Better Call Saul Recap: Good-bye, Charlie Hustle

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill. Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Better Call Saul
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Has it been ten weeks already? I admit I feel a little sentimental writing this, having just finished “Marco,” an episode that I think in certain places was meant for sentimentality yet, in other places — like all of Saul and Breaking Bad — flew so righteously in the face of sentiment that it sometimes seemed almost cruel. In any case, deep breath, adjust the tie, and here we are: Illinois again, ten years earlier, dim sports bar, afternoon or some other unsociable time to be drinking. Jimmy walks in wearing a paisley shirt and faintly feathered hair, looking like a fourth-string roadie in charge of extension cords for Ram Jam, or someone who kept track of Dirk Diggler’s dry cleaning. 

Marco, his con partner, is naturally happy to see him — after all, from his simple perch, Jimmy beat his rap. Jimmy explains that it isn’t simple: Without Chuck’s intervention, Jimmy would still be in jail. This is where we see the birth of a debt that Jimmy spends the next ten years of his life trying to pay off, starting in the mailroom of Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill. “Marco, I was done,” he explains. “You understand? I didn’t beat the rap. Chuck flew in and saved my ass.” Marco shakes his head — for him, Jimmy giving up cons is “like watching Miles Davis give up the trumpet.” (Presumably, Marco has never heard Decoy or You’re Under Arrest.)

Back in Albuquerque, present day. Jimmy and Howard Hamlin settle the Sandpiper papers — the most civil, tender conversation they’ve had all season. Keeping Jimmy out wasn’t Howard’s idea, he explains; he actually always kinda liked Jimmy — he used to call him Charlie Hustle, remember? Jimmy remembers, and apologizes for calling Howard a pig-fucker, which is one of those localized apologies that stands in for a much bigger, broader apology Jimmy probably isn’t ready to articulate. A bittersweet silence passes, then Howard clears the air the only way he knows how: “We owe you some money, don’t we?” Cut to the hallway, where we see the same trashcan Jimmy kicked in earlier in the season, a physical record of his emotional frustration.

Jimmy knows he’s more or less off the case, but shows up to emcee bingo anyhow. There he proceeds to have an oblique meltdown in front of a ballroom full of elderly people. This is when we finally learn the provenance and meaning of “Chicago Sunroof,” which functions here as a kind of health-class cautionary tale of a prank gone too far, a momentary lapse of judgment whose repercussions last a lifetime. It is a sad, spectacular scene, surreally displaced in its intensity, totally discordant in tone. In other words, what in the world of Better Call Saul constitutes comedy. “Kitty-cat notebooks for everybody!” he shouts, jigging wildly in front of a clutch of gold Mylar balloons before dropping his mic and vanishing.   

What follows is a long, dreamy sequence in which Jimmy returns to Chicago and finds Marco sleeping on the same bar where Jimmy left him ten years earlier. Within an hour, they’re conning people again, and finally, we can see the appeal: Aside from patient, hemmed-in Kim, Marco is the only person with whom Jimmy really seems to have chemistry. Their first con — about a rare Kennedy half-dollar with the bust facing west, printed by a rogue Coloradan minter who believed passionately in manifest destiny — is American mania worthy of Thomas Pynchon, a story so curious and particular, it makes the entire world around it seem to sparkle with secrets. You can understand how they made money and why they had fun, too.

A montage ensues: Neon lights, half-stories, scenelets of Jimmy and Marco reeling in strangers at bars with tales of Upper Uqbar Orbis (a reference to the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, himself a creator of worlds that seem too amazing to be real and too specific to be fake). After ten years, Jimmy has picked up where he left off. The quietly cynical suggestion here is that despite Jimmy’s insistence to Marco that he’s straight, being a lawyer and being a con aren’t all that different. 

The episode climaxes with Jimmy and Marco running their watch con again; the one where Jimmy and his mark discover Marco passed out in an alley with a billfold and a fake Rolex, then get into an argument about how to divvy up Marco’s holdings. Jimmy and Marco know the watch is fake, of course, but the mark doesn’t, and the con is playing them into wanting the watch more than the money. This time, though, Jimmy senses something wrong: Marco isn’t acting anymore; he’s having a heart attack. It’s a conventionally poetic, masculine scene, but a moving one, too: Marco goes down being the phony he loved being.

After the funeral, Jimmy gets a call from Kim: A Santa Fe law firm wants to hire Jimmy. (Why they don’t call Jimmy directly isn’t explained and is, admittedly, weird.) It’s a little deus ex machina, but it gets Jimmy back to Albuquerque with a little hope in his tank. We get a last glimpse at Chuck, who, without Jimmy, looks like a more hopeless, conventional kind of crazy, burdening the Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill liaison in charge of getting his groceries with instructions about his favorite kind of apples. The scene reduces him, screws him into the ground. It makes sense that this is how we see him last: A different, lesser person than we thought he was.

Jimmy, too. He shows up for the meeting with the Santa Fe firm, but then turns away, stopping back by the parking booth for an exchange with Mike. Suddenly, Jimmy can’t figure out why the two of them didn’t just take the Kettlemans’ money — it was easy, it was there, it was tax-free. Mike, who, at time, appears to have accidentally stepped out of an old Western movie, said that he had a job to do, and when the job was done, he walked away — the arbiter of a solemn outlaw code. Jimmy finds this ridiculous, which it sort of is. “I know what stopped me,” he says, “and it’s never stopping me again.” It’s not a happy epiphany, but we know it’s one he won’t go back on.