By Brian Brecker
Elm Staff Writer
“Better Call Saul” has been off the airwaves for close to a year now, and the fourth season is only now starting production. This prequel to the hit show “Breaking Bad” depicts the life of a morally compromised lawyer Jimmy McGill, or Saul Goodman, as he struggles with his relationships with his once-successful brother turned-recluse who claims to be allergic to electricity, Kim, his off-again on-again romantic interest, best friend, and business partner, and his well-mannered boss and competitor who started Hamlin-Hamlin McGill with Jimmy’s brother.
Unlike “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” is slow to the point of several minutes where no dialogue is spoken. There is an overall sense of fatalism to Jimmy’s story due to the fact that the story is told through flashbacks and flashforwards which depicts where this character ends up.
The questions explored in “Better Call Saul” are ones of nature and nurture, with the central focus being, “who is to blame for where Jimmy went?” People in Jimmy’s life, like Chuck, believe Jimmy’s nature is unfixed and he will end up hurting people. Jimmy’s existence is a profound source of anxiety for Chuck, whose psychosomatic illness flares whenever triggered by Jimmy’s illicit activities. This troubled relationship with his brother colors his relationship to others and the patterns of his behavior that double back into morally gray territory despite his genuine attempt to go straight.
The slowness of the story allow us to see the character of Jimmy McGill when he’s alone and not putting on for other people. The audience is given much more subjectivity in their interpretation of Jimmy’s character and his motivations. Past experiences shade our perception of the present. A multitude of variables lead us to do, act, and feel like we do, and often those variables are endogenous.
For instance, one could argue that Chuck’s treatment of his little brother in overprotective and pseudo-parental manner grows increasingly emotionally abusive, leading Jimmy to seek escape from him through a life of conning and scams. Chuck’s constant moral judgments of Jimmy can be seen as harming his attempts to reform his life, as he reinforces the view that Jimmy is a naturally broken person incapable of living a normal life.
One can also side with Chuck, as we see in many flashbacks that Jimmy’s con-artistry predates Chuck’s condition, and likely caused Chuck to develop the bizarre psychological condition that ruins his career, marriage, and life. Put frankly, Chuck cares too much for Jimmy, to the point where he will be driven mad, lie to himself and others, and sabotage his brother’s life to preserve the belief and role that he is Jimmy’s moral center. Despite Chuck’s clearly destructive motivations for treating Jimmy like he does, it is completely understandable why he would object to the things he does.
“Better Call Saul” revels in surprising the audience with complexity and in-depth. The character of Howard Hamlin, one of the top lawyers at Hamlin-Hamlin McGill, is initially set up as an antagonist towards Jimmy.
He is coded as a villain to the audience, embodying the corporate lawyer boss who talks to others like he’s giving a PR speech. Howard is actually a stand-up guy who deeply cares for the health of his company and his employees. As can be seen in recent episodes, when it comes down to the company or his long-time business partner Chuck, Howard sides with the company in a heartbeat. His relationship with Jimmy, a former co-worker in the mail room, is antagonistic occasionally, but also supportive. We are told that he used to call Jimmy an affectionate nickname “Charlie Hustle” for his work ethic.
Kim is also surprising, set up as a do-gooder lawyer, who actually isn’t all that averse to a night out conning with what would become Saul Goodman.
“Better Call Saul” is unique because we already know the destination. Not wondering where the characters will end up leads us to instead wonder why they came to be how they are, which is the brilliant central question of the show. It may come off at times as being overly ponderous and slow, but it’s pace and willingness to deal in murky moral ambiguity that makes “Better Call Saul” such a fantastic character study.
While “Breaking Bad” may be more addictively watchable, “Better Call Saul” is more consistently poignant and heartbreaking. We are not watching a man slowly evolve into a kingpin monster, we are watching a complex human being thrust into circumstances which eventually lead him to becoming a crooked lawyer and the deep-seated psychological trauma that led him to give up on morality.
Like a building collapse, discussion of the causes, blaming, and aftermath occur at once, through flash forwards and flash backs, usually at the pre-title sequence of episodes. Overall, the show is really about potential, the potential to change, its hindrances, the potential for escape, success, and perhaps for that manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, the potential for a new life moving forward.