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Tragic, Cautionary—and Thrilling

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books and culture

Tragic, Cautionary—and Thrilling

Better Call Saul takes its final lap. August 12, 2022
Arts and Culture

This week, AMC’s crime drama Better Call Saul is crossing the finish line, ending its run after six seasons of acting, pacing, and low-contrast camera work that’s been nothing but stellar. Along the way, it has garnered seven Emmy nods, and with one episode to go, it seems that the show’s cast, showrunner Peter Gould, and writer and co-creator Vince Gilligan are primed to go out on a high note.

But for all the excitement, Better Call Saul—a sprawling prequel that ends where the Gilligan-created Breaking Bad begins—tells a tragic and cautionary story. It casts a timeless verdict on human nature, victimhood, and personal responsibility. That it does so with devilish style, touches of Western and film noir, performances from stars Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn (among a murderer’s row of acting talent) that complement Bryan Cranston’s extended tour as Walter White in Breaking Bad, and in an era chock full of woke melodrama, is even more impressive.

Like The Godfather: Part II, Better Call Saul makes the near-impossible look easy. In mining but not leaning too heavily on the settings, backstories, and supporting characters of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul crafts its own brand of potent character drama. In showing us how Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill slowly becomes crooked lawyer Saul Goodman—while providing a backstory for Breaking Bad’s shadowy archcriminals—it achieves a balance of which few prequels are capable: honoring the details of its predecessor while deepening themes and characters in surprising ways.

The show does this so well that by seasons four and five, the looming question of what happens to main characters who don’t appear in Breaking Bad (which picks up where Better Call Saul ends) rises to a kind of Hitchcockian dread. We’re reminded that, in the right hands, and with what amounts to superb, Aristotelian plot structure, stories that we know the ending to can be deeply satisfying.

Even more than Breaking Bad, the prequel examines motivations and past lives and how they drive people to justify immoral choices. While Breaking Bad rarely strays from one story arc—that of broke, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher Walter White rising from amateur meth cook to legendary drug lord HeisenbergBetter Call Saul weaves several together. Scenes pivot between newbie lawyer Jimmy McGill, his older, overachieving brother Chuck (played with brooding perfection by Michael McKean), and his sharp confidante Kim Wexler (Seehorn). Beside them, in the criminal sphere that characters casually call “the game,” we follow various outlaws working the drug racket: Gus Fring, a methodical, revenge-plotting kingpin who works by day as a sharply dressed fast-food chain owner; Mexican cartel dons; and Mike, a grizzled ex-cop, who moves to New Mexico for family reasons but finds purpose working in Gus Fring’s outfit.

While the cartel storyline forms a subterranean half of Better Call Saul, the other half—filled with lawyers, cops, senior citizens, and petty criminals—hums along on the surface. Here, Jimmy’s the linchpin, a character who, after a bizarre encounter with a cartel captain in the first few episodes, keeps a foot in both worlds.

Jimmy’s also our Dr. Jekyll. He’s a younger, healthier version of Saul Goodman, the criminal accomplice who helps Walt and Jesse launder meth money in Breaking Bad, and nearly stole the show. Loved and hated for his courtroom trick shots, his schmaltzy persona, and his offbeat, frequently morbid suggestions, Saul is every criminal’s best friend. Rich off a solo legal practice that knows no scruples, he suggests murder in prison and money laundering as casual solutions.

Jimmy’s inevitable transformation from affable corner-cutter to legal consigliere is the show’s hook, the reason that fans tuned in for the 2015 premiere in record numbers.

In the first episode of Better Call Saul, Jimmy has a long way to go. But we learn that Saul’s origins lay in “Slippin’ Jimmy,” the street name Jimmy earned as a young con artist known for slipping on icy storefronts to extort cash.

We also learn that Jimmy came to New Mexico when his brother, Chuck, rescued him from legal trouble, giving him a job at his white-shoe firm H.H.M. Chipper. Ambitious, and eager to impress Chuck and rising intern Kim Wexler, who works beside him in the mailroom, Jimmy earns his law degree through night classes from the University of American Samoa. But where Jimmy’s determined to put his past behind him, “Slippin’ Jimmy” lingers, making Jimmy’s gradual slide into Saul Goodman more plausible.

Knowing that Jimmy’s fallen nature prevails in the end makes his struggle against it compelling to watch. Scrappy and hardworking but outgunned by achievers like Chuck, Jimmy wins us over from the start. We watch as he hustles, building his law practice with nothing but a cellphone, his knock-off law degree, and a Suzuki Esteem that belches soot. Between answering phone calls in a soft falsetto as his own “secretary” and arguing hopeless cases as a public defender, Jimmy sleeps in a rented office in the back of a nail salon. He commiserates with Kim over a shared cigarette and runs errands for the house-ridden Chuck, who, though a brilliant lawyer, copes with his divorce by convincing himself that he’s allergic to electricity. When Jimmy pitches his legal service to a couple accused of embezzling public funds, they laugh at him.

“You’re the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.”

Saul Goodman will eventually prove them right.

Unlike Breaking Bad’s jarring pilot, Better Call Saul heats things up in a slow boil.

Despite some momentum helping senior citizens with their wills, and even after enlisting Chuck and his firm for a class-action lawsuit against a crooked retirement home, Jimmy’s old tricks come in handy. He cuts corners because it’s useful. When he dredges up “Slippin’ Jimmy” and wows Kim by swindling an obnoxious stockbroker, she’s thrilled, and they spend the night together.

When Kim starts a solo practice and finds herself in a tug-of-war with Chuck and a senior partner over a mega-client bank, Jimmy commits a felony to help her out. Thinking he’s scoring one for the underdog—unlike Chuck’s bigshot firm, Kim needs this client to survive—Jimmy tampers with documents to make it look like Chuck fumbled his own client’s paperwork. In retaliation, and knowing exactly how Jimmy covered his tracks, Chuck tricks his brother into an offhand confession, recorded on a cassette tape. When Jimmy breaks into his house to steal the tape, Chuck presses charges, telling Jimmy that cooperating with the punishment will make him a better man.

Ever the prude, and jealous that his parents favored the prodigal Jimmy over him, Chuck tells himself that ending Jimmy’s law career is a noble and necessary punishment. “I love my brother,” he rehearses, preparing for a showdown at the bar association. “But the law is too important.”

Chuck’s not entirely wrong, but he’s in step with Better Call Saul’s thematic artery—justifying cruel and immoral actions with a partially true pretext. In any case, his plan backfires. At the bar association hearing, just as Kim and Jimmy planned, Chuck’s decision to go to war becomes his downfall.

“I am not crazy!” he bellows to the panel. “I know he swapped those numbers. I just, I just couldn’t prove it. . . . He’ll never change. Ever since he was nine, always the same. Couldn’t keep his hands out of the cash drawer. But not our Jimmy. Couldn’t be precious Jimmy! Stealing them blind. And he gets to be a lawyer? What a sick joke! I should have stopped him when I had the chance! And you—you have to stop him!”

Where Chuck melts down like a spent reactor, Jimmy hardens. In a brief scene with Chuck’s ex-wife, we glimpse pride, wrath, and resentment lurking beneath his outer shell. When she asks him why he’s celebrating rather than going over to check on a shattered Chuck’s well-being, Jimmy stonewalls.

“He’s your brother,” she scolds.

“Not anymore.”

He’s mentally ill. What’s your excuse?”

While Jimmy’s turn to cruelty shocks us, it only ratchets up the stakes. Especially when the upstanding Kim Wexler—who doesn’t appear in Breaking Bad—rallies to his side. Ignoring frequent warnings, Kim builds a relationship with Jimmy while denying who he really is. When Jimmy’s talents put him in the orbit of murderous cartel leader Lalo Salamanca, she dispels her horror with a flimsy appeal to moral neutrality.

“As long as we’re honest,” she insists. “As long as we share everything.” Soon enough, and in tandem with Jimmy, she’s scamming people for the thrill of it.

In the show’s final act, Kim embroils Jimmy in a plot to destroy another character’s reputation. But when their elaborate plan intersects with an all-out drug war, innocent blood spills. While the moral reckoning devastates Kim, ending her law career and forcing her into a stunning recognition of what she’s capable of, Jimmy learns nothing. By the time she leaves him, he’s Saul Goodman, fully formed.

Better Call Saul doesn’t buy for a moment the fashionable notion that, but for corrupting or oppressive external influences—economic, political, racial—people and their motives are basically good. It insists that, regardless of our social status, we’re responsible for our choices, for the consequences that flow from them, and for who we become as a result. Fittingly, for its somber assumptions about human nature, the show’s visual palette is dark and shadowy, with stairwells, parking garages, and even a large house stripped of all electrical lighting (Chuck’s house, of course). As the show concludes its final lap, it reminds us again that there’s no knowing, and no flourishing, without struggle—usually against ourselves.

Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage

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