To be liked doesn’t mean you’re good, and to be good doesn’t mean you’re liked. So learned both Charles (Michael McKean) and James (Bob Odenkirk) McGill on this week’s subtly explosive season two finale.
Last time we saw Chuck, he was out cold on the floor after decidedly losing his cool in a copier store. Last time we saw Jimmy, he was looking on in astonishment and struggling with the choice of whether to help his brother or flee the scene of his crime. This is clearly a crucial sequence in a brotherly relationship that seems to be reaching its final days, but it’s a well-placed flashback that opens the episode, one that really gives us an idea of what’s at stake.
What both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad have done more effectively than most other series that implement flashbacks — of which there are many — is to make them less important to the strict plot than to the show’s central relationships. When Better Call Saul has reached back to its past, it hasn’t done so just to show things that happened long ago, but to offer moments that explain what’s happening in the present.
That’s why seeing Chuck and Jimmy side by side at their mother’s death bed is so essential to understanding what goes down over the next 60 minutes. They are the same people we’ve come to know: Jimmy the fast-talker, remembering the good times, while the sullen Chuck remembers only his mother cleaning up after Jimmy’s good times. Chuck’s always seen himself as the moral center of the family and he won’t, even as their mother’s about to die, let Jimmy forget that he’s the screw-up. That’s why it breaks Chuck to the core when their mother, during her final gasp for life, calls out to Jimmy. How is it that not even his mother couldn’t see who was truly good, and thus inherently deserved more love?
To be good doesn’t mean you’re liked.
We then jump back to the present, where Jimmy can’t help but run headlong into the copier store to help Chuck, despite all the holes it now puts in his plan to get away with his act of forgery. Chuck’s rushed to the hospital, which, considering the number of electrical instruments present, is a little like taking someone suffering from epilepsy to an EDM concert. He’s quickly strapped tightly to a bed where his fear and paranoia becomes instantly palpable, masterfully conveyed by episode director Vince Gilligan in a scene film entirely upside down, adding to the viewers’ discomfit.
To say Chuck isn’t thankful for Jimmy’s timely interference is to put it mildly. Moments after he’s awake and again in the safety of a dark hospital room, Chuck’s questioning the speed at which Jimmy arrived on the scene, not for a moment considering what might’ve happened had Jimmy not been there. Despite Chuck’s crassness in this regard, he isn’t wrong. Jimmy knows that his proximity to the scene is hard to put any logical spin on.
So who comes to the rescue? You guess it, Ernesto (Brandon K. Hampton)! (Okay, so probably no one guessed that). He claims that he called Jimmy before the incident even began simply because he was worried about Chuck’s manic state, making Jimmy’s timing more lucky than damning. Jimmy’s relieved and thankful, but also surprised. When asked, Ernie gives a rather illuminating answer: “You’re my friend”. Ernesto works directly for one of the most influential lawyers in all of New Mexico, but when it comes down to it, his loyalties fall with Jimmy because he likes Jimmy, while he clearly doesn’t have the same feeling about Chuck. Jimmy did the crime, while Chuck has actually done very little really wrong, but Ernie, Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and the audience all root for Jimmy.
To be liked doesn’t mean you’re good.
Mike (Jonathan Banks) has taken a bit of a back seat in recent weeks, as his and Jimmy’s stories seem to currently exist in almost completely separate worlds. While Jimmy’s in the midst of a tale of love, lies, and betrayal, Mike’s the hero in a hard-boiled southwestern noir story. It’s a testament to Gilligan and team that they are able to so effectively keep up both sides of this story, especially when very little appears to actually happen.
This skill’s fully on display during Mike’s longest scene in the episode, which has him poised, sniper rifle in hand, ready to take out the head of the Salamanca crime family. We’re privy to each and every painstaking moment as Mike waits for his target to come into his sight, ready for the moment where Mike puts Hector (Mark Margolis) in the wheelchair that we came to associate his character in Breaking Bad.
Not so fast. In classic Better Call Saul fashion, it’s more about the build-up than the shot, a shot which, in this case, never comes. Just as Mike’s finally ready to shoot, he drawn back to his car that was hidden in the desert with a note that reads only, “Don’t”. Who? Why? We’re left on the hook on this one, but someone knows Mike’s plan and is kind enough to let him know that this isn’t the right course of action.
In Jimmy and Chuck’s side of the story, it’s not hard to guess that Chuck isn’t exactly satisfied with Ernie’s explanation; he no more believes Jimmy now than at the moment he first decided Jimmy must’ve been behind the Mesa Verde clerical error. All this sequence has proven to Chuck is what we learned during the episode’s opening: that being good his whole life doesn’t guarantee he’ll get what he deserves.
So, just as he did when he neglected to tell Jimmy about their mother’s final words, Chuck will turn to the kind of deceit that makes him so loathe Jimmy as a way to turn the wheels of justice in the direction he desires.
As we’ve seen, Jimmy’s a savant of the grift, a master of the ruse, but in the season’s final sequence, it’s Chuck who pulls the most dastardly con of the series thus far. Jimmy’s quickly ushered to Chuck’s home after learning the he’s decided to quit HHM for good, citing his deteriorating mental capabilities, exhibited in part by his inability to get the correct Mesa Verde address. He plays a man on the edge of the kind of full insanity his previous behavior only hinted at. First, he fully imprisons himself in his living room, which is now lined with the material used on his space blanket, then goes on about how his brain doesn’t work and how helpless he now feels.
Jimmy may not be a good man, but he’s not an evil one. Seeing his brother so demoralized was not the goal of his document tampering; seeing him like this is enough for Jimmy to admit to it all. In an act of full brotherly love, Jimmy betrays his secret simply to give Chuck back some semblance of his confidence. After all, in Jimmy’s words, “it’s your word versus mine”, which bodes well for Jimmy considering his brother now seems all but completely incapable of rational thought. That is, until the final reveal, which fully displays the ruthlessness of the elder McGill. Sure, he’s deathly “allergic” to electricity, but not enough that a well-placed tape recorder isn’t worth the risk, especially when it can fully prove Jimmy’s guilt.
The fact that we’re left with two separate cliffhangers in both of Better Call Saul‘s main storylines is a bit frustrating — especially with television drama’s long-standing reliance on such moves — but the way the narrative builds to these mysteries is done so impressively that it’s hard to complain. Many have criticized the series for its, at times, glacier-like pacing, but in a season that may have lagged a bit toward the middle, the end-game was sure worth the minor mundanity.
Better Call Saul‘s a show that simmers rather than sparks. It’s a series for which we know the ultimate end, so the drama lies in each small shift in the emotional landscape. To know how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, we need to know each and every thing that happened, why it happened, and what it meant. It may seem slow at times, but so to does life. Until it doesn’t, and you end up managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska.