Being that “Marco” is Better Call Saul‘s Season 1 finale, this week’s o-ending title bore a bit more import than last week’s (which was “Pimento,” and which referred, yes, to the cheese of choice betwixt a character’s breads). “Marco,” it turns out, alludes to a fundamental character in Slippin’ Jimmy’s (i.e. James McGill’s, i.e. soon-to-be-Saul Goodman’s) past. In fact, Marco is the character with whom Slippin’ Jimmy would often “slip.” When we first get a glimpse of the opening scene’s bluish tint (which has come to represent the past on the show) and subsequently Jimmy’s “I’m younger!” hair/mistake (the show’s other, less successful method for declaring “Flashback!”), we know that perhaps, finally, the flashbacks will come together to explain just why Jimmy went to jail, and thereafter transitioned to the jail of his ostracized existence in Albuquerque. In this vein, “Marco,” written and directed by Peter Gould, ends up exceeding expectations in a manner that beats even the lusty talking toilet for scatological inventiveness.
But before we temptingly skip to the contents of James McGill’s digestive tract — and their key role in the character’s fate — let’s be sure to start at very the beginning, which this episode so interestingly proves is a very good place to start for an ever-lapsing criminal: We open in a bar in the outskirts of Chicago, where Jimmy meets Marco (Mel Rodriguez, or Getting On‘s Patsy), who’s in the midst of performing cheap scams on the drunk and stupid. Jimmy here announces, almost wholesomely, that he’s going to change his life. His brother Chuck got him out of jail, and he wants to make him proud. If you’ll recall, “Pimento” ended with the present-day blowout between Chuck and Jimmy, in which Chuck ruthlessly revealed his disdain for Jimmy’s legal aspirations, along with the fact that he’s been the one ensuring his career would never take off. Jimmy’s sentimental and even hopeful opening in this episode puts Chuck’s betrayal in further perspective. Of course, Jimmy’s partner-in-petty-crime is baffled and upset by the news — “It’s like watching Miles Davis give up the trumpet,” he says. He could have just as easily said “It’s like watching Walter White give up the cook.”
Then this week’s telling credit sequence sleazily sidles its way in; the focal object in this round of credits is a mug that reads “World’s Greatest Lawyer,” falling to the ground and shattering. This hyperbolic piece of kitsch is both a representation of what Saul wishes to become and what his less classy choices preclude; the shattering foreshadows a major declaration at the episode’s close. On the other side of the credit sequence, we’re back in the present (which, let’s not forget, is still Breaking Bad’s past). Jimmy visits Howard Hamlin, who suddenly seems less antagonistic compared to Chuck — and at least frames himself as having acted subordinately under Chuck’s desires to keep Jimmy down. He alleges that if it were up to him, he would have even offered Jimmy a job. Jimmy officially capitulates and gives the Sandpiper case to HH&M and accepts Hamlin’s money. He also passes Chuck’s shopping list on to Hamlin, crushingly revealing how much he still cares about his brother. Hamlin is impressed by Jimmy’s display of responsibility, and possibly horrorstruck at the company’s new burden of attending to Chuck. “I always liked you, Jimmy,” Hamlin says — in a thoroughly unexpected twist — as Jimmy leaves. Jimmy meets Kim in their usual dim parking lot sanctuary and apologizes for having doubted her intentions.
Next, we see Jimmy engaging in what he clearly considers the nadir of his ever-foundering life: hosting bingo at an old age home. As usual, he begins by lackadaisically amusing himself and the elderly with half-assed jokes based on the letters/numbers shot from the bingo machine: “O64, as in, ‘Oh, to be 64 again.'” But then, as he begins to get flustered by the strange chain of “B” balls the bingo machine begins ejecting, we see his inner turmoil begin to surface, projected onto the the machine, whose whirring balls suddenly seem like a swarm of bees — or “B”s — readying for attack.
It recalls a condensed version of the tension created by Breaking Bad‘s episode-tyrannizing fly; Vince Gilligan’s shows have an uncanny way of turning innocuous, buzzing objects into grandiose character revelations. Gradually, Jimmy’s commentary about each bingo ball waxes personal. “B as in betrayal.” “B as in brother.” The machine readies to ejaculate another ball. “If it’s another B we’re going to have a real problem here.” Of course it’s another B. “B5 as in this B thing is starting to tick me off.” “B as in Belize — I’d love to go there but it’s never going to happen; none of us is ever going to levee this godforsaken wasteland…what is it with this place… it’s like a radioactive Georgia O’Keeffe hellscape out there, crawling with coral snakes and scorpions. Ever seen the movie The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a documentary.”
Having riled himself up, he launches himself into the show’s most astonishing moment to date: an old fashioned, confessional monologue — that not only surprisingly works, but exhibits Better Call Saul‘s capacity for absolute virtuosity. In rom-coms, where a character turns out to not-too-sinisterly not be who they’ve pretended to be, they’ll often divulge their true selves in a heartfelt monologue to whomever they’ve duped and fallen in love with. In mysteries or action movies, the villain will often, when finally confronted by the hero, reveal the genius behind his manipulations in a monologue that both clarifies things for the hero (before the villain attempts to kill him) and for the audience.
These speeches often read as lazy exposition on the filmmaker’s part. Here, it’s the opposite. Gilligan could have more easily revealed what he’d been withholding about Jimmy’s past through more flashback (which I don’t think any of us wanted). The key difference — and what makes Jimmy’s monologue not just a mere moment of exposition — is that Jimmy isn’t confessing to anyone who knows or cares about him. He’s confessing to a group of elderly individuals who, apart from being a little frightened by their bingo host’s sudden, graphic outburst, really just want to play bingo. The monologue — too often an overweight form of written revelation — is here mediated by the world’s absolute apathy toward Jimmy. In trying to have his cinematic moment of well-earned dramatics, poor Jimmy merely looks absurd.
Layered on top of those layers of hysterics and indifference, of course, the fact that the centerpiece of the monologue is Jimmy’s story of how he went to jail: Jimmy decided to give a man who slept with his wife (ultimately rendering her his ex-wife) a “Chicago sunroof” — an act people were already speculating about after “Nacho” merely named it back in February. It turns out it’s not too complicated: it’s when you defecate through someone’s sunroof. This alone wasn’t what landed Jimmy in jail with a “sex offender” label: it was the fact that he didn’t notice that the man’s children were sitting in the parked car he Chicago sun-roofed, due to what he claims was an illegally dark tinted window. “One little Chicago sunroof and suddenly I’m Charles Manson,” Jimmy moans.
Because there’s nowhere lower for him to sink in Albuquerque, he goes back to Chicago, where he finds Marco. Like an abandoned and untouched wind-up-toy, he’s in the exact same place Jimmy left him, after what we find out has been 10 years. Jimmy and Marco rekindle and immediately begin conning people again: they start with an elaborate routine about a valuable half-dollar that showcases their criminal chemistry, and then it’s onto a montage depicting Jimmy and Marco’s nocturnal scamming bender; it of course recalls Breaking Bad’s infamous meth cooking montages, for montage, on these shows, seem the chosen structure for displays of peerless expertise. In the episode’s second stroke of unmitigated genius, after the almost-too-long stream of neon and scams, Jimmy is awoken the next morning by a hungover woman who hurls the accusation “You’re not Kevin Costner!” at him. She then confirms to her girlfriend, with whom Jimmy presumably had a threesome, “He’s not Kevin Costner!”
Jimmy seems to take this as a cue to get back to his present, sad life and leave the past he’s revisiting. Before he leaves Chicago, Marco convinces him to do one last con with him — his favorite. The Rolex con, in which Marco is supposed to pretend to be passed out while Jimmy enlists someone to take his watch, convinces them of the watch’s value, then negotiates to let them keep the watch for a “small” sum of money. But when Jimmy and his anonymous new acquaintance “stumble upon” the passed-out fancy-man, Jimmy notices something seems off about Marco’s “unconscious” form — he’s actually just unconscious, sans quotes. Jimmy abandons the scam and calls 9-11, realizing that Marco is in the midst of a heart attack. Before the ambulance arrives, Marco dies, though not without telling Jimmy this has been the “best week of his life.” This, we see, is the one place Jimmy was appreciated, where he was seen as montage-worthily skilled, where his impact on a person was immense. Criminality, we see, was his true home of sorts.
Things begin to look up when Kim calls him with the promise of another opportunity for true white-collar-dom: the Sandpiper case has gotten so huge that another firm is taking it on, and they’d potentially like to hire Jimmy. But as Jimmy is arriving at his first meeting with them, he decides to drive away. He instead pulls up next to Mike’s parking-lot-attendant isolation booth and recalls how they decided not to steal the money the Kettlemans had embezzled.
The episode’s last lines are: “I know what stopped me. And you know what? It’s never stopping me again.” People may gripe about Better Call Saul‘s torpor compared to Breaking Bad, but the action here is in this very abrupt character shift. Walter White spent seasons morally degenerating before he wholly became the heinous Heisenberg. Jimmy/Saul will never be quite so odious, but the fact that the show was able to bring so much emotional weight to his trajectory in this episode shows this series’ propensity for its own form of action: the ability to be steady, slow and calculating until you’d never expect such an abrupt declaration, then the ability to deliver one that, though jarring, makes complete sense.