Jimmy plays the orchestra

By Greg Cwik
March 01, 2016 at 03:10 AM EST
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Better Call Saul

S2 E3
  • TV Show
  • AMC

Close-up of a brick wall dappled in patriotic paint, the Texas flag blown up as big as an unchecked ego; we start on a white star shedding flakes and cruise along, left to right, as blue gives way to red and settles on Jimmy McGill standing stoic in a white hat and suit, more Boss Hogg than Tom Wolfe.

A bus pulls up into the left side of the frame and idles while Jimmy stands all James Dean-like on the right — cool, calm, bolo tie looped loosely around his neck. He walks over to the bus driver, slips him some paper (“You got five minutes”), and steps onto the bus.

It’s a bus full of Sandpiper residents on their way to a restaurant. Jimmy introduces himself to an elderly woman and asks her if she recalls receiving a form from his firm in the mail. “Was it yellow?” she queries.

“Canary yellow!” Jimmy bellows back, elated. “I picked that color myself.”

(I’m starting to wonder if Better Call Saul is riffing on Dostoevsky​’s use of yellow to suggest poverty and guilt.)

At times like this, when he’s at his most jovial, when he’s with older people, explaining things to them in simple, affable ways without condescension or smarm, without chicanery, when he’s using his gift of gab to work toward a Greater Good instead of a bigger haul (the Sandpiper people have been, Jimmy ascertains, stealing the residents’ mail, stunting their case), Jimmy McGill barely resembles the palm-greasing, pocket-lining lawyer he’ll eventually become.

He explains the case by likening it to being overcharged for biscuits at a restaurant. And what do you do when you’re overcharged for biscuits at a restaurant? “You send your nephew Steve to talk to the manager. That’s how I want you to think of me.”

Jimmy, Saul, Gene, Steve.

Jimmy collects the signatures. “Beautiful penmanship,” he says. “A lost art.”

Like beautiful penmanship, Jimmy McGill’s people skills and showmanship are a lost art, something his brother Chuck and the other suits at HHM lack. He’s the calligraphy to Chuck’s computer printouts, speaking as eloquently as the loveliest cursive handwriting, looping his sentences in graceful arcs before coming back around to cross his T’s. His colleagues make phone calls or send fliers in the mail; Jimmy shows up in person, giving the clients a big beaming face, his hands gently scrawling invisible sentences in the air.

Jimmy’s (old) people skills are so good, he snags over 200 Sandpiper signatures in three weeks, when HHM and D&M’s traditional mailers managed just one lonely signature.

NEXT: Chuck isn’t buying Jimmy’s signatures

At the conference table, Cliff (Ed Begley Jr.) and Howard congratulate Jimmy on his hard work, but Chuck isn’t buying it.

“Astonishing work, Jimmy,” he says. “That is… Wow.”

The two-shot sequence, bouncing back and forth from Chuck’s furled stoicism to Jimmy’s slight smirk, continues to keep the brothers out of each other’s frames (Kim and Jimmy are shown together, equal, each occupying half of the screen, not touching).

Solicitation is against the law and, as Chuck says, may raise eyebrows, endanger the case. Jimmy is eclipsing Chuck by eschewing the rules.

Howard starts, “I’m sure…”

And Chuck silences him with one severe finger, raised like an executioner’s ax.

Jimmy lies through parabola teeth, spinning yarns as that used-car-salesman smile spreads across his face. Of course he didn’t solicit anyone; he went to pay a visit to the Sandpiper residents, who, as we all know, love him, and word of the lawsuit spread like pink eye. Who doesn’t want to get money? Howard and Cliff buy Jimmy’s story. What does Chuck think? Chuck nods apprehensively, looking defeated.

“The price of excellence is eternal vigilance,” he says.

Jimmy’s foot moseys over to Kim’s, but she turns him down.

After the meeting, Kim and Jimmy have it out. Framed in the doorway, squished to the far left side of the frame, while the gray monolithic Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill logo looms over two-thirds of the screen, dwarfing the couple, Kim reminds Jimmy that she stood up for him when Chuck shut him out. She got him the Sandpiper case, and now he’s pissing it away with unnecessary risks.

“So what? You threw me a bone?” Jimmy says.

“No asshole,” Kim spits. “You know I believe in you.”

Jimmy swears he’s giving up his slippery ways. He’s lying, of course, but Kim really does believe him.

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The theme of the episode, and the season, is people doing bad things for good reasons, or ostensibly bad things for ostensibly good reasons. Jimmy is paying off bus drivers so he can solicit Sandpiper residents for signatures, which will help him win the case and get them money. (Of course, the question of whether he’s doing this for them or for his own career/ego remains ambiguous.) And Mike, whose subplots feel increasingly like wadding while we wait for an explosive payoff, is taking up seedy side jobs to help out his son’s widow and his granddaughter. The same theme courses Breaking Bad but in a more extreme way since Walt isn’t just side-stepping the fine print (to mix a metaphor, Marco-style) or taking on shady but mostly harmless gigs as a bodyguard, an enforcer, a bag man. Morality is more nebulous in Better Call Saul, though the show still has to exist within the confines of Bad’s established lore, with all roads leading to Saul.

The stakes here are, for a prime-time prestige show, pretty low, especially after the first season had life-or-death situations in its first three episodes while Breaking Bad had an airplane crash and debris raining on Albuquerque like a plague in its season 2 opener and closer. Better Call Saul opened its second season with Jimmy/Gene sitting alone in a garbage room, scratching his initials into the wall. Jimmy’s relationship with Kim is slowly dissolving, though we know his career will flourish. Mike, who puts batteries in his granddaughter’s toys when he isn’t aiding drug dealers (that writhing piggy toy is terrifying; it doesn’t look dissimilar to someone in the thralls of a death spasm), is still the most badass grandpa on TV, but here he leans closer to the grandpa side of the spectrum. Saul’s season 1 premiere had 6.88 million viewers; season 2 had 2.57, and that number seems to be dropping. The writers are unconcerned with rewarding viewers, which makes me increasingly fascinated by the show. Instead of guys disintegrating in bathtubs, we get guys making infomercials.

NEXT: Jimmy makes a commercial

Jimmy needs to figure out how he can accrue more signatures, but like the show, he also needs to stay within an established criterion (in this case it’s the criterion of stuffy old men in suits) and not do anything “eccentric.” Thankfully he’s a pop-culture connoisseur: What’s the one thing you know the Sandpiper residents will always do, every day, at the same time? Watch Murder, She Wrote, of course, their diurnal respite from the mundanity of assisted living. Jimmy hurls a curveball to Cliff, a Sandy Koufax 12-6 kinda idea: Film a commercial and run it at 3:14, right after the first plot twist/red herring, when everyone will be sitting (figuratively) on the edge of their wheelchair. But Jimmy doesn’t just want some banal commercial, some milquetoast: “Do you or a loved one suffer from mesothelioma?” Oh no, in his gray suit-shirt-tie rig (get it? he’s wading into morally ambiguous waters?), he meets with the camera kids from last season, who helped him shoot his commercial stunt, and he tells them he wants something great.

“Welles, Fellini, Bergman — the greats!” he yells. “In glorious black and white! Heart-rending stuff.”

Jimmy plays the orchestra. Jimmy is an artist, his aspirations a commingling of showmanship and legal regality, his aesthetic gaudy but confident. The star of his commercial descends the stairs — Mrs. Strauss, Jimmy’s first elderly law client, who paid his fee up front, out of her purse, and who is now Norma Desmond in a wheelchair.

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. McGill!”

Back at Jimmy’s place, Kim makes fun of his big bowl of balls, which she likens to the lawyer’s version of the Gideon Bible. They sit down in front of Jimmy’s massive square TV to watch his commercial, titled “’Who Stole My Nest Egg?” “It looks…professional,” Kim says.

The next day Jimmy, who has yet to show the commercial to Cliff, sits in his office, looking at the tape. He goes to Cliff’s office, then turns back around and gets on the phone. The commercial runs, lighting up the office telephones like Christmas trees, Hazel Grace.

Jimmy sinks into the sofa, taking in Ice Station Zebra, in which Rock Hudson embarks on a highly classified Cold War in the arctic, in glorious Super Panavision 70mm! (I wonder if Jimmy knows that Howard Hughes allegedly watched a private print of the film over 150 times on a continuous loop in the reclusive coda of his life.)

Cliff calls to chew Jimmy out for running the commercial. Chuck, Cliff says, called Jimmy “eccentric,” but he didn’t say he was “a goddamn arsonist.”

After Cliff hangs up, Jimmy sinks back into the couch, letting Kim think Cliff called to praise him. Jimmy eyes Kim anxiously as the TV glow flickers on Kim’s smiling face.

The episode ends with an unexpected Michael Mann-ly scene of Mike going into an industrial, ramshackle building, light pouring through holes in the walls, washing into the dusty, vacuous room, filling it up. Mike’s there to meet a guy who has a problem, a guy who will pay handsomely for Mike’s assistance. The guy is Nacho, and Nacho needs Mike make someone “go away.” Cut to black.

Episode Recaps

Better Call Saul

Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own Vince Gilligan prequel.

  • TV Show
  • 4
  • 40
  • Vince Gilligan
  • Peter Gould
  • AMC
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