Let’s start near the end, where the episode gets its name: “Hero.” Having taken some dirty money from the Kettlemans (“a retainer,” as Jimmy rationalizes), Jimmy plans his elaborate jab at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. In a sleight of hand, the show has us thinking that the handsome outfit he gets tailored (Tasmanian-wool suit, a club-collar shirt with real mother-of-pearl buttons, no “fake plastic crap”) is part of an attempt to make himself look respectable; the bribe money only the means that justify his ends, the lemons in his lemonade.
Instead we end up in the folds of another con, Jimmy sitting breathless on the catwalk of a balcony a hundred feet over the highway, shaking hands with the billboard worker who consented to faking a fall just so Jimmy could save him and get it all captured on film before tomorrow's "Metro" section closes. Whether Jimmy thought the billboard escapade would ever really work is unclear; he doesn’t even seem to get the notion to fake the rescue until Hamlin has already served him the cease-and-desist.
What we do learn (as though we didn’t know already) is that Jimmy is someone who thinks on his feet, who seems to understand that the game isn’t rigged, only vastly more complex than most people would like to imagine. That he pitches the newspaper on his battle with Hamlin as a “David and Goliath” story is the episode’s slyest line — Jimmy’s too smart to see the world in terms so black-and-white, but he also knows that black-and-white is how people like it, especially when it comes to newspapers.
So, “Hero,” a word the show dangles out in front of us like a steak. Like so many of its contemporaries in this so-called Golden Age of TV, Saul is a show that attempts to take these big narrative terms and fragment them to the point where they become unusable, to take something smooth and uniform (like a David-and-Goliath narrative, for example) and make it too jagged to hold without getting cut. Jimmy’s not a hero, he’s a scam artist, but the show puts us in the hard seat of wanting him to win anyway.
Jog back to the beginning of the episode, where Jimmy squares off against the Kettlemans at their campsite. I don’t have much use for the depictions of Betsy and Craig — they’re too thin, too on-the-nose in their doe eyes and polo collars, like Boy and Girl Scouts blown up into some nightmare cartoon of what good white Americans should be. When Jimmy suggests they give back the stolen money, Betsy clamps up with barely concealed PTA rage: Her husband earned this money. In a word, the show hits on the sad, familiar notion that part of being a good American is working weekends, sucking it up when you’re on salary, treating your job as a favor your employer does you instead of the other way around. My guess is that Craig is the kind of man who takes orders with his tail between his legs and never dares say no. In a sense, I feel bad for him; I want him to keep the money, or at least I want to believe that he deserves it. Conventional morality suddenly seems insufficient, conventional definitions too pat. Criminality becomes normalized, cynicism a survival technique. Jimmy’s pistons start to fire: If the Kettlemans don’t want to give the money back, they at least have to figure out how to handle it once they enter the legal realm. Or, as he puts it, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” There are no heroes here, only winners and the people they win over. My vote for second-best line goes to the moment after Jimmy gets back to the office and starts counting his money: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18.)
The other scenes here serve as supporting material for Jimmy’s grand narrative: Instead of rolling over for Nacho, Jimmy bites him on the ear, the kind of alpha gesture we may remember from later episodes of Breaking Bad, when he comes to know the ropes so well that he’s not afraid to tell un-convicted murderers that they’re idiots, often to their faces. Then there’s poor Chuck, scrambling across the lawn in his reflective shroud, trying to get the local paper, which Jimmy has hidden from him in shame, knowing that Chuck will see through the Local Hero routine all the way back to Cicero, Illinois, population 84,000, when his little brother was still Slippin’ Jimmy.
My favorite scene here, though — and the most balanced in a show whose comedy often veers into cartoon — transpires between Jimmy and Kim in the nail salon. Jimmy’s game requires relentless public performance; conversationally speaking, he’s always on. To see him, Tasmanian wool swapped for baggy cotton, bare feet in a foot bath (gotta rest the old dogs) and cheap cocktail in hand, enjoying his jerry-rigged little holiday in the middle of the night, the closest thing he has to a friend sitting in the chair next to him, cease-and-desist letter in her hand be damned — it’s as happy as we’ve seen him yet.