Better Call Saul Season 1, Episode 9 Deconstructed

by: Michael Shields

In this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, an unforeseen evil reveals itself….

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It wouldn’t be accurately describing the situation to simply state that Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) has stolen the show thus far. Looking back at the pinnacle of this first season of Better Call Saul, to an episode entitled “Five-O” that opened the door on Mike’s disheartening backstory, and at this week’s episode, entitled “Pimento”1, which highlighted Mike’s dangersome capacity (gun or no gun!), it is plainly discernible that Mike’s excursion into the seedy underbelly of Albuquerque is as entertaining as any storyline on the show. An excursion that began with a phone call in his granddaughter’s back yard, where five words (“Yeah. Sure. Yep. Got it.”) set him on a path that would one day lead to Heisenberg’s doorstep.

This week’s episode was named after the cheese (“the caviar of the south”) in the sandwich that Mike brought to his first day of work, providing protection for the “greenest” drug dealer in the game (who is borrowing his nephew’s name Price as an alias). Having to prove his worth immediately to a heavily-armed potential co-worker agitated with “ethnic types,” Mike (“Uncle Fester”) – in the effortless and unflappable way in which he operates – displays once again that judging a book by its cover is a calamitous blunder. After proving his worthiness to Price and his goons, a conversation with his new, rookie employer reveals not only the secret to criminal success (homework!), but speaks on the theme that resides at the heart of Better Call Saul:

Mike: “The lesson is if you’re going to be a criminal, do your homework.”

Price: “But I’m not a bad guy.”

Mike: “I didn’t say you’re a bad guy. I said you’re a criminal.”

Price: “What’s the difference?” 

Mike: “I’ve known good criminals and bad cops. Bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other, but if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.”

This conversation certainly sums up Mike’s plight – as well as his reasoning and code of ethics –  but it also describes the cross Jimmy is currently bearing and – in some ways – the entirety of the Breaking Bad Universe. What, exactly, is “Bad”? In a complicated world, it isn’t as easy to define as one may think. And does the endgame (providing for family, a general yearning for righteousness) justify the means? These are the questions that we are compelled to ponder when watching Better Call Saul, and just as in Breaking Bad, we are beginning to realize the answers are far more elusive than we could have ever imagined.

If you would have asked me just a few episodes into this inaugural season about Nacho’s role, I would have affirmed confidently that we would be seeing him week in and week out. But as it turns out, Jimmy has a longer road to walk before he becomes intertwined into Nacho’s world and ultimately metamorphosing into Saul Goodman. Before that happens, he has some formidable adversaries to confront. The most obvious being Harry Hamlin, the perennial thorn (or so we thought!) in Jimmy’s side since his days in the mail room. But in “Pimento”2 another malefactor has now scandalously revealed himself, one who has been working behind the scenes to repress Jimmy’s burgeoning law career…his brother Chuck!

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It was no secret that the Sandpiper case was going to blow up in Jimmy’s face. We know how this story ends, as Better Call Saul is a tragedy not a fairytale. But it is entirely unnerving that the betrayal that rocked Jimmy’s world came from within his own ranks. The essence of the Better Call Saul’s affectivity is due to just how incredibly easy its been to empathize with Jimmy McGill. And this week it almost physically hurt to watch Jimmy betrayed in this manner, by a man who he has strived so vigorously to try to impress.

While the writing of this moment has been visible on the wall (accentuated throughout the episode with Chuck’s phone call, and Harry’s conversation with Kim), the depth of Chuck’s roll in his brother’s failings is confounding, and wholly impactful. As it turns out, his law partner Harry has been doing Chuck’s dirty work all along, and with the knowledge we have garnered all season of the McGill brother’s symbiotic relationship, it can be argued that the only person who truly could have saved Jimmy, was Chuck. But he let his ego, and his unwavering respect for the law, get in the way.

At this moment in time in the series it is so easy to villainize Chuck. And possibly, that is perfectly appropriate. But let’s not pretend this dynamic isn’t complicated. Chuck certainly loves his brother, and he wishes for him to find happiness, but unfortunately he wants that happiness attained only on terms he is comfortable with. While Jimmy was so eager to “Erin Brockovich the shit out of this” case, Chuck, a man who Jimmy has been shepherding through a crippling disease, thwarted Jimmy’s efforts to right his life, and sent him on a path towards the dark side. Maybe Chuck is right about Jimmy, as we know all too well what Jimmy is capable of in Breaking Bad. But maybe if his brother had shown some confidence in him, and helped steer him towards the light, Jimmy could have had a chance. Now, he assuredly doesn’t.

It wasn’t simply the reveal that Chuck has been working behind the scenes to stifle Jimmy’s progression, it was the venomous manner in which he did it. “Slippin’ Jimmy? With a law degree? It’s like a chimp with a machine gun, people could get hurt!” he spat with indignation, as if Jimmy is the vile representation of everything that revolts Chuck. The full scale of the tragedy that is Better Call Saul has finally revealed itself. And after Chuck’s declaration that Jimmy isn’t a real lawyer, we may have just witnessed that final straw that turns Jimmy. If this doesn’t do it, I can’t imagine what will….

  1. Written and directed by Tom Schnauz, who helmed the Breaking Bad episode entitled “Say My Name.” []
  2. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Tom Schnauz speaks of a six minute flashback that was cut from the episode that features a nine-year-old Jimmy McGill. Here’s hoping that it still finds the light of day, and soon! []

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