by Michael Shields
In the season finale of Better Call Saul, Slippin’ Jimmy brazenly rides off into the sunset…
Throughout the first act of the season finale of Better Call Saul, an episode simply entitled “Marco,” ((Every episode this first season has been a one word title which ended with an “o.” The only exception being episode five (“Alpine Shepherd Boy”) which they intended to entitle “Jello” until they ran into trademarking issues.)) what was revealed was a side of Jimmy McGill I never imagined possible. As we have previously discussed in these deconstructions, an empathy for Jimmy was scrupulously crafted by Better Call Saul’s showrunners throughout the season. A tender heart was exposed that those of us who thought we knew Saul Goodman just could not fathom. Sure, we were offered glimpses of the man he would ultimately become, particularly in the tales and antics of his con-artist alter ego, Slippin’ Jimmy. But in “Marco,” ((Written and directed by showrunner Peter Gould.)) that meticulously constructed empathy was taken to a whole new level, to a place where not even an inkling of Saul Goodman was recognizable.
Whether we found Jimmy in the midst of a profoundly heartfelt apology to his former nemesis Howard Hamlin (“I’m sorry I called you a pig fucker.”), or when Kim was impelled to surprisingly declare to him, “Wow. That’s mature,” as he exposed an ability to forgive an indefensible betrayal by his brother, Jimmy could be found at his best in “Marco.” Joking that the Dalai Lama had nothing on him, Jimmy wasn’t wallowing in self-pity or boiling over in rage, but rather moving on and presenting himself as the bigger man. And it was at this point in time, where it actually seemed comprehensible that Jimmy could turn himself into a person that could impact the world in a positive way, despite all the let-downs and setbacks the world threw at him. A person doesn’t strive towards virtue in the manner Jimmy has all season if his motivations weren’t genuine. As Jimmy and Kim saunter past a dented trash can in the HHM parking garage that recalls all the frustrations of Jimmy’s recent failings, we find him at peace with his brother, his shortcomings, and ultimately his life. All seems right in the world, until a few too many “B’s” come oddly rolling out of the Bingo machine.
To many, the climax of the season (not involving Mike Ermentrout that is!) is last week’s reveal that it wasn’t the “HH” part of HHM (Hamlin Hamlin & McGill) that was responsible for the stifling of Jimmy’s burgeoning law career, but rather the “M.” While Chuck’s cold-hearted admission hit like a punch to the gut, it is the Bingo meltdown at the heart of “Marco” that acts as the match in the powder barrel. Coming to grips with the reality of his disheartening situation as he emcees a Bingo game ((The Bingo hall is featured in Breaking Bad as well, when The Cousins (Leonel and Marco Salamanca) rob a wheelchair-bound woman of her handicap van outside the Bingo Hall so they can transport Don Salamanca to a meeting between the Cartel and Gus.)), Jimmy’s mental breakdown drops us dead center into the backstory of his most recent incarceration ((In the third episode of the season entitled “Nacho,” we watched as Chuck querulously bails Jimmy out for the illicit behavior he recounts at the Bingo game.)), a tale where Jimmy – heartbroken after his wife cheated on him with a man named Chet – enacts a unique method of revenge in the form of some “soft serve.” Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Jimmy, during this “Chicago Sunroof” (a term coined by Better Call Saul’s production staff) there were children in the back of the car, and those unfortunate kids were the reason that Jimmy’s arrest could have led to him registering as a sex offender if it weren’t for Chuck. And during his distressing, yet hilarious diatribe, rife with references to The Hills Have Eyes and descriptions of the New Mexican landscape as a radioactive Georgia O’Keeffe hellscape, it becomes clear that the way Jimmy sees it, that Chicago Sunroof was where the bottom began to drop out (“One little Chicago sunroof and suddenly I’m Charles Manson?”). So, it was off to Cicero, Illinois and his old con partner Marco (The titular “Marco” of course) ((Played by Mel Rodriguez, who we first met in Episode 4, “Hero.”)) to take solace in the brand of therapy Slippin’ Jimmy knows best.
Marco is the man who Slippin’ Jimmy would most often “slip” with. A return to Cicero for Jimmy is paired with a return to form, as in no time at all he and Marco fall effortlessly back into their old grifter ways. Following industrious hustles involving a “valuable” half dollar coin with President John F. Kennedy’s profile (“facing west, toward the new frontier, the future” – a nod to Jimmy’s future in New Mexico), and the manifestation of the famed Kevin Costner routine, Jimmy’s responsibilities in New Mexico begin to weigh heavily on him. Marco, in the midst of the best week of his life running game with Jimmy, pleads with his old friend to stay, arguing that to “abandon Slippin’ Jimmy is like Miles Davis giving up his trumpet” (or Walter White stepping away from the chemistry equipment!). And herein lies the crux of the matter, a question that began as a whisper but has grown to a shout as the season has progressed: What if what you are best at – what you were born to do – is something that is morally problematic, and certainly illegal? This was a question we were faced with in Breaking Bad of course ((Which reminds me of a moment in Breaking Bad where Walt brings Jessie back from rehab and they are talking and Jessie tells him that he knows who he is. And Walt replies “Who are you?” and Jessie says “I’m the bad guy.” Saul is finally realizing that he is the bad guy.)), but here in Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s struggle is more apparently convoluted, as he yearns to be virtuous, and Walt’s hand was forced by a cruel disease.
Spending time with Marco in Cicero ((There is a brilliant easter egg, an ode to John Hughes, in this episode. As Marco lay dying, Jimmy tells the dispatcher he is in “an alley southeast of LaSalle and Shermer.” Shermer, Illinois, is the fictional town that is featured in many of John Hughes’ films. Adding to that, in the very next scene, Jimmy’s friend Kim calls and asks, “Is this Ferris Bueller, I don’t want to interrupt your big day off.”)), honing his god-given skills, only made it more clear to Jimmy who he was, what he is capable of, and how he can achieve the personal successes he so vigorously covets. A brilliant criminal mind would be terrible thing to waste, and without Jimmy’s trip to Cicero it is easy to see how Jimmy may have taken the the job offer Kim described to him over the phone. But with the Cicero visit, and with Marco’s ring (his precious) now on his finger – the ring he will wear throughout Breaking Bad – he begins to realize his true calling, and with that his fate is sealed.
It is impossible, and senseless, to talk about Better Call Saul without talking about Breaking Bad. I have witnessed writers attempt to separate the worlds, and when discussing Saul they refuse to invoke the relationship. Some writers are even so bold as to imply that Better Call Saul can stand on its own, without the benefit of the Breaking Bad “bump.” Not only is this ridiculousness unsubstantiated hypotheticalism at its finest, it just isn’t true. The impact of so many scenes throughout the first season harness their effectiveness directly from set-ups that link back to Breaking Bad, from the reveal in episode one of Tuco Salamanca, to the mere mention of Belize during the Bingo meltdown. The fun, I argue, is in the connection, as the qualities that the two shows share – the impeccable production value, the artistic cinematography, the setting, the adroit scene structuring, the attention to detail, and the talented actors, writers, and crew that they share – continue a legacy of riveting and visually dazzling storytelling. Better Call Saul allows us to spend more time in a world so many of us are so infatuated with, and all the while succeeding in recounting, convincingly, Jimmy’s first steps toward becoming Saul Goodman.
Now we are poised for a far different journey in Season Two. As the volume on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” intensified ((The same song we heard Marco humming in that darkened alleyway as he waited for Jimmy.)), Jimmy drove off into uncharted territory. Into a new life with his virtuous endeavors in his rear-view mirror. Free of his aspirations of respectability, and choosing consciously to spit in the face of the righteous, the life and time of Saul Goodman is undoubtedly upon us. As the season progresses it was implied that Better Call Saul was a comedy of sorts, a “comic-noir.” But it is now clear as a still, crisp New Mexican day, that Better Call Saul is a tragedy. Highlighting this, “Marco’s” title sequence spies a mug that reads “World’s Greatest Lawyer,” falling to the ground and shattering. This hyperbolic gimmickry instantaneously told the story of Jimmy’s law-abiding intentions splintering to pieces. And now it’s time for Saul Goodman to, in his own shrewd and illicit way, piece them all together again.