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Better Call Saul!

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Readers of this site are aware of my great love for Breaking Bad (see here [2] and here [3]). Just about every like-minded man I know who saw the series found the story of Walter White, high school chemistry teacher turned drug king pin, to be as inspirational as I did. Weirdly inspirational, of course. But these are weird times. Walt’s story was not intended to be a glorification of crime (though, well, it does kind of turn out to be). It’s the story of a man becoming a man; becoming what he is. It’s the televisual, inspirational equivalent of Fight Club [4]

But when I heard that the producers were planning a spin off based around the odious but amusing crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk), I was dubious. Again, I found the character amusing. But I didn’t like him at all, and I didn’t see how he could carry an entire series. Plus, no Walt. The spin off covers the life of Saul Goodman prior to his meeting Walter White (and also gives us a glimpse of Saul’s life after Walt).

By the time I actually thought of taking a look at the episodes, I wasn’t even sure if the series had been cancelled. I was halfway expecting it to lay an egg, and I’d heard no buzz about it at all. (But then again, I practically live in a cave.)

Well, it turns out I really should have had more faith in Vince Gilligan, the genius who gave us Breaking Bad. For having now watched all ten episodes of season one of Better Call Saul, I am pleased to report to my readers that it is not only a worthy successor to Breaking Bad, but a fine series in its own right (which could be understood and enjoyed by someone who had never seen Breaking Bad — though it helps in a major way to have seen the first series, as I’ll come to in a moment).

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first episode, however. It was, I believe, by episode three that I realized I was engrossed. (Though I think some of my initial resistance was due to my lingering skepticism, and if I went back and watched the first two episodes again I might feel differently.) Let me explain the premise. The series is set several years before Breaking Bad. We knew from the earlier series that Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill, and that he chose the name “Saul Goodman” in order to sound like a slick Jewish lawyer (something that still gives me a good laugh).

Our Jimmy, we are told, started out as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” a con artist and all-around loser from Chicago. He lives in the shadow of his older brother, Chuck, an extremely successful lawyer with the firm of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill (HHM) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After his brother gets him out of a major problem with the law (which could have sent him to prison for some years), Jimmy relocates to Albuquerque and accepts a position in the mail room of HHM. His brush with incarceration changes Jimmy, and he decides to go straight. But he has no desire to remain in the mail room. Secretly, he puts himself through an off-shore, mail-order law school (an accredited one, nevertheless), and passes the bar on his third attempt. (Nothing to be ashamed of, say my lawyer friends.)

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Jimmy expects that his brother Chuck and his preening alpha male asshole partner Howard Hamlin will hire him. No such luck. In their eyes he will always be Slippin’ Jimmy — though it takes a while for Jimmy to figure out that his brother sees him this way. So, with nowhere else to turn, Jimmy sets up his own law office in a tiny back room behind a Vietnamese nail salon. The office also doubles as Jimmy’s apartment, where he sleeps on the sofa bed and drinks a good deal of cheap booze.

Chuck is played by Michael McKean, in a brilliant performance. (McKean was the odious Lenny of the odious pair “Lenny and Squiggy” from the odious ’70’s shitcom Laverne and Shirley.) By the time the series opens, Chuck has been absent from his firm for several years. For reasons never made entirely clear, Chuck has descended into an extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, with a dash of paranoid schizophrenia. He is terrified of electricity (to which he claims to be “allergic”) and of electronic signals. He is almost completely incapable of leaving the house, and spends hours wrapped in a foil “space blanket,” which is supposed to protect him from electromagnetic contamination. He destroyed his home’s electrical connections, and lives by lantern light, storing food in a big cooler filled with ice. Contrary to what you may have concluded, Chuck is not bat-shit crazy. He is generally calm and capable of carrying on intelligent conversations. And it is clear that the man has a brilliant mind — now going to waste.

Jimmy loves his brother, and spends a good deal of time taking care of him (partly, no doubt, because Chuck’s big house is a lot more comfortable than Jimmy’s room in the nail salon). In the evenings, Jimmy brings him food and fuel and ice and newspapers. By day, Jimmy ekes out a tiny living as a public defender (paid a mere $700 for each case he takes). He checks his messages every day hoping that some clients will come along. They don’t.

(SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen the series, you may want to stop here.)

Jimmy begins to get fed up, and considers returning to a life of crime. He tries to scam a married couple who have stolen more than $1 million from the state into taking him as their lawyer. (These are the Kettlemans — a hilarious portrait of affluent “American exceptionalism.”) But when his scheme goes awry and puts him in the crosshairs of the psychotic Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), who we met in the early days of Breaking Bad, Slippin’ Jimmy is scared straight yet again. Now he throws himself into being a public defender and something amazing happens: he turns into a pretty good lawyer, and realizes it. And, something still more amazing: he turns into a pretty decent guy. A guy who, for example, returns the $1 million stolen by the Kettlemans (long story — watch the show) because it’s “the right thing to do.”

Can this be our Saul Goodman?

And this is why, dear reader, it really helps to have seen Breaking Bad before watching this show — despite the fact that the uninitiated could still enjoy Better Call Saul on its own. We, the initiated, know what’s going to happen to Jimmy. He’s going to turn into the odious but amusing, crooked Saul Goodman. Better Call Saul puts us in suspense: how is he going to get there? How do you turn a good man into Saul Goodman? What happens to a soul to make it Saul? (Soiling?)

Well, in truth, our Jimmy starts out as a crooked loser. But he’s got a heart, and a sense of decency that kicks in now and then. He’s lovable. And he is loved — in the series by his sorta girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a lawyer at HHM and a very appealing and likeable character.

Attentive viewers will notice in the first episode many parallels to Breaking Bad’s set up. A good deal of time is spent making clear to us how much Jimmy’s life really sucks, and how dissatisfied he is. Like Walt, he is placed in humiliating positions. Like Walt, he has to stand by and watch as former associates thrive. And, like Walt, he feels he’s been cheated. Walt was effectively cheated out of his share in the company Gray Matter, and Jimmy feels like he’s been screwed by HHM. In the first several episodes it is made clear that Jimmy is eaten up by resentment against Howard Hamlin. To the point that, when he at last acquires a bit of cash, he spends some of it buying a tailor-made replica of one of Hamlin’s suits, then has himself photographed in it for a billboard advertising “The Law Offices of James M. McGill,” even ripping off HHM’s logo. Oh, and then he has the billboard placed on the route Howard takes to work.

Jimmy reminds me of Mr. Mundy in The Fountainhead, who asks Howard Roark to build him a replica of “the Randolph place”: the mansion of some upper crust snobs Mundy was in awe of when he was a poor boy in Georgia. Roark tries to dissuade him patiently, but a bit too honestly:

“Don’t you see?” Roark was saying. “It’s a monument you want to build, but not to yourself. Not to your own life or your own achievement. To other people. To their supremacy over you. You’re not challenging that supremacy. You’re immortalizing it. You haven’t thrown it off — you’re putting it up forever. Will you be happy if you seal yourself for the rest of your life in that borrowed shape? Or if you strike free, for once, and build a new house, your own? You don’t want the Randolph place. You want what it stood for. But what it stood for is what you’ve fought all your life.”

Our Jimmy exhibits some seriously weak character, folks. Weak and infantile in a big way. And though Jimmy is likeable and, as I’ve said, sometimes actually decent, he is not a strong man. Ultimately, he cannot resist the darker nature within himself. Ultimately, he becomes not Slippin’ Jimmy, but something much more extreme, Saul Goodman: the Alberich of Albuquerque.

When he thinks he has another shot at getting a job with HHM, Jimmy finds out that his own brother has blackballed him. When Jimmy confronts Chuck, the latter is finally frank with him: “You’re not a real lawyer! You’re Slippin’ Jimmy. The law is sacred. With you it’s like handing a machine gun to a chimp. People don’t change.” It’s a devastating scene (one that actually gave me a nightmare the evening after I saw it). My immediate reaction was to side with Jimmy and to resent Chuck for his injustice. Until I realized the next day that Chuck is right. People — most people — don’t change. They are too weak to change. And we know already from Breaking Bad that Jimmy doesn’t change (or, if he changes, it is for the worse). Certainly, it can be argued that Chuck’s lack of faith drives Jimmy to become Saul. But the obvious answer to this is that a strong man would say “fuck you” and prove him wrong.

Instead, Jimmy’s “fuck you” is, once more, of the Alberich variety. His “I’ll show you! I’ll show you all!” moment consists in becoming not just what Howard and Chuck see him as, but rather an astonishingly worse version of it: a buffoonish, tasteless caricature of a crooked, ambulance-chasing shyster. And a Jew. (Again, just like Alberich!)

By the final episode of season one, it seems Jimmy is just on the verge of becoming Saul. And I will admit to being somewhat disappointed with the rapidity of this transformation. I kind of like Jimmy. I don’t know if I can like Saul. But I’ll reserve judgement until season two.

The major difference from Breaking Bad should now be obvious. The earlier series gave us an imperfect character with whom we could identify, and who inspired us. This series gives us a very imperfect character with whom we can sympathize (up to a point), but with whom we can identify only in so far as all of us, from time to time, have been weak. But I can’t be inspired by Jimmy, and the Saul of Breaking Bad never inspired me. If Better Call Saul is going to become a great show, it probably won’t be because it’s inspirational. The saga of Saul will, I predict, provide us with suspense, and frequently make us cringe. But it may turn out to be nothing more than what Breaking Bad isn’t, but what a square and a prig might take it to be: a cautionary tale.

Nevertheless, these ten episodes are compelling. And I highly recommend them. Stylistically, they are very much like Breaking Bad. If you enjoyed the wry humor, visual style, solid acting, and solid storytelling of Breaking Bad, you will like this show a lot. And I have said nothing about one of the series’ major assets: it also tells the story of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), my favorite character from Breaking Bad, after Walt. Mike is everything Jimmy/Saul isn’t, and it may be his character who provides the inspiration here. Indeed, he may just steal the show.

And now for something completely predictable:

You better watch Saul.