[Editor’s note: This piece contains spoilers of season six of Better Call Saul.]
Americans love a grifter. We always have. It’s why so many people call Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), arguably television’s greatest conman, who will be facing the music in tonight’s final episode. But after Saul, née Jimmy McGill, goes down, where will that leave us and our fascination with getting scammed?
Last week, following our latest check-in on the sad reality of Cinnabon manager Gene Takovich, America turned its attention to another bad lawyer, Andino Reynal, the attorney for Alex Jones, professional conspiracy theorist, convicted liar, and a father of four who once forgot his kids’ names because he ate a big bowl of chili. Reynal biffed it real good when he sent the contents of Jones’ phone to the plaintiff’s counsel. It was a rookie mistake. “Do you know what perjury is?” asked Mark Bankston, attorney for the parents of a Sandy Hook massacre victim that Jones has made millions defaming.
In 2015, Better Call Saul hit AMC, promising a continuation of the Breaking Bad story, diving into the life and times of ambulance chaser Jimmy McGill. While we expected more heists concocted by bald, gravelly white men, a zeitgeist-capturing treatise about the black heart of a grifter arrived just in time.
The year 2015 was the beginning of a boom time for conmen in America. The next seven would see the rise of the MAGA movement, Fyre Festival, NFTs, QAnon, and a grifter-led insurrection. Conmen and scammers are not a new American phenomenon. But Better Call Saul, a show about a gifted grifter, countered their mainstream success and prevalence with a question: How can these people live with themselves?
There are few things more dangerous than the truth in Better Call Saul, and Jimmy wields and fears it in equal measure. Watching Jones on that stand, flailing for an angle that could explain away his lawyer’s mistake, I couldn’t help but think of Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), confronted with a truth he couldn’t explain away. In the 2017 episode “Chicanery,” Jimmy and Chuck face off on the stand, pitting lawyer against lawyer in a battle of wits. Jimmy, however, has a secret weapon. He knows Chuck lives in a Jones-style conspiracy theory of his own making—a truth Chuck can not accept.
Believing himself to have electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a self-diagnosed and unproven health condition, Chuck is a gifted lawyer but a social pariah. Over the course of a season, Jimmy exploited Chuck’s condition, causing his brother to question his tenuous grip on reality. It all came to a head on the stand.
Jimmy checkmates Chuck by slipping a phone battery into his brother’s pocket, proving Chuck’s condition false. The truth ruins Chuck, leaving him on the stand pleading to these symbols and officers of truth and justice to believe him, but the cross-examination already doomed him. The scene ends with Chuck apologizing for his outburst. He would self-immolate in his home later that night.
People like Chuck are Jimmy’s big game. They are people in his life that he believes underestimate him, that hold him back from the glory of being clever. But his actions go beyond throwing a bowling ball at a luxury car. He gaslights his targets to a breaking point. Chuck’s partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) suffered years of Jimmy’s nonsense before he was driven to professional and personal ruin in the final season. Confronting Jimmy and his wife Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), all Howard wants to know is, “What justification makes it okay?”
Unlike Chuck, who tries to puncture Jimmy’s thin-candy shell of self-interest with one-upmanship, Hamlin asks Jimmy to consider his humanity in the episode “Plan And Execution.” It can’t simply be about money or jealousy. But for grifters like Jimmy and Kim, the action is the juice; they “get off on it,” as Howard says. “I will be okay, but you two are soulless. Jimmy, you can’t help yourself. Chuck knew it.” After Lalo kills Howard, the fallen lawyer smacks his head on the side of Jimmy’s coffee table, recalling Chuck’s collapse at the copy center. Are all the members of Jimmy’s doomed-client list marked by a bruised temple?
It’s important for Jimmy to face this in the final season as he begins to unravel how he could do this to Kim. He didn’t just trick her; he made her a co-conspirator. He dragged her down to his level, picking up on a slight mean streak and a taste for tequila and turning her into a little Slippin’ Jimmy.
Facing the truth is what all grifters are outrunning, and Better Call Saul forces us to face responsibility for the lie. In the penultimate episode, Kim tries to come clean and Jimmy wants to get caught, engaging in a scheme so haphazardly he seems ready to turn himself in but can’t. In his office, wallpapered by the Constitution, Jimmy drapes himself on the promise of America, using it as the sizzle for his legal steak. America has always been a country of grifters like Jimmy. The country founded on a “take first, repent never” philosophy is still awash in calls for reparations for slavery and the Native American genocide. And yet, Americans, every day, put these crimes behind us. We put on a fresh suit, look in the mirror, and declare, “It’s showtime, folks.”
And what is “the show,” exactly? Jimmy ruined the lives of his loved ones for the sake of the cons, the thrill of being smarter, craftier, and more adaptable. Jimmy always lives to fight another day, and so does Jones. The $40 million is but a drop in the bucket of his boner pill empire and there will always be another group of ghoulish conservatives looking to muddy political waters. Just as it wasn’t the last we heard of Milo Yiannopoulos or Mike Cernovich or Anna Delvey, grifters don’t stop. They just find someone else to leech off of. And when they do, who can you call?