Where did this guy come from? Breaking Bad fans must all have wondered this, at one moment or another, about Saul Goodman, who emerged fully formed in that show’s second season as a local TV-commercial celebrity and all-purpose legal adviser to the discerning criminal. Better Call Saul is, of course, a series-length answer to that question. And the cold open to last night’s episode, “Nacho,” did more than any other single scene so far to fill in the character’s backstory.
In a flashback (one I’d estimate takes place in the mid-’90s, judging by the visible and semi-successful effort to make Bob Odenkirk look significantly younger), we see Chuck enter a police station. He’s come to see Jimmy, who’s been arrested. Though the specifics of what he did aren’t clear — and maybe they’re not even important — we learn that he’s facing assault and property damage charges. Most disturbingly, he could be labeled a sex offender. (New York Times recapper David Segal helpfully informed readers last night that he searched Urban Dictionary for “Chicago sunroof,” the act Jimmy tells Chuck he performed, and came up empty. But by this morning, industrious Better Call Saul fans had submitted a handful of entertaining possibilities and a lively debate had begun in the show’s subreddit.)
It isn’t until this scene that we’re entirely clear on the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck, and besides confirming that they’re brothers, it establishes that they’ve been estranged — probably due to Jimmy’s criminal pursuits. This appears to be the moment when our hero commits to cleaning up. In all likelihood, we can trace his career as a lawyer back to this scene.
Although the flashback is short, Better Call Saul will surely let us know the specifics of Jimmy’s rehabilitation in its own time. Instead of going deeper into his past, “Nacho” returns quickly to the present — well, the 2002 present. This time, of course, Jimmy is the lawyer, and it’s Nacho Varga who’s been arrested. After refusing to aid Nacho in finding the Kettlemans’ embezzled money, Jimmy had an attack of conscience, calling the family from a payphone to issue a garbled warning that they’re in danger. By the next morning, they’ve disappeared.
Amid what seems to be a low-level panic attack, Jimmy tries repeatedly to reach Nacho from another payphone. Eventually, the cops trace Jimmy, chase him, throw him to the ground, and cuff him. And when they figure out he’s Nacho’s lawyer — which he isn’t yet, exactly — they drag him to the station, where his de facto client is waiting to rip into him. With the cops sure that he knows more than he’s saying about what happened to the Kettlemans, Nacho convinced that Jimmy set him up, and both Kim and the police unwilling to indulge his hypothesis that the family “kidnapped themselves,” Jimmy is left on his own to track them down.
This twist — that the Kettlemans disappeared on foot after Jimmy’s warning phone call — isn’t even a little bit shocking. I can’t imagine many other viewers were surprised, either, when a final tussle with Betsy Kettleman revealed a gym bag full of the stolen cash. “Nacho” may have been structured around a legal procedural’s typical client-of-the-week storyline, but its true function was in laying groundwork and developing characters. Along with the glimpse at how Jimmy evolved from criminal to lawyer, we got a bit more insight into his relationship with Kim — both in the early phone conversation where she says she won’t talk dirty to him and in their argument about the Kettlemans, where she refuses to use her influence with Hamlin. Her attitude towards Jimmy is complicated: she doesn’t quite trust him, but she seems aware that he’s not all bad, either. It also seems safe to say that whatever happened between them, romantically or sexually, isn’t entirely over.
Meanwhile, we’re blessed with more Mike Ehrmantraut than ever this week. His and Jimmy’s parking-lot standoff blossoms into a physical fight, in which the inevitable comes to pass: Mike puts Jimmy down immediately, and they both end up in the police station. The detectives, with a condescension that is as painful to watch as it is subtle, convince Mike to help them out by promising not to file charges if Jimmy tells them where the Kettlemans are. When Mike figures out that Jimmy really doesn’t know what happened to the family, though, he changes his mind. Jimmy chases after him and learns a bit about Mike’s past, along with the helpful tip that people who disappear don’t tend to go far. “Nobody wants to leave home,” he says. This appears to be the beginning of the professional relationship that’s fully formed by the time we meet Saul and Mike on Breaking Bad — and it’s worth thinking about the fact that it’s a shared frustration with the clueless posturing of law enforcement that brings them together.
“Nacho” also yields some more insight into Jimmy’s character. As we see in his amusingly gross bathroom negotiation with a prosecutor who can’t even keep defendants’ names straight, this guy works harder than anyone. When it’s clear no one will help him track down the Kettlemans, he does it himself, walking for hours until he hears the family singing in a tent. Not only does he put in the effort, but he thinks like a criminal, whether that criminal is Nacho Varga or Craig Kettleman. This is the combination of talents that is going to put Jimmy at the top of his incredibly specialized field. In fact, I expect we’ll see it start to pay off for him as early as next week. His work will undoubtedly earn him some points with Nacho. But it will also be interesting to see whether the Kettleman storyline continues — and, specifically, whether Jimmy will make them return their cash or help them hide it, even as he’s marching them back to their house.