Better Call Saul

*Spoilers ahead*

Jimmy has a way with the oldies. Back in Season 1 of AMC’s Better Call Saul (streaming on Netflix), we had seen him winning a coup of a lawsuit for a group of elderly citizens who were being duped by a retirement home-chain called Sandpiper Crossing. It’s not that he was just looking to find his niche, which the relatively untapped market in elder law seemed to provide him. You could say that Jimmy, always looking for an opportunity to make business, took advantage of their vulnerabilities. I’d like to believe that he also has a soft corner for them. (Just like he has for juvenile delinquents, like twin skateboarders who scam people by getting hit by their cars). And they seem to take an instant liking for him, possibly charmed by the folksy strain of his personality. Yes, what he does in Season 3—manipulating one of her elderly clients that results in her friends hating her—is despicable. But it ends with Jimmy pulling off one of his stunts, and winning back the old lady her friends at the cost of his reputation with his core client base: an act that proves that, at the end of the day, he has a big heart. 

So it isn’t surprising then to see the grumpy, unpleasant Mr Acker (Barry Corbin), who had seemed impossible to deal with initially in the new and fifth season of Better Call Saul, like him so easily. Of course, Jimmy is there to help him. The old man is about to be made homeless, because the banking company that owns the plot of land he was leased, now wants it back.

Over four and half seasons, Better Call Saul has become so its own thing that it’s almost unfair to call it a Breaking Bad spinoff. Although both shows—created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould—have thematic and stylistic similarities.

That the company happens to be Mesa Verde, where Kim, Jimmy’s ex-colleague, best friend and lover, works is no coincidence. Having failed to convince the old man to take the deal—the company is offering him more than they paid his neighbours—Kim actually starts seeing why it’s morally wrong—even though it’s legally correct. So she hatches a plan. In the tradition of the fun and games these two have played in the show in the past, Kim asks Jimmy to take up Mr Acker’s case. Who better for the job at hand than Jimmy, forever a champion of the underdog and himself one?  

Jimmy McGill. Slippin’ Jimmy. And for those who have seen Breaking Bad but not this show, Saul Goodman (“S’all good, man”). Over four and half seasons—with the fifth one currently on, Better Call Saul has become so its own thing that it’s almost unfair to call it a Breaking Bad spinoff. Although both shows—created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould—have thematic and stylistic similarities.

Even though it’s not as extreme as the ‘Mr Chips-to-Scarface’ metamorphosis of an underachieving chemistry teacher into a meth king, Better Call Saul is also about the protagonist’s transformation. Not so long before he became Walter White’s shady lawyer—although likeable shady—Saul Goodman was Jimmy McGill: a man not much different, but with a little more of that thing called conscience. Like Walter—or any other anti-hero for that matter—Jimmy also has a warped sense of justice. The contradictions within him are fascinating: the spirit of a public defender is strong with Jimmy, but he loves the money too much. We’ve seen glimpses of his con-artist past and have knowledge that he has been to jail. But above all he may be an exhibitionist. 

After trying to make it as a lawyer in his late brother Chuck’s firm HHM, we saw Jimmy finding his true calling at the end of the last season. He wants to start his own practise, adopting the name Saul Goodman, because that’s how his existing customer base, that constitute half of Albuqurque’s petty criminal population, know him (his “friends still call him Jimmy”, he remarks). While that may be partly true, it’s not the whole of it. Jimmy has always been more comfortable with dimwitted junkies than with high-flying suits, more at home at the backroom of a Vietnamese nail salon than in a boardroom meeting. And now with all that he’s been made to go through, he’s had enough of the system; he’s broken bad. 

Bob Odenkirk, with his mix of nervous energy and goofball antics, is fantastic as usual. But for me, Rhea Seehorn’s performance has been a revelation… Nowhere has the moral crisis been so deep as in this season, with the camera capturing her increasingly conflicted mind in close-ups and mid shots.

But how does Kim, the only person Jimmy cares about, respond to this? At first we sense something amiss, in the forced small talk in their shared apartment as they do the chores together. Their relationship is the beating heart of the show. As Better Call Saul heads towards the sixth and final season, Kim Wexler is the last thing that’ll separate Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman. The strain of the relationship is most felt in the scene where Kim asks Jimmy to “back off”, when he tries to use a con for one of her pro bono clients. You fear for the playfulness that had defined the Jimmy-Kim partnership. That’s why it’s reassuring at the end of episode 4 (titled Namaste) to see them go back to their old ways with the case of Mr Acker, who’s all set to be evacuated. The plan is to keep delaying it, by creating new obstacles, and hoping that Mesa Verde lets it go and let the old man die in peace (There are few things on earth as pleasurable as watching Jimmy fool people). Episode 5 shows us it’s not going to be that easy. The next one is titled Wexler vs Goodman. 

Jimmy’s relationship with Kim, his ex colleague, lover and best friend, is the beating heart of Better Call Saul.

Bob Odenkirk, with his mix of nervous energy and goofball antics, is fantastic as usual. But for me, Rhea Seehorn’s performance has been a revelation. As the show has progressed, her character has tried to grapple the increasingly blurring lines between right and wrong, and nowhere has this moral crisis been so deep as in this season, with the camera capturing her increasingly conflicted mind in close-ups and mid shots.

Meanwhile, in the badlands of New Mexico, a moral crisis also haunts Mike (Jonathan Banks), the stoic ‘fixer’ from Breaking Bad, as he tries to cope with the killing of Werner Zeiglar, the German engineer hired by Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), one of the greatest TV supervillains. For the first time we see the Zen-calm Mike lose his cool on his granddaughter, who he dearly loves. Driven by revenge for his son’s death, Mike had joined Gus but now regrets it. We all know where he will end up from Breaking Bad; but seeing him put up his last bit of resistance is a bit sad. When he gets beaten up by some hoodlums, he wakes up the next morning in Gus’ sun-dappled rural retreat. A doctor is looking after his wounds and there’s a cook 24×7. It’s a paid holiday, but Mike is sulking. There’s a wide angle shot of Mike from a faraway distance, which brings in the opening credits in episode 5 (titled Dedicado a Max). Apart from it being visually pleasing, it is also visually ironic: Mike’s ‘imprisoned’ in this idyllic farm with its clear blue skies and open landscape. He would’ve liked to leave; the guards at the gates are not going to stop him, the doctor attending to him tells him. But he is too injured to cover all that distance on foot from the estate to the next village. He is in Gus’ debt, and he hates it. 

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