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Dispatches from the present


Portrait of the Scam Artist


The past few years have seen a glut of television about scams and scammers. Miniseries like The Dropout, Inventing Anna and WeCrashed represent post-Peak TV at its laziest, each dull and torpid episode ripped beat for beat from its respective intellectual property (tell-all books, or, more recently, investigative podcasts). Most damningly, these shows share a glaring incuriosity about the psychological dimensions of scamming: the built-in narrative arc of a scam, with its rise and inevitable fall, translates so well to TV that the question of why characters engage in colossal grifts apparently need not be reckoned with. But where based-on-a-true-story series have invariably failed in this regard, a contemporaneous fictional drama—Better Call Saul, which concluded its six-season run on AMC last month—finds its beating heart in dissecting the psychology of a scam artist.

Better Call Saul tells the story of Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defender who will eventually transform into a criminal mastermind and amigo del cartel named Saul Goodman (this was his role on AMC’s previous hit, Breaking Bad). Jimmy has a penchant for elaborate schemes. He climbs a billboard tower to fake a heroic rescue that will earn his floundering solo practice local publicity; he spreads ground-up radioactive beads in the dirt around a client’s property to trigger an inspection that will delay his eviction. He bends the rules, then breaks them, with a flair for the dramatic as boisterous and colorful as his many shirt-and-jacket ensembles.

Why does Jimmy scam? This is the central question of the show. According to Chuck, Jimmy’s arrogant, obsessively straitlaced older brother, he can’t help himself: it’s an innate and uncontrollable drive, evidenced from his youth spent hawking fake Rolexes and dipping into the cash drawer at his father’s convenience store back in Cicero, Illinois, where he was known as Slippin’ Jimmy. But throughout his travails, the show appears to offer an alternative hypothesis for Jimmy’s behavior—that he isn’t a scam artist, but an artist whose medium just happens to be scamming.

Through dozens of highly stylized montages—the show’s signature formal motif, akin to the dream sequences of The Sopranos if perhaps more enrapturing—we see how the sausage gets made. While the show deals primarily in a bleak emotional palette, these montages supply a welcome contrast: they are irrepressibly joyful, full of gorgeous cinematography and direction that mirror Jimmy’s staggering attention to detail—each cut rhythmic and precise, the moving pieces recombining kaleidoscopically before eventually falling into place. But they provide more than fun and visual splendor; they show a craftsman at work.

Take, for example, a montage from the second season in which Jimmy doctors files stolen from Chuck’s study, altering a key address: 1261 Rosella Drive, changed to 1216. Over the slow beat of English alt-rock, we see him hunched over his station at a local copy shop as he assembles his materials: ruler, glue stick and scalpel. The camera zooms in for a point-of-view shot as he lines up his scalpel with the ruler, then cuts to faraway glimpses from different angles; from the front desk of the copy shop or through the window, overlaid with the green glow of the copier. Another close-up: the two cut-out letters, 1 and 6, sitting on the business end of the glue stick. Jimmy’s face scrunched in concentration as he holds his copies to the fluorescent light of the shop, appraising his work. Then the montage breaks into time-lapse as he repeats the process over and over, pacing from the desk to the copier, lining up the ruler, splaying out each set of documents on the table in quick succession. Occasional shots of his face betray complete engrossment, like that of a painter mixing hues, or a violinist practicing arpeggios. It’s granular, mundane—and somehow, irresistibly captivating.

Rather than a crime drama in the vein of the Scamming Show canon, Better Call Saul is perhaps best understood as an unlikely Künstlerroman—the story of an artist coming into his own. As Jimmy levels up from working in the back room of a nail salon to courting cash-flush criminals, his palette expands, and his virtuosic imagination and commitment to the craft swim into focus. As for why he scams—well, why do artists create? In popular culture, the artistic genius is presented in terms at once romantic and existential: he is driven by a burning desire to impart himself on the canvas; he creates because, without the work, his life is not worth living. Jimmy scams for the love of the game, and as a means of self-expression, but also because the criminal world recognizes his genius in ways that Chuck and his ilk cannot, or will not.

There is, however, one person on the straight and narrow who recognizes the beauty of Jimmy’s creations: his girlfriend and eventual wife Kim, an ambitious and savvy associate at Chuck’s law firm. Early in Saul’s second season, Jimmy peacocks for her by conning a douchebag stockbroker into buying them an expensive bottle of tequila; to his surprise, she gamely plays along. While initially troubled by his willingness to skirt the law, Kim becomes enchanted by his ever-more-inventive ploys. She is Jimmy’s muse, and eventually his co-conspirator, the Ulay to his Abramović. She’s smart enough, or perhaps stupid enough, to rationalize their behavior in morally righteous terms: they use their powers to stand up for the downtrodden, to take the greedy and corrupt down a peg in a world where no one else will. But when the camera cuts just in time to catch the glint in her eyes as Jimmy pitches fresh new schemes, her true motives are revealed.

In the first half of Saul’s final season, Jimmy and Kim embark on a joint scam—all scruples long since abandoned, they devise a magnum opus, its towering scale a testament to their abilities as well as their love. They do not know that its outcome will end their marriage, that their actions will inadvertently lead to the scheme’s victim bleeding to death on the floor of their living room. They do not know that this is the beginning of the end. All they know is that the rush of a grift, exquisitely designed and perfectly executed, feels as paramount as the blood pulsing through their veins. For Jimmy and Kim, scamming is creation—and what is creation, if not an act of love?