One of my favorite things about the way Bob Odenkirk plays Jimmy McGill (and the way the writers write the character, and the way the directors direct Odenkirk, and the way the editors cut his scenes) is that at important moments there is a pause, and we get to see what’s going on inside Jimmy. Generally when this happens in the moving picture arts, we say we’re watching the character think, or watching the gears turn inside their head. It’s a treat for the viewer to be trusted by the creative team to understand what is motivating a character without the crutch of dialogue or exposition, appreciating action that’s internal and implicit rather than external and explicit. But when these moments happen in Better Call Saul, we’re not only—or even mostly—watching Jimmy think. We’re watching his psychology operate. We’re watching him being driven by something, and making a choice in the moment not to resist or redirect that drive.
In this episode, that moment happens as Jimmy leaves the offices of Neff Copiers, knowing that management’s promise to talk it over and get back to him means “no.” As the camera lingers on his face—dissatisfied, restless, defiant—he decides he can’t leave it up to them in the normal process of hiring decisions. Nope, he has another card to play, the card that Howard used to call “Charlie Hustle.” He charges back in and makes his case: his mailroom roots, knowing the machines, working harder than anyone else could, and the irresistible metaphor of the “ka-chunk, ka-chunk” of a copier as the beating heart of any business. But when the owners buy what he’s selling, he’s disgusted. How could they be taken in so thoroughly that they wouldn’t even try to find out if he were a fraud, a danger to their company? “Suckers,” he pronounces them. He’d never want to answer to anyone so weak, so easily manipulated. “I feel sorry for you,” he says, and not just because they’ve demonstrated their gullibility, but because the Hummel figurines underneath the founder’s youth bowling league trophies are going to be Jimmy’s next target.
Contrast what we see when the camera catches Gus in the moment of decision. Well, presumably in the moment of decision, because Gus’ visage is well-nigh impenetrable. He never seems to be responding to the moment on the fly; the decisions are all made ahead of time, with complete rational reflection, and Gus carries them out with implacable control. Look at the way this affects the scene where he’s told about Hector’s prognosis. Nobody knows what Hector’s state will be when (or if) he wakes up, or how the stroke will have affected him, Gus’ informant reports after a covert look at the patient and his chart. And that means better care at a different hospital with specialists might make no difference—or it might make all the difference. “That’s unacceptable,” Gus snaps, and we don’t know for sure, until the specialist from Johns Hopkins shows up in Hector’s hospital room a few scenes later, what he means. Is it unacceptable not to know, not to be able to plan? Unacceptable that Hector might recover, or might not recover? “I decide what he deserves,” Gus insists when the doctor gives him the chance to leave Hector to the fate he made for himself. And he’s equally unwavering when he comes up with the idea to carve Nacho out of the Salamanca cartel and make him answer only to Gus—by having him witness Arturo’s reckless ambition and its swift consequences. “At the moment you have Gus Fring’s respect,” Mike tells Lydia drily when she tries to rein in his security freelancing; “I’d want to keep it if I were you.”
Throughout the series, Kim’s face and body language have been models of steely resolve, broken only rarely by shock, desperation, or compassion. Tonight rage takes over, and we get a sense of how much she has tamped down over the years of playing the loyal soldier and golden child. “Lemme guess, $4,000?” she asks when Howard hands her the estate agreement letter for Jimmy to sign. Even in coming back with $5,000, Howard is admitting her point about Chuck’s incredible pettiness from beyond the grave: “It’s what you give when want to cut somebody out but don’t want them to contest it.” Poor Howard—he’s just the messenger for Chuck’s immortal savagery, but he gets the full blast of Kim’s withering temper.
She’s incensed at the gall of him acting as if putting Jimmy on the board of a scholarship for “deserving students,” a category in which Chuck never would have included his brother, is some sort of honor. “You did it to unload your guilt,” she spits at Howard, referring to the last scene of “Smoke” where Howard confesses that he might have driven Chuck to suicide. And now “you want him to dig through the remains of the house where his brother died screaming.” After warning Howard to stay away, Kim decides against giving Jimmy the letter, preferring to stay in that moment where he’s looking for jobs, feeding the fish, and deciding what movie to watch. But that moment is just as much of an idyllic illusion, or maybe we should call it a lie, as Kim’s claim that she just sat around the house all day. She can’t spare Jimmy the voices in his head that tell him he’s a con man at heart, and nobody who believes otherwise is to be taken seriously.
“Breathe” starts with Jimmy asking Kim whether she wants Thai or Mexican takeout. It ends with her asking him whether he prefers Jaws 3 with commercials or White Heat without. In both cases, it’s a toss-up with no real stakes, and they discuss the options with faux excitement (“a real Sophie’s choice!”) in order to stage a cozy domestic scene and make each other smile. But both are now making fateful choices that they’re keeping secret from each other, and their classic-sitcom facade, where she waits at home while he carries a briefcase into conference rooms, won’t long survive them.
- Hey, the Cousins are back! Last time we saw them they were pointing finger guns at Kaylee from a roof. Now they’re taking up most of the oxygen in Hector’s hospital room.
- Nacho tells his father that Hector Salamanca’s hold on him is over, then shamefacedly pockets the dirty money he takes out of the cash box. I hope the writers won’t put Manuel Varga in any more jeopardy, since my heart cannot take any more looks of sadness or despair from that open and innocent face.
- “That machine was almost too good,” one of the Neff managers tells Jimmy about a copier he fondly remembers. “Counterfeiters used it to make color copies of $5 bills.” Bet Jimmy’s filing that idea away for later.
- Sure is good to have Jimmy McGill insisting on accurate trash pop culture references again: “Actually it’s Jaws 3-D.” But c’mon, you two lovebirds — obviously on both counts it’s White Heat in a walk.
- “I could be a serial killer. I could be the guy who pees in your coffeepot. I could be both!”