Ursula Coyote/AMC

So which is it—“People don’t change,” or “it’s up to you”?

One hour from the end of this first season, our two main characters are living out two very different existential perspectives. For Mike, you always have a choice. You can’t change what you’ve done in the past, but there’s always more than one way to live out the consequences. But Jimmy has just confirmed what he’s always suspected: His future was written in stone years ago. His brother doesn’t believe he can change. And so he’s been systematically blocking any chance Jimmy might have had to do differently.

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“Pimento” culminates in one of the bitterest scenes I’ve ever witnessed on television. It’s taken nine episodes to build to this point and give this exchange its impactremarkably efficient, compared to the seasons it might take another show to accumulate this much pent-up emotion and illustrate in the present the baggage of this much backstory. During those episodes we’ve witnessed the source of Chuck’s convictions in a few flashbacks; he’s had to listen more than once to Jimmy promise that things will be different, that he’s changed. But much more vividly, frequently, and intimately, we’ve seen the dogged determination of Jimmy to change his brother’s mind, to reform himself into someone who serves the good through the means of the law. Someone who uses the law to help the desperate and punish the guilty—to do the right thing, not to make a quick killing. And all of it has been in vain. The great Charles McGill cannot conceive that he might share a profession with his ne’er-do-well brother. His only recourse is to make sure Jimmy stays mired at such a low level that Chuck can safely dismiss him “not a real lawyer.”

The conspiracy isn’t evident immediately. There’s every indication that Chuck is right about what it’s going to take to properly serve their clients on this case. They really can’t do it alone, with half their workforce (the half that doesn’t suffer from the aftereffects of a debilitating psychological condition) being hauled into court to argue nuisance filings, while Schweikart and Cokely’s army of associates and paralegals generate documents faster than Chuck can review them. But once he’s gotten Jimmy to agree to take the case to HHM, Chuck has to scramble to cut off his larger ambitions at the pass. What hurts Jimmy the most is that Chuck subjected himself to the agony of fishing out the quarantined cell phone to call Howard, just to make sure Jimmy wouldn’t get anything a real lawyer might get. “The phone must have felt like a blowtorch in your ear,” Jimmy seethes. That’s how important it was to Chuck to keep Jimmy down. And as loathsome as Howard has been so far, the revelation of Chuck’s longtime sabotage campaign actually puts his Hamlindigo Blue ass in a new light. He’s played the bad guy so Chuck can continue to pretend to be on Jimmy’s side—which, when he explains it to Kim after she protests Jimmy’s treatment, makes her realize how much more it will hurt when Jimmy learns the truth. Unfortunately, when she begs him to take the deal, Jimmy’s spidey sense for bullshit activates, and his strangely dead phone provides the telltale clue.

Over in Mike’s storyline, though, he’s schooling novice criminals and fronting thugs alike in the ways of professional honor and respect. This is the moment when viewers who haven’t seen Breaking Bad witness exactly why we fell in love with this character. Being tough isn’t about packing and trash talking. And dealing with drug dealers and other denizens of the underworld isn’t about being tough. Mike did his research and knows his business, and he helps the milquetoast pill merchant (“Hi, my name is Price, actually that’s not my name, I’ve got a nephew named Price and I’ve always kind of liked that name”) avoid several rookie mistakes. To his protest “I’m not a bad guy,” Mike has only realism to offer: “You’re now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.”

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Maybe that’s what is most disappointing about what we learned about Chuck tonight. He’s got the goods; nobody disputes that he’s a great lawyer. And yet he’s insecure. He sees Jimmy as a liability—as a threat. As soon as he gains the ability to provide for himself again, even a little bit, he pulls up the ladder, leaving Jimmy behind. He justifies it to himself as love of the law, protecting its sacred purity from the charlatan he believes Jimmy will always be. To do so, he has to turn a blind eye to all the contrary evidence: Jimmy’s hard work, perceptiveness, resourcefulness, and (most sadly) the way he’s cared for Chuck and defended him during his eighteen month exile, I wonder if this will be Chuck’s downfall in his return to the law, too. Several times already he’s let his prior expectations affect his ability to see what’s right in front of him.

Appearances are deceiving; that’s the obvious theme of Mike’s plotline tonight. “Dealing with some of these ethnic types, the blood tends to run a little hotter. That’s just science,” as the fronting goon blathers. It’s those kind of confident, blinkered prejudgments that lead to trouble—and more importantly, to insecurity, as revealed by the goon’s ridiculously oversized cache of weaponry. But Mike’s real skill and clear perception puts him in his place. Jimmy has skill and perceptiveness too, and he knows that it’s hard work that matters, not big offices or impressive credentials. If he can get past his wholly justified rage and team up with someone of like mind, he could lawyer HHM under the table. God, I hope we get to see him try.

Stray observations:

  • Lots of location shooting in this episode, which means gorgeous compositions backed by the broad brushstrokes of New Mexico sky. Whether glimpsed through the open sides of a parking deck or looming behind an abandoned industrial site, it reminds us of the freedom and amorality of this place, where you get to define yourself—but where also there’s no place to hide.
  • “Pimento” is a perfectly constructed episode. Not only do we have the resonance of Mike’s lesson to Price echoed in Jimmy’s discovery about Chuck, but the hour is full of slightly off-kilter dichotomies. Nacho’s van versus Price’s minivan; the sun-dappled HHM offices (even after they turn out all the lights) versus Chuck’s shadowy Faraday cage; Price chasing after that last extra $20 bill versus Jimmy unwittingly following Chuck’s script in the HHM negotiations; the space-blanket-lined suit Chuck wears for his HHM visit versus the normal one he brings down to iron afterward; Chuckland (“no place to plug in”) versus Jimmyland; Nacho’s freelancing versus Chuck’s rush back into HHM’s corporate embrace.
  • What Chuck does to Jimmy is especially despicable given the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the space-blanket-lined suit he makes for Charles McGill’s triumphant return. If it weren’t for Kim noticing how he’s left behind, giving him a hand, caring about his feelings, Jimmy’s abandonment would be almost unbearably bleak.
  • Hey, Big Gulp Court Reporter is back! We saw her in “Uno” transcribing Jimmy’s defense of the corpse-violating near honors students.
  • “Why don’t you give me and Man Mountain there $750 each and send Uncle Fester home?” Fronting Goon suggests, revealing a colorful melange of pop culture knowledge. (Best of all, the large goon who flees the parking garage is listed as Man Mountain in the closing credits.) Meanwhile in Jimmy McGill Movie Reference news: “We can Erin Brockovich the shit out of this case!” and “You’re like a damn pod person!”
  • Oh man, when Jimmy puts Chuck on notice by suggesting he quit HHM, it’s a dawning revelation for Chuck and audience alike. If Chuck really wanted Jimmy at HHM, he could get it done. What’s so affecting about that scene is the way the charades drop, all the way down to the bone, one by one.
  • RIP the Chuck/Jimmy team-up we were all rooting for: “Two McGill boys, side by side, storming the gates, righting wrongs, taking down the bad guys.” Hasten quickly, the Mike/Jimmy (and Kim/Jimmy?) team-ups still to come.
  • “He has reached a level of douchebaggery that will live on for generations, passed down by windtalkers and the like.”

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