Better Call Saul: “Rebecca” – A Dissenting View of Jimmy McGill


Jimmy doesn’t have a bad heart. He never really means to hurt anyone. It’s just how he is. It’s in his nature. He takes advantage of people. Time and again, he leaves the folks that he claims to care about holding the bag. It may come in dribs and drabs, and it may be infused with that old McGill charm, but it’s what he does.

That’s how Chuck sees his brother, and maybe it’s how Kim is starting to see him too.

It’s not hard to imagine why Chuck and Kim could have a certain rapport, even if they’re very different people. There’s a sense of righteousness in both of them, Kim is much humbler and more genuinely committed to that principle than Chuck is, but it’s a characteristic they share. What’s more, they’re each individuals who have worked hard for what they have without, as far as we know, trying to take any shortcuts.

“Rebecca” conveys this side of Kim in the wonderfully realized montage where she busts her hump in the document review dungeon, while at the same time using her every spare moment to drum up leads in an effort to land a big client and raise her stock at HHM. The multi-colored post-it notes on the clear glass in the stairwell, the wide shots of her cold calling every contact she’s ever crossed paths with while the rain pours outside, and the awkward scene where she attempts to avoid detection in the women’s restroom, are all great images that–with the help of a Spanish version of “My Way”–communicate beautifully how Kim’s method differs markedly from that of the younger Mr. McGill.

 

"Yes, I'm still here. I just had to dodge Woodward and Bernstein."

 

To the point, the episode positions Jimmy as the king of the big idea. He’s the one who comes up with the Hail Mary play, the crazy scheme that will set things right again, the grand gesture to make everything better. But that’s not Kim’s way, a fact that she informs Jimmy of in memorable fashion when he tries to play knight in shining armor. Instead, Kim’s way is to fight and scratch and claw, to depend on herself and on her sweat, gumption, and elbow grease to win the right way. Kim is the kind of person who bets on herself and puts in the time and effort to make that a winning bet.

It’s eminently plausible that Chuck is, or at least was, cut from the same cloth. In the present, we see Chuck in some state of obsolescence, still trying to come back from his psychosomatic illness. (An illness possibly brought on by the death of the wife whom we meet in the cold open?) We see Chuck depending on other people, whether it’s the mailroom clerk who brings him his groceries and chauffeurs him to HHM’s offices, or the security guard who shuts off the lights and opens the doors for him, or even Kim, who’s effectively forced to make his coffee.

But we know a few things about Chuck that suggest he wasn’t always this way. Even in the present, the elder Mr. McGill is excited about the complexity of the case Kim brings in and the work that it will entail. And while we don’t know about his exact path to becoming a big time partner at a law firm with his name on it (or at least on the flag in front of it), the fact that he reached those heights when the breadwinner in his family ran a local corner store suggests that Chuck had to do a great deal of scratching and clawing himself to get where he is today, even if he’s grown fat and happy and self-satisfied in the intervening years.

That’s why it’s not a stretch to watch that final scene with the two most important people in Jimmy’s life and comprehend how Chuck might see a bit of himself in Kim. He looks at the young lawyer sitting across from him as someone who put in the hard work, who’s been up all night doing doc review even after she managed to land a $250,000 client as a fourth-year associate. And he also sees her as someone else whom Jimmy has hurt by gaining their trust and then betraying it.

 

The difference in the blocking of this shot vs. the one where Chuck and Hamlin are dressing Kim down is striking.

 

One of the wonderful things about Better Call Saul (and its forebear) is the way that the show plays with perspective, literally (in terms of its shots) but also figuratively. We don’t know if Papa McGill was truly the paragon of virtue that Chuck makes him out to be. It’s easy to imagine Jimmy telling a very different story about the man who raised him and his brother. But there’s a plausibility to the story that Chuck tells, of Jimmy bilking his own father–not outright robbing him or meaning him any harm, just taking a little here and there–because it suited him in the moment and because honest work didn’t get him where he wanted to go as quickly as he wanted to get there. It’s easy to see how that perspective, even if it’s only in Chuck’s head, would make Chuck endlessly mistrusting of his brother and sympathetic to a hardworking, motivated young woman that he sees as yet another of his brother’s victims.

Erin, the young associate who’s babysitting Jimmy at Davis & Main after his prior misbehavior is the living embodiment of the idea that Jimmy needs a guardrail to keep him from giving into his worst impulses. She’s an annoying character–she’s meant to be–and one who feels a little more cartoonish and stock than BCS usually brings to the fore, but she serves a purpose here.

She helps demonstrate that Jimmy would rather duck out of the office than spend the time to learn Davis & Main’s house style, that he has a little bit of Chuck’s arrogance in him to where he’s willing to pull rank on an associate who’s technically junior to him, and that he’s apt to “finesse” wherever possible rather than play by the rules. Sure, a beanie baby bribe is a pretty minor hill for Erin to die on, but Jimmy’s conversation with the prosecutor in the bathroom is another reminder of how lucky Jimmy is to be where he is, and how he still can’t help but bristle at the restrictions being in that place entails.

 

"Look, I don't like it anymore than you do, but the legal world runs on beanie babies."

 

Jimmy is our protagonist. He’s one of the breakout characters from Breaking Bad and someone the audience has seen doing a great deal of scratching and clawing of his own, especially in Season 1. Because of that, we can’t help but enjoy watching him work his magic or believing that at base, he means well. That makes us sympathetic toward him. That makes us root for him. But Chuck’s right to worry that there’s something within him that can’t be trusted, and Kim’s right to rely on herself rather than take a leap on someone who’s shown he can’t necessarily turn off the part of him that has to test the limits of whatever situation he finds himself in.

Rhea Seehorn’s stellar throughout “Rebecca”, but her best work comes in two scenes in particular that help show who she is apart from Jimmy McGill. The first is when she receives a phone call from her acquaintance at the Mesa Verde and ventures out into the parking lot to confirm the deal in private. Her little celebration, that moment of triumph and exuberance and the expectation that all her hard work is paying off, is infectious, delightful, and a wonderful culmination of that expertly-constructed montage earlier in the episode.

The other is the moment when, after sticking the landing with Mesa Verde’s CEO, Kim offers to get the ball rolling on the case and Hamlin coldly rebuffs her. The resulting look on her face, the realization that all her efforts weren’t enough to lift her out of the doghouse by her own bootstraps, is just devastating. In both scenes, the camera cuts to a wide shot–one where she’s framed on all sides by the outline of the parking garage and one where she’s dominated in the frame by the HHM flag. In both shots, she’s made to seem very small, signaling the sense in which despite her yeoman’s work, Kim is still viewed and treated as a minor cog in Hamlin’s machine.

 

"And don't forget to polish the AMC logo."

 

Hamlin himself is an interesting character (though like the surprise appearance from a wheeling-and-dealing, subtly intimidating Hector Salamanca, we only see a bit of him in this episode). The first season paints him as the bad guy, almost cheesily so, with his pressed suits and mustache-twirling presence as a thorn in Jimmy’s side. But eventually the show reveals that in truth, Hamlin always liked Jimmy, and he was simply doing his best to honor Chuck’s wishes, all of which put Hamlin in a different light. Now, Better Call Saul seems to once again be presenting the head of the firm as a more complicated character.

The scene where Chuck and Hamlin confronted Kim about Jimmy’s ad suggested that Chuck was goading Hamlin into punishing Kim for his brother’s transgressions (or at least what he thought was her complicity in them). But Hamlin’s “we’ll see” response to Chuck’s statement that landing Mesa Verde would put Kim back in Hamlin’s good graces, and Kim’s observation that Hamlin pulled the same stunt when things went South with the Kettlemans, suggest that the first “H” in “HHM” is not simply a decent guy trying to vindicate his partner.

As Chuck himself posits, Hamlin was burned by Jimmy as well, and he blames Kim for it. But Hamlin doesn’t have Chuck’s experience with the soon-to-be Saul Goodman to where he understands that this is just what Jimmy does. Accordingly, he lacks the same sympathy for Kim that Chuck seems to have by the end of the episode. It’s that sympathy which seems to bring Kim closer to Chuck’s view of Jimmy than the other way around.

But while Kim’s view of Jimmy, and to a lesser extent Hamlin’s view of him, are informed almost solely by watching Jimmy receive a golden opportunity and nearly squander it, even after being warned about the deleterious effects that would have on the people who put their necks out for him, Chuck’s perspective is informed, at least in part, by jealousy and resentment. The opening scene of “Rebecca” is an extraordinary little short story all its own, and one of the most interesting aspects of it is how it shows Chuck subtly envying Jimmy’s easy way with people.

 

"That's right, whenever we'd play Clue he'd always want to be Mr. Green for some reason!"

 

When Chuck describes his father (and this is admittedly a bit of a leap on my part), it’s defensible to surmise that Chuck inherited the work ethic of a man who wanted to become his own boss and run his own business, and his brother inherited the personable nature of a man who was beloved by the community that he served. Chuck is still infuriated by the fact that for all of his accomplishments, his screw-up jailbird of a brother can waltz into his home, rattle off a bevy of lawyer jokes, and entertain and engage with his wife more easily than Chuck (or his non-sequitur attempt at the same type of humor hours later) is able to. There’s disappointment in his expression, and a sense of indignation at what Jimmy can manage without ever having to struggle for it. It clearly strikes Chuck as more than unfair.

There are also a number of hints at what lurks in Chuck’s psyche during those scenes. His advice to his wife about dealing with an unruly individual in her orchestra and his admonition that it’s “her reputation too,” are both reflections of how Chuck views not only his brother and his own good name, but what he sees as the appropriate measures for preserving each. What’s more, as Mrs. Bloom observed, the first image we see in the episode is Chuck screwing in light bulbs, and it coincides with the first appearance of his wife in the series. That fact, combined with the very deliberate way in which their scenes together are lit suggest that she is a light in the darkness to him, and that her absence–whether it be because of an untimely death or a separation that came about, at least in part, because Chuck lacked Jimmy’s easy charm–had a profound effect on him.

 

"I can never remember which night of Chanukah it is."

 

But as Chuck fruitlessly tugs on his ear, there’s a sense that he’s tired of Jimmy’s routine, of the way his brother ingratiates himself to those around him as a first step toward taking advantage of them. And Kim is beginning to see that side of Jimmy as well.

Kim is someone who, as the episode goes to great lengths to show, has to earn everything she has the hard way and fight even harder to keep it. Chuck’s story suggests that he was once the same kind of person. And now, as they become something approaching unlikely allies, a dissenting view of the nascent Saul Goodman emerges — the king of quick fixes, the man who can talk his way out of any problem, is not above using the people he cares about for his own ends, not because he’s bad, not because he’s cruel, but because it’s the only way he knows how, and the people who enable him are left to bear the brunt, and the scars, of his failures.


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