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

Better Call Saul, “Marco”

Illustration for article titled Better Call Saul, “Marco”

Oedipus is funny. That’s the structure of funny, right there. “Who did this terrible thing to our city? Oh God, it was me!”

That’s blowhard filmmaker Lester in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, completely missing the point of dramatic irony. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t knowlike the end of the storythere’s a friction, a shiver, a tension that could almost be mistaken for humor. But the vibrations are actually those of despair, fate, the inexorability of the inevitable bearing down on us all.

We know the end of Jimmy McGill’s story: Crooked lawyer, knows too much, cashes in his blood-soaked profits for a new identity and a Cinnabon apron in the next state over. But goddamn if Gilligan and Gould (especially Gould, who wrote and directed “Marco”) didn’t keep me hoping right up until that final defiant U-turn in the courthouse parking lothoping that it could somehow be different. That joke’s on me.

Not that it isn’t nice to see Jimmy in his element, through the eyes of someone who appreciates his abilities. Watching him and Marco run the JFK half-dollar con is a thing of rare beauty. Gould takes his time, showing how carefully the two set it up in order to achieve the most important element of any scam: Making the mark think he’s the one getting away with something. Detail is key, and Jimmy knows how to stuff his patter with so much specificity that it builds to a baroque edifice of lies. Playing to, and then undercutting, the natural skepticism of the mark at the bar, the two work like a magician and his confederate in the audience, the misdirections detectable only because we know the shifts in their relationship are all part of the act, even as they serve to reinforce the mark’s excitement about seizing the moment and making a killing.

And although I wanted Jimmy to resist Marco’s tempting offer of one last fake-Rolex fleecing for the road, I could see equally clearly why he shouldn’t. Marco may be bad company when it comes to staying on the right side of morality and the law, but he’s good company in every other way. Unlike Chuck, he gives back love and appreciation for what Jimmy brings to their relationship. Unlike Chuck, he values Jimmy’s talents. And unlike Chuck, when he needs something from Jimmy, like this one last score“I don’t need the money, I need this. I’ve got nothing”he makes a genuine moral appeal to compassion, based on simple empathy and honesty. Jimmy is ashamed that he let Chuck’s distaste for his former Cicero associates keep him away from Marco when he returned for their mother’s funeral. He shunned Marco to please Chuck; he agreed with Chuck’s assessment of his past as shameful and denied the parts that were joyful and humane, the parts that fed both his soul and Marco’s. Arguably, that’s a worse crime than taking money off guys who thought they were the ones outsmarting somebody.

Jimmy’s elder law clients appreciate and need him too, and that’s initially why he goes back to the ABQ. Kim reinforces it by arranging a partner-track interview at a law firm that’s taking on part of the class-action workload; she may have pulled some strings, but their willingness to take him on is a testament to his value for those clients and his hard work building the case. It’s confirmation of what would have happened at HHM if Chuck hadn’t poisoned that well. (Howard’s hands were tied, he tells Jimmy—“Your brother’s very important to the firm”and Jimmy acknowledges, “Sorry I called you a pig-fucker.”) But when he walks up to the courthouse rehearsing his speech, Marco’s ring on his pinky finger stops him short. He’s walking back into a world where his only worth is what someone of greater worth chooses to give him. Even on the verge of winning at that game, he feels like a loser. For a week in Cicero he lived in the world of self-determination. Seedy as it was, it felt like freedom. Life at Davis and Main, by contrast, stretches out before him as a respectable version of that absurdist bingo game: always a B number, never a winner. The same damn thing over and over. He’d still be paying for that Chicago sunroof from so long ago, dooming himself to spend the rest of his life on the road where that one mistake placed him.


Instead, he decides the mistake was not grabbing the means to live free when he had the chance. Otherwise he’s never going to get out of that pit of guilt and shame, even without Chuck kicking away his handholds. The forces that defined him for years, while he labored in the mailroom, studied law and passed the bar, and pieced together a meager practice, now are motivations he finds it hard to fathom. “I know what stopped me” from taking the Kettlemans’ pile of cash, he tells Mike. And he’s determined that “it’s never stopping me again.”

The tragedy of Oedipus is that he acted like he was free when he was actually living out a script written by the fates. So it is for Jimmy. None of us can blame him for wanting the freedom to determine his own fate, especially when the approved American ways of honest entrepreneurship and wage slavery have been so singularly cruel to him. But he’s wrong about that pile of cash representing a way out. That road leads to paranoia and the Omaha Cinnabonno one’s idea of freedom. Gilligan and Gould have already broken my heart two or three times this season, while Jimmy’s been trying to claw his way out of the Slippin’ Jimmy pit. Now that he’s blown the escape hatch and lit out for Saul Goodman territory, there’s plenty of heartbreak ahead. And I can’t wait. That’s the structure of funny, right there.


Stray observations:

  • So much of the genius of “Marco” is how it reminds us, with both overt and subtle echoes of “Uno,” how much of what we saw of Jimmy in the beginning has developed new and additional context over the course of the season. The mumbled rehearsals, which looked like insecurity then, now appear to be attempts to channel his native gift for con-man patter into a more respectable avenue (like meeting his new law partners Davis and Main). His desperation and frustrationkicking trash cans, railing at Mike over stickersweren’t over not being able to get anywhere, but over never getting any credit for trying. And as Noel pointed out to me, the bingo monologue about Jimmy’s Cicero downfall completes the tale he spun to the two skaters about Slippin’ Jimmy.
  • And then there’s the tire-squealing acceleration into the endless desert sky, out of that court parking lot tapping out the rhythm to Marco’s favorite song “Smoke on the Water,” just like when he tricked his way out of the lot in “Nacho”in the exhilaration of the moment forgetting (or ignoring) that he’ll have to come back and face Mike again,
  • What’s the difference between Jimmy and Mike? Mike knows why he didn’t take the moneythe same reason he shows up to the parking booth every day. He has a code. Right now that’s something Jimmy lacks, and I expect he’ll have to develop one on the fly in Season 2. If he’s smart, he’ll ask for Mike’s help again. (It may take him awhile to realize he needs it.)
  • B as in the B-2 bomber (“we would never know, because it’s stealthy”) betrayal, Benedict Arnold, brother, “boy this B thing is really starting to tick me off,” battleship, bourbon, and Belize (“beautiful place, I’d love to go there, but let’s face it, none of us is ever leaving this god-forsaken wasteland”).
  • The No Exit dynamic of that bingo game is foreshadowed when Jimmy tells Marco that New Mexico is the land of Bugs Bunny (wrong turns at Albuquerque) and the Road Runner (endless permutations on inevitable futility).
  • Jimmy’s sex scam is that he’s Kevin Costner, as seen briefly in the noir-style neon montage of his week with Marco (“You know, the guy in Dances With Wolves?”). It gives him a chance to deploy a couple of movie lines (“If you build it, they will come”), but the undisputed champion of the film references this week is Jimmy and Marco’s unison recitation of Anthony Quinn’s line from my favorite movie of all time, Lawrence Of Arabia: “The Turks pay me a golden treasure, and yet I am poor, because I am a river to my people!”
  • How about the performance of Mel Rodriguez, who’s been brilliant in no fewer than three television shows this season?
  • The bright young things that HHM is sending to take care of Chuck aren’t up to his exacting standards. “On the grocery front, almost everything was right this time!” he lectures Ernesto. “Do you need to write any of this down? Because it’s okay if you do.”
  • Marco loftily declines to explain the difference between a dry standpipe and a wet standpipe to Jimmy. I’m not sure he knows the difference himself.
  • Watch out for paisley in Jimmy’s wardrobe. That’s his scamming attire.
  • That’s the Mike Bloomfield Super Session cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” playing as Jimmy caresses his old Cutless and enters the bar.
  • “I did not know that his children were in the backseat. There was a level of tint that I maintain to this day was illegal in an Illinois licensed vehicle.”
  • “It’s like watching Miles Davis give up the trumpet. It’s just a waste, that’s all I’m saying.”
  • “Now you know! It’s a real thing, I didn’t make it up. There’s a name for it.”