Saul, I think I love you
Wenn, Jeff Schear/ Getty Images
Obviously I was a huge Breaking Bad fan, and as much as it stressed me out, I miss writing the recaps as it made my love for, and understanding of, the show that much deeper.
But I wasn’t super excited about Better Call Saul; a prequel spin-off seems like it was just a disaster waiting to happen. Sure Saul the attorney was an entertaining recurring character, but he was also over-the-top and a convenient way to push the narrative along. Although he wanted to be a consigliere to Walt/Heisenberg, we know now that Walt worked alone; he involved Saul as a co-conspirator in his devious plans, but didn’t let him have much input.
Saul was entertaining, but I didn’t think he had the depth and inventiveness to warrant his own show. Three episodes in, let me say this: I am a dumbass and was completely wrong. Saul is deep, yo.
First, let’s start with the feel of the show – it’s very similar to Breaking Bad in both look and pacing. It’s quick moving, the vast desolation of the desert is laid out in Technicolor, and the thin line between the have and have-nots is perfectly framed in the cars and homes of Albuquerque.
The series is set 6 years before Saul Goodman meets Walter White; Saul is Jimmy McGill, an attorney scraping together a living defending guilty clients. He’s creative and bombastic, and he’s mostly on the right side of the law (he has tricks, but they aren’t dirty).
Saul is played by Bob Odenkirk – can I call a veteran actor a revelation? I’m going to. From the opening scene, when the current-day “disappeared”, Saul sheds a tear over his former life, to his love of spinning his own Slipping Jimmy mythology, to his gentle desperation when trying to reason with his ill brother, Bob is in every scene, adding nuance and humanity to someone the world is supposed to laugh at -- an ambulance chaser in a cheap suit.
Jimmy’s hunched posture and bubbling frustration certainly has shades of Walter White. Both men are smart, and logical. They’ve each chosen noble professions, yet there is a strong current of underachievement, a constant whiff of failure in the air. Walt is a high school teacher (who could have been a celebrated and wealthy scientist) and Jimmy is a lawyer that works on desperate, can’t-win cases and markets himself on a matchbook.
Suffering the grind of incessant, systemic humiliation – Walt from the students who come into his car wash, Jimmy by the sadistic parking attendant (hi, Mike!) and tiny paycheques, they navigate the world skittishly, just waiting for the next schoolyard bully to appear. And they are both dead broke, stuck in a hand-to-mouth, lower middle class cycle of desperation.
Walt has a macho and abrupt brother-in-law Hank, while Jimmy McGill has a troubled and gently moral brother, Chuck, who was once a prominent and successful attorney. What Hank had – the respect of his colleagues, a little bit of hero shine, Walt didn’t. And what Chuck could lay claim to – the impressive boardrooms, the endless breakfast Danishes, $17 million share in a prestigious law firm – highlights what Jimmy doesn’t have.
And of course both men transform, Walt to Heisenberg and Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, but there is a key difference here because while Walt is assuming a sinister alter ego, Jimmy is simply honing aspects of his personality. Slipping Jimmy (the con-artist nickname Jim earns from premeditated, opportunistic sidewalk slips in his youth) becomes Saul Goodman, someone whose creativity and circumstances nudge him further and further over the line of acceptable, legal behaviour.
Where they differ is Saul’s inherent squeamishness with murder, kidnapping, and general thuggery. He’s spooked by it, not invigorated like Walt had been. There’s a reluctant goodness that Saul carries around – sure he may throw tantrums, but he’s not violent. When jilted, Walt would light a BMW on fire. Jimmy just shoulders on to the next case, the next bad cup of coffee, the next sh-tty paycheque. And every time he says, “It’s showtime!” in the mirror, he believes it. Jimmy’s an entertainer who is working open mic night to half-empty seats every time he steps into the courtroom.
It’s quite astounding that the writing team can make the journey of Jimmy to Saul exciting, even though we know he ends up in Nebraska working at a food court, a sort of criminal’s witness protection program. Vince Gilligan and his team are being so careful and thoughtful with this show, it’s like the entire time Saul was Breaking Bad’s secret weapon and they knew that. I was always focused on Jesse. How did I not notice that Saul was the favourite son?