Despite barely being on speaking terms three episodes into the season, Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut have taken many similar, or tellingly opposite, steps down each of their parallel paths towards season two of Breaking Bad. Broadly, both men are employed at day jobs that either misuse or outright waste their specific, highly developed skill sets; both men have close family members who exert incredible pressure on their daily lives; both men are in the process of discovering the role that we, the enlightened audience, know they are destined to play; and, importantly, both men live by a moral code that at once explains their desire to pursue their chosen profession as well as nearly disqualifies them from being good at, or at least typical of, said line of work.
Their divergent moral codes explain the rest of the differences between their actions. Jimmy McGill, aka Slippin’ Jimmy, aka Saul Goodman, possesses a moral code that hews closely to the supposedly ethical beliefs produced by a truly free Capitalist society: that is to say, if someone can convince someone else to do something of their own free will, whether that thing is to pick up an exorbitantly expensive bar tab under false pretenses or join a class-action lawsuit after being solicited to, then that is the right thing and should be allowed to happen. He develops this worldview because he is a more or less good person who possesses the ability to do incredibly bad things, and, since in his experience con men only rob mouthy jackasses, it is possible that crooked lawyers only bend the rules when standing up for little old ladies against national corporations. Hence Jimmy’s perplexity at Kim’s repeated admonitions against his extra-legal lawyering: in Jimmy’s mind, the right thing got done, whereas all she sees is how things will play in court or, worse, at a disbarment hearing. Being a lawyer is a means to an end for Jimmy, while for Kim, practicing law is the end in and of itself.
While Jimmy’s morals are built around his own personality and skills, Mike’s moral code has more to do with traditional ethics. Last season spent a good deal of time setting the audience up to not only sympathize with but cheer for the murder of two police officers by Mike, yet this season has him talking specific grades of violence with his crooked veterinarian buddy, so we know that Mike has a fluctuating level of tolerance for violence. The determining factors seem to be one, the ethical appropriateness of the victim (killing murderers and intimidating drug dealers is okay, but breaking legs for loansharks is a no-go), and two, his own financial situation as determined by the needs of others, specifically his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Mike weighs good and bad like a solipsistic Utilitarian, totaling up the hedons and dolors on his own conscience before acting. The problem is, the equation is always changing: the job that might have been too dirty for him at noon might be perfect at midnight, when the needs of his family happen to be top of mind.
So Jimmy goes through life believing that he’s doing good even when he is not while Mike carries with him the weight of all of his past deeds, good and bad. These disparate worldviews accomany different moral codes, yet we know that both characters will end up in the same strip mall law office. The fun should come from watching how it all plays out, but unfortunately, our knowledge turns Better Call Saul from comedy to tragedy. It makes us sad to watch Jimmy triumph at Davis & Main or make incremental romantic progress with Kim because we, as Breaking Bad viewers, know that neither institution lies in Saul’s future.
For the same reason, we are invigorated by Jimmy’s bravura performance in the interview room down at ABQPD headquarters, during which we get the first glimpse of The Goodman Himself as he successfully mounts his “Squat Cobbler defense,” which is basically the Chewbacca defense from South Park with a lot of made-up euphemisms for cakefarts thrown in (personal favorite? “Simple Simon the Ass Man”). Jimmy’s ability to tell a story works just as well on the audience as it does on the detectives, and the scene is well-staged, with Wormald innocently browsing pamphlets behind the incredulous detectives. But all that glory and success turns sour when Jimmy tries to share it with Kim. “I cannot hear about this sort of thing, ever again, okay?” she says, and when Jimmy replies, “You won’t,” we know that we’re watching the formation of the crack that will eventually result in their split.
By comparison, Mike’s story is downright uplifting. He goes from being a former police officer employed as a parking attendant to running security for a multinational drug operation and taking his granddaughter on playdates. Like Jimmy, he is a square peg currently residing in a roundish hole, but it is telling that Mike’s name remains the same between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, while Jimmy’s does not. Jimmy’s journey to becoming Saul is as much about changing himself as it is about adjusting his position in the world, but Mike already acts like the same old ornery Mike we’ve all come to know and love. His journey is less internal than external, and has nothing to do with his own decision-making: Mike’s values are set in stone and he only changes how he acts when outside forces exert undo pressure on him. His son being killed was enough to get him to leave law enforcement and Philadelphia, and it is beginning to seem like his daughter-in-law’s declining mental state will be the motivation he needs to fully externalize his greyscale morality for his own financial benefit.
* * *
Another gentle parallel can be drawn between Charles McGill and Clifford Main. Jimmy made Clifford into something of a surrogate for his brother when he accepted the job at Davis & Main, and that equivalency came across twice during these episodes. Chuck’s self-abusive piano practice is first contrasted with Clifford’s gentle guitar playing, hinting that the two powerful lawyers are light and dark versions of one another. However, later we discover that their reaction to Jimmy stepping out of line is exactly the same. “Howard told me you were a little eccentric, but he didn’t tell me you were a goddamned arsonist!” hisses Clifford, a line that recalls Chuck’s comparison of Jimmy to a monkey with a machine gun. At that moment Jimmy realizes that the life of legitimate law, and the woman that comes with it, are not his to possess. He puts on a brave face for the evening, but tomorrow morning looms like a hangover.
Really, though, the mesothelioma commercial is all that we needed to know about difference between Davis & Main and Jimmy McGill. “They wanted it kinda nebulous, but not too nebulous,” says Omar of the background swirls, “then there was the issue of the speed.” Jimmy just stares at the ad, perplexed, and we don’t quite know why he stops himself from showing Clifford the commercial before airing it: from the look of that old ad, Jimmy knows that Clifford will object to his commercial because it’s too showy, and yet he knows that it will work, and therefore airing it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately for our hero, Clifford Main's worldview has more in common with Charles McGill's than Jimmy yet realizes. And after all, in the end it will be Chuck, who now leaves his house only to follow Jimmy around like a crinkling hurricane, whose very presence shuts off the power wherever he goes, who Jimmy ultimately defeats when he becomes Saul Goodman.