Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Better Call Saul: “Alpine Shepherd Boy”

Ursula Coyote/AMC
Ursula Coyote/AMC

I don’t think Jimmy’s plan to advertise via local news media originally had a second phase. When he got those seven voicemail messages, well, mission accomplished. Potential clients were calling; now it was on to step 3: honest profit. Chuck, on the other hand, isn’t a big fan of lawyers advertising, stunts or no stunts. Not only is it hardly dignified, but as Jimmy finds out in this episode, the kinds of clients it attracts are a motley bunch. There’s your crackpots, represented by libertarian secessionist Ricky Sipes. Then there are the misunderstood geniuses, like the unwitting inventor of a fetish toilet (“Ooooh, you’re so big! Fill me up, Chandler, put it in me!”). And finally, the elderly who are looking for a little company while they distribute their priceless collections of Hummel figurines amongst their relations.

Just advertising isn’t enough. You need to target a particular audience. “Think of me when you need a lawyer” isn’t going to send potential paying customers to the phones the way “Have you or your loved ones been the victim of nursing home neglect?” does. If Jimmy is going to avoid wasting his time on deluded inventors and private currency enthusiasts, he needs a niche. So when Kim offhandedly mentions that elder law is a thing, Jimmy’s ready to grab hold of it. Bonus: It fits nicely with Chuck’s vision of the law as public service. “Getting old sucks,” Jimmy parrots to him. “Seniors need someone on their side.” All he needs to do is get his name in front of that target audience—at the bottom of their daily jello snack: “Need a will? Call McGill!”

There are two main points to “Alpine Shepherd Boy” (original title: “Jello”). One is the evolution of Jimmy’s business strategy, described above. He’s going to use his gift of gab and ability to ingratiate himself with people to charm some oldsters. The other is the question of what to do about Chuck. In a terrifying couple of sequences, we see what Chuck experiences when he is forcibly removed from his safe zone and hauled out into a buzzing, crackling, glowing world where the most innocent parts of the environment sear him to the bone. “Definitely no tasers, I can’t emphasize that enough,” he begs the police officers that his frightened neighbor has sent to his door. And what immediately follows? They pull their tasers. It’s Chuck’s worst nightmare, and the direction by Nicole Kassell puts us right inside his head.

At the hospital, though, the focus subtly shifts—to Jimmy’s struggle of how best to care for his brother. Even before Chuck regains consciousness, he frantically turns off machinery and lights, going so far as to unscrew a recalcitrant fluorescent tube that won’t respond to the wall switch, and fights with the medical and security personnel who object. But he’s caught between knowing that his brother is in pain, and knowing that the pain’s real source is psychological. To admit the latter, as much as it would benefit Jimmy (by allowing him to force HHM to buy out Chuck’s partnership), would put Chuck through any number of hells. He’d be subjected to electromagnetic torture in a psychiatric ward, and even worse perhaps, he’d lose the last few people who don’t think he’s crazy.

For a moment it seems that Jimmy’s hatred of Howard Hamlin will win out over his desire to spare his brother pain. But against medical advice, he takes Chuck home and tries to reassure him that the billboard caper doesn’t mean what Chuck thinks it means. And at the same time, he attempts some candor about Chuck’s condition, as much as he can muster without abandoning their alliance: “I think you got sick because you saw this story. Whenever you think I’ve done something wrong, something questionable, you get worse.”

If we can return to the first goal of “Alpine Shepherd Boy” for a moment—having Jimmy realize that his marketing isn’t over—the presentation isn’t as successful as it in the Chuck storyline. The main problem is pacing. We come back from the harrowing cold open to the slow reveal that Ricky Sypes is no cash cow. That’s the first of a series of house calls Jimmy makes, and while there are some uproarious laughs in all of them, they unfold slower … and slower … until by the last one, we are literally watching an old woman making her way back to the living room for a solid minute of screen time. That’s the joke, I know, but it runs counter to what the theme requires. Once we get that Jimmy’s clients are problematic, the episode should pile them up more quickly. Show us the delusion, let us feel Jimmy’s frustration, and get to the lesson he draws from it. A montage could have made the point that Jimmy’s time is being wasted just as effectively as the drawn-out shot of Jimmy waiting impatiently for the alpine shepherd boy figurine to be retrieved, and the quieter scene with Jimmy painting Kim’s toenails that follows would have been enhanced by its rhythmic contrast.


I feel the same way about one moment in the other storyline: the cut to Kim after Chuck asks if he’s ever shown signs of mental illness. Kim answers no, but then looks around uncomfortably, signalling that she does remember times when Chuck acted crazy. Director Kassell holds this shot two beats too long, underlining the point more than it needs. Compared to the masterful construction of “Hero,” directed by veteran Colin Bucksey from a script by frequent Breaking Bad writer Gennifer Hutchison, this week’s episode is held back by some of its technical choices.

But it does make two important contributions to our understanding of Jimmy’s journey. First, he puts his brother’s welfare ahead of his own interests and benefit. And second, his showmanship is in fact his greatest asset as a lawyer. The conflict between those two realities means that something would eventually have to give, even if Nacho’s gang weren’t waiting offstage.


Stray observations:

  • I love Chuck’s monologue through the door to the unheeding police officers: “As I’m sure you know, in the state of New Mexico there is a two-part test to determine whether police officers have an objectively reasonable basis …” And even as the cops go hunting for that probable cause, he keeps on talking to nobody: “… and that’s why the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a coercive order …”
  • In Sipes’ world, the “fly-swatting hand of big government is crushing the spirit of entrepreneurship.” He cites OSHA and the INS, and his collection of taxidermy cites Customs and the Department of the Interior. And his wonderful stutter on “major, ah say a major case” cites Foghorn Leghorn.
  • When the Hummel enthusiast peels off those twenties to the amount of Jimmy’s full fee, he can’t snatch them out of her hand fast enough. “If you want me to draw up a DNR, I’ll bring over a blender and some pineapple,” he jokes about her hospitality; a bit of a morbid thing to say to someone preparing for her eventual death.
  • The doctor surreptitiously turns on the bed’s electronic control panel to test whether Chuck notices. He doesn’t, which means I was wrong in my speculation last week about his condition. But the important thing about that scene isn’t that it proves the hypersensitivity is all in Chuck’s head, but that Jimmy is mad at her for doing it. When other people make such accusations, they’re attacking Chuck for faking it. But when Jimmy does it, it’s bound up with the love Chuck has for him as a brother—and the way Jimmy has, in the past, squandered and taken advantage of that love.
  • We can’t forget the closing scenes, which show Mike waiting in a car outside of a woman’s house, to her dismay. When he meets the men at his door (accompanied by APD), their dialogue—“Long way from home, aren’t you?” “You and me both”—seems to indicate that something from his past in Philly has caught up with him. And whose business card does he have in his pocket? Why, elder law specialist James M. McGill, who urged him at their last encounter to “give me a call if you, uh, if you happen to know any elders.”
  • Jimmy’s latest bespoke suit is The Matlock. Seniors do love Matlock. And the title theme from The Third Man.
  • “There he is, the man in the booth! John Wilkes Booth! Booth Tarkington!”
  • Tony the Toilet Buddy was created for kids, but then again, Viagra was created to treat hypertension.
  • “I wasn’t incoherent. They just weren’t listening.”