Better Call Saul: What’s Motivating Jimmy McGill in “Fifi”?

Better Call Saul
, like its forebear, is full of impressive, creative sequences. Whether it’s last week’s inflatable-man montage, or Kim’s cold-calling routine in “Rebecca”, or the breadstick snaps that convey Jimmy’s unease after his run-in with Tuco, the show isn’t shy about using the various tricks in its visual toolbox to propel the show’s narrative forward. “Fifi” offers two of these sequences, and the two serve distinct, but no less important, purposes.

The cold open features a one-shot of an ice cream truck going through border security, and eventually cuts away to the driver stopping by the side of the road past the border and picking up a gun. It’s a deceptively simple sequence (despite the technical impressiveness of the tracking-shot opening) that tells the audience a great deal about the clockwork being set in motion by this scene.

In just that one wordless sequence, we already know a great deal about who the driver is and more importantly, what he’s there to do. The fact that he so blithely takes a popsicle out of his supply tells us that the ice cream isn’t the cargo that really matters when it comes to getting across the border. The stop to pick up the gun conveys that the driver’s some sort of hitman, and the frozen treat gig works as a ruse to let him into the States, let him do his business, and then disappear back across the border once the job is finished. And the number of popsicle sticks jammed into the dirt next to the hiding place tells us this is far from the first time he’s pulled this sort of thing. There’s remarkable narrative economy in how much the show can convey in a quick, three-minute scene.


"Next time I'm just going to use the Hitman Occupancy Vehicle lane."


As we see more of the driver in the episode, it becomes clear that he’s on a collision course with Mike. But Mike’s no dummy. He’s not naive enough to think that his deal with Hector will be enough to keep him, and more importantly Kaylee, safe. He does his due diligence on Hector, and when he sees that same ice cream truck backing into Hector’s warehouse, while the boss himself smokes a cigarette outside, it’s clear who that driver was called in to kill.

Mike isn’t the type to take threats lying down. He’s resourceful, especially when it comes to protecting the people he cares about. There’s something extraordinarily sweet about him working on his little project with Kaylee. He speaks to her like a grandfather would. He’s kinder and gentler with her than the usually grumpy old man is to anyone else in the world. And it becomes evident that the depth of feeling he has for her moves him to go to great lengths to ensure that nothing he’s done will ever be allowed to lead her to harm.

The reveal that he and Kaylee are not making a soaker, but rather a makeshift road hazard (presumably to be employed against Hector), is kind of adorable on the one hand and carries a strong sense of foreboding with it on the other. There’s a strange ironic quality to Mike entreating his granddaughter to help him build the device that’s supposed to help provide for her protection. It’s appropriate that Mike is watching His Girl Friday while he adds the nails to his drug-war arts and crafts project, because it’s a story of a person who tried to get away from something that she was very good at, but which was toxic to her. And yet, she nonetheless found herself being pulled back into that life regardless. BCS is building to a reckoning between Mike and Hector, and I can’t wait to see where it takes them.


"Tomorrow I'm going to teach you how to make napalm."


(As an aside, I don’t like to play the what-if game with television shows, both because I’m wrong more often than I’m right and because all too often it frames what happens next in terms of my expectations rather than letting me to go into an episode as a blank slate. But watching Mike stalk Hector can’t help but make me wonder. What if it’s an assault from Mike that puts Hector in the state he’s in when we meet him in Breaking Bad? And what if after the attack Mike’s planning here (whether or not it turns out to be the attack), one of the final images of this season is Mike being approached by Gus Fring, who sees Mike’s work against the Salamancas, offers him money and protection from the blowback, and says, “It seems we have common interests.” Knowing the way Vince Gilligan’s shows like to pull the rug out from under their audiences, that’s probably a little too neat for his style, but a man can dream.)

But there’s another great sequence in “Fifi” — the one where Jimmy meticulously flips the numbers on all of Chuck’s filings for Mesa Verde at a 24-hour copy shop. It’s a sharply constructed sequence, both visually and narratively, that communicates how far Jimmy will go when he sets his mind to something. It shows that whatever his quick-fix predilections, Jimmy can also be the “Jimmy Hustle” that Hamlin once called him, busting his hump to bring his impromptu scheme to fruition.

That scene, however, begs the question — who did Jimmy do it for? The natural answer is Kim. She’s making a bold move going out on her own, and Jimmy respects that even if he wishes things were different. She gives a pitch to Mesa Verde that would make Don Draper swoon; she feels like she’s on top of the world afterward, and then she’s understandably devastated when Chuck undermines her at the eleventh hour. Jimmy clearly cares for Kim. He doesn’t want to see her screwed over when she put in all the hard work and deserves to take Mesa Verde with her. The difference is that Jimmy’s willing to take the kind of steps to defend Kim that she won’t take herself.

After all, Kim disregards Jimmy’s advice to play fast and loose with her resignation so that she could contact Mesa Verde before Howard could sink his claws into them. Instead, she does it face-to-face. As always, Kim tries to do the right thing, and it’s hard to get a read on Hamlin in the aftermath. After Kim officially tenders her resignation and Howard responds by wiping away her debts, giving her a word of encouragement and explanation, and then immediately trying to beat her to the punch on Mesa Verde, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s phony and disingenuous or well-meaning but pragmatic. Given the complex characters that make up Better Call Saul‘s stock and trade, it’s likely a mix of the two, with a hint of wistfulness and real human feeling in play when Howard reminisces about his father’s encouragement to help him add a second “H” to “HHM.”


"He told me it would make things more 'Hamlinteresting' around here."


Regardless, as Kim sprints down the hallway to get a word in edgewise with her white whale client, it’s clear that she’s firmly devoted to her own, by-the-book method, and that means doing things the right way, but working harder at it than anyone else. It’s natural for Jimmy to want to try to come to the rescue when that fails her.

But maybe he did it for Chuck, or rather, to spite Chuck. A major theme this season has been the way that Kim has replaced Chuck as the grand motivator in Jimmy’s life. Who knows how much Jimmy’s latest con is meant purely to help Kim or whether he’s more interesting in simply jabbing Chuck in the eye after he does something that seems unfair to Kim.

In truth, Chuck is fighting the way that Jimmy would. Chuck doesn’t quite have Jimmy’s golden tongue, but his pitch to Mesa Verde–the misdirect, the folksy charm, the attempt at a subtle sway rather than a hard sell–is pure McGill. It may not be just. Jimmy’s right when he points out that Kim earned that client, twice for that matter. But it seems fair; it seems like an equal and opposite pitch, and one that feels in line Jimmy’s own interpretation of “fair play.”


"Plus I'll throw in a free annual Spinal Tap concert."


Jimmy, however, cannot abide it. He cannot sit still while his brother goes after someone he sees as beneath him and takes the thing they want, the thing they deserve, away from them, for his own self-serving ends. Yes, Jimmy’s scheme is clearly meant to help Kim, but it’s also very much at his brother’s expense. It’s an effort to try to prevent Chuck from doing to Kim with Mesa Verde what he tried to do to Jimmy with Sandpiper.

But Chuck’s warm bit of gratitude for his brother watching over him, his promise that he would do the same if the roles were reversed, casts a small sense of guilt over the proceedings. That moment in the boardroom was a triumph for Chuck. It’s the first time in forever where he had the lights on and the cell phones humming, and he still shined. It nearly killed him, but he pulled it off. Jimmy is there to take that away from him, to bring down Chuck’s big triumph, and even if it’s because what Chuck took belongs to someone else, that grand moment of progress for Chuck, that little moment of fraternal affection, muddies the waters when it comes to Jimmy’s scheme.

But then, maybe Jimmy did it for himself. There’s a certain look in his eyes after Kim tells him that Mesa Verde fell through and he reaffirms his commitment to the two of them working together regardless. Is it disappointment? Is it frustration that Chuck threw her under the bus? Or is it concern for his own financial well-being as he dives into this plan of action while Kim is starting from scratch?


"What if we just set up our law practices on the sidewalk. You know, like a lemonade stand."


The hilarious scene where Jimmy sneaks his makeshift film crew onto a military base to film a new commercial suggests that Jimmy will always find a way to make ends meet. He may have to cut a few corners here and there to get where he wants to go, but he knows who he is and what he has to do to get there, even if he’s on his own. Kim and her commitment to the straight and narrow may not be able to enjoy the same good fortune, especially with the twin titans of HHM undercutting her at every turn.

There’s also a different sort of expression that crosses Jimmy’s face after Kim first tells him that she thinks she landed Mesa Verde. Maybe it’s simple skepticism. Maybe it’s a reflection of how, despite his outward support and congratulations, Jimmy doesn’t want her to count her chickens before they’ve hatched. Or maybe it’s jealousy.

Jimmy seems like the type who would resent it if Kim manages to soar right out of the gate while he’s still scraping by and starting back at square one. It’s easy to see how Jimmy could bristle at the way Kim looks down on him for his motlier methods, start to resent it, and eventually let slip that she wouldn’t even have Mesa Verde if he hadn’t used his hustling skills to intercede on her behalf, something that Kim would no doubt view as a betrayal rather than a loving gesture.

It’s hard to know what exactly motivates Jimmy here. It’s probably some combination of all three rationales. There are conflicting impulses at play for almost every major character in the show that push and pull them in different directions. But that’s one of the beautiful things about Better Call Saul — how so much can unspool from just a couple of inventive, telling sequences and a few meaningful looks, whether it be the impending confrontation between Mike and Hector, or the swirl of influences on Jimmy as he cuts and copies his way toward an act that will have major consequences for the woman he loves, at the expense of a brother for whom his feelings are much more conflicted. It’s intricate and messy and complex, and that’s a big part of what makes it great.

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2 Responses to Better Call Saul: What’s Motivating Jimmy McGill in “Fifi”?

  1. Gabriel says:

    Very good analysis once again. (And a boatload of vocabulary to digest once again ! Reading your articles I feel like barely know the english language… Previously I was reading discussions about BCS on Reddit – not quite the same level.)
    A few typos / missing words I noticed :
    « And it becomes evident that the depth of feeling he has for [her] moves him to go to great lengths to ensure that nothing he’s done will ever be allowed to lead her to harm. »
    « Yes, Jimmy’s scheme is clearly meant to help Kim, but it’s also very much [at?] his brother’s expense. »

    I don’t agree with the fact that Jimmy would resent Kim if she found herself in a better position doing things “by the book” than himself resorting to his shady schemes – after all, that was more or less the situation during the first season, and it didn’t prevent him from having genuine affection for her. But you may be spot-on about the future significance of that night spent painstakingly inverting 1’s and 6’s, and the devastating effect it could have on their relationship once revealed.

    I also don’t quite agree with taking Chuck’s “warm bit of gratitude” at face value (it’s clearly forced and he actually looks embarrassed by Jimmy’s enduring care and marks of fraternal affection despite everything that he’s done, and in particular what he just did that day), and considering that it should make Jimmy feel (more) guilty for what he did : he knows that Chuck inflicted that excruciating ordeal to himself only to thwart Kim and himself’s legitimate attempt at building something of their own, without asking anything to anyone and without hurting anyone’s business (she singlehandedly brought Mesa Verde as a new client so that shouldn’t count in all fairness), and he knows that there’s no trying to appeal to reason, his brother will do everything in his power to interfere with his affairs, so it’s just fair that he reacts the way he can, the underhanded way. They have a very toxic relationship in which they are both forcing each other to act at the worst of who they are, out of some sort of childish pride.

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      Thank you for the compliments, the thoughtful comment, and the typo catches. I’ve fixed them in the article.

      I have to admit, I’m still puzzling a bit over Jimmy’s expression when Kim told him that she thought she’d landed Mesa Verde. It may have just been that he was skeptical things had really worked out and didn’t want to say it, or maybe he felt like he was being left in the dust, or maybe it was just the thought that Mesa Verde could have been their client, and instead it’s her client. But something was off about it. You’d hope Jimmy’s affection for Kim would override any sense of pride or jealousy, but then again you’d hope the same for Chuck when it comes to Jimmy, and we’ve seen how that turned out.

      As for Chuck, it’s hard to know how to read him sometimes. I’ll admit, I took his seemingly pleasant sense of surprise when Jimmy passed the bar at face value, and he was very much putting up a front. But I feel like on other occasions his duplicitousness, or at least his vindictiveness, has been a little more transparent. I believe that Chuck genuinely cares for his brother, that he genuinely appreciates what his brother did and has done for him, but that he’s a very stubborn, self-possessed man, who can’t see past his own nose at times. That may just be wishful thinking on my part, but that’s another great thing about this show — there’s enough tantalizing ambiguity about what people’s true feelings and motives are that there are a number of very fair ways to interpret what we see and hear on the screen!

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