Meet James "Jimmy" McGill before he became Saul Goodman

By Amanda Michelle Steiner
Updated February 08, 2015 11:15 PM
Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is back – sort of.

Better Call Saul takes place in 2002 – before the events of Breaking Bad – and follows James “Jimmy” McGill before he became Saul. In the series premiere, we met a bumbling hustler with a tragic career who is as motivated by his brother’s illness as by his own desire to succeed at (nearly) any cost.

“Uno” had its fair share of Breaking Bad callbacks, with the final scene especially linking the spin-off to its predecessor in a huge, jaw-dropping way. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

A Cinnabon in Omaha

The last time we saw Saul, he was headed to Nebraska to live under yet another new identity, probably at a “Cinnabon in Omaha,” telling Walt (Bryan Cranston): “It’s over.”

Before embarking upon its central origin story, Better Call Saul opened in the immediate wake of Bad, showing Saul making good on his prediction and working at a Cinnabon in Omaha. In our first callback to Breaking Bad, the process of making the buns was filmed in much the same way as the meth-cooking, with close-ups on the kneading of the dough, the mixers and the actual baking.

Saul, clearly still suffering from a Walter White-induced sense of PTSD, was wary of a customer who seemed like he might have stopped by for something other than a cinnamon bun, but it was a false alarm. Poor nugget.

Later, inside a modest but worn home, Saul pulled an old VHS tape out from its hiding spot inside a shoebox and popped it into the VCR – it was a copy of his old commercials. Better call Saul!

Humble Beginnings

And that, presumably, was the last we’ll see of Saul for a while. Now we turned our attention to James “Jimmy” McGill. Not always the confident, smooth-talking criminal attorney we would later know, Jimmy psyched himself up in the bathroom of the public defender’s office before launching into the courtroom, guns blazing.

His dramatics, however, were not exactly a good fit for his grim surroundings – he tried his best, bless his heart, but his client – who had snuck into a morgue, cut off a man’s head … and then had sex with it – didn’t have a prayer.

In another embarrassing touch, Jimmy returned to his office and had to play his own secretary (apparently a mild-mannered, British woman) when he received a call from new potential clients the Kettlemans.

In another Bad reference, “Uno” also saw a butting of heads between Jimmy and Mike (Jonathan Banks), then a parking attendant at the courthouse. While Jimmy was appropriately cantankerous, he was far from the violent fixer seen in Breaking Bad.

A Potential Client

More than a lawyer, Jimmy is a hustler. That was no more clear than when he met with state treasurer, Craig (Jeremy Shamos), who had embezzled nearly $1.5 million dollars – allegedly – yet was unsure about seeking legal counsel. Jimmy managed to convince him, but a low camera angle – which focused on Jimmy’s nervous, sweaty face as Craig was about to sign the letter of engagement – underlined how eager Jimmy was to land a much-needed client.

Craig’s wife, Betsy (Julie Ann Emery), ultimately stopped the deal from going through, presumably because she’d gotten a read on Jimmy’s desperation.

As Jimmy drove away from his failed meeting, a body hit his windshield. The teen, who we’ll call Tweedle Dum, was skateboarding while being filmed by his friend, who we’ll call Tweedle Dee. Tweedle Dum insisted he was badly hurt, and Tweedle Dee was about to call the cops … unless, of course, Jimmy paid them $500.

Jimmy, no stranger to a con, scared the boys off by telling them he’s a lawyer and warning the boys to be smarter in choosing their marks – Jimmy’s car, after all, is a tragic yellow jalopy that spits out black smoke when the engine turns over.

Hamlin Hamlin & McGill

Back in his tiny office inside a nail salon, Jimmy received a check for $26,000 from the offices of Hamlin Hamlin & McGill. In a moment that was painful to watch, Jimmy ripped up the check and twisted his face in a way that indicated he was only slightly more proud than he was broke.

Jimmy went to confront the man behind the check: Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), who’d sent the money as a payoff of sorts for Jimmy’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who had started the firm from the ground up. Quoting 1976’s Network, Jimmy shouted, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!” As in the courtroom earlier, his dramatics fell flat.

As Howard revealed, Chuck was insisting he was on an “extended sabbatical” and that he would be well enough to return to work soon. Jimmy knew that wasn’t true, and so did Howard. But as long as Chuck didn’t demand to be bought out (to the tune of $17 million), the HHM offices would continue to offer him paltry stipends. While it was clear Jimmy was keen to get his hands on some of that money, his love for his brother trumped his financial concerns.

The kicker? On his way out, Jimmy caught Craig and Betsy giving their business to Howard.

Brotherly Love

The brothers’ relationship was shown most clearly when Jimmy visited Chuck, leaving his cell phone and keys in a mailbox outside Chuck’s home before placing groceries into the ice-filled cooler that serves as Chuck’s refrigerator. We learned that Chuck has a mental illness that makes him concerned about electromagnetics – he calls leaving technology at the door “grounding yourself.”

A good man despite his illness, Chuck refused to cash out because it could liquidate the firm, and he didn’t want the people all the way down to the mailroom lose their jobs. Chuck was adamant he would get better and be able to earn proper money again on his own terms.

Furthermore, Chuck told Jimmy that HHM demanded he change the name of his practice (Law Offices of James M. McGill) and asked his brother, “Wouldn’t you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else’s coattails?”

With so little money left to care for his brother and with no clients knocking at his door, Jimmy’s desperation was palpable, but Chuck assured Jimmy, “Do good work and the clients will come.”

Skater Boys, Revisited

Instead of doing good work, however, Jimmy decided to do what he knew best: hustle.

He tracked down Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum and convinced them to go in with him on a hustle for a $2,000 payday. And why should they? Well, because of Jimmy’s former life as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” who used to wait by a patch of ice and wait for an easy mark. Slippin’ Jimmy’s falls yielded paychecks of upwards of $8,000 – a fortune to the boys who, on their best day, would clear $630. They signed on.

In this case, Jimmy’s marks were Betsy and Craig. He didn’t want to shake them down, but rather to convince them to hire him. After giving the teens the details on the Kettlemans’ car, he urged them to “make it a blue-ribbon special.”

After the set-up, the car sped off, and Saul convinced Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum to follow it – a hit-and-run is a felony, after all, which means a bigger payday.

Another Breaking Bad Callback Makes Us Lose Our Minds

However, the boys followed the car to a modest home that belonged not to the Kettlemans but to a tiny, Spanish-speaking, older lady, who was scared by their shouting and threats of calling the police. They left their skateboarding gear in the yard to follow her into the house, which is how Jimmy found them.

Jimmy knocked on the door and announced himself as the law – which promptly earned him a gun in his face courtesy of none other than Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). Who could forget Tuco(!), the psycho who was Walt’s distributor in season 2 of Breaking Bad and who, more than a little unhinged, beat his associate No-Doze (Cesar Garcia) to death for speaking out of turn?

And that was the moment when Jimmy McGill took his first step toward becoming Saul Goodman.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays (10 p.m. ET) on AMC.