The more we learn about Jimmy McGill, the more we recognize the many dimensions of heartbreak Gilligan and Gould have devised for us. This week’s painful lesson: Jimmy McGill is the hardest working lawyer in the business. He will doggedly pursue any opportunity, even when the rewards are meager (like the $140 per will he’s stringing together in his elder law practice). And when there’s a case that needs building, he will trudge miles into the desert or dive into the most disgusting dumpster to get the evidence he needs.
His work ethic, we discover in a devastating opening flashback, goes all the way back to his days in the mailroom at HHM, where he worked his way through law school by correspondence and passed the bar on his third try—never letting on to anyone except Kim, whose example inspired him. But it’s also in that flashback that we see why Jimmy’s hard work is part of his tragedy. There’s a conspiracy to keep him away from the brass ring, to kick the ladder of success out from under him. No one, not even his brother, really believes he has what it takes. No one, certainly not Howard Hamlin and his success perm, thinks he belongs among the lawyers. We watch him explain this to Jimmy in mime, through the mailroom window, with a soundtrack of copy-machine ka-chunkas. “Let’s reassess in six months,” Howard calls back blithely, having broken a man’s spirit right next to his congratulatory cake. “Thanks for understanding, Jimmy.”
It puts Jimmy’s current existence, plugging away at those wills and pretending to be his own receptionist, in perspective. If he’s tempted to take short cuts, like we saw in “Uno” with the skaters, who the hell can blame him? Doing things the right way has gotten him next to nowhere. The powers that control the riches seem determined to keep him in rags. Even his brother doesn’t know how to react to Jimmy’s initiative. ”So, are you proud of me?” Jimmy prompts, a bit pathetically, after revealing his law degree and Esq. title. But to his next query, “consider hiring me,” Chuck absentmindedly fires back: “As what?”
If there’s a signature reaction to Jimmy in “RICO,” it’s dubiousness. In the cold open, Kim tries to shoo him and his mail cart away before he even makes it in the door: “I’m really slammed, just tell me what you need.” You get the feeling he’s been pestering her, presuming on the relationship implied by that full-on-the-lips kiss she gives him after opening the letter from the bar association. Later she doubts that Jimmy’s request for printouts of precedents and case law could really mean that he’s on to something. After his incongruous pleasantries about the opera, Schweikart—Sandpiper’s cocky suspender-snapping lawyer—doesn’t give Jimmy’s cardboard-and-TP demand letter any credence; “This is a shakedown and we both know it,” he explains with annoying certainty. Chuck soft-pedals the significance of the Sandpiper financial statements Jimmy’s so excited about—partly because he can’t believe he missed it himself, but partly because he’s accustomed to throwing cold water on Jimmy’s enthusiasms. (“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” Jimmy comforts him self-deprecatingly.) And he shakes his head at the dumpster-diving stunt, sure that Jimmy must have trespassed or burgled or something. Everybody assumes that if Jimmy’s doing something, it can’t be worth doing.
They should trust his instincts. Who’s better at recognizing a scam than a former scammer? When Mrs. Landry tells him that she can pay for her will next week, when her allowance from Sandpiper comes, Jimmy smells a rat. When he gets a peek at her account statement, with its $14 charges for Kleenex, he knows he’s onto something. And having caught the scent of victimization, he won’t be intimidated by burly security guys or high-priced corporate lawyers. In this he seems to be of one mind with his brother, who takes over piecing together shredded documents after Jimmy pulls an all-nighter. “It’s your smoking gun,” he announces proudly, showing Jimmy a reconstructed invoice for syringes from a Nebraska company—an invoice that transforms the demeanor of the dismissive Sandpiper lawyers when Jimmy points out that their client’s scam involves interstate commerce, opening the door to a racketeering charge. (Hence the episode title.) “Well, what number exactly did you have in mind?” Schweikart proffers, and that’s when Chuck—whose terror at the prospect of the meeting was such that Jimmy promised he only needed to “sit there and look intimidating—finally speaks up. “$20 million, or we’ll see you in court,” he announces calmly.
Jimmy’s hard work is finally paying off. A huge case, a class action suit, a deep-pocketed defendant, and on top of everything, he’s protecting vulnerable seniors and helping his brother get back on his feet. But that last bit could prove to be a double-edged sword. Kim reminds him that Chuck still is on contract at HHM, and even though his partnership agreement allows him to do pro bono work with outside parties, this is turning into anything but a charity case. And in the last scene of the episode, Chuck comes face to face with a truth that is going to turn his world upside down: His condition disappears when he is preoccupied enough to forget its existence. In a brilliant piece of musical scoring, Chuck hears the mounting buzz and dissonance of the electromagnetic spectrum only when Jimmy’s horrified face makes him realize where he is—outside, having wandered absentmindedly to Jimmy’s car to retrieve a box of files. (He even fishes out the key fob from him mailbox to unlock the trunk.) And then the hum pops out of existence, like the invisible ground under Wile E. Coyote’s feet when he realizes he’s walked off a cliff.
There’s never any win-win for Jimmy. Every attempt to do the right thing winds up with somebody—let’s face it, usually that jerk Howard Hamlin—snatching success from his grasp. He’s going to have a hard time holding on to this lawsuit once Howard realizes what that bill for printing services under Chuck’s code means, and once Chuck, whose worth as a lawyer we start to understand in this episode, ceases to be disabled. What he will do to keep what’s rightfully his—that’s the hard and desperate work we’re likely to see from Jimmy as this mesmerizing first season of Better Call Saul draws to a close.
- Specifically, Chuck’s worth as a lawyer stems from his encyclopedic knowledge of the legal code and precedents (of which we saw glimpses in earlier episodes, like when he quotes chapter and verse on probable cause to the police officers at his door in “Alpine Shepherd Boy”), combined with a rock-star knack for creative insight. Schweikart reminisces at their conference about working on a co-defense with him; “I figured you’d be arguing in front of the Supreme Court someday,” he enthuses, as Chuck stares in shame at the makeshift conference table in his shadowy hermitage.
- That final scene with Chuck going outside, forgetting in a moment of intense concentration that he can’t stand it outside, skates right up to the edge of incredulity. Could someone who has so altered his life to reflect his condition really make this mistake? I’m willing to go with it because it’s such a fantastic sequence, leading up to the moment when our disbelief is mirrored by Jimmy and then realized by Chuck himself. Chuck’s genius almost certainly stems from single-minded obsession and absolute focus on the task at hand. And his transformation after the conference with the Sandpiper lawyers has already astounded Jimmy, who stares at him dumbfounded (and a little bit concerned) when he sets to immediately on class certification and directs Jimmy to draw up a temporary restraining order against the Sandpiper goons who threw him out of the assisted-living facility and prevented him from seeing his clients.
- We shouldn’t be surprised that this show turns out to be genius at building character out of small moments. My favorites from “RICO”: Jimmy’s Dale-Carnegie-style name-checks of every HHM cubicle-dweller as he pushes his mail cart (I especially like the mouthed “thank you” from Dan, who’s on the phone); his anxious checking with Chuck about his understanding of the laws about ownership of trash (“You can’t say it’s private if a hobo can use it as a wigwam! —That’s the standard, right, if animals or vagrants can get in?”); and his touching care for Chuck, kneeling to tie his shoes before the legal conference.
- How much does Mike care about Kaylee? When Stacey calls to ask if he’ll babysit, he waves a car through the open parking-lot barrier without paying or showing stickers! And of course, when Stacey lets drop that she’s worried about money, he visits that connected veterinarian to ask about getting some work in ABQ’s underworld. That, too. But no stickers! Stacey calls up and all the sudden it’s anarchy in that parking lot!
- Jimmy may not have Chuck’s steel-trap mind for the law, but he seems to have memorized the mascots for the nation’s great universities. “Go Cornhuskers,” he comments when showing the Sandpiper lawyers the Nebraska invoice. And “Go Land Crabs!” he cheers when he mentions his alma mater the University of American Samoa (“They’re accredited!”). Fans of Breaking Bad minutiae will remember that Saul had a diploma from this (non-existent) university in his office, but with the name “Saul Goodman” on it.
- “They don’t pay any of us enough for this,” the Sandpiper employees grumble to each other as they dump a fresh batch of soiled adult diapers on top of Jimmy. Meanwhile in the Sandpiper common room, the dozing residents are watching Bell, Book and Candle while Jimmy slips business cards into their pockets. And when he gets out of that dumpster, the one that he didn’t even need to climb into because the shredded paper was in the recycling bin, he delivers maybe the best McGill Kick yet.
- Jimmy suggests Kim bill the Westlaw printouts to Howard: “I still remember his code: 1933, same year Hitler came to power.”
- “Would you like another Hydrox?” “No, I’m all Hydroxed out.”
- “Spoliation! That’s what it’s called! Tell ‘em I said that! Me! James McGill Esquire!”