Better Call Saul Season 1, Episode 4 Deconstructed

by: Michael Shields

In this week’s Better Call Saul, Jimmy boisterously announces himself to the city of Albuquerque….

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For the second straight week Better Call Saul’s cold opening whisked us back to the days of ‘Slipping Jimmy’, the low rent con-man who finds his marks in Cicero, Illinois dive bars and manufactures elaborate (and illicit) deceptions in order to make a living. While howling at the moon1 and introducing himself as “Saul” as in “S’all good, man” (the earliest sighting so far! – some fun with wordplay that Vince Gilligan has spoken on often), Jimmy comes across a wallet, and then a body, and the game is afoot2. What was revealed to be a theatrical set-up, the cold open manifested itself as the first of a duo of scams, both similar in architecture, with the second being the climax of this cunning transformation episode entitled “Hero,”3 an episode where “the worm has turned,”4 and the seeds of Jimmy’s empire are sown.

In last week’s episode, “Nacho,” Jimmy lamented after he warned the Kettlemans to flee from the menace lurking in a van in their cul-de-sac, “I’m no hero.” And while he certainly isn’t, Jimmy knows that everyone loves one. While in the thick of battle with Howard Hamlin he engineers a spectacle that will garner the attention of the entire city. Rescuing a seemingly doomed laborer, dangling perilously from the catwalk of his towering knock-off billboard, Jimmy makes it known that he isn’t going to be bullied. That he has an axe to grind, and by episode’s end we, the viewers, were left feeling much like his confidant Kim, whose smirk flawlessly implies that she was onto Jimmy’s long-con, and that she was impressed.

Jimmy is fired up in “Hero.” An edge is beginning to manifest itself, a boldness. I know I tensed with uneasiness when he laid into Nacho, a man whose very essence oozes danger. But Saul, when not being bullied by a dangerous Heisenberg, exemplified a confidence in Breaking Bad that Jimmy currently doesn’t boast. A confidence garnered from a series of experiences, a series of wins like the ones we saw play out in “Hero.” Courtesy of the Kettlemans, Jimmy is now armed with a stack of money and he begins to invest in himself (“Upon this rock I will build my church”). After taking a moment to cook the books, dividing some cash out to his “elite tier pricing” accountant, and tallying his travel expenses, consulting fees, and research5, Jimmy embarks on what amounts to a makeover. An attempt to shape his persona into that of Howard Hamlin fused with Tony Curtis from Spartacus. But Jimmy isn’t Hamlin, and his talents lie elsewhere as proved by his cunning publicity stunt. Jimmy’s true abilities lie in darker places, in the shadows where the more nefarious of criminals lay in wait. Or even, in the company of white collar criminals such as the Kettlemans.

The Kettlemans have grown on me, and I hope to see more of them as the season progresses (word on the street is that is a lock!). I find them fascinating in that they appear on the surface as your typical, straight-laced Southwestern American family, as demonstrated by the Team Kettleman answering machine message. But they have made the conscious decision to own the embezzlement of the 1.5 million, to ransack their own home to make it look as if they were kidnapped, and to go on the lamb. Embracing the cloud of denial that is undoubtedly symptomatic of possessing over one million dollars in cash, the Kettlemans have found a way to convince themselves that they have earned the money. And with Jimmy then accepting a heaping of hush-money, his fate as the criminal lawyer he is destined to become is sealed. Betty Kettleman, fresh off employing a slave-labor analogy to justify their heist, coldly tells Jimmy that he is “the type of lawyer guilty people hire.” While humiliating, this is just the sort of realization that Jimmy will one day come to terms with and which will ultimately set him free to pursue his one true calling.

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While Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman advances full steam ahead this week, it is becoming increasingly evident that when Jimmy figures out who he truly is, that when he stops pretending he to be some sort of Hamlin-clone and finally dons the flashy orange shirt he so lovingly gazes upon when suit shopping, it’s going to be the thrill of a lifetime. But take your time Jimmy, take your time…..

Only in its fourth episode, Better Call Saul has finally manifested itself as a show that can stand soundly on its own. I must admit that in hindsight I was somewhat disappointed that Better Call Saul leaned so heavily on its Breaking Bad roots in its pilot episode. That the show’s opening episode climaxed with a reveal of one of Breaking Bad’s most notorious villains felt like a cop-out of sorts. One that certainly hit hard to Breaking Bad aficionados (only!), but was lacking in illustrating Better Call Saul’s independence and distinctiveness. But now, Better Call Saul exhibits its own unique look6, characters, and story arcs that are effectively divergent from those of Breaking Bad. With Mike playing hard to get, and Jimmy insisting on invoking Groucho Marx’s mirror routine with Hamlin while honing his machinations, Better Call Saul has found its voice so to speak. And it sounds magnificent.

At the end of last week’s episode the question that was lingering on the tip of our tongues was: Will Jimmy take the money? But after this week’s episode, we are left with another simplistic question, but one that is just as pertinent: What will Chuck think? Chuck knows that Jimmy is no hero, and that he is exploiting the contentious situation with Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. This is war, David and Goliath style. It’s the battle of the “kiddy-lemonade stand verses Wal-Mart,” and Chuck – Jimmy’s closest of kin and a man who is increasingly reminding me of Tom Wilkinson’s character in Michael Clayton (I mean that as a compliment of the highest order!) – isn’t going to be pleased. Especially with the fact that Jimmy made him fetch the Albuquerque Journal all on his own…

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  1. This is how Jimmy alerted his partner he was on route. []
  2. Jimmy’s cohort in this con is identified on his license as Henry Gondorff, who fittingly enough was Paul Newman’s character in The Sting. []
  3. Written by Gennifer Hutchison, Directed by Colin Bucksey. []
  4. A Shakespearean phrase employed by Jimmy while talking to Chuck, meaning ‘even the most humble will strike back if abused enough’. []
  5. The song playing as Jimmy counts his illicit funds is “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Herbie Mann. []
  6. In future deconstructions, I plan to dive deeply into the dazzling cinematography that defines Better Call Saul’s unique look. []

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