There’s a sense in “Off Brand” that many of Better Call Saul’s major figures have not been doing the things they’d really like to. The demands of finances, family, and the intersection of the two have kept the likes of Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, and Nacho reluctant or bitter or scarred by the efforts each has been immersed in over the past couple seasons. But for each of them, there is now something pushing them, almost against their will, to move closer to new activities, to different lives, that might be better for their souls.
For Jimmy, that means a break from the legal profession. At heart, Jimmy is a showman, a carnival barker, a people-pleaser, albeit one who’s happy to use those skills to feather his own nest wherever possible. That gives him a foothold in the law, but his insider references to going “Karloff” for his commercial or the dangers of wearing stripes on screen suggest that he’s as jazzed by his artistic endeavors as he is by any flashy con.
He showed the same cinematic predilections in his meticulously-produced ad for Davis & Main, not to mention his big “Gimme Jimmy” spot. And the first glimpse we see of Cinnabon Gene shows a man whose entire world is black and white, where the only hint of color comes from the flashes of the original “Better Call Saul” commercials that first drew Jesse and Walt to him. As corny as it is to see Jimmy in that hat and beard and vest (and it must be said that Better Call Saul gets the lo-fi look of local ads down perfectly) there’s the sense that the newly-dubbed Saul Goodman is in his element both behind and in front of the camera, and it may be the closest thing to honest work that could possibly sustain him.
After all, Better Call Saul gives the impression that Jimmy became a lawyer out of a combination of admiration for a brother who unwittingly provided him with a template for what success looks like, and a desire to earn Chuck’s respect and perhaps even his love in the effort. There’s ways in which Jimmy’s showmanship makes him a good fit for the legal profession, but as his stint at Davis & Main shows, there are also essential parts of who he is that make him a liability and make it questionable how suited he is to be a lawyer.
In another of the show’s tightly-edited and hilarious montages, it does seem to pain Jimmy a bit to have to inform his clients of his twelve-month suspension. But while Breaking Bad fans know his “sabbatical” won’t last, maybe Jimmy would have been happier as a commercial director and/or star than as an officer of the court, even a flashy and unscrupulous one. The suspension is not ideal, but it may just push the newly-dubbed Saul Goodman into something personally and individually fulfilling after being so directed (no pun intended) by his relationship with his brother.
As despondent as Chuck himself may seem after having effectively lost his contest with Jimmy, the results seems to spur him to action as well. While the fallout from “Chicanery” clearly left Chuck shaken, even seeming suicidal at times, a visit from Howard seems to snap him out of that funk. Howard, a talented advocate in his own right, appeals to Chuck’s vanity and his sense of serving his true calling to the law above prosaic personal concerns.
In the shadow of those lofty ideals, Chuck begins to test the limits of his psychosomatic “allergy.” He gives himself exposure therapy, gripping a battery in his hand, with subtext that he’s pushing himself to acclimate to the pain. And he even goes so far as to call a doctor, presumably to ask for help, to assist him in moving beyond his illness regardless of whether he still believes it to be physical or mental.
As much as Chuck views his brother with disdain, in many ways Jimmy has been coddling and enabling him, indulging his self-diagnosis rather than forcing him to confront and deal with the deeper-rooted issues that have caused his condition. Exposing his supposed illness may be Jimmy’s final act with his brother if his statement to Rebecca is to be believed, but it may also be the thing that spurs Chuck to get help. Oddly enough, by attacking one another in this fashion, Jimmy and Chuck may have just given one another the sort of push each really needed.
Mike needs some help too. His damage and difficulties are not the same as the McGill brothers’, but as he sits in that support group while his daughter-in-law recounts the hardships of raising a daughter without her father, we know that Mike too has unresolved issues from his son’s death, issues that this sort of group might help him with.
But, like Jimmy, he’s also been pulled into a world by financial necessity and familial issues that he might live better without. When his daughter-in-law asks him to help pour concrete for a neighborhood playground (possibly the one at which he’ll later be arrested) it’s the kind of labor, the effort to build something, that Mike appeared to covet in “Sabrosito”, even as Gus lured him back into the world of drugs and brutality. There’s always something that feels a little less than above board about Stacey’s requests of her father-in-law, a sense that she (consciously or unconsciously) uses Mike’s guilt over his son’s death to persuade him to do things for her and her daughter. But here, she may be providing the same sort of push, the kind that forces Mike to do a little of what he’d really like to be doing, that Jimmy received.
And then there’s Nacho, who’s also pushed toward actions that he wouldn’t take without such prodding. But unlike the three other men who get their share of focus in “Off Brand,” Nacho seems like he’s being pulled into something that will ultimately hurt him or put the people he cares about at risk. The encouragement he receives from Hector doesn’t nudge him toward recovery or betterment or fulfillment, but rather serves to drive him deeper into a place that’s uncomfortable and dangerous.
When Nacho’s counting dollars at the beginning of the episode, he’s apt to let the underling who showed up with a lighter bundle off with a warning. But all it takes is one belittling comment from Hector, who’s seemingly barely paying attention, for Nacho to drag the poor goon back into the shop and brutalize him in the kitchen. When Nacho’s upholstering in his father’s shop, a slip of the needle reflects the image of blood in his eyes, and suggests a man who is, at least in part, still carrying his grisly actions with him from that day.
But Hector stokes that sort of viciousness, that effort to take what you need from whomever you need it from. Hector sends him to test the limits of Gus’s patience by taking six bricks from the Pollos Hermanos delivery rather than five. Push your advantage — that’s the lesson Nacho is constantly learning from his would-be boss.
(As an aside, I don’t know that we really needed to see Gus surveying the industrial laundry facility which will eventually house Walter White’s lab, let alone conferring with Lydia about it. BCS has been good about not laying the Breaking Bad hints on too thick or shoehorning them where they don’t belong, but this felt like too much with little purpose beyond saying “Hey, remember how this becomes significant in the sister series?”)
And yet, Nacho may take that lesson and turn it against the man who’s teaching it to him. Hector’s insistence on using Nacho’s father’s shop as a front provokes real resistance from his lieutenant. We’ve already seen Nacho’s willingness to throw his associates under the bus when they pose a threat in terms of stability or understanding. When Nacho places his foot on one of Hector’s pills after Hector’s coughing fit (prompted by Tuco earning himself some more time in prison) there’s a hint that Nacho may have something to do with the event that finally incapacitates Hector. Better Call Saul uses the inevitability of Hector’s downfall to, ironically enough, create mystery, where Mike, Gus, and Nacho all have reasons to try to take him down.
That’s the risk of all these big events prompting our protagonists to try things that they’d otherwise been putting on the back burner. We know that Jimmy’s filmmaking career is temporary, and that Mike’s handyman excursion is similarly fleeting. These individuals will be pulled back into this world and this life despite the efforts, self-directed or not, that keep them away from it. Those conflicting possibilities, those two worlds — like Nacho’s humble work at the car shop and his cartel enforcer responsibilities — may also collide, in a way that pulls Nacho back into that muck, into using that brutality Hector instills in unexpected ways, without any need for further provocation.