Monday, October 8, 2018

REVIEW: 'Better Call Saul' - Jimmy Puts on a Stunning Performance to Prove His Sincerity and Passion in 'Winner'

AMC's Better Call Saul - Episode 4.10 "Winner"

Jimmy turns the page on his reputation. Lalo tracks a loose end in Gus' operation. Mike is forced to make a difficult decision.

It's official: Jimmy McGill is now Saul Goodman. The transition is complete by the end of the fourth season. When Jimmy gets his license back, he renews it under the name Saul Goodman. That's the persona he wishes to carry forward. It's the identity his new clients know him as. Moreover, it embraces the personality he now exhibits in every aspect of his life. His sincerity was questioned by the review panel in last week's episode. That was the biggest hurdle to him getting his law license back following his suspension. And now, he and Kim orchestrate this offense to change his perception around town to make it seem as if he is doing everything that his brother imagined for him and that he is now a changed man. It's all a show. One where even Kim questions just how sincere Jimmy truly is with his actions. It's such a phenomenal performance throughout this finale. The audience knows that it's heading to this big conclusion. It's one laced with an immense sense of tragedy. It's a plan that Kim has supported as well. She has encouraged these impulses from Jimmy. And now, they are all coming out with this change in his identity. It's the show riffing on the famous "I had written a speech but in this moment I've decided to speak from the heart" plot trope. It's absolutely fantastic and stunning to watch. Bob Odenkirk can deliver a monologue so well as this character. Jimmy is falling down such a slippery slope. He has long tried to avoid this identity. And now, he embraces it completely. He is doing whatever it takes in order to win. That's the mentality he embraces above all else. He views everything as an obstacle that is potentially standing in his way. He knows how to expertly target every single problem with a solution that can genuinely move people while also giving him a good laugh later on. It's despicable but it's the exact trajectory that has always been apparent with the character. This was always inevitable. That doesn't lesson the tragedy of it all though. In fact, it hits just as hard because the show has made the audience feel for Jimmy McGill. There was the desire for him to avoid all of this. But he could never escape it. This was his destiny. It has now been fulfilled with the tragedy probably only increasingly as the series continues in the future.

Additionally, Chuck's death has cast a long shadow over this entire season. It was an incredibly pivotal moment for the formation of Jimmy's identity. It was tragic because it cemented Jimmy's fate as Saul Goodman. But this story also highlighted that if Jimmy actually got the help he needed to process his brother's death in a genuine way he could have avoided everything that life would become for him later on. That too is inherently tragic. The audience is screaming at Jimmy to make better choices with his life. But the end game has already been set. That's what makes it bittersweet to see a fond memory of Jimmy and Chuck's relationship knowing everything that would eventually happen and how Jimmy uses that sentimentality in order to get his license back. It's so precise and moving. The audience can easily get sucked into it as well. It's meaningful that Chuck is the one who recommended Jimmy to the bar in the first place. That opening sequence shows how they were always wildly different people. And yet, they could truly thrive together as well. They depend on and push each other. Jimmy wants Chuck to enjoy karaoke night with him while Chuck feels responsible to get Jimmy home safely. But it all highlights a loving relationship between family. This is something that Chuck genuinely wants to do as well. It just takes a gentle push to get him up on the stage. When he's up there though, he is just as into the performance as Jimmy is. It's such a fun rendition of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" too. Sure, there is the subtext that comes from knowing that Jimmy would ultimately be the winner in their longstanding feud. Darkness envelops them as they sing one more time in bed together after the party is over. The sense of tragedy is swirling all around them. But they were still brothers who cared about each other as well. They just chose to express it in ways that ultimately turned deadly.

In the present day, Jimmy and Kim are trying to use their new tactics in order to sway opinion on Jimmy in their favor. They have a clear cut mission of making Jimmy seem like a changed man who is doing his best to honor his brother. Jimmy didn't think it was a big deal that he didn't mention Chuck at all during the review panel. He saw it as lingering on the past and trying to use a dead brother to advance a specific agenda. And yet, that's the precise point as well. Chuck was well-respected in the legal community and still carries a significant amount of sway even in death. It's notable that Jimmy appears to still be in mourning. It's Jimmy and Kim continuing to play the long game in the hopes that it all works out for them. Kim sees the value of a community discussing amongst themselves and formulating an opinion. She knows that minds can be changed over time thanks to one simple suggestion. She knows just how powerful an idea can be. Meanwhile, Jimmy wants to do things in a big, showy way. He thinks he could win his license back simply by being labeled as a hero. If he were to save a well-liked judge from a fire, then that too could be enough to prevail in this conflict. His way is much more imaginative and dangerous. It hints at what's to come over the course of this story. Kim's way is much more practical. Jimmy has to present himself as a law-abiding citizen who is putting in the work to honor Chuck's wishes. That means dedicating a reading room to his memory and actually serving on the panel that will give scholarship money to students with an appreciation and interest in the law. Jimmy can put on a performance in this setting. He can play the grieving family member. Of course, it's not rooted in any kind of genuine emotion that he has felt over the course of this past year. He's just doing whatever it takes to receive his ultimate goal.

But something also shifts within Jimmy while doing all of this work. It comes when he is fighting passionately for the scholarship candidate that he believes deserves this money more than any of the other applicants. He sees a young girl being defined by the one bad thing she has done in her life and not how she responded following that moment. The rest of the panel is willing to write her off completely. That sequence is so telling because the editing highlights how it doesn't matter what these kids say. It's all about the questions being asked of them and what is noted on their resumés. Whomever is the most impressive on paper is going to receive this money. Jimmy sees a story that no one else is willing to notice. When this young girl is denied, he feels the need to reach out and let her know. He sees that as a compassionate act. It's the clarity and explanation that he wanted when he was on the receiving end of a review panel. Those two events happening in close proximity to one another is also very telling. In this moment of him delivering a big monologue, he is talking to himself just as much as he is telling a young girl what she should do next. He is essentially saying that the people in power who are making these kinds of life-altering decisions are never going to take people who have done something wrong in the past seriously. They will always be defined by the worst thing that they have done. In this conversation, it's the girl's past shoplifting. With Jimmy, it's his overall identity that he doesn't deserve to be a lawyer. That was the opinion that his brother always held. It once again seems to be the opinion held by those making the decision as well. He has put in all the effort to show that he deserves this opportunity. He continues to be denied. And so now, he must decide to work harder than ever before to prove them all wrong. He wants to be vindictive and prove that he is even more worthy of a law license than the people making the decision. That's his aspiration now. He just doesn't believe he can do so as Jimmy McGill.

Jimmy wants to put on a performance for the appeal panel by reading the letter that Chuck left him in the will. It's an attempt by him to have an actual reaction to his brother saying everything that he ever wanted to say but couldn't in life. The first time Jimmy read it he didn't have a reaction. He was just completely cold because he knew it was pointless. And now, he wishes to weaponize it. This could be his ticket to getting back into the law because his own brother changed his mind apparently. There is no telling when this letter was written. But it could be very powerful as testimony on Jimmy's behalf. Of course, Jimmy then uses it to go into a completely different statement by making an even stronger appeal to the sentimentality of those on the panel. He proclaims that he can't proceed with the letter any further because it is private. From that point on, he is talking about the complicated relationship he had with Chuck. His brother was frequently the smartest person in the room. He was right more often than anyone else. But he was so demanding and stubborn as well. He had such high standards that no one could realistically meet. Jimmy explains that that's the reason why he was always framed as a disappointment. It's why he still feels broken and defeated now. He can't ever measure up to what his brother did in this profession. But that shouldn't matter because he still deserves to be a lawyer and offer his perspective and expertise to the clients who need it. Jimmy makes this entire speech about appealing to the emotions of the panel even though he starts off by saying he doesn't want to do that. In the end, he gets the entire room swept up in the speech. But that's what makes it so stunning when Kim applauds him for doing so only to be completely surprised upon learning that it's all an act. He's just doing and saying whatever it takes to get his license back. He even deceived her. That proves that this relationship may no longer be as genuine and beneficial as it always seemed. Jimmy McGill is now Saul Goodman. And that's a persona who may not get along with Kim even though she encouraged these antics from him.

Things are equally tragic for Mike's story as well. Sure, his storyline isn't as immense and important as Jimmy's is. It never has been. That has been a struggle for the show because not ever plot thread has been created equally. Mike's story is mostly just explaining how one iconic location was built. But there is still strong value to it because it highlights just how far Mike is willing to go in this partnership with Gus. He knows exactly what this organization is capable of doing. He sees the writing on the wall the moment he realizes that Werner has disappeared from the compound. The German continues to be so disillusioned. He believes he can walk away from this project for four days and return like nothing ever happened. He misses his wife and just wants to see her again. Instead, it's a race to track him down and deal with this loose end before it spins out of control. It sets up a new conflict for Mike. One in which Lalo immediately presents himself as a new adversary. He comes to town just in time to get word of this new secret operation that Gus is running. He is observing everything about this enterprise. He knows it's a big deal when Gus drops everything to see what Mike has to say about the situation. But it also points out just how capable Mike is as well. He notices that he is being followed even when he's trying to figure out which resort Werner has checked into. And then, he is able to create a malfunction within the traffic gate of a paid parking lot. That's so brilliant. But it's also just as significant to see Lalo be able to make quick progress of his investigation as well. Sure, he is much more brutal in his handling of the situation. He doesn't care what happens to the man behind the camera who can provide the security footage. He just wants to know what Gus is up to. And in the end, it seems like the project is on hold. All of the Germans are sent back home. The project is incomplete even though Gale is already imagining the greatness that can be done there. But this isn't a story about their reaction or setting up this new conflict. Instead, it's all about that moment in the desert where Mike takes on the responsibility of killing Werner. He offers to do it instead of Gus' men. He gives Werner the opportunity to send his wife back home so that she remains safe. He wants to give this story a powerful resolution that isn't as tragic as it could potentially be. It takes awhile for Werner to completely recognize the magnitude of the situation. Even when he does, it's still incredibly tragic when he is shot in the back of the head. That too is a very iconic moment for this finale.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Winner" was written by Peter Gould & Thomas Schnauz and directed by Adam Bernstein.
  • Michael McKean appeared in two episodes this season. Chuck's presence hanged over the entire narrative. His absence was also vital to the storytelling because the main source of conflict was suddenly gone for Jimmy. However, I also hope that these episodes are enough to win McKean a well deserved Emmy for his performance. Sure, it would absolutely be a consolation prize for the times he wasn't even nominated. But it would still be just as deserving - especially for his work here.
  • Of course, the entire ensemble has been doing such strong and phenomenal work across the whole season. Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in particular have been tremendous to watch in these episodes. Jimmy's monologues and tragic trajectory are so compelling to watch. Kim's transition into a woman willing to play with the rules was also very satisfying and precarious. But then again, there were a number of other actors who did solid work throughout the many storylines this year too.
  • In the past, it has been easy to say that Better Call Saul is split evenly between the Jimmy side of things and the Mike side of things. They barely have any crossover at all. And now, that was even more apparent this season. Sure, they were going through similar things in their stories. However, they only really had one sit down this season. That was about it. With Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman though, they are bound to have more interactions moving forward.
  • AMC has already ordered a fifth season of the show. With this finale pushing Jimmy into his new identity, it seems like the show is approaching its end game very soon. It will be fascinating to see how much story is left to tell in this universe. That was always the question throughout this season. The fifth will show Saul getting his practice up and running. But is there more story to tell after that? It will remain a very engaging ride no matter what though because the audience trusts this creative team completely.