The more we learn about Jimmy McGill, about his chicanery and utter disregard for rules and professional etiquette, the more Chuck’s contempt makes sense. As with Howard, who seemed like Jimmy’s arch-nemesis for most of last season, it’s not Chuck who’s changing, but our perspective of him. Better Call Saul is one of the best dramas on television because it has no obvious heroes and villains, no one to really root against. (Well, Tuco is pretty much a textbook villain, but everyone else, even Nacho, defies easy categorization.)
This Golden Age of Television™ that we’re experiencing should be, in theory, rife with moral ambiguity — complex characters with complex motivations. But the post-Tony Soprano landscape, piebald with gritty anti-heroes like long swaths of dandelions, is frustratingly single-minded in its depiction of middle-aged men having lapses of judgment and trying to redeem themselves. Think of the loudest, and thus most recognized, anti-heroes, the Walter Whites and Nucky Thompsons, or more recent ones like Richie from the aesthetically phantasmagoric Vinyl and whoever’s still alive on Game of Thrones. They do bad things — like, really bad things, not just casually bad — and then stew in guilt until they manage to redeem themselves against the odds, or they just die. It’s boring.
Saul doesn’t have the slam-bang-pow set pieces of the aforementioned prestige shows, and it doesn’t have as much decadent scene-chewing, but it has something better: moxie. The character progressions on Better Call Saul are as intricate yet logical as legalese. The end of season 1 and the first four episode of season 2 have portrayed Chuck as a manipulative, selfish sonofabitch with a starched suit and a guileless face, a nose-to-the-grind careerist whose cutup little brother threatened to usurp Chuck’s stature as the family success story. “Rebecca” usurps that notion. (I think I’ve used the word “usurp” in most of these recaps, but the show keeps doubling back on itself — it’s as slippery as Jimmy.)
“Rebecca,” written by Ann Cherkis and directed by John Shiban, begins by shining a light on darkened histories. Chuck is changing a lightbulb, sometime before his electrical affliction. He puts a record on — jazz, of course, ’cause he’s classy. In the kitchen, a woman sweats onions. Chuck’s sheet music sits undisturbed in the foreground, in the dark.
They flirtatiously banter, talking about that time in Florence, and Schubert, and her upcoming concert, and did you ever hear that story about Carol Burnett? Of their soon-to-arrive dinner guest, Chuck says, “He’s…an acquired taste.”
“How bad can he be?” she responds.
The doorbell rings — he’s early, of course — and Chuck, grumbling, greets his brother, who, holding up a six-pack, proclaims, “Holy s—, look at this place!”
Jimmy sits down for dinner, the best meal he’s had in a decade. He apologizes for missing the wedding. “Yo-Yo Ma was there,” Chuck says; “Ah, right on,” Jimmy responds. He tells Rebecca about his new job in the Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill mail room. He shares with her a lawyer joke he heard:
“What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer? The vacuum cleaner has the dirt bag on the inside!”
Chuck doesn’t laugh.
Jimmy spits out a stream of lawyer jokes to Chuck’s chagrin. “More,” Rebecca says. “Go on.”
“What do you call…”
“What’s the difference…”
“Have you heard the one…”
“How many lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb?”
NEXT: Jimmy gets an escort
After dinner, Chuck and Rebecca lay in bed, a considerable chasm between them. The lighting is cold, a kind of chrome-blue veil over the room. Chuck tries to tell a lawyer joke; Rebecca says, “What? Oh.” She doesn’t laugh.
Chuck stares off into the cold void.
The question that will probably plague you after this scene is what happened to Rebecca? As this whole scene unfurls from Chuck’s point of view, it seems that he, somehow, blames Jimmy for expanding the obvious rift in his marriage. This show’s ability to glean sympathy for every character (except Tuco — well, actually…) is impeccable.
Jimmy and Kim are both working late. Jimmy, who types with two fingers, search-and-pecking (which is how I type, FWIW), is still trying to help get Kim out of the doghouse, despite her insistence that she doesn’t want his help. Kim, still dwelling in the basement of HHM, ignores Jimmy’s calls, watching her phone convulse across the table. When Jimmy sneaks into HHM to talk to Kim (notice the shot from the POV of the glass door, which lasts maybe half a second), she tells him he’s like Judas Priest — he just can’t stop breaking the rules, breaking the rules.
A young lady appears at Jimmy’s door. She’s a second-year attorney and easily the most annoying character on the show so far. She tells Jimmy she noticed that he threw his soda can in the wrong receptacle — “We take our ecological footprint very seriously here.”
“Ah, sorry. Go green,” Jimmy says.
She’s been assigned to follow (and hound) Jimmy, chastising him for everything he does wrong: indentations in his paperwork, the capitalization of Roman numerals, the extent to which he uses quotes in his reports. Later, when Jimmy goes back to his old public defender stomping grounds and has to ask the receptionist for a court date, his escort refuses to let him give the receptionist a Beanie Baby as a gift/bribe (ahh, the early aughts), which causes Jimmy to get a court date one month later than he wanted. “I’m not trying to get you in trouble,” she says, “I’m trying to keep you out of trouble.”
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It’s pretty difficult to make someone feel bad for a lawyer, but you really do feel for Jimmy; he cut his teeth in the doldrums of the justice system and learned how to “grease the wheels of justice.” He knows the lowly denizens who work cases for $750 paychecks (what Jimmy earned in the series pilot for defending a trio of teenagers who had sex with a severed head), while his associates at Davis & Maine, stricken with white-collar privilege, come across as increasingly out-of-touch.
Kim tries desperately to bring in new business. Now without an office, she phones contacts of increasingly tenuous relation in stairwells, in parking garages, in the bathroom.
“Hey, how’s it going? Yeah…yeah, I’d love to get a drink sometime…”
“No, sorry, I’m seeing someone now…”
“Remember me? We met at a mixer last year…”
When she finally lands a client, she shouts, “Yes!” emphatically, shown from a wide flat shot, what David Bordwell calls “planimetric.” Kim moves across the screen, right to left; in her purple dress, she looks like just another cement pole, or the exit door.
NEXT: No one cried harder than Jimmy
Kim brings in a $250,000 client. When Chuck asks Howard if this means she’s out of the doghouse, Howard responds bitterly, “We’ll see.” Twenty minutes earlier, Jimmy told Kim that Chuck, not Howard, is the one ostracizing her; now we’re not so sure.
Chuck, gradually re-assimilating into HHM now heads into the office in the wee hours of the morning, before the blue hour of twilight spills across the sky, before anyone else gets in. But Kim is still in the office, still in the doghouse.
Chuck asks her to brew him a cup of coffee (he can’t use the coffee maker, you see). Then he tells her, “Make two cups.”
She eyes him apprehensively — he’s the one keeping her down, and now he’s asking her, so jovially, to make him coffee? She conjures up courage and says, “Do I have a future here?”
Chuck answers her question with a gut-punch of a story. A story about his father, about Jimmy.
Their father, a hard-working, honest man, ran his own corner store. Wasn’t much, but it put food on the table, as they say. When Chuck went off to college, Jimmy started working in the store, helping out his old man. Their dad was as good as guy as you’ll ever meet but a lousy businessman. When Chuck came home, he saw a $14,000 discrepancy in the books. Slippin’ Jimmy had been pilfering from the store to fuel his noxious vices. When Chuck told their father, he wouldn’t hear it, no way, not his Jimmy. He had to sell the store. Six months later he died.
“At the funeral, nobody cried harder than Jimmy.”
Kim, like Chuck’s dad, trusted Jimmy; Jimmy lied to her, let her down. Like he did with his dad.
“I’ll talk to Howard,” Chuck says. Before departing, he tells her good job bringing in that account.
The consequences of trusting Jimmy McGill course “Rebecca” like tainted blood. He’s sweet and charming, but he corrodes everyone around him, an arsenic-laced lawyer who slowly, gradually, invariably poisons everything. The only person seemingly immune to Jimmy is Mike, who has thus far been mostly absent from the episode and who has no trouble poisoning his own life.
His dealings with Nacho having reached their ostensible conclusion, Mike sits in a diner, his face the color of smashed eggplant, something percolating behind bruised eyes. (Jonathan Banks remains a master of emulating through stoicism; he’s a one-man Kuleshov Effect.) In walks Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), uncle of Tuco, not yet a bell-ringing invalid. He takes a seat across from Mike.
He apologizes for his nephew, saying some time spent in jail will teach him to respect his elders. But a decade in prison? For a gun charge? That’s a bit much. Hector wants Mike to tell the police it was his gun so Tuco only takes a battery charge. Hector will make the gun charge worth Mike’s time ($$$).
Think about it.
As Hector ambles out the door, Mike raises two clenched fists, and as he brings them down toward the table, the camera cuts, credits roll.
Mike doesn’t want to be a bad man, so he didn’t kill Tuco. Mike messed up.
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