Look back to all the Shakespeare you had to read in school, and you’ll find that all his villains had the same basic motivation. From Iago to Richard III to Cassius to Lady Macbeth, all of them felt wronged, cheated, denied their rightful greatness by a cruel, unjust universe. And all of them got pretty ruthless in their efforts to claim it.
That same motivation, that Shakespeareanity, is at the heart of Better Call Saul. And in its first season, everyone – from writers to actors to directors and cinematographers, is just RUNNING with it.
When we last left our hero (such as he is), Jimmy McGill had just caught up with the banal, repellent Kettlemans and exposed a crime no viewer had ever held in doubt. To save themselves – but mostly herself – Betsy offers him either a retainer or a bribe. In this world, they’re pretty much the same.
Since he’s still trying to find that perfect angle, that perfect shot that will launch him into the legal stardom Howard Hamlin currently enjoys, he takes the money and uses it to buy a suit (exactly like Howard’s), a billboard (almost exactly like Howard’s), a cease-and-desist order (free of charge, thanks to Howard), and a fake rescue. And they work pretty well for him. Not only does his stunt bring a whole new range of clientele to his door, but it lets him stick a middle finger in his rival’s eye.
But his actions have consequences he didn’t expect. Their ripples lead to a harrowing breakdown for Chuck. They cost Kim a shot at advancing in her firm. And Jimmy can’t turn away. He’s not Walter White. He’s not even Saul Goodman yet.
Jimmy’s still trying to be a good guy. He feels remorse over what he’s caused. And he tries to make things whole. With an assist from Mike, he brings the Kettlemans back to reality. He gives Kim her clients back. And he tries to ease his brother back into the world of the living.
But just as Jimmy’s gain is his friends’ loss, their gain is his. He still has his new elder-law practice, but after withdrawing his own money to cover what the Kettlemans stole, he’s missed his shot at a new office, his chance to look and sound and feel like a Real Lawyer. And he might have lost Kim as a partner, in at least one sense of the word.
It all comes together – or apart – in the final scene of “Bingo,” a beautiful moment of staging and framing and acting. We’ve never seen Jimmy quite so vulnerable, so human, as he is in his breakdown. Just as he’s done since he first put on that horrendous suit, Bob Odenkirk just NAILS it.
Of course, the entire cast does. Julie Ann Emery finds humor and even pathos in her deluded Lady Macbetsy. Patrick Fabian makes Howard a slimeball we may not like, but one we still understand. Rhea Seehorn brings an unexpected kindness to Kim, especially when she has to let down a smitten Jimmy. Michael McKean is in his usual top form. And Jonathan Banks… I have no words for how great he is. That monologue at the end of “Five-O” is one for the AGES.
And there’s one more character I need to shout out here. The camera.
Every shot in Better Call Saul serves to reveal its world and the people who live in it. From the wide vistas of Albuquerque to the confines of Jimmy’s closet office to his cigarette “dates” with Kim, the camera reveals his isolation. We’re watching a man who stands alone even in a crowd, a man existing in both light and shadow at the same time, and the photography brings that home to beautiful effect.
And in the end, we’re watching a man who has, yet again, been denied the things he wants most, the things he feels are owed to him.
Now, how far will he go to claim them?
It’s hard to fathom that we only have three episodes left this season. Better Call Saul has moved forward with such confidence and force and grace. Even this early, I’m hopeful that it will come to endure as Breaking Bad has.
But that’s a story for another season…
Thanks as always for following along. Until next time, “be seeing you…”