Better Call Saul: the Inevitable Hard Landings in “Fall”


There is no show on television that threads the needle between symbolism and literalism better than Better Call Saul. A major part of the show’s success (and that of its predecessor) comes from the fact that the series works equally well as a well-told story as it does a commentary on human nature and what relationships with rough-edged individuals do to us. No character represents that balance better than Kim Wexler.

The scene with her close scrape near the Texas-New Mexico border works well as plot-focused  foreshadowing. When her car gets stuck in the dirt, there is so much happening in Kim’s life — yet another tight deadline taken on to make up for Jimmy’s probable financial shortfall — that she tries to take care of the immediate problem all by herself. She find a nearby board, heaves and pushes on the car until it budges, and panics when it starts heading toward a nearby oil derrick.

Only racing into the driver’s seat and slamming on the brakes allows her to avoid a grisly wreck at the last second. The scene functions as a sign that Kim is juggling too many balls, that she’s letting small but important details slip or threaten to overwhelm her (with her car as a particular conduit for this idea) in a way that comes back to bite her later. It’s an indication Kim is trying to take on too much by herself and coming all too close to paying the price for it.

But it also functions as a larger metaphor for what Kim’s going through with Jimmy. Kim is worried about being stuck in the muck in a broader sense. Chuck’s machinations and Jimmy’s ensuing suspension put pressure on her to step up to the plate and carry the load. So Kim does what she always does — she pushes and pushes and pushes until she can get things moving again. Little does she realize that in all that pushing, she may be headed for disaster, with only her frantic heroics permitting her to narrowly avoid it.

 

Pontiac -- your choice of automobiles for narrowly avoiding death.

 

Sooner or later, those heroics will come up short. Sooner or later, Kim trying to expend all of her energy to keep Jimmy out of that muck will backfire on her. It’s only so long that she can go to these lengths, push herself to these limits, and still manage to avoid the crash.

Everyone’s hustling hard to avoid a crash in “Fall,” though most of the stories in the episode center on financial decisions rather than ones that involve mud and chrome. That’s true for Mike who, in a brief scene, does his due diligence on Lydia to make sure he’s throwing his lot in with the right people. But it also includes Jimmy, who’s pushing hard to speed up his impending payday from the Sandpiper case.

To accomplish this, he finds roundabout ways of putting pressure on Irene, the named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, to convince her to settle the case so that he’ll receive his cut of the payout. That means plying her with cookies so he can peep at the letters Davis & Main has sent her on the status of the case. It means giving her a free pair of walking shoes to make her look like a big-spender among her increasingly resentful friends at the nursing home. And it means going so far as to rig a bingo game to make it look like fortune keeps smiling upon her, at the expense of all her fellow Sandpiper litigants and erstwhile well-wishers, and further stoke the fires of the enmity.

Many of these sequences are very funny. It’s undeniably amusing to see Jimmy decked out in full mall-walker gear as he puts this plan into motion. There’s something absolutely entertaining about watching him contort himself amid a spirited session of chair yoga while spreading false gossip about Irene. And it’s enjoyably silly seeing him spinning lies to turn Irene’s associates against her while playing innocent in the Sandpiper lobby. There is a prosaic quality to Jimmy’s treachery here, and the fact that this million dollar payday requires him to hobnob with a pack of old ladies creates a certain amount of inherent farce to the proceedings.

 

They say the road to hell is paved with knitting circles.

 

But it also evinces a certain casual cruelty, a cavalier and callous quality that makes the story feel harsher at the end than at the beginning. Jimmy is not entirely without scruples – there is a moment of hesitation, a brief wince, when he sets the rigged bingo balls into the chamber – but in the end he’s willing to turn poor, innocent Irene into an outcast, to leave her crying and wounded by the ostracism, in order to get what he wants.

That’s who Jimmy is, or at least who he’s become. When he’s in a tight spot, it doesn’t matter that Irene was someone who treated him with kindness, who trusts him, who was the key to him getting the Sandpiper case in the first place. Jimmy wants what he wants, and he’ll do what he needs to do to get it, no matter how dishonest, crafty, or cruel he has to be to succeed.

The same, appropriately enough, is true for Chuck in “Fall.” When the malpractice insurers show up to HHM and declare that they’ll double the premiums on every lawyer in the firm so long as Chuck is in practice there, Chuck vows to see them in court, and Howard (initially kindly and then more forcefully) suggests to Chuck that he ought to retire. Howard tells his partner that there’s a place for him at the local law school, but eventually, admits more directly that he no longer trusts Chuck’s judgment.

It’s easy to see Howard as just as mercenary as anyone here (including Jimmy, whom Howard accuses of being like Gollum as he tries to move the settlement along), but he’s not wrong. Chuck is, or at least once was, a legitimately great legal mind, and he genuinely seems to be getting better. But Chuck also has his vendettas, his blind spots, and his eccentricities that, understandable or not, have made him a liability to the firm he helped create. It’s hard to credit Howard for any sort of altruism in this, but he’s been supportive of Chuck, stood by him when he didn’t have to. It’s not unreasonable for Howard to now take stock and conclude that Chuck is doing more harm than good to the company that bears his name.

 

"Also, don't just stand there. Fetch me some paprika."

 

But Chuck doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t care about the risk of outrageous premiums or putting his firm’s good name on the line as part of a byzantine plan to disbar his brother, or even about destroying HHM through trying to cash out his share. He puts on a show for Howard, one involving him turning the power on and using an electric mixer, a ruse (or at least an exaggeration) to try to puff himself up in front of his friend-turned-adversary. Chuck wants to show Howard that he is not the crazy man who ranted and raved on the stand, but rather an acute legal thinker making great strides, one who can either be a vital asset or a one-man poison pill, depending on which side Howard chooses.

That’s the thing about Chuck, and his brother for that matter. They are both willing to destroy or put at risk, the lives and livelihoods of the people around them, in order to achieve their own goals, and damn the consequences. (Those consequences may, providently enough, make Howard more likely to want to settle the Sandpiper case in order to have some liquidity and cash on hand to mollify Chuck.) Even the people close to them, who have helped them and looked out for them, are not immune from suffering in their wake.

That catches up with Kim in the end. She can’t celebrate with a miffed Jimmy when he brings in a fancy bottle of booze, as he seeks to exult in the success of his scheme. She has too much to do and too little time in which to do it as she tries to cover for Jimmy’s possible shortfalls. There’s been hints that her efforts to do it all herself rather than deal with her lingering concerns about Jimmy were going to hurt her eventually. There’s the five-minute naps in the car before meetings at Mesa Verde. There’s that near-miss out at the oil derrick. There’s other instances where simply being proximate to all this mess has put Kim in harm’s way. Eventually, all of these close calls curdle into something worse.

As always, the show shoots that process beautifully. There’s something quietly ominous about the silence in the car after Kim finishes rehearsing her speech. The scenery outside the window starts to fade away. Suddenly, the accident erupts in a blink. She moans in pain as she pulls herself from the wreckage. Her carefully-crafted binders blow away in the wind. Smoke billows into the austere New Mexico landscape as she surveys the tumble of metal and paper before her. This is, despite all her efforts, despite her noble attempts to carry everything on her back, something unavoidable when binding yourself to a McGill.

 

"Well I'm awfully sorry, ma'm, but I am going to have to issue you a citation for littering."

 

That’s the rub of “Fall” and of Better Call Saul. Except when facing one another, the McGill brothers almost always get what they want. They know how to work the system, to tilt things in their favor, to intimidate or challenge or call the bluff of whoever is standing in their way. And because of that, they rarely suffer, even when they screw up.

But the people around them do. The people who care about them, who try to help them, who deign to tarnish their pride or try their patience, end up worse for their unlucky associations with these two men. It’s a problem Nacho’s father understands in a moment laden with meaning, as his face falls when he learns of his son’s association with the Salamancas. There is a poison to these sorts of people, one that cannot be evaded, only put off.

It’s never Jimmy or Chuck who have to face the consequences of their actions, who have to stomach the hardships of their failings or difficulties — it’s the poor old lady made a pariah so that Jimmy can have his payday, it’s the man who stood by Chuck until it threatened to destroy their firm, and it’s the smart, decent woman who became Jimmy’s confidante, accomplice, and caretaker, straining to keep the two of them from ruin, and finding herself asleep at the wheel, surrounded by cracked chrome and the drifting detritus of her always meticulous work.

There is no escaping the McGill brothers. There is no fixing them or correcting them or saving them. There are only the doomed efforts that emerge in their wake, the ones that inevitably end in a crash.


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