When Better Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking bad, starring Bob Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman was announced. The general reaction was confusion. Breaking Bad was a self contained story and we already knew what happened to Saul, so what’s the point? On the other hand, when you have access to great resources and just made one of the cornerstones of the modern Golden Age of Television then you can probably do whatever you want. And Vince Gilligan’s next show was going to be compared to Breaking Bad anyway. Not only that, but when you’re reengaging the themes of Breaking Bad, you might as well set it in the same universe. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.
BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR YE WHO ENTER FOR BREAKING BAD AND BETTER CALL SAUL
Breaking Bad could have just as easily been called: Toxic Masculinity the Show. The show is about Walter White’s descent into criminality and evil. While Better Call Saul isn’t as focused, it’s still concerned with morality, its relation to criminality and our obligations to others. Walter White isn’t a good person, but he’s ostensibly doing everything for his family. Saul Goodman, or rather Jimmy McGill, is a petty con artist turned lawyer who is trying to do right by his brother. The key difference is that Walter does what he does out of a sense of resentment with a veneer of family responsibility; Jimmy is driven by family obligation and the angels of his better nature. These two characters are markedly different, and their shows are markedly different but their framework isn’t.
Breaking Bad is by and large a rather tight show. This tightness manifests as an exploration of toxic masculinity. Better Call Saul is not as tight, at least not yet, and while it doesn’t deal with something as tight as toxic masculinity, there’s a similar emotional range. It’s hard to separate Jimmy from the Saul we know, the narrative opens with Saul ads after all, but this is clearly a character that has undergone enormous change. Contrast the first few scenes we see in Breaking Bad: Saul casually suggests killing Badger whereas he’s a public defender in Better Call Saul. Saul might be a scumbag, but Jimmy is conflicted at worst. So we’re immediately presented with the question of what caused the change?
Family is important in Better Call Saul, Jimmy and Chuck, Tuco and his abuelita, Mike and his family. In all of these cases, family can be a positive force: Jimmy doesn’t want to let Chuck down, Tuco is protective of his abuelita and Mike wants to ensure financial security for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. At the same time, family isn’t a universal good. Chuck is a manipulator, contemptuous of Jimmy; we can assume that Tuco was abused by his uncle Hector Salamanca, Mike takes up less than legal work to support his family. What makes this interesting is the why. They’re all doing this because they think it’s the right thing.
This brings us to the other point. Not all cops are good, not all criminals are bad. It’s an idea that got played around on Breaking Bad: Walt’s thin justification and Jessie’s impressionable innocence. Here’s it weaved throughout the show in a more subdued way, which happens when you don’t have meth or cartel wars. The law isn’t inherently morally, but helping others and keeping your word is.
These ideas are played with throughout the show, but it’s the season’s climax that carries weight with the revelation of Chuck’s utter contempt and everything that follows. Helping others and our obligations to people are important, but these are obligations built upon reciprocity. Help those who cannot help themselves but repay that kindness with what help you can. Jimmy’s moral failing isn’t telling Chuck to go to hell; it’s in being blunt when you should be precise. Over the season we see Jimmy go from being a lawyer who will resort to scams to get ahead to someone who returns 1.6 million dollars and starts a class-action suit to stop elder abuse. Yet Chuck being revealed to be an asshole and Marco dying are enough for Jimmy to write it all off and embrace Slippin Jimmy. It’s a failure of Jimmy placing too much in a relationship and how he grounds his morality, how he relates to others in the world.
Better Call Saul isn’t as good as Breaking Bad, at least not yet. But Jimmy is a far more compelling character than Walter, as the former’s descent into darkness is more than a step. I look forward in seeing the full descent and if the show does anything meaningful after the events of Breaking Bad. Till next time.