After the death of Chuck McGill at the end of season three, I didn’t really understand why Better Call Saul needed to keep Harry Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) around anymore, much less allow him to continue on as a series regular. I assumed after Chuck’s death that Hamlin would beat a hasty retreat from the series, just as Chuck’s assistant Ernesto has (where is Ernesto, anyway?)
Hamlin, however, has managed to stick around, and Peter Gould and the writers have quietly played the long game with his character, who has a minor role but an increasingly outsized influence on the storyline. Season four, which came in the wake of Chuck’s death, was basically set-up for what came at the end of this week’s episode, “JMM.” What season four needed to establish, so far as Hamlin was concerned, was two things: (1) To show that Howard blamed himself for Chuck’s death, after having forced him to retire because his insurance premiums went up (never mind that Jimmy was responsible for those increased premiums); (2) To demonstrate that — thanks to a tough love speech from Jimmy — Howard eventually pulled himself out of an emotional black hole, and his firm out of a financial one.
That brings us to season 5, where Hamlin’s appearances have been sporadic but crucial. In season 5, Hamlin is back on his feet and successful, and I think that Hamlin attributes a little of that to Jimmy’s tough-love speech, but also in his own ability to forgive himself for Chuck’s death and move on. But Jimmy doesn’t want Chuck to forgive himself for Chuck’s death, because the only way Jimmy has been able to avoid responsibility for what was clearly more his fault is by allowing himself to believe that Howard was responsible. Jimmy does resent that Howard feels compelled to offer him a job, but Jimmy is more resentful of the fact that Hamlin has managed to move past Chuck’s death.
Crucially, however, Hamlin is also Jimmy’s relief valve at the moment. Jimmy is under an immense amount of strain from Nacho, Lalo, and the cartel, as well as his tumultuous relationship with Kim, and he has no outlet for it. He obviously wants to be honest with Kim now, as a part of their marriage/legal arrangement, but even that feels stressful for Jimmy, who had to interrupt a rare moment of physical affection with Kim to shamefully confess that the cartel has him over a barrel.
Notice how, in that moment, however, that Jimmy was hoping against hope that Kim might surprise him and approve of his relationship with the cartel and the potential money it would bring. He craves approval. He did with Chuck. He does with Kim. Only Howard, his sworn enemy, has really offered it. Howard’s presence, moreover, has allowed Jimmy to be occasionally be Jimmy. Bouncing bowling balls off of Howard’s car, and framing him up with prostitutes are the kinds of scams that Slippin’ Jimmy loves to pull off.
But those moments or relief aren’t enough for Jimmy, and in this week’s episode, Howard’s earnest, nice-guy schtick finally sets Jimmy off, not because the schtick is fake, but because it is genuine. Ultimately, that’s what upsets Jimmy the most: Howard may be a corporate schmuck, but he’s a good person. Jimmy, however, needs for Howard to be a slimy, corporate weasel he can pin Chuck’s demise upon, and the nicer that Howard is to him, the more Jimmy feels guilty not just about his brother’s death, but about putting all the blame on Howard for it.
Indeed, when Howard approaches Jimmy again at the courthouse this week and re-ups the offer, even after knowing what Jimmy did to him, Jimmy loses it.
“Jimmy, I’m sorry you are in pain,” Howard says to him, which is doubly painful for Jimmy because Howard is the only person who sees his pain, including the woman he just married. Jimmy had no other choice but to throw it back at him. “You kill my brother, and you say you’re sorry?”
This is when Jimmy completely loses it. Make no mistake, however. It isn’t about trying to hurt Howard. It isn’t about trying to embarrass Howard. It’s about Jimmy trying to convince himself that Howard is the bad guy, that he really is responsible for Chuck’s death. This is part of a pattern for Jimmy. Whenever he gets too close to acknowledging his own role, he runs from those feelings. The last time, after regaining his bar license by sentimentally acknowledging the influence of Chuck on his legal career, Jimmy ran straight into a new identity. It’s what Jimmy does: He spends much of his time running from Chuck, quieting those memories, chasing away those demons.
I don’t know what role Hamlin has left to play now in Better Call Saul (except possibly as Kim’s future husband), but if Howard has served his purpose, and if he has left the picture, Jimmy will lose his release valve, so that the next time he explodes, it may be Kim — instead of Howard — who becomes his target. Kim already has massive trust issues, dating back to her upbringing. Marriage or not, Jimmy and Kim’s relationship is tenuous and fragile. Kim will not stick around if Jimmy unloads his anger and guilt on her. Howard Hamlin may have been the last shield for their unraveling relationship. With him out of the picture, Jimmy may have no choice but to confront his own feelings. The consequences for his relationship with Kim may be dire.