By Peg Aloi
Having just triumphantly ended its sixth and final season, Better Call Saul could be seen as the story of a man who thrives under pressure while he’s gaming the system.
Saul Goodman is the chosen professional name (“‘s’all good, man!”) of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a fast-talking, risk-taking lawyer who Breaking Bad viewers know as the guy who helps Walter White (Bryan Cranston) launder the drug money generated by his crystal meth empire. Jimmy’s approach to the law is equal parts charisma, rule-breaking, and verbal dexterity. (“Better Call Saul!” is his marketing slogan, plastered on billboards and in local TV ads.) His folksy charm contrasts with his flashy mode of dress and preferred tacky over-the-top office décor. There’s an ongoing motif in the show (a prequel series based on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad) that I have found continually mesmerizing: Saul’s obsession with clothes. There are hints that Saul achieved great wealth working as a lawyer for drug kingpins, financing a lavish lifestyle that bought him a huge mansion with an enormous walk-in closet that would do Jay Gatsby proud: full of a colorful array of suits, shirts, and ties. Of course, there were many pairs of expensive shoes. Clips of a fake documentary TV show called American Greed feature Saul as a once-wealthy lawyer, now missing, whose conspicuous consumption was as shameless as it was hilarious. Interestingly, two drug cartel assassins (the Salamanca brothers played by Luis and Daniel Moncada) Saul encounters on occasion are also impeccably dressed in colorful suits, suggesting an intriguing connection to the lawyer’s presence in this nefarious underworld, where money equals power and status.
For both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, show writers and directors Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould established a distinctive approach to the short prologue sequences that come before the brief opening credits. These sequences ranged from a few seconds to several minutes; they were often instances of foreshadowing, sometimes devoid of any dialogue or human presence. One of Breaking Bad‘s most memorable openings features a few seconds of a pink stuffed animal floating in a swimming pool, a reference to a “debris field,” the result of a deadly plane crash triggered, as we learn by the end of the episode, by Walt’s actions. The tragic significance of the seemingly-innocuous and random image is strategically withheld.
A similar wordless opening for Better Call Saul shows gloved workers (presumably cataloguing the items for law enforcement purposes) meticulously packing away the contents of Saul’s home, including many items of clothing. It’s a fascinating intimation of things to come. We sense the obsessive extent of Saul’s efforts to immerse himself in the lifestyle of a wealthy man who can afford the finest of everything, including multiple designer suits, silk and linen shirts, and fine Italian shoes. We don’t see Saul on the run from the authorities because of money laundering charges, abandoning his house and its expensive furnishings: only the aftermath. We learn that the life he creates next is colorless and dull: managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. These segments are filmed in black and white. Saul’s previous flashy wardrobe is replaced with dull khakis and button down shirts worn by an alter-ego (“Gene”) who lives a quiet and uneventful life. But we learn that Saul, whose career largely consisted of assisting criminals escape the law and jail time, is in fact a wanted felon hiding in plain sight. The flatness of these scenes, where it seems always to be winter, is a dramatic departure from the gaudy colors and gorgeous natural lighting in the Albuquerque settings.
When Gene runs into a former Albuquerque cohort, whom he must convince to stay quiet, he arranges a shoplifting operation that briefly allows him contact with the expensive, fashionable clothing he no longer dares to wear. He engineers an elaborate yet efficient game plan for his confederate to steal thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end goods from the department store in the mall where Gene works at the Cinnabon. The goods include cashmere sweaters, expensive sneakers, linen shirts and designer suits. The plan goes off without a hitch, but Gene deters the thief from repeating the heist. He knows he’s already risked more than he should have. The complexity of characterization here is brilliant. At first, it seems that Saul misses the danger and adrenaline of his old life. But there’s a moment after the heist when he wanders into that same department store and considers trying on a fancy jacket. He strokes the fine fabric lovingly and walks away. He accepts that part of his life may be over for good. For a time, he was a guy who got to indulge his knowledge of, and taste for, fashionable fine clothes. His realization that the past is past is elaborately constructed and flawlessly rendered, a subtle but unmistakable revelation. The creation of empathy is masterful: despite all he’s done, we feel bad for Gene, who had to give up being Saul, who he became when being Jimmy wasn’t enough.
Saul briefly mentions his previous life as Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad, but it’s not until the prequel series that we get this compelling and complex character’s back story. We also learn more about Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who handles security issues for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), king of a meth empire who does business with Walter White. Following how Mike goes from his low-profile job as a parking attendant to running security for one of the biggest drug kingpins in the southwest United States is a wild ride, and Banks is more than up to the challenge. Of course, one thing that’s immediately noticeable about the prequel is that the actors have aged since the end of Breaking Bad. They are playing much younger versions of themselves. Hair and makeup artists can work wonders, but most viewers accept this time-machine conceit with ease, particularly given the agile performances of the actors who have no need of do-over magic.
A number of major characters in Better Call Saul had everything to do with how Jimmy McGill got to where he did: they include his brother Chuck (played absolutely brilliantly by Michael McKean) and Kim Wexler (the phenomenal Rhea Seehorn), his coworker, girlfriend, and sometime law partner. Jimmy works his way up from the mailroom at his brother’s law firm, attends a correspondence school program through the University of American Samoa, and manages to pass the bar exam. Chuck is ivy-educated, successful, and considered a brilliant legal mind: still, he is proud of his little brother Jimmy. and proud Jimmy. But there’s some underlying competition and favoritism issues left unresolved from their boyhood. This tension affects their ability to work together on a professional level; they continually act out (unconsciously) a mostly-unspoken animosity. At one point, Jimmy goes out with friends to celebrate passing the bar, and after a few drinks people start singing karaoke. Jimmy’s a terrible singer but has fun with Abba’s “The Winner Takes it All,” inviting Chuck to join him. Chuck, naturally, sings very well and subtly steals the spotlight, a cruel reminder that he will always “win” in any situation with his brother.
Still, while Jimmy’s style of practicing law may be rather scattershot, there is a charming brilliance to his huckster persona and its knack for turning a profit working with small-time criminals and elderly folks, both of whom aren’t able to pay very much, if anything. Jimmy builds his business in questionable ways, with Kim as his principal cheerleader: she knows he has a good heart. But Jimmy’s unresolved bitterness towards Chuck takes its toll. And, after a strange delusional fixation prevents Chuck from working for years, Jimmy’s willingness to care for his brother seems less about brotherly love than an act of control and condescension. It’s not until Jimmy “breaks bad,” using his status as a lawyer to help the heads of dangerous drug cartels, that he throws himself fully into the dapper-to-the-max persona he relishes. But this comes at a great cost to his personal happiness.
One could describe Breaking Bad as a story of an underachieving genius who, when given the opportunity, blooms when he takes a path of danger and lawlessness. His talent is unleashed — in the service of morally reprehensible ends. In this way, Better Call Saul could be seen as the story of a man who thrives acting under extreme pressure: he works recklessly against the law while using it as a shield. Both Walter White and Saul are power hungry and narcissistic. But White eventually faces the fact that he is a bad person who can never return to normal life. Jimmy McGill discovers that all his attempts to be a bad person fail after he sacrifices his freedom to prove to Kim that he’s capable of doing the ethical thing. These inverse character arcs, archetypal and anti-heroic, are a stunning study in contrast. Walt, once the mild-mannered and cash-strapped family man, is transformed into a monster who drives away everyone he cares about. He dies wealthy but alone. Jimmy, the selfish grifter, is a decent man at heart who loses everything when he agrees to pay the price for his crimes. But, by doing so, he regains the respect of the woman who loves him. In the end, Saul wins.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.