Airdate: February 23, 2015
Directed by: Colin Bucksey
Showrunners: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould
Written by: Vince Gilligan (creator) & Peter Gould (creator); Gennifer Hutchison (written by)
Last week, before calling the Kettlemans with his anonymous warning, Jimmy struggled with his conscience, saying to himself, “I’m not a hero.” Based on the title of tonight’s episode, it would appear that maybe he actually is – but the kind of hero Jimmy is, is anything but conventional. Don’t mistake for a second that this sloppy, apparently out of control “little man” is, in fact, very much in control of his situation. And if he’s not really a hero, maybe the perception that he is can be more than enough.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss Better Call Saul Season 1, Episode 4 “Hero” at length, as well as discussing ongoing storylines.>>
Just like last week, we begin the episode with a flashback. Here we see Slippin’ Jimmy out for a night on the town with a new acquaintance, practicing their wolf howls as they search out an after-hours bar. Going down an alleyway, his companion finds a wallet with over $1000 dollars in it. He’s going to take the money, when Jimmy spots the apparent owner lying beside a dumpster. He pokes the body, but the guy isn’t dead. Instead, he starts singing a drunken song about the two butt-heads that are bothering him, and then appears to pass out. Jimmy sees a nice watch on his wrist, and calls dibs, but his “friend” decides he wants to take a look. It’s a Rolex, and he offers Jimmy the thousand dollars; when Jimmy hesitates, he offers all his own cash as well, another $500 plus. As Jimmy stands there holding the cash, his acquaintance takes off, yelling, “So long, sucker!” As he watches, he reaches behind him, and gets a quick handshake from the suddenly ambulatory drunk. Back in Jimmy’s flat, they share out the cash, and while Jimmy smokes a bong, his partner waxes poetic over how much he enjoys watching Jimmy work.
This set-up tells us a lot about what the focus of the episode is going to be, but before we can get there, we head back to the Sonora Mountains and pick up where we left off last week. Jimmy has a bizarre conversation with the Kettlemans, who have justified their theft of county funds by arguing that Mr. Kettleman has worked loads of unpaid overtime. Their foremost concern, though, is that if they go back, they’re going to look guilty. Jimmy reminds them that he’s already called their lawyer, so they can’t get out of heading home. Instead, he tells them to spin this as a spontaneous family camping trip. But when he tells them that they should be using the cash as a bargaining chip, something to get them a lesser sentence, they balk, insistent that the money stays with them.
Mrs. Kettleman offers him a bribe so that he’ll “forget” they have the cash. In a beautiful scene of warring emotions, we watch as Jimmy’s face first brightens at the sight of the money, then darkens as he tells them he can’t take a bribe. Kettleman keeps pressing the money on him, but he refuses, and then comes up with what seems a way to satisfy the impasse: they could give him the money as a retainer. The Kettlemans hem and haw for a few moments, before Mrs. Kettleman explains her main reservation: Jimmy’s the kind of lawyer guilty people hire. This is a wonderful piece of irony, as she’s saying this to him while a) standing over a bag full of money, and b) while holding out a wad of bribe money. Add in the almost invasive low angle shot looking up at the Kettlemans’ eager faces, and Jimmy’s conflicted one, and you get a classic Gilligan scene. After a long beat, we cut, not seeing if Jimmy takes the money or not. But we all know what he does, don’t we?
At the courthouse, Jimmy tells Ehrmantraut that he found the Kettlemans, and he thanks him for his help. Ehrmantraut tells him “Don’t mention it” – and this isn’t just politesse; he really doesn’t want Jimmy to talk about it. When Jimmy comments on his loquacity, Mike replies, “We can’t all be blessed like you.” Natural easy banter with an edge of hostility. There’s no real edge, however, when Jimmy meets with Nacho inside the courthouse. He’s released, and Jimmy demands an apology from the cop, who’s having none of it. Nacho calls Jimmy out on warning the Kettlemans, and this gives Jimmy an opportunity to have one of his rare brave moments, standing up to Nacho. He points out that a neighbor had already made Nacho’s van, and the fact that he’d never bothered to clean the blood out of the back meant that the police had probable cause to bring him in. If he’d gone through with his robbery of the Kettlemans, he would have been picked up and in jail immediately. Jimmy is twitching and sweating as he says this, but he knows how to spin things when he needs to – and he’s in full defense mode here, as Nacho’s threats are not even thinly veiled. Nacho leaves – for now.
Back at the beauty salon, Jimmy is in his office. He takes a deep breath, and then pulls a large pile of cash into view, confirmation that he’s taken the bribe. As he does want to be able to use this money, he begins to itemize it, making up a list of charges and miscellany to explain away the cash. As he moves it from the “bribe” pile to the “accounted for” pile, Jimmy sits back and says, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” If Jimmy is savior, then money is his Peter. This is a clear statement of intent going forward; the flashbacks we’ve seen the last couple of weeks clearly show where Jimmy is coming from, and indicate where he’s going to. This period that we’re watching now, Jimmy pre-Saul and post-Slippin’ Jimmy, is the actual aberration. The real Jimmy is being nudged back into being by circumstance.
The money – about $70,000, give or take – is good for a lot of things, but Jimmy is being relatively careful. He does go all out on a suit, but in line with his somewhat shabby reality, he doesn’t understand the terminology or materials the tailor is talking about, referring to notes to get what he wants. And what is it he wants? Why, a perfect simulacrum of Howard Hamlin’s fine wool suit, right down to the pinstripes, handkerchief, and color of the tie. He also gets his hair done at the salon, with curls up on top. This is all in service of a great big “F-U” aimed squarely at Hamlin: a huge billboard for James M. McGill, Attorney at Law, placed on the route Hamlin drives every day. It isn’t just that it’s a billboard; it’s that Jimmy is wearing Hamlin’s suit, with Hamlin’s hair and hair color, and with logo and color branding that match Hamlin’s HHM firm.
This, of course, drives Hamlin batty. He enlists Kim, Jimmy’s friend and the Kettleman’s lawyer, to talk to Jimmy and give him a cease and desist. She does, but he ignores it, and we see Jimmy and Hamlin in a closed door judicial meeting. While Jimmy talks a good case of the little guy being bullied, and makes points with the judge when he tells her about Hamlin’s attempts to pressure Jimmy out of using his own name, the judge ultimately sides with Hamlin, and gives Jimmy 48 hours to get the billboard down.
Outside, he calls every local press outlet (and gives Hamlin a not-so-surreptitious finger as he walks by), but he’s stymied. Seeming to give up, he notices a young woman walking by wearing a University of New Mexico sweatshirt. Light bulb moment. Cut to the parking lot near the billboard, and Jimmy is working with a couple of student journalists (whom, it turns out, he has had to pay to get out there), basically doing their jobs for them as they don’t even understand basic framing techniques. He gets them set, and then begins a political screed on the plight of the small businessman when facing big powerful groups like HHM.
Meanwhile, there’s a guy starting to take down the billboard. As Jimmy is talking, suddenly the guy falls, getting caught by his safety harness. Jimmy looks reluctant for a second, then jumps into action. He tells the students to call 911, and then climbs up to help the worker. This is all happening beside a busy freeway, which comes to a standstill as everyone gets out of their cars and begins filming and taking pictures of the incident. Jimmy manages to pull the guy up and then, out of sight of everyone below, they give each other a hidden handshake, just like the one Slippin’ Jimmy gave his partner in the opening flashback: the whole thing is a set-up.
Here’s another example of good foreshadowing at work, something which has been done in spades both here, and in Gilligan’s previous work both on Breaking Bad and The X-Files. Give us a little opener, seemingly unrelated to the present or the main narrative, then show us a parallel connection later on. This is his way of hinting at what is coming later (without giving too much away, think of the latter half of Season 2 of Breaking Bad, with the purple bear), usually in an obtuse enough manner that you don’t get it going in, but know you should have after the fact. Strong writing, this.
All of this is, of course, aired on the news, and we cut to the offices of HHM, where everyone is oohing and aahing over Jimmy’s bravery – except Hamlin, who calls it for what it is as soon as he sees it. Problem for him? No one else sees it that way. Jimmy is slick.
There’s immediate beneficial fallout from this, as when he returns to his office, he finds seven phone messages waiting for him. Business is booming. He heads over to Chuck’s to bring his ice and newspapers, but carefully hides away the Albuquerque Journal in his car – he doesn’t want Chuck seeing the front page, as he knows his brother will see right through his scam. Inside, he tells Chuck that he’s getting some business, and insinuates that it’s due to his Public Defender work. Chuck notices that the local paper is missing, and Jimmy suggests that maybe a local kid stole it. Chuck gets the line of the night, when he replies, “Because if there’s one thing kids like, it’s local print journalism.”
After Jimmy leaves, Chuck looks out his window, and notes several papers on his neighbors’ driveways. Getting his space blanket and wrapping himself inside, he takes a deep breath and plunges in the outdoors. Great camera work here, as it does a typical Gilligan low-angle steady-cam looking up at Chuck’s beleaguered face, huffing and puffing and shying away physically from the glare of the sun and the multitude of humming overhead wires. We get a real sense and feel for Chuck’s electromagnetic paranoia, as the angles and jerkiness of the view causes a certain tension to rise in the viewer as well. This technique reminds me a lot of Oliver Stone’s work in The Doors, when he was able to depict Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison drug trips in such a way that the audience was left feeling disoriented and off-kilter, simply through camera angles and lens flare effects.
Back in the safety of his home, Chuck curls up on the couch, shaking, and opens the paper. When he sees the front page, his eyes widen as his mouth narrows – sure enough, he knows exactly what’s going on with the reemergence of Slippin’ Jimmy, and where he’s getting his increased business from.
Another excellent episode. We get to watch Jimmy’s slow decline into criminality, and with the advantage of the flashbacks, gain a greater understanding of how prone he is to this. Much like an alcoholic or drug addict, there is an itch at the back of Jimmy’s mind, always reminding him of how things used to be, always tempting him back into its welcoming embrace. His days as Slippin’ Jimmy were perhaps not his best days, but they were easier in so many ways. There were two kinds of people in his world: partners and marks, and I suspect that sometimes the same person could be both. Sure, he got caught and cleaned up his act, but that same little voice telling him to take the bribe money from the Kettlemans will also be reminding him that he’s older, smarter, and possibly wiser now.
This is reflected in the big-time nature of his latest con. In the flashback, he was small-time, playing for small money – enough to buy some food, as he told his partner. Now, he’s getting city-wide press-coverage, putting the con out in public, and relying on residual outcomes to provide him with fiduciary benefits. He doesn’t steal any money directly – but he knows that his actions will both bring in business, while also making the HHM firm, and more specifically his nemesis Howard Hamlin, look like they’re just a bunch of bullies using their political clout to shut down a harmless – nay, heroic – competitor.
So, we know exactly what kind of “hero” Jimmy really is, but we can’t help but root for him. Fact is, he is a fairly harmless small-potatoes lawyer at this point, and HHM is clearly using their political clout to bully him. The Kettlemans are hard to feel sympathy for, so when Jimmy takes money from them, it feels almost as though there’s no harm, no foul. Nacho is the unknown factor at this point, and could certainly cause Jimmy problems going forward; I suspect, however, that Nacho is just smart enough that, given time and distance, he’ll begin to digest some of what Jimmy pointed out to him regarding his sloppiness (or rather stupidity, as Jimmy called it), and realize that Jimmy is actually looking out for his best interests. Don’t count him out for a little payback, however, as pride goes a long way in Nacho’s circles.
I’m really enjoying Better Call Saul so far. Gilligan’s fingerprints are all over every aspect of the show, from the unusual camera angles and close-ups, to the focus on the banal and mundane (rumpled clothes, dirt, the reality of existence), to the quirky and interesting characters. Seeing standbys such as Ehrmantraut and Tuco being joined by wonderful new characters such as the Kettlemans, Wexler, and especially Michael McKean’s Chuck, gives the show a ton of depth. It feels like we’re watching real people, struggling with the real everyday crap that life throws at them, and somehow finding ways to stumble their way forward. Everyone is a little bit broken, and it’s easy to feel sympathy for even the worst people in the show – not least of whom is Jimmy, if we’re honest with ourselves.
Steve’s Grade: A-
Another solid episode, building on a firm foundation. We’re beginning to see that Jimmy’s journey isn’t so much to a new place, as it is a return to his roots. The AMC execs are looking like geniuses for green-lighting two seasons from the get-go.