The Long Con of ‘Better Call Saul’

The ‘Breaking Bad’ prequel played on its audience’s expectations until the very end

Over six years and 63 episodes of Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould sought to show us how Breaking Bad‘s supremely cynical, engagingly glib, combatively garish, comic relief meth cartel consigliere, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and gruff, lethal, ruthlessly efficient, remarkably spry if not so limber, Swiss Army knife of a enforcer/fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) became who they were and the complex forces and environments that molded them.

Gilligan and Gould along with their classic noir-infused writers and color-mad, graphics arts sensibility-soaked cinematographers succeeded. Gloriously.

Mostly…

Mike’s path to perdition is the more prosaic of the two and the easier to parse. Although over the course of the six-year series he takes on different roles, from parking lot attendant to cold-blooded assassin, internally Mike doesn’t really change. Painfully aware of his failings, Mike does not need or seek external recognition or reinforcement. Obligation to family keeps him going.

Mike’s major transformation within Better Call Saul results in a rejection of his slow boil self recriminations for past decisions and concomitant slow motion suicide. With O.C.D. sociopath Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)’s aid he learns to accept who he is and his place in “the game”. Thus Mike resolves to play the hand life dealt him as honorably as he can. This is a necessary delusion. Mike’s actions, despite talk of “the game” and limiting the carnage to its participants, still hurts people who should not be hurt and kills people who should not be killed.

Starting with his decision as a young cop to go along to get along and participate in a graft ring, Mike’s life, regardless of his impressive overt professionalism when it came to discrete tasks, is characterized by a series of increasingly bad decisions. The steady drip of poor choices slowly accumulate into a tsunami of consequences. Mike’s late life melancholy emerges in realization of this fact. Mike Ehrmantraut; exceptional cartel enforcer/fixer, pretty good carpenter. Terrible life coach. R.I.P. Nacho and Danny.

Nascent Saul Goodman, Jimmy McGill is a more complex character, less obviously a type. His path to becoming Saul is necessarily less straightforward. The audience comes to Jimmy in Better Call Saul with tremendous goodwill, if not willful blindness. In the grim violent world of Breaking Bad, Saul, with his salmon suits, neon ties, bad comb over and delightfully crass commercials provided much needed momentary comic relief. But the story of how Jimmy becomes Saul couldn’t be an uninterrupted series of laugh lines. Closely scrutinized, the fun aspects of Saul soon fall away. The show leaves the audience to deal with not a uni-dimensional court jester, but yet another depressingly complicated human being.

So how does one become the oleaginous, frantically flamboyant, febrile yet dead inside, indifferent to the suffering you are facilitating, consigliere to a soul sucking crystal meth cartel? Better Call Saul introduces Jimmy as a child. A fraudster informs him of his kindly father’s status as sucker non plus ultra of the neighborhood. So he has to decide, early on in life, whether he’s a wolf or a sheep. He responds by removing a handful of bills from the register and grows up to become small-time, good-time, always looking for love, local con“Slippin Jimmy”. He does this more for the fleeting feeling of exhilaration  and superiority that a successful con bestows than for any pecuniary return.

Some lost years on this path lands him twice-divorced, in jail, and in the debt of much admired older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean). Working as a mail clerk in the law firm that bears his name, Jimmy hatches a plan to redeem himself by becoming a lawyer. This path quickly joins his string of failures when it becomes clear Chuck really wants nothing to do with him.

But Chuck’s betrayal only sets the stage for the coup de grace that severs any hopes of Jimmy sharing the aspirations and functioning in the world of all those schmucks following the rules. Team Jimmy’s  chief cheerleader, third wife, and lifeline to the world of normalcy and functioning moral compasses; femme fatale in spite of herself, the marvelous Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), delivers the final blow.

The initially less evidently but even more deeply damaged Kim at first works with Jimmy’s better angels to guide his behavior. Her faith in him re-enforces Jimmy’s dream of redemption. Then gradually we discover something more destructive, dark and just plain sad behind the attraction Jimmy holds for Kim. That taut blonde ponytail ties down demons. Jimmy provides a portal to the unhealthy world she inhabited with her morally compromised mother so many years ago. To borrow a phrase from classic noir alpha amoralist and serial life destroyer J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success, Kim is “a cookie full of arsenic”. The childlike, clingy, Jimmy has bitten off more than he can chew.

Jimmy discovers that his idealized lover/mother figure is even more twisted than he is. He must face the fact that Kim’s disturbingly sadistic need to torture and destroy upstanding, handsome Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) is stronger than her need to save him. Rubbing golf ball-sized granules of salt in the wound, a newly unstable Kim reeling from the consequences of her actions–Howard’s death–abandons him.

Thus unmoored from any motivation to adhere to society’s norms, Jimmy discards the dust motes that remain of his thoroughly trampled upon inner child. Ensconced in his newly erected temple of justice he goes full Saul. As promised, lightning bolts shoot from those traumatized finger tips. Corruption, suffering, and crime follow. All filigreed with “Look at me! Look at me!” ads, garish mansion, solid gold toilet bowl and individually wrapped power bars for the parade of sex workers that ensure he is never alone. Jimmy’s rejection of the conventional society that rejected him is complete. Our beloved Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad is born.

The purgatorial monochrome life of Jimmy’s third iteration, Gene Takovic, is mere epilogue. Gene is a ghost, Saul Goodman plucked of his plumes alone with his regrets.  Alone with his regrets is where we should have left him. The final episode’s ham-handed last-minute emotional victory and redemption for Jimmy that allows audience favorite Kim to skate because – now she’s really going to focus on public defender work–is more fan service than the hard nosed noir wrap up it deserved to be. The very messy psyches of the Jimmy and Kim characters deserved better than this cozy crowd sourced let’s all feel good about ourselves and have Jimmy rescue Kim denouement.

Then again maybe it’s the perfect ending for Better Call Saul. It turns out Jimmy and Kim pulled their biggest, most successful long con on the audience.

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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

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