What I love about Better Call Saul are the little things, the subtle touches that communicate something powerful about who a character is or what they’re thinking in a clear but artful way. When Jimmy returns to his nail salon beginnings and goes to record his voicemail, he starts off with his faux-British secretary routine. Then he stops and tries it again in his regular speaking voice, not as James M. McGill Esquire, but as Jimmy McGill, attorney at law. It’s a small distinction, but a big difference, and that’s the quiet ethos of the show on display in “Inflatable”.
Jimmy abandoning his accented ruse is, on the one hand, a concession to Kim’s way of thinking, and a sign that she’s gotten through to him, if only a little bit. When she turns down his offer for partnership a second time, he’s clearly hurt, but takes it as well as could be expected. Jimmy cares about what Kim thinks of him, and the fact that his “colorful” ways were enough to scare her off yet again may not be enough to make him straighten up and fly right, but it’s enough to make him forego a little piece of the trademark McGill trickery that rubbed her the wrong way. Davis & Main was too much and too fast for Jimmy; he was never meant to be that guy, as much as he wanted to try it for Kim. But he can be a better version of the Jimmy we know and love.
On the other hand, that new voicemail is also a small rejection of Chuck and a self-affirmation from Jimmy. His pretensions of having a well-mannered secretary–with Jimmy’s strange conception of sophistication manifesting itself as a stuffy, mildly foppish assistant–is a reflection of how he sees his brother and what he thinks being a fancy-pants attorney means. By consciously moving away from that, he’s also pivoting away from chasing his brother’s shadow. That doesn’t mean Jimmy’s going to immediately revert back to being a con artist, but he’s going to be bombastic. He’s going to be rough around the edges. And as the name he uses on the answering machine suggests, he’s going to be himself.
Kim has a small but meaningful moment of her own in “Inflatable”. After a successful interview with Rick Schweikart and the other partners at his firm, Kim says goodbye and thank you to her suitors, but accidentally calls Schweikart “Howard” in the process. It’s a Freudian slip, and it signifies how Jimmy’s warning that switching firms like this would be, at best, a lateral move for her, and his caution that that Howard Hamlin and Rick Schweikart are interchangeable, has gotten through to her as well.
In that interview, Kim explains that she left her hometown because she wanted something more out of life. Now, she’s starting to realize that even if that doesn’t mean coloring outside the lines the way that Jimmy does, she is, like Jimmy, too much of a free spirit to be satisfied as just another cog in one undifferentiated machine or another. That leads her to the realization that rather than choosing HHM, or Schweikart’s firm, or even Jimmy’s offer, she once again wants to bet on herself.
It’s little moments like these, that say so much while saying so little, that make me frustrated with scenes like the cold open. That opening flashback takes us back in time to Jimmy’s childhood and the neighborhood shop that Chuck described in “Rebecca”. There, we see a con artist take advantage of Jimmy’s dad, and tell Jimmy that this world consists of wolves and sheep and he has to decide which one he’s going to be. This prompts Jimmy to take his (presumably) first few purloined dollars out of the till. After all, if Papa McGill is going to be bilked anyway, that money may as well go to his family.
The scene isn’t all bad. It lines up with Chuck’s description of his father, and small touches like a young Jimmy pretending to sweep and hiding a copy Playboy behind one of Boys’ Life or refusing to give the grifter the carton of cigarettes until receiving he receives the money show how Jimmy had a certain savvy even at a young age.
But the whole thing feels a little too perfect–not unlike the flashbacks in BoJack Horseman–when it comes to accounting for the current psychological state of Jimmy McGill. His father is a little too trusting, even for an obvious rube like Papa McGill. The grifter is a little too slick, especially with the corny advice he offers Jimmy. And Jimmy himself takes his lessons to heart a little too quickly. I like what BCS was trying to do here, but overall, it was a little too tidy and a little too blunt to work as well as it needed to.
In truth, the montage that juxtaposes a loudly-dressed, obnoxious, fully-grown Jimmy with an equally-flamboyant wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man is not particularly subtle in what it communicates either. But damn it all, the sequence is just too much fun for me to care. The De Palma-esque split screens that put Jimmy’s fruit-smashing, turd-laying, bagpipe-playing antics side-by-side with a frantic, improvisational balloon creature dancing in the wind like a rainbow-colored dervish is a deliriously funny scene. That setup fleshes out how the younger McGill brother hopes to escape with his bonus intact by doubling down on his unique individuality.
And yet, when Clifford Main gives Jimmy what he wants and fires him for being a jackass instead of for cause, there’s remorse on Jimmy’s part. Jimmy isn’t lying when he says that the firm was a bad fit for him from the start. There’s something very genuine and very unfortunate in Cliff’s disappointed tone when he asks Jimmy how the firm mistreated him or what they did to deserve this kind of behavior. Cliff took a chance on Jimmy, and the fact that the arrangement was doomed from the beginning isn’t his fault. Jimmy knows that. It may not be enough to get him to sacrifice his bonus, but it’s enough for him to offer to pay Cliff back for the fancy new desk, to tell his now former employer that he thinks he’s still a good guy, and most importantly, to feel at least the slightest twinge of guilt about what he’s done.
Jimmy isn’t the only one with regrets, however. In another of Better Call Saul’s little touches, Mike never has to say that he’s disgusted at the thought of a sleazeball like Jimmy approving of his handling of the Tuco situation, or that he feels conflicted and even a bit concerned about what paying for his daughter-in-law’s emotional blackmail will force him to do. The fact that Mike finds the comparison to Jimmy unflattering, that he thinks Jimmy’s approval is an insult rather than the compliment it’s meant to be, comes through in the way Mike doesn’t want to share an elevator with Jimmy or accept his legal services as a gift. By the same token, all it takes is one look from Mike to convey the moral arithmetic he’s performing in his head as Stacey picks out her dream house.
And all it takes is a look from the show’s title character to know how he feels about Kim’s counter-proposal that the two of them share an office, but remain separate. The scene features a wonderful shot of Jimmy stuck between the two pieces of the business card that Kim tore in half while he mulls over the offer. He wants the two of them to be together, to be a single unit, personally and professionally. Kim’s alternative isn’t a rejection exactly, but it is, as Mike would say, a half-measure.
In the world of Breaking Bad, half-measures are often deadly, and have a tendency to both make things worse in exchange for a temporary reprieve and to only delay the inevitable. In the generally less lethal environment of Better Call Saul, the ripple effects of Kim’s offer are not unlikely to be nearly so extreme, but the nature of the consequences may be just the same.
There’s something that brings Jimmy and Kim together, a zest for life, self-determination, and being true to themselves that they share. But there’s differences that keep them apart: Kim’s professionalism, Jimmy’s shadier side, and the part of each of them that says the only reason to do this is at all is if they can do it their own way. It’s a small distinction–being separate attorneys in the same office rather than partners, being separate people who spend time with one another rather than “together”–but for Jimmy, even if he gives it the old college try, it’s a world of difference.