April 6, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), AMC
We know how this ends. We’ve always known how this ends. Even from the beginning, even for those of us who had never seen Breaking Bad, the ultimate fate of Jimmy McGill was laid out for us in sterling black and white: he ends up managing a Cinnabon, under an assumed identity, remembering his glory days as strip mall lawyer Saul Goodman. The greatest trick season one of Better Call Saul pulled was giving us hope, was investing us in Jimmy McGill’s dreams of being a better man, convincing us that this erstwhile conman might make good, that he could do the right thing and be a good person. Deep down, Jimmy McGill was always Slippin’ Jimmy in some ways, but he had a shot at turning his life around. It isn’t fate, ultimately, that made him pull that U-turn and leave the courthouse behind. It’s Jimmy’s decision to be his own man, for better or worse, and not the creature Chuck tried to make him and could never appreciate he was becoming.
What “Marco” does well is balance Jimmy’s realization of how much he misses conning people with his dawning understanding that he will never make Chuck proud, that the rewards of going straight will never quite match the high he feels when he gets one over on some sap in a bar. The scene where Jimmy and Marco run the JFK half-dollar scam is methodical, layered in its details, a practiced dance between two studied professionals easing back into their craft. It’s no wonder Jimmy goes on a weeklong binge of con after con, riding the high he gets from finally letting loose. All season long, he has been tightly constraining himself, doing his best to stay on the straight and narrow, even when all of his instincts are telling him to go the other way. It’s freeing to let go of your expectations for yourself. It’s liberating to give in to your worst instincts It feels right, sometimes, to just let all of the things that hold you back go, to live a life free of self-imposed restraints. It isn’t, of course. Those restraints exist for a reason. We build codes to keep ourselves from straying too far from the path. We make plans, set goals, and work towards them because the alternative is chaos. The alternative is the abyss. In “Marco,” Jimmy McGill chooses the alternative. He chooses, in his way, but knowingly, to become Saul Goodman.
Jimmy tried to make it in a world that wasn’t his. He worked hard to earn the respect of people who profited more from ignoring him. He fought for a spot at a table where he would never be seen as an equal. And he is haunted by what he gave up for his chance at being one of the good guys. To Jimmy’s mind, doing the right thing never got him anything. It only lost him $800,000 or more, failed to ingratiate him to a brother who could never respect him, left him banished in a desert, wandering aimlessly for any niche to call his own. Being good is hard, Better Call Saul has reminded us, and ultimately, its been too hard for Jimmy McGill. No one who’s watched this season could say honestly that Jimmy didn’t try to be a better person, didn’t fight to put away his past and find a way forward to a more moral life. We learn tonight (I don’t believe it was explicit before) that Jimmy’s spent ten years in the desert, trying to put the past behind him, trying to impress Chuck, trying to become the man he hopes he can be. He didn’t briefly flirt with breaking good before relapsing into shortcuts and con jobs. Jimmy McGill gave it a go, and the world looked at his efforts, shook its head, and denied him any reward for his struggles.
Being good doesn’t necessarily pay. There’s no promise that the righteous will make out better in this world than the corrupt, that “doing the right thing” will make you better off than someone who takes the shortcuts. The choice to be good is one that must be made with full awareness that it won’t always be to your advantage. But it must also be made with an inkling that it might never be to your advantage. That’s a thing that’s much harder to wrap your head around. It’s a decision that only the strongest can honestly make. Jimmy McGill is no Job suffering the wrath of God despite his rectitude; he’s just a flawed man trying to course correct, and finding the road back a bit too bumpy for him to handle. When this season opened, I wondered how much this show would be about the inevitability of Jimmy’s fate, and in a sense, it has been. But this season has also been about Jimmy making a series of choices. They weren’t bound to lead him here, not really. He could always have made a different choice. Even in that moment in front of the court house, he could have chosen to go in. Even as he peels away, humming “Smoke on the Water” to himself, he could turn around. But he smiles, in that moment. He feels free. Jimmy McGill has made his choice. Come what may, he’s decided how he wants to live.
- “Chuck’s not making me do this. He’s giving me an opportunity, and I’m takin’ it.” “It’s like watching Miles Davis give up the trumpet.”
- “‘B’ as in Belize. Beautiful place, so I’ve heard. I would love to go there. But that’s never gonna happen. Let’s face it. None of us is ever leaving this godforsaken wasteland.”
- “Chuck’s a stuck up douche bag. I hate to break it to you, but he doesn’t even like you.” “He’s my brother.”
- “I got nothing, Jimmy. Give me this. Give me this, man.”
- “Jimmy, you know what? This was the greatest week of my life.”
- “I remember you saying something about doing the right thing.” “I don’t even know what that means.” “You want to know why I didn’t take that money? Is that what you’re asking?” “Yeah. That’s what I’m asking.” “Me personally? I was hired to do a job, I did it. That’s as far as it goes.” “Yeah, well, I know what stopped me. And you know what? It’s never stoppin’ me again.”
In “Marco,” Jimmy McGill chooses the alternative. He chooses, in his way, but knowingly, to become Saul Goodman.