Better Call Saul Season 1, Episode 8 Deconstructed

by: Michael Shields

This week’s Better Call Saul finds Chuck back in the saddle again. Well, sort of….

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Presumably, one of the primary goals of this first season of Better Call Saul was for the viewer to find a way to truly like Saul Goodman. To find a way to transcend the mere appreciation of his dexterous wit and astucious charm and to fall for him, so to speak. Being able to sympathize with Saul is critical to the success of Better Call Saul, and in this week’s episode, entitled “RICO,”1 the most endearing qualities of Jimmy McGill were on full display as he yet again stumbled upon a career-making case.

It is no secret where Saul and Mike wind up six years into the future, as this was all hashed out in Breaking Bad’s triumphant run. But what Better Saul Call is here to show us is not simply how they ended up where they did, but “why.” In Mike’s case, the “why” is simple – it’s all about Kaylee. It’s always been about Kaylee, and always will be for Mike. This is what entices him to find a way out of the self-imposed imprisonment of the parking lot attendants booth. In there, he cannot be with Kaylee. And in there, he cannot provide for her. And so, Mike seeks out the unabashingly crooked vet who offered him entrance into Albuquerque’s criminal underworld in “Five-O” (Where did Mike get that dog?), and with that his fate is sealed.

But with Saul, the “why” is far more complicated, and following a series of noble endeavors in “RICO,” it is even more so. For it turns out that Jimmy walked the straight and narrow path once upon a time. While Saul’s degree from the online University of American Samoa (“Go Landcrabs!”) soon becomes a joke to Saul and Breaking Bad fans, here in “Rico” obtaining a law degree is a source of pride for Jimmy, who is working his way up respectfully through the mailroom. But most importantly to Jimmy, it is a source of pride for his brother Chuck, who Jimmy finally gets to prove right about taking a chance on him when he sat in jail. It’s obvious that Chuck never thought Jimmy had it in him. But he does. And at this moment in time, Jimmy wants to be good. He wants to play by the rules. He yearns to be successful, and wants that success to be on the level. So why (and when) does that change?

As we approach the climax of Better Call Saul’s inaugural season (damn, that went fast!), we now have the benefit of a greater understanding of Jimmy’s world, and can capably examine all of which he has gained from attempting to do the right thing. Hindsight tells the story of a man whose benevolent acts have garnered him death threats (from Nacho – who I can only assume is poised to resurface at any moment) and a marginally successful career in the riveting field of Elder Law.  Whose ethical ventures have cost him a share of 1.6 million dollars, and led to him perusing retirement homes for work. Eventually, it seems that Jimmy will have no other choice than to break bad. The powers that be have a plan for Jimmy, and it in no way involves the path of the righteous. But for now, Jimmy toils for virtuosity in a retirement home called Sandpiper Crossing that favors the unethical.

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“RICO,” the episode’s title, refers to a federal law passed in 1970, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law designed to combat organized crime in the United States. In regards to this episode, RICO laws come into play as Sandpiper Crossing’s – which houses many of Jimmy’s clients2 – dealings have crossed over state lines, making them eligible for federal prosecution. This is the smoking gun that Jimmy’s brother pieces together from shredded documents (one man’s trash…) obtained through a dumpster dive by Jimmy3. As Jimmy predicted, “storing” his boxes of paperwork at Chuck’s house had exactly the effect he’d hoped for. Chuck couldn’t resist diving in, and he has been writing up Jimmy’s wills for him. And Jimmy, who knows a long-con when he sees one, has a juicy case on his hands, one that Chuck cannot help himself from getting involved in.

Donning a suit and preparing for his first meeting while in the throes of a peculiar and crippling disease, Chuck’s re-entry proves tricky, and he is practically catatonic during the first minutes of his big meeting with Sandpiper’s attorney (played by Law & Order veteran Dennis Boutsikaris). But when he finally comes to, he drops the hammer: “Twenty million dollars. You heard me. Twenty. Million. Dollars. Or we’ll see you in court.” It was a thrilling moment for Chuck, as well as for those of us who have been waiting for him to spring to life.

It wasn’t only Chuck who stepped into the spotlight this week. In the episode’s cold-opener we were given the opportunity to witness the roots of the rivalry between Jimmy and Howard Hamlin. In “RICO” the personal contention between Howard and Jimmy became that much clearer, as it was Howard who brazenly docked Jimmy’s dreams before they could even get off the ground. Howard is proving a worthy villain (Howard’s billing code? “1933, the same year Hitler came to power.” Chuck’s code is 1868. Hmmm…), an adversary whose attempts in thwarting Jimmy’s rise will only help transform and empower him into the man we all know he will become. And I almost feel sorry for Howard when that day eventually does occur, when Saul’s metamorphosis is complete, and Howard finally feels the full wrath of Saul Goodman.

While at times “RICO” felt procedural, it also seemed like the calm before a storm. “Rico” embodied a sense of maturity for Better Call Saul, as we now have really gotten to know the cast of characters that animate the series well, and Better Call Saul’s unique voice and rhythm was more apparent here than any episode prior. Better Call Saul has been many things at this point: a character-driven drama, a conceptual comedy, and a crime-noir piece. But in “RICO” – which stood on its own, not leaning so heavily on its Breaking Bad roots – an established and wonderfully nuanced show found its footing fully, and appeared to own what it truly is. And now, the penultimate episode of the season is upon us. Buckle up.

  1. This is our second episode of the season directed by Colin Bucksey who also directed “Hero” and the second written by Vince Gilligan’s former assistant Gordon Smith who wrote “Five-O.” []
  2. In the Sandpiper common room, the dozing residents are watching Bell, Book and Candle while Jimmy slips business cards into their pockets. []
  3. The song playing over the montage of Jimmy trying to piece the shredded documents together is Gail McDermott’s “Coffee Cold.” But I am far more familiar with it being a sample used for a track called “The Truth” by Handsome Boy Modeling School. []

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