I’ve heard gripes from some people who like Better Call Saul, but think that it can sometimes feel like two different shows hot-glued together. There’s something to the thought. Season 2 has featured one storyline focused on Jimmy’s trials and travails with Kim and Chuck as he struggles to fit into his new surroundings, and another centered on Mike getting mixed up with Salamancas. While the leads of those stories may bump into one another from time to time, there’s not a strong plot-based connection between the two arcs.
Despite that, in episodes like “Nailed,” there’s a strong thematic connection between them that helps to solidify Better Call Saul as one unified show. In the episode, both Jimmy and Mike have pulled a con of sorts, in the hopes of protecting someone they care about, in a way that also directly benefits them. Jimmy’s adventures at the copy center in “Fifi” leads to Kim winning Mesa Verde back as a client, but it also helps ensure that Jimmy doesn’t have to carry her half of their shared expenses. By the same token, Mike’s makeshift road hazard is intended to draw the cops’ attention to Hector Salamanca, thus keeping him too otherwise occupied to threaten Mike’s family again, but it also leads to Mike pocketing a nice quarter-mil for his troubles.
And each would-be conman has the added bonus of their windfalls coming at the expense of someone they already have a beef with. For Jimmy, it’s a chance to get back at his brother. And for Mike, it’s a chance for him to stick it to the drug lord who turned a simple, if painful job into an even bigger headache.
What’s more, both Jimmy and Mike are pros who know how to cover their tracks. Jimmy is meticulous when he transposes the addresses on the Mesa Verde forms (as Chuck points out, he was never lazy), and he removes the evidence of his forgery while his brother’s out of the house. Mike, meanwhile, wears a ski mark, blindfolds the Salamanca associate he’s ripping off, and takes care to be neither seen nor heard.
But despite the way these two smooth operators are careful not to leave behind any evidence of their misdeeds, both of them get figured out, not because they slipped up, but because these two perfect crimes are all too reflective of the men who perpetrated them. There are people who know who Jimmy and Mike are, and how they operate. And even if there’s nothing to tie the two of them to these crimes, or at least nothing that would hold up in court, these incidents have their fingerprints all over them, and it’s enough to leave each of them exposed.
For Jimmy, his brother knows that forgery and misdirection are right in Jimmy’s wheelhouse, and that lets Chuck piece together what happened even if his only evidence is circumstantial. In the same way, Kim knows Jimmy too well to buy his pleas of ignorance in the face of Chuck’s accusations. Jimmy is a huckster at heart, and the story Chuck tells is perfectly in line with his younger brother’s typical methods and motives.
By the same token, even though Mike doesn’t leave behind anything that could be traced back to him, Nacho is able to figure out that it was his grizzled co-conspirator who pulled off the heist, because only a guy like Mike would have the stones to carry out an operation like that and yet expend such effort to avoid taking a life.
And in the end, both Jimmy and Mike suffer incredible setbacks due, true to form for a Vince Gilligan show, to the law of unintended consequences.
One of the most striking parts of “Nailed” is how, for once in his life, it seems like Mike is happy. The reliably grumpy curmudgeon uses his newfound wealth to buy a round for the entire bar, and more importantly, he actually smiles in the process! He flirts with the waitress at the diner and even lets out a genuine laugh! It’s not a sour or sarcastic laugh; it’s a laugh of incredulity, of relief, at the thought that maybe things are going to work out, that maybe he can finally put all the stress and strain he’s had to deal with since the events of “Five-O” behind him.
Then he gets that phone call from Nacho. As always seems to be the case on Better Call Saul (and its predecessor) there’s some contingency, some unaccounted for facet of the plan, that didn’t work out quite right. It turns out that a Good Samaritan helped the driver whom Mike had hogtied, and not only did that throw a monkey-wrench into Mike’s plans to move Hector off the chessboard, but it led to that Good Samaritan being shot and killed for their troubles.
Mike’s moral code exposed him to Nacho, and in the course of their conversation, Mike learns that for all the effort he went to in order to avoid killing anyone, all the extra steps he took so as to cause as little harm as possible while still taking care of business, the choices he made still led directly to someone losing their life.
And because he couldn’t simply walk away or go whole hog and kill the crazy drug lord who was his target, or his much more calculating uncle, his decisions, well-meaning though they may be, lead to a completely innocent life perishing. The change in his expression when he hears that news is striking. That knowledge immediately wipes away whatever joy he had found in the aftermath of his seemingly successful strike. It’s replaced with a look of utter loss, of failure, of the best laid plans still resulting in the one thing he was trying to avoid.
And Jimmy has the same experience, albeit in a much different way. He seems legitimately happy when he and Kim are just palling around, painting their new office and enjoying the wry back-and-forth that makes the two of them feel like a good match for one another. While his feigned surprise at the news that Mesa Verde wants Kim to represent them again is not particularly convincing, there’s also a genuine glee in his response to her receiving the news. But there’s two things he didn’t count on that stem from that little moment of bliss, and both of them come back to bite him.
The first is that Kim figures out what happened, or at least buys the essential truth of Chuck’s accusations, even if he may not have the complete or fully accurate story. She believes Chuck when he tells her that Jimmy tampered with the Mesa Verde files for her benefit. After Kim made it crystal clear to Jimmy that she wasn’t comfortable with his usual methods, that she wanted to do things her own way, sink or swim, that realization can only feel like a betrayal. It may not be enough for her to break things off with Jimmy, let alone expose him to the risk of being disbarred or going to jail or give up her only client, but something between them has been broken, and it may be irreparable.
In the later scene of her and Jimmy in bed together, and the palpable coldness that hangs in the air between them, feels like the mirror image of Chuck and his wife sitting in bed, similarly disconnected, in the cold open to “Rebecca.” Chuck’s wife isn’t in the picture anymore, and we don’t yet know why. But that visual rhyme, and Kim’s distant demeanor, suggest that she may not be in Jimmy’s life for much longer either.
But there’s a more severe unforeseen consequence to Jimmy’s actions — his brother’s accident. Jimmy loves Chuck. Sure, he hates him a little bit too, but deep down he loves him. Jimmy doesn’t want to hurt his brother. He just wants to take him down a peg, to prevent him from depriving Kim of what’s rightfully hers the same way that Chuck did to him.
But Jimmy’s choices have bigger reverberations than that, whether he meant for them to or not. He unwittingly tortures Chuck. The elder McGill brother begins to suffer under the electric hum of the banking commission’s offices once the alleged “discrepancy” is exposed. The blistering buzz of the florescent lights at the copy shop starts to take its toll on him. I believe that Jimmy simply wanted to make his brother sweat, but instead, by the end of the episode, Chuck is at the end of his rope. He feels like the world is gaslighting him, and he’s right, and whatever progress he’s made with his condition evaporates with a single crack of his skull on the counter.
All at once, it’s too much for Chuck. He collapses and crumples to the ground. Once again, Jimmy has plied his trade as best he can, never intending any real harm. But in the end, someone he cares about is seriously hurt in the process. Let’s hope that Chuck fares better than Marco did.
In truth, there’s a great deal of coincidence and convenience at play in the events of “Nailed.” How is it that Kim gets the call to come pick up the Mesa Verde files from Chuck’s so soon after she wins their business back? Chalk it up to a little poetic license. Why would she bring Jimmy along to what is already likely to be a delicate situation? Maybe she knows he’s there to gloat and doesn’t want to deny him that pleasure, but figures he’ll be on his best behavior in front of his brother. How is it that Chuck not only realizes that Jimmy has sabotaged him, but is able to almost preternaturally piece together exactly how he did it? Well, Chuck’s a smart guy, and the show tries to handwave it by having him bring up Jimmy’s fake I.D. scam in high school as an analogue.
But how is it that Kim manages to obliquely bring up how Jimmy needs to be sure he’s thoroughly covered his tracks in time to spur Jimmy to visit the copy shop at the exact moment when Ernesto happens to be there? How is it that the copy shop just so happens to be empty except for Jimmy and the clerk, with enough time for Jimmy to lay out his bribe and his story without any witnesses? How is it that Jimmy has the nigh-perfect vantage point to see and understand all that’s going on in the shop once Chuck rolls in? Beats me.
The episode, the acting, the direction, the dialogue, the plotting, the themes, and the show as a whole are all just too damn good to care. From the sharp-edged sweetness between Jimmy and Kim as they set up their new office, to the perfectly-constructed, tension-filled hit by Mike in the desert, to the hilarious scene where Jimmy talks his way into filming his commercial on a school playground, to the frenetically shot-and-edited final moment where Chuck loses it, to the blistering, incredible scene where Jimmy, Kim, and Chuck lay everything out on the table for one another, there is simply too much greatness in too many different modes on this show for me to be especially bothered by any bit of narrative convenience.
That last scene between the three characters at the heart of Jimmy’s half of the show in particular is an all-timer. In “Pimento,” the penultimate episode of Season 1, Jimmy confronted his brother in the same room, with the same tone, in one of the best, most charged scenes in the series’ young history. Here, once again, with only a single left until the season finale, Better Call Saul doubles down on that idea. But this time, the tables are turned. It’s Chuck exposing the double cross. It’s Jimmy who’s being dressed down by a brother who’s clearly wounded by the realization. And “Nailed” one-ups that scene by throwing Kim into the mix, both in order to have the other most significant person in Jimmy’s life represented at this major moment, but also to stand out as the one person in that room who sees each of these misguided individuals for what they really are.
The anger, the betrayal, the pride, the sense of pleading in Chuck’s voice as he makes his case is remarkable. The week prior, Chuck had gone so far as to thank Jimmy for looking after him despite their issues, and now he too sees it as a betrayal, as just another opportunity for Jimmy to screw someone over for his own ends. He brings Kim in not due to some professional courtesy, but because he wants to plead with her not to become tainted, not to make the same mistake Chuck did, of trusting his brother.
Chuck believes that Jimmy did all of this for Kim. But he wants to warn her that eventually he’ll do the same thing to her–betray her trust, if not necessarily twist the knife in quite the same fashion–because Jimmy can’t help himself. It’s just who he is. Chuck wants to Kim to see Jimmy clearly, without the lens of affection that temporarily blinded him, and which he believes is blinding her.
But unbeknownst to Chuck (and the audience for that matter) Kim already knows. It’s hard to tell when Kim comes to terms with the truth of what Chuck’s telling her. Maybe it’s Jimmy’s less-than-convincing denials. Maybe it’s Chuck’s declaration that his brother did it all for love. Maybe it’s just her piecing it together on her own in the space between the accusations and the unsatisfying pleas of innocence. Kim Wexler (and Rhea Seehorn) plays it close to the vest, not letting the viewer know for certain what she’s thinking or feeling until the moment when her frustrations erupt, and she punches Jimmy in the car.
But before that seminal moment in the episode, she offers the frankest, truest, and saddest assessment of the McGill boys we’ve ever heard. “Nailed” initially commits to the feint when it shows Kim pushing back at Chuck’s accusations and telling him that one typo by lantern light is a far more likely cause than Chuck’s paranoid-sounding account of what happened. And yet afterward, she speaks the absolute truth to two men who, while defining themselves in opposition to one another, each bend the truth to their will in their own unique way when it suits them.
She tells Chuck that he made Jimmy, or at least pushed him in this direction. As I’ve said before, Jimmy idolizes his brother, and if Chuck had returned that affection, shared that trust just a little bit, who knows where Jimmy’s talents might have been put to use. Thus far, Better Call Saul has seemed to posit that there is something essential about Jimmy to where he cannot avoid taking the occasional shortcut, that suggests he cannot completely suppress his conman impulses.
But he also toiled in the mailroom long enough to make something of himself. He dredged up the Sandpiper case not through dishonest trickery, but by using his resourcefulness for good. Maybe Chuck will always see his brother with a law license like a chimp with a machine gun, but with a little guidance, and a little help, maybe Jimmy could at least aim it in the right direction.
That doesn’t absolve Jimmy, and neither does Kim. He is an adult who made his own decisions and deserves to live with the consequences. But Kim’s right to be sorry for both of them. She’s right that the two of them have made awful choices that not only hurt the other, but left her and her wants and needs as mere collateral damage.
For Jimmy, those choices led him to potentially losing the woman he loves, and put his brother in a heap on the floor of some dingy copy shop. For Mike, those choices have left him with blood on his hands once again. Both of them are left wondering how their good intentions brought them to this horrible point. Jimmy and Mike never cross paths, not even for a moment, in “Nailed,” but by the end of the episode, they’re in the exact same place.