We first met Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, where he was introduced as a flashy fellow prone to cringe-inducing comedy. But on Better Call Saul we've grown to see the guy formerly known as Jimmy McGill as a likable man of layers, one who often acts out of pain and resentment. It can be a delight to watch Jimmy and his various alter egos pull one over on deserving victims, but it’s also impossible not to root for him to be a better man. Alas, despite his best intentions, he continually gets himself into trouble and hurts the people he loves most.
Better Call Saul often gives Jimmy the opportunity to do the right thing, which he sometimes does — but almost always for the wrong reasons. He’s an addict of sorts, constantly craving the next high that comes with pulling off a stunt or outwitting another chump. Jimmy’s blessed with a charm his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) sorely lacks, but he’s also cursed with an inability to stay on the straight and narrow. And that’s where our hero gets hurt. His murky moral compass is a big reason Better Call Saul is one of the best shows on television — even if he breaks our hearts every damn week. Because we're gluttons for punishment (and we know you are, too), here are some of the most painful Jimmy McGill moments from Seasons 1-4 of Better Call Saul.
Jimmy gets rejected a lot while spinning his various webs of borderline legal nonsense, but seeing a young, optimistic Jimmy have his dreams totally shot down hurts more than almost any other occasion. As Jimmy, Kim, and company celebrate passing the bar exam and the end of their time in the mailroom, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) cuts in to ask for a moment alone with Jimmy. We don’t hear their conversation, but Jimmy’s devastation is clear: he won’t be hired as an attorney at his brother’s firm after all. While we later learn that Jimmy’s brother Chuck was the one pulling strings to keep Jimmy from climbing the ladder and allowed Hamlin to take the heat for it, it’s easy to see why Jimmy’s hatred of Hamlin is so enduring. It’s a short scene, a hazy flashback intended to show us where Jimmy’s bitterness and resentment began, and it packs a helluva punch.
The aforementioned scene hits even harder when followed by this sibling exchange, shared after Jimmy discovers that Chuck has once again got in the way of him becoming the upstanding lawyer he’s always dreamed of becoming. The pain of Chuck’s betrayal is evident in every expression that crosses Jimmy’s face, the look of a broken kid who didn’t want to believe that his big brother — his supposed protector — could do this to him. The discovery of Chuck’s dirty move is painful enough on its own, but when Chuck lets his own resentment take center stage, Jimmy is even more crushed. Chuck can’t stand the idea of them being peers — he doesn’t even believe Jimmy’s a "real" lawyer. When Jimmy chokes out "I thought you were proud of me," it’s enough to break any heart into a million pieces. So much for brotherly love.
When Jimmy is in pain, it’s easy to empathize with that pain, pitying him for the hand he’s been dealt by an uncaring brother and a series of bad decisions. What Better Call Saul does best, though, is break our hearts through our disappointment in Jimmy. Empathizing with him is one thing, but rooting for him to do the right thing only to watch him abandon his moral compass again can feel like a personal betrayal. "Nailed" is one of the most distressing examples of this. He watches from the shadows as his brother has a psychotic break in the middle of a copy shop due to Jimmy’s actions, and when Chuck hits his head on a counter — and his injuries even appear to be life threatening — Jimmy still doesn’t race out. Well, not immediately. The following episode sees Jimmy run in to help get an ambulance there, but the fact that he allowed things to get this bad before stepping in feels like a slap in the face for anyone whose heart rests in Jimmy McGill’s hands.
Even now, the Jimmy/Chuck relationship remains at the heart of Better Call Saul, it has shaped Jimmy into the person he is, a man who doesn't believe he is worthy of love — and often sabotages relationships himself in order to avoid getting hurt. Jimmy is overwhelmed with remorse after deceiving Chuck and watching him break down, and still craves his brother’s affection and camaraderie. He’s desperate to make things right. Even if it means potentially incriminating himself, he wants to clear the air, and he also wants to believe that Chuck will forgive him and put this all in the past. But if we know Chuck, we know it’s not going to be that easy — and knowing the betrayal and consequences ahead for Jimmy makes this genuine attempt at atonement all the more painful.
This scene from "Witness" serves as an explosive continuation of the confession from “Klick,”,another example of Chuck’s animosity towards his younger brother and his ability to get under Jimmy's skin. Odenkirk does some career-best stuff here, throwing his body and voice around the house and filling the screen with an unhinged rage that only Chuck could ignite in him. He’s unknowingly taken his brother’s bait, hurling every cruel insult he can think of his way until it all comes to a screeching halt with the help of Howard Hamlin. Chuck gives Jimmy a look that can only be described as fatherly disappointment, twisting the knife deeper into his little brother’s heart. What a doozy.
Discussions of this scene are most often justifiably focused on McKean’s breathtaking single-shot performance, but knowing that this can all be traced back to Jimmy’s actions makes it doubly torturous. These brothers have chipped away at one another for the entire run of the series, and this exchange serves as a thrilling, tragic climax to their saga. There’s no going back after this one. Now that he knows where they stand, Jimmy is willing to ruin Chuck’s reputation and publicly humiliate him in order to save his own skin. Jimmy knows now that Chuck will never really love him the way he needs him to, and decides to turn the tables, using Chuck’s contempt for him to his advantage. And boy, does it work. With just the right combination of triggers and theatrical displays, Jimmy pushes his brother towards a public psychotic break. By the time Chuck's meltdown reaches its heart-shattering conclusion, no one in the room can brings themselves to look at him. Including Jimmy. He may have done what he had to do for himself, but seeing our leading man pull a stunt this cruel hurts like hell.
“The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” Few things could have cut Jimmy as deeply as this jab from his older brother following Jimmy’s attempt to make amends, and you can see every ounce of hurt on his face as he receives it. Jimmy has no idea this is the last time he’ll ever see his older brother, and he does his best to deliver a sincere apology to Chuck, but it’s no use. They’ve hurt each other too many times and passed the point of no return, doing things that can never be undone. As Chuck demeans Jimmy and tells him that he’s only ever going to hurt everyone around him, Jimmy shrinks and shrinks the way only younger siblings can in the shadow of their elders. It’s absolutely devastating to take in, a rare moment of total vulnerability from our usually showy protagonist. Odenkirk is truly at his best here.
Watching Jimmy tear down his opponents, his brother, and his peers is one thing, but when he takes aim at Kim (Rhea Seehorn), it’s gutting. Kim’s always been in Jimmy’s corner, a voice of reason, a cheerleader, and a human reality check even at when he's at his worst — and here, he allows his ever-flailing ego to get in the way. He’s looking for a fight, and he gets one. The tension that’s been simmering between the two of them all season finally comes to a boil, and Jimmy’s long list of insecurities and feelings of inadequacy are laid bare. He pushes away the one person who truly loves him, and perhaps the only person he truly loves, all because he can’t face his own demons. It’s excruciating to watch.
A karaoke duet of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” reveals one of the only instances of brotherly camaraderie ever depicted on Better Call Saul, and it tugs at the heartstrings in major ways. The two end the evening drunkenly continuing the duet side-by-side in bed, still in their work clothes. It’s a wistful, incredibly affecting sequence, one that leads us to believe maybe Chuck really did love Jimmy, that these brothers had a shot at a fulfilling, supportive relationship. Of course we know that’s not how it turns out, and we know the hurt that’s ahead. Witnessing a carefree, hopeful Jimmy enjoy a moment that will seem like a dream someday? That’s the sad stuff.
Jimmy’s Saul Goodman evolution has always been inevitable, but getting caught up in the emotional whirlwind that is Better Call Saul means futilely hoping that things turn out differently, that he won’t abandon his name — and that he won’t abandon Kim. We may not know what becomes of their relationship in the future, but based on the final scene of Season 4, it doesn’t look good. It’s heartbreaking to watch Jimmy move closer to not being Jimmy anymore, and heartbreaking to watch Kim realize that the man she loves is disappearing and that even she can fall victim to his masterful deceptions. At his testimony, Jimmy easily wins over his audience with an Oscar-worthy performance, even convincing us viewers at home so well that we share Kim’s shock when she learns it was all a show. A show starring master swindler Saul Goodman, a show in which she can no longer take part. True to form, Jimmy throws away his last shot at goodness in the hopes of getting ahead. Ouch.
Here’s to the impending emotional roller coaster that will be Season 5!
The fifth season of Better Call Saul premieres on AMC Sunday February 23rd at 10:00 PM ET.
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Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. She was previously a reporter/producer at Decider and is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.