mark’s trust. But he’s never been into the long con, the one where you have to go back to the well for days, weeks, months, years. Remember how Bingo Night drove him to despair last season? Chuck’s right about Jimmy this far—he can’t take much delayed gratification. He’s always prone to the shortcut. Look at how he’s ready to hire Francesca as soon as he finds out she worked at the DMV and knows the Microsoft Office suite (“You had me at old people; can you start today?”) while Kim wants to go through a careful hiring process. The commercial’s about to air and we need someone on the phone who can work Cracker Barrel into the conversation and get the digits. “Perfection is the enemy of perfectly adequate,” he pleads.

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That’s not a philosophy you’d ever hear from Mike Ehrmantraut or Gustavo Fring. Or Chuck, Howard, or Kim. Those folks are what you call detail oriented. And while Jimmy has a talent for the telling detail in others, and he’s almost always right, he doesn’t have the self-awareness to turn that lens on himself. Sloppy. Thoughtless. Undisciplined. And now that’s put him in peril from two dangerous enemies.

Stray observations:

  • Worse—can this be worse?—it undoes Mike’s efforts to keep himself under the radar. Following the Escalade from Los Pollos Hermanos, he finds his gas cap lying in the road with a burner phone on top. He’s made, and he’s about to find out what that means.
  • Some little details we might keep in mind as the season progresses: The marked casino cards that David the investigator is using to play solitaire (to prevent cheating, Chuck notes); “trajectory” in the word search Gus’ bored operative is doing at the meeting site; with bottle-cap collecting, “the pleasure’s in the hunt.”
  • Also, Jimmy’s not inclined to “go bold with the extra salsa” like Gus’ courier. Noted.
  • “We’re not gonna, like, tail him to a new location?” Jimmy suggests to Mike. Stay in your lane, man.
  • Hands down my favorite moment: In his haste (and because he’s a careless jerk) Jimmy tips the plastic basket into the trash can, then Gus sighs as he fishes it out.
  • The M is “a little crooked” in Jimmy’s wall-sized Wexler-McGill logo. Yeah. A little crooked. And now that he’s asked Kim to make sure it “doesn’t look like a stock market crash,” that’s all I can see.
  • Kim is Jimmy’s lawyer now, thanks to a $20 retainer so their discussion of the tape is covered under attorney-client confidentiality. Poor Ernie, on the other hand, comes to WM instead of calling so he won’t leave a phone record, then ends up calling anyway because he’s too afraid to walk in. He’s “a bit fuzzy on the legal points.”
  • Another lovely bookend to something that started in “Mabel”: Jimmy’s rolling the blue tape off the wall with his thumbs, the way Chuck showed him, until he realizes he’s doing it Chuck’s way and goes back to ripping it down.
  • “Do you ever yell at them? I mean, geezers, how can you not?” Jimmy asks Francesca, revealing the frayed state of his nervous system under the strain of his chosen clientele. (“Nor should you, that was a trick question.”)
  • “No wonder Rebecca left you! What took her so long?” Jimmy knows just what to say to inflict maximum pain on his brother. I imagine we’ll find out more about that story this season, too.
  • “Speak loudly and clearly, but be careful with the loud and clear because it can come off angry.”

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