In “Inflatable,” we see the entire span of Jimmy McGill’s duplicitous incubation, from the earliest flickers of juvenile dishonesty to the eventual emergence of that flamboyant, flimflam-spinning courtroom jester Saul Goodman. A little Leave It to Beaver-looking boy peruses the magazine stand, his hair pomaded and parted, his eyes coasting over Time’s famous post-Watergate “Can Trust Be Restored?” cover, which pits the heads of Nixon and Agnew back-to-back like warring superheroes; Superman in his bright-colored spandex looking heroic (makes you wonder which comics Zack Snyder read growing up, since he clearly didn’t read this one); Mad magazine, whose buffoonish mascot Alfred E. Neuman appears scrambled, like a TV set besmirched and besot by poor reception.
The boy eventually settles on, of course, Playboy, a buxom lady come-hithering him with promises of forbidden imagery.
“Jimmy!” a voice calls, inquiring about the sweeping.
Jimmy is not sweeping. He’s reading Playboy. He lies.
Jimmy walks into the front of the shop, where a man is telling Jimmy’s pop about his sickly wife, his busted car; if he could spare just five bucks, mister…
He’s grifting. Jimmy’s dad and Jimmy know it. “Dad,” he says, “It’s a ripoff. Every grifter in town knows this is the spot for a handout.”
“Where did you learn a word like grifting?” dad wants to know. “What if you’re wrong?”
Whether Jimmy’s dad is genuinely fooled by this smug-looking con artist, has a truly altruistic heart, or he just doesn’t like when his young son catches on faster than he does, Jimmy’s dad gives the guy double his asking price — and he goes in the back to fetch him the auto parts he needs for his fabricated car troubles, as if the harder he buys the lie, the realer it’ll be.
Jimmy slips behind the register. The con man asks him, “How much for a carton of Kools?”
He buys two.
“There are wolves and sheep,” the guy tells Jimmy. “Figure out which one you’re gonna be.”
He disappears into the bright sunlight, Kools in hand. Jimmy looks scathingly at the money in his fist, then shoves the bills into his pocket.
Some background: Shortly before this scene, Kools had won an award for its ingenious Snark sailboat ad campaign. For $89 and the flap of a carton of Kools, you could get an 11-foot sailboat that sold for $120, festooned with the Kool penguin (who was, at various times, marketed as a doctor; a suave, monocle-wearing dandy; a pork pie-wearing hustler; a blue collar worker; a football player; a skier; a soldier; a chef; etc.). A study in 1972 showed that stores sold more Kools when they promoted the sailboat and stores that did not have the display lost money. Jimmy’s dad does not have the display up.
The look of ire on young Jimmy’s face suggests that he’s a reluctant grifter (which would make a really good Tom Waits album title). At various points throughout Better Call Saul, especially in this episode, Jimmy says variations of “I want to be myself,” talking about how people have always tried to mold him into what they wanted him to be. This opening scene shows that this “himself” Jimmy believes in was goaded by a fraudulent passerby looking to snag a couple cartoons of Kools. Jimmy, Saul, Gene — they’re all manufactured, like a mascot penguin wearing different outfits.
NEXT: Jimmy doesn’t flush
Better Call Saul is, despite the insistence of some writers to the contrary, a show about Jimmy McGill and how he influences the people around him. As interesting as Mike and Kim and, to a greater degree, Chuck all are, it’s their relationship to Jimmy that propels the show. A show about any of them on their own would be snores-ville. It makes me think of “Soprano Home Movies,” the great premiere of the second part of The Sopranos‘ sublime final season, which gets my vote for best season of cable television ever. The entire episode shows how everyone in the show is stuck in Tony Soprano’s orbit, that no matter how hard they try, their lives are caught in a slipstream that eddies around Tony in concentric circles.
Kim and Mike and Chuck are increasingly influenced by Jimmy, their decisions tainted by Jimmy, their actions relying on Jimmy’s aid. When Mike agrees to tell the cops the gun wasn’t Tuco’s (for a fat $50,000 check, half of which he gives to Nacho), Jimmy sells the obvious lie with the deft theatricality of Daniel Day-Lewis yawping, “I drink your milkshake!” Jonathan Banks imbues Mike with empathy, using that stoic glare and furrowed brow, those steady eyes and teeth tight behind pursed lips; Bob Odenkirk does the same to Jimmy with histrionic gesticulation. They’re both lying, but only Jimmy thinks he’s being “himself.”
Kim and Jimmy are either on parallel paths or perpendicular ones — it’s too early to tell. Kim will make partner at Schweikart & Coakley in two years if she signs with them. She realizes she’ll never make partner at HHM. Jimmy tries to tender (“tender” sounds better than “submit”) his resignation to Davis & Main, but Omar, who is a really nice guy and I hope he keeps popping up in future episodes, reminds Jimmy that he’s contractually obligated to stay for a year or else he has to pay back his entire signing bonus. When Kim interviews with Schweikart & Coakley (note how three-quarters of the people in the meeting are women), Rich asks her why she decided to leave her old life and become a lawyer. What did she want?
“More,” she says, with the kind of certitude that wins courtroom cases.
Jimmy wants more, too. He wants to get fired. In one of the most glorious montages to grace a TV (or laptop) screen this year, we see Saul Goodman manifest in a fever-dream medley. Jimmy becomes one of those inflatable whacky arm-flailing man-tube things that dance spastically in front of used car lots, buying a slew of wild-colored suits and shirts and ties that hark back to the row of varicolored sticky notes Kim plastered to the window several episodes ago. The screen splits, De Palma-style, with slots occupied by half-Windsors and garish, toxic color combinations that make you feel like you’re gonna break out in a rash just looking at them. He runs the gamut of bad office behavior, doing everything short of bedding his boss’s wife: He uses an obnoxiously loud juice, its pulpy ejecta squirting all over a coworker’s shirt; he plays the bagpipes to let off steam, as the camera pushes in from a low angle, light crashing against him and veiling half his face in shadow (a callback to the first couple of episodes); he poops in the bathroom and doesn’t flush. He is, as Cliff says shortly before firing him, “an all-around jackass.” Cliff knows that Jimmy wants to get fired to keep his bonus, his $7,000 cocobolo desk. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re a nice guy,” Jimmy says.
“For what it’s worth, I think you’re an asshole,” Cliff answers.
NEXT: Jimmy and Kim are both going uptown
Jimmy throws his soda can in the wrong bin, to the dismay of that annoying girl who has been hounding him for three episodes, and slams his door shut on the camera, the inverse of The Godfather.
Jimmy isn’t done, though. He tells Kim she deserves better than S&C; Rich is just another Howard. He presents Kim with a business card he made, a WM etched into the paper: “Wexler-McGill.” He wants to have her, and he does, she says — just not as a law partner.
After her meeting with Schweikart & Coakley, Kim calls Rich Howard. “Howard’s a good-looking man,” Rich says, playing it cool.
Kim goes to the top of the parking garage to have a smoke. She’s sucking down smoke on a higher level of the same gray structure as she was at HHM. Cigarette dangling from her lips, she tears the WM card in half, holding a letter in each hand.
Kim and Jimmy are two strong personalities fighting against the crushing envelopment of corporate conformity, bright colors gleaming against the drab slab monolith of initials strung together on business cards handed out by men in boxy gray suits who drive company cars.
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Kim visits Jimmy in his back-of-spa office, where his cocobolo desk takes up almost the entire room. She hands him the two halves of the business card: “Wexler and McGill,” she says. Two separate law offices under one roof. They’re both going uptown, why not share a taxi?
“I don’t know what to say,” Jimmy says.