Better Call Saul: The Small Interactions that Cause Big Ripples in “Expenses”


One of the best qualities of The Sopranos was how it would frequently depict a character having a small but meaningful interaction with another person, and then show how that moment could change their emotional state or plant some idea in their head that would stick with them throughout the episode. Often, the character would then take out those feelings on someone entirely removed from the original incident. It was part of the show’s deft emotional calculus, that captured the way thoughts and feelings flit around in the background of one’s mind, popping up at unexpected times or in surprising ways.

As much as the aptly titled “Expenses” is devoted to the tough financial situation Jimmy McGill finds himself in while suspended from the practice of law, it’s also devoted to that same idea — that one interaction, one exchange with another person, can reframe how you feel about someone or something, in a way that carries with you and cannot be easily erased.

That begins with another of the show’s fantastic cold opens, which puts the series’s visual virtuosity on display once more. Shots of a motley assortment of individuals framed against a blank wall, or overhead shots of cars and trucks zooming above our hero are certainly nice to look at, but they also work for the message “Expenses” is trying to communicate. Here, Jimmy is just another guy, and worse than that, all this noise and distraction keeps him from doing what he does best.

That’s the overarching theme for Jimmy’s adventure in “Expenses.” The now newly-dubbed Saul Goodman is used to being able to employ his powers of persuasion and his charming demeanor to bend any situation to his advantage. For all of Jimmy’s faults, there’s always been a cleverness to him and a way with people that have kept him from the harshest consequences of any jam he’s ever been in (much to his brother’s dismay). But now Jimmy finds himself trapped in a situation where his winning ways can’t extricate him from his current circumstances and the financial difficulties that come with them.

 

"In retrospect I probably shouldn't have paid $500 for this plain black hat."

 

The first sign of that comes when Jimmy’s community service supervisor docks him all but half an hour of the four hours he worked picking up garbage, because Jimmy was using his phone to answer calls for Saul Goodman Productions. Jimmy tries to negotiate, to rally his fellow garbage-pickers to his side, even to appeal the man’s sympathies, but all he gets in return is a nonchalant, “We could make it zero.”

That’s the type of response Jimmy hears throughout the episode, as the thought of his pleas falling on deaf ears continues to wear on him. At a time when his dire financial situation requires his best salesmanship, the desperation and limitations he has while on probation seem to hobble him.

Jimmy’s attempts to upsell his services to a caller responding to his ad turn a potential sale into a hang-up. His efforts to upgrade a paying customer to a bigger package get him nowhere. And in his desperation, he actually allows a couple of savvy business owners (played by the Sklar Brothers of the underrated Cheap Seats) to hold him over a barrel and convince him to work for free. For once, Jimmy is not the fleecer, but the fleecee.

Jimmy McGill is used to having power. It may not come from the sort of position of privilege that men like Chuck and Howard enjoy, but he’s accustomed to being able to use his silver tongue to give him an advantage whenever he needs it. And yet, from that first frustrating, humbling moment at community service, he feels stymied, closed in, powerless.

 

Though who could feel truly powerless in a store full of recliners?

 

It’s natural, then, that he takes those feelings out on others who bear no responsibility for his sense of impotence. Each indignity Jimmy suffers seems to snowball, until he’s at his wits end and blowing off his steam at delivery boys with the same words his supervisor used and at random marks in bars for whom his scorn is misdirected, intended for causes of his frustrations that are out of his reach.

The cause for Mike’s change of heart, on the other hand, is well within reach. In “Expenses,” Mike meets Anita, a woman who attends the same church and support group as Mike’s daughter-in-law Stacey. When Anita initially offers to help Mike build a playground (after agreeing to pitch in last week), he brushes her off, with hints that his dismissal is bound up in a certain amount of sexism. But Anita won’t take no for an answer, something Mike clearly admires. He acquiesces, and she proves to be a capable helper.

Mike’s respect for and interest in Anita only grows from there when he learns she too has lost someone, her husband, also a man in uniform (albeit a navy man, rather than a cop). Better Call Saul seems to be setting up Anita as a love interest, an interesting, though mildly concerning direction to go with this new character. But what’s particularly notable is how Mike’s interactions with her — where she tells him that her husband died while hiking with the body never being recovered — effect a change in him.

Earlier in the episode, Mike seemed content to step back from his criminal activities. When Nacho leaned on a returning Daniel (of “Squat Cobbler” fame) to obtain some phony heart pills to poison Hector, Daniel sought out Mike’s protection once more, explaining the scheme (or at least as much of it as he understood). At first, Mike initially wanted no part of it, brushing Daniel off and washing his hands of the whole mess.

 

Which is good, because you'd want to wash off any cobbler residue.

 

But something about Mike’s conversation with Anita changes his mind. It could be that the notion of her husband, someone who left and simply never came back, reminds Mike of his guilt over the good Samaritan killed by the cartel in “Nailed”. It would fit with hints in the episode that Mike is still trying to buy his soul back after what happened with Matty and with Hector. (We learn that Mike is not only helping to build the church’s playground, but that he bought and donated all the materials and supplies for it as well.) His willingness to be Daniel’s muscle may be a part of that. While it seems unlikely that Mike’s particularly invested in Daniel’s well-being, he sees something in Nacho, and in his own Ehrmantraut-y way, attempts to protect him.

Nacho isn’t exactly pure of heart, but Mike takes a certain paternal tone with him, a sign that he doesn’t want another young man to meet the same fate as his son. It was Nacho’s presence that gave Mike pause when aiming his rifle in “Klick”, and that suggests some manner of affection or care. (It also foreshadows the shine Mike took to Jesse.) Mike’s also smart enough to read into what Daniel’s telling him. He figures out what Nacho’s planning, and warns Hector’s lieutenant to cover his tracks. “Expenses” stays a bit cagey about what exactly motivates Mike to do this, but it’s clear that some emotional touchstone, taken from his conversation with Anita, moves him to change course.

Kim seems poised to change course too, but hers is a rockier path as she starts to see the insidious side of Jimmy McGill more clearly. When Paige from Mesa Verde compliments Kim on how the two of them conducted themselves at the disciplinary hearing (and derides Chuck for good measure) the guilt that’s been bubbling within Kim for some time now rises to the surface.

In the midst of going over some numbers with Paige, Kim is unexpectedly short with her client. She immediately realizes the slip and apologizes, but unlike Jimmy or Mike, she seems to quickly understand and acknowledge the cause. Without ever saying as much, Kim admits that she’s bothered by being complimented on what happened at that hearing, telling Paige that as far as she’s concerned, the only thing she did was tear down a sick man. It’s a small part of a larger conversation, but it brings something that’s been bothering Kim to the fore in an unexpected way.

 

"It's OK, Jimmy. The margaritas here aren't that bad."

 

Still, once that thought rears its ugly head, it’s hard for her tamp it back down. When Jimmy and Kim are together at a bar, sizing up potential marks much as they did in “Switch”, Jimmy is trying to get his mojo back, but Kim is contending with her creeping guilt. Jimmy speaks with a certain gleeful malevolence when laying out some devious schemes against certain unkind gentleman in the establishment (sounding eerily like his brother). In the midst of these villain monologues, the viewer can see Kim’s internal questioning over whose company she’s keeping.

There was a mutual attraction between Jimmy and Kim when they first tried to pull this sort of con together. Kim seemed impressed by Jimmy’s ability to bamboozle an easy mark, and Jimmy was enthralled at the idea of having an ally who could also be an effective partner in crime. But that one moment with Paige, her cheering on a mentally ill man’s downfall, created a nagging impulse in Kim, one that seems to make her question whether the man she’s thrown in with is a decent person in a bad situation or just a bad person in a tough spot of his own making.

The closing scene of the episode seems to point to the latter. In another attempt to save money, Jimmy asks for a refund on the malpractice insurance he’ll no longer need. However, the insurance agent tells him not only that the insurer won’t refund his premiums, but that when Jimmy returns to legal practice, his insurance rates will rise 150% because of his suspension. The one small life raft in a sea of money troubles turns out to be only the promise of more hardship to come. It seems to add insult to injury.

It’s then that Jimmy starts crying, and just as I did for his brother in “Sunk Costs,” I almost believed it. The episode does a superb job at showing how far Jimmy has been stretched by this ordeal, how much he’s willing to break his own rules and grasp at whatever straws he can to get the money he needs to keep going. “Expenses” presents this additional blow as the last straw, the thing that breaks down the emotional defenses of the normally unshakeable Jimmy McGill.

 

"This is the least inspiring Grateful Dead reunion yet."

 

Part of that reaction may be real. Jimmy is not above mixing truth with fiction to serve his own ends. But whether his tears are genuine or fake, he uses them to subtly tip off the insurance agent (who also provides coverage for Chuck) about the disciplinary hearing transcripts that expose his brother as unreliable and not all there. It’s a way for Jimmy, even at what seems like his lowest point, to regain some joy, some pleasure, by sticking it to his brother once more. While Kim is coping with guilt of what she once rationalized as a necessary action, Jimmy is twisting the knife.

And why wouldn’t he? From the start of “Expenses,” Jimmy finds himself hindered and rebuked in everything he tries to do, whether it’s negotiating full credit for his community service or trying to talk his way into a refund. He sees Chuck as the person who put him into this situation, and the one thing he can still do, even if he’s caged and neutered in every other respect, is stick it to a brother he now hates.

Jimmy is still mostly powerless, still unable to use his way with words to save him and provide for him as he’s done so many times before. But he can still use it to hurt Chuck, and for now, that’s enough, as the devilish smile on his face when he leaves the insurer’s office reveals.

Often it’s the little moments that move us, that create some minor thought in our brains that festers or flourishes into something more. For Mike, it’s a reminder and a call to action. For Kim, it’s a warning, a lingering concern about the individual she’s tied her life to. And for Jimmy, it’s a prickling impulse, a tugging thought, that he can only stamp out by running up the score on his brother, just to prove to himself that he still can.


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2 Responses to Better Call Saul: The Small Interactions that Cause Big Ripples in “Expenses”

  1. Gabriel says:

    Excellent analysis as always. A few typos I noticed while reading :

    “Jimmy McGill is used to having power, It may not come from the sort of position of privilege that men like Chuck and Howard enjoy”
    > I’m confused with the names of the punctuation marks in english, but here it should be a “;” or a “.”.

    “reminds Mike of the his guilt over the good Samaritan killed by the cartel”
    > “of his guilt”

    “It was Nacho’s presence that gave Mike pause when aiming his rifle in “Klick”, and that suggest some manner of affection or care.”
    > It should be “suggests”, right ?

    “Still, once that thought rears its ugly head, it’s hard for her tamp it back down.”
    > “for her to tamp it back down” ?
    (I feel quite embarrassed about pointing out such small mistakes, being french and constantly impressed by your particularly good mastery of the english language as well as the richness of your vocabulary – in this case I didn’t even know that verb.)

    “Jimmy is still mostly powerless, still unable to use his way with words to save him and provide for him as he’s done so many times before.”
    > Shouldn’t it be “himself” ?

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      Thanks for the kind words and the typo catches! My self-copyediting is not what it could be. I’ve updated the article accordingly.

      (FYI, I didn’t change the last two since I think my usage of “tamp” is correct in this context and that subbing “him” for “himself” is perhaps a bit colloquial, but better fits the flow of the thought — though I’m sure somewhere my old English teacher is cringing over it :-) . )

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