As antihero protagonists have supplanted good guys who fight bad guys in TV drama, creating that luxury product known as “prestige television,” the greatest debates among audiences and critics have concerned these characters’ muddy morals. And yet, I’ve never heard anyone articulate what unites antiheroes of all varieties (and make no mistake, they do differ widely from show to show) better than Mike Ehrmantraut on last night’s episode of Better Call Saul.
Explaining to nerdy pill thief “Pryce” why he knew not to bring a gun to meet Nacho Varga, he says, “If you’re gonna be a criminal, do your homework.” And then: “If you make a deal with somebody, you keep it.” Mike tells Pryce that morality isn’t as simple as whether you’re a good guys or a bad guy — there is such a thing as a bad cop, and such a thing as a good criminal. What’s important isn’t to follow the rules; it’s to work harder than everyone else (like Don Draper and Carrie Mathison and, yes, Walter White) and adhere to your own ethical code.
This is what Mike has in common with Jimmy: they’re good bad guys. They may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re incredibly committed to what they do, and, as much as is possible for criminals, their hearts are in the right place. That isn’t to say they don’t hurt people — they do, when it’s the only way to make a living or save themselves. But they don’t cause pain whimsically, needlessly, or maliciously. Mike and Jimmy are as honest as they can be.
In “Pimento,” the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul Season 1, our “good bad guy” antiheroes are contrasted with a pair of “bad good guys”: Howard Hamlin, who dismisses the possibility of hiring Jimmy in a series of increasingly meaningless corporate platitudes, and Chuck, who secretly begged Howard not to hire Jimmy. In a heartbreaking moment that builds on a pair of scenes where Howard confides in Kim (though we don’t get to see their conversation) and Kim shows up at the nail salon to tell Jimmy to take the deal HHM is offering him to bow out of the Sandpiper case, Jimmy confronts Chuck. “You called Hamlin,” he says. “You didn’t want me.” And then Chuck explains himself: “You’re not a real lawyer… People don’t change. Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.”
That last line is one I can imagine reverberating throughout the series. In one sense, Chuck fundamentally misunderstands his brother: By now, we know Jimmy well enough to realize that his intentions are good. If he can make a living off of cases like Sandpiper, that put his creative methods to work for a noble cause, he’ll never swerve into immoral territory — though he will almost certainly continue to do things that test the bounds of legality. Chuck views Jimmy’s correspondence-school law degree and repeated attempts to pass the bar as indicators of his willingness to cut corners, rather than examples of his perseverance and ingenuity.
We’ve gotten glimpses of Chuck’s moral code before, and the show has led us to believe that it’s a solid one. But in “Pimento,” we see that Chuck doesn’t get what Mike, perhaps the most intelligent and undoubtedly the most competent character on both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, understands innately: that adhering to arbitrary sets of rules isn’t what makes you a good, talented, or deserving person.
Of course, there’s also a darker bit of foreshadowing in the “chimp with a machine gun” line, too. Because isn’t that what Jimmy becomes when he reinvents himself as Saul Goodman, tireless advocate for criminals of all kinds — including, eventually, someone as truly depraved as Walter White? Again, Chuck disastrously misunderstands the situation. Yes, Jimmy is a chimp with a machine gun. But with Chuck’s help — or, at least, without his interference — he could have permanently turned that machine gun on the actual bad guys. Instead, Chuck bears quite a bit of the blame for making Jimmy a criminal again.
This makes Jimmy/Saul’s ultimate fate, working at a Cinnabon and tearing up as he watches his old TV commercials, all the more tragic. Along with a few other moments in “Pimento,” it also sets up what we already know will happen. When Jimmy drives away from Chuck’s house, it’s clear that his brother is out of his life. Now that Mike and Nacho have come face to face and silently communicated their respect for each other, it seems like only a matter of time before they’re all working together.
Surely, next week’s finale will bring its share of surprises. But what’s already become clear is what this short, eclectic first season of Better Call Saul is supposed to be: a sort of origin story for Saul Goodman’s larger, pre-Breaking Bad origin story that takes a light yet deep, nuanced, and patient look at the morality of antiheroes.