Better Call Saul 2.3 – “Amarillo”

“Amarillo” incorporated a ton of thematic material from the first season of Better Call Saul, and in doing so became a pivotal chapter in the hilarious, sad tale of Jimmy McGill. There are callbacks to nearly every episode. Jimmy casts a spell on his phone as he did throughout the first season, starting in “Uno“. We have the return of the dimwitted film students from “Hero” and the Alpine Shepherd Boy from “Alpine Shepherd Boy“. Mike chomps on the same sandwich from “Pimento” and sits outside his daughter-in-law’s house as in “Five-O“. At one point Jimmy even whispers bingo as if to say, hey, we had an episode called “Bingo“.

Details like this are nothing new for Saul, and they don’t even take into account the hundreds of little callbacks/foreshadowing to companion series Breaking Bad (like Kaylee’s little pink elephant). At best, the high degree of subtlety with which these are employed makes for what Jimmy would call a rich tapestry, a comprehensive and highly believable narrative that can afford to veer into ridiculousness in plot due to the strong foundation of details and character quirks. At one point in “Amarillo” Jimmy approaches Clifford Main’s office and pauses outside the door. We hear faint guitar chords and then Jimmy walks away. The inclusion of those chords — which we know are from Clifford himself after his explanation in “Cobbler” — isn’t necessary by any means, but it reinforces the history behind the scene enough that we feel the history as Jimmy does.

The careful writing of the show is such that seemingly anything can become a symbol, or if not a symbol in the traditional sense then at the very least a recurring minor detail that serves to strengthen that foundation. Cliff’s guitar might never be heard in the show again. But if it is — if, say, Jimmy smashes it across his cocobolo desk — then that history is retroactively given new meaning. Heck, there’s an entire treatise devoted to the coffee in Breaking Bad, which is an item most would hardly recognize as a reoccurring symbol even after watching the show in its entirety. The richer the tapestry, the harder it is to suss out an individual thread. What might Saul‘s coffee be?

The flip side of the coin is that a show’s foundational details only matter if they’re supporting a worthwhile story, and “Amarillo” forwarded the larger saga by challenging Jimmy on multiple fronts. The most explicit challenges come from Kim, a friend to Jimmy who speaks to him more clearly in “Amarillo” than she ever has before. “I put myself on the line for you,” she says, noting that she didn’t do so as a hand-out but because she truly believes in Jimmy’s abilities as a decent, upstanding member of society. “We both know you can do this job,” she says, “but you just have to do it right.”

This has always been Jimmy’s most slippery attribute. He gets the job done, exceeds expectations on almost all fronts and does so with a smile — but how did he arrive at the result? The second challenge is from Chuck, who speaks out on this point but does so in a more veiled manner than Kim. He puts Jimmy in a tough spot in front of HHM and David & Main and yet again Jimmy does what Jimmy does: he wriggles free. He lies with more gusto than most people muster when they’re telling the truth. He did the job he was asked to do, but Kim and Chuck know that he didn’t do the job the right way.

The third and least explicit challenge is, as usual, from inside Jimmy himself. As he’s standing there listening to Cliff strum away in his office, Jimmy can easily enter and show his boss the TV commercial featuring the poor old woman taken advantage of by her assisted living facility. The commercial is great, and so Cliff would probably sign off and give Jimmy a pat on the back. But he doesn’t, choosing instead to simply air the commercial without permission, and in doing so he defies the lesson that both Kim and Chuck are trying to teach him.

Still, though, the intricacies of Jimmy’s morality don’t allow for a simple judgement on his character despite this willful disregard for the rules, even for an easy rule like “clear that commercial with your boss” or the simple command on the lightswitch that says Always Leave ON!!! Do NOT turn OFF! The larger lesson might involve negative consequences, like if that lightswitch ends up being vital. But on a clearer level Jimmy succeeds in helping a lot of elderly people from losing their life savings to a greedy corporation, and his statements to that effect have truth in them even if he has to pepper his stories with lies to ensure his ears don’t get clipped. The question that Kim might be asking is “Why can’t Jimmy be a decent guy?” Meanwhile, Chuck is convinced that Jimmy will never be a decent guy, stuck in his ways as Slippin’ Jimmy.

And Jimmy himself must recognize the crossroads of moral grappling, standing outside Cliff’s office or gazing forlornly at the lightswitch. Somehow, even though he invariably chooses the “wrong” path to his destination, it’s clear that Jimmy is already more decent than most. In a weird inversion of Walt’s crusade in Breaking Bad — he having done bad things for good reasons — Jimmy’s being forced to do good things for bad reasons, rationales poured on him by Kim and Chuck and Hamlin and Cliff all still amounting to nothing more than “that’s the rules!” Rules aren’t equivalent to good reasons, and that’s the part a truly decent man would have trouble with. If Jimmy can’t get around them, Saul certainly can.

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