The saga of Slippin Jimmy aka James McGill, Esq,, aka Saul Goodman naturally attracted the attention of ethics lawyers. Ethically challenged lawyers are nothing new on television but they don’t come more ethically challenged than this character, who we first met in “Breaking Bad” where is served one of the chief catalysts for Walter White’s descent into depravity and death (?). Ethically challenged lawyers are also nothing new to ethics lawyers and one of the best, Nicole Hyland,has given us a great running commentary on a fairly breathtaking catalog of ethical violations that we “Breaking Bad” fans know is only the beginning of Jimmy’s descent into ….Omaha.
And with the conclusion of this season’s run, courtesy of a crane shot of the iconic double line, we know that Jimmy’s actions reflect his choice. We can understand some of the reasons he makes that choice. Perhaps he can attain some success as a lawyer, maybe even some status as an associate or partner with that Santa Fe law firm but he literally flees from that because it can only remind him of the thing that he desperately wants but can’t get: the respect of his brother. There is something broken inside him, something his obvious intelligence, quick wit and considerable charm can’t overcome. We are not really privy to the depth and intractability of his dysfunction until we see him with old and late friend Marco, seemingly his only other friend outside of Kim, the associate at the upper crust law firm HHM.
It’s a tribute to well crafted television that we can suspend our belief and think its real. Even knowing how it ends up, right up until the moment when Jimmy turns around and abruptly leaves the Courthouse, I was rooting for him, for his success with the Santa Fe law firm, for his happiness, for some balm for his soul, only to realize with horror solidified by the brief colloquy with Mike at the parking booth that it was not to be, that it could not be no matter how much I or Jimmy might want it to be.
The world of “Better Call Saul” is, so far, noticeably less bloody than that of “Breaking Bad” but it is bleaker in some ways. Walter White had the pleasures of family and his son, as well as the somewhat more mixed bag that was his brother in law Hank. Jimmy has his relationship with the distant and imperious Chuck, who lives alone and looks like he always has. Chuck’s family is the law firm HHM, as we saw when the staff turned out to applaud his return. Mike has only the debris of a family, his daughter in law, his granddaughter, and the boulder that carries in his soul, the ghost of his dead son, whom Mike killed even before his birth in his choice to become a dirty cop. The only other family we have seen are the Kettlemens, who seemingly normal existence covers up a profound level of denial. Kim, the HHM associate earnestly counting her steps to partnership, is the closest thing Jimmy has to relationship but both of them are so emotionally stunted that the weak hug is the most passion that they can summon. It is the lack of real connection that makes Slippin Jimmy who he is. The only thing that lifts him out of himself is the thrill of the con. While he cares about his clients, that just isn’t enough.
Legal ethics at the surface is about rules and statutes. Deep down it about what makes the human beings we call lawyers tick. All of us see lawyer behavior at all levels of the profession that makes ask “why would she do something so clearly at odds with the rules?” Once we descend below the surface, fiction may furnish us with better understanding of what lies beneath. There are absurdities in “Better Call Saul” that make no sense in terms of rules, chiefly that Slippin Jimmy would even be able to be admitted despite his background and correspondence school degree. But that darkness that is gradually enveloping Jimmy is not unlike the darkness that dwells in every human heart, even perhaps especially the stone hearts of lawyers. Not a real lawyer? As exaggerated as he may be, Slippin Jimmy is all too real.