Better Call Saul and why we’re good, man:

By the end of the remarkable first season of Better Call Saul, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have crafted an incredibly confident first season of TV showcasing the many things […]

By the end of the remarkable first season of Better Call Saul, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have crafted an incredibly confident first season of TV showcasing the many things that made Breaking Bad one of the most indelible dramas of the last 15 years while finding a fascinating new angle on the morality play they started all the way back in 2008 by reversing the polarity of its protagonists.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White was a creature of pride. Someone whose motivation is seemingly sympathetic at first, but with time, we come to understand that what’s driving him is not the idea of protecting and helping his family, but to satisfy a darkly prideful heart that has consistently fueled impulses that landed him in a difficult economical situation but with no way of satisfying his desire to be recognized for the singular genius that he considers himself to be.

Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill, on the other hand, is someone who genuinely wants to be a good person and to move past his background as a petty criminal. But at the same time, it feels like none of the people around him buy into that, whereas with Walt, people have a hard time believing that this mild Southern chemistry teacher harbors such terrible desires. In effect, Jimmy spends more of the first season of BCS constantly ignoring the devil on his shoulder after having a brief brush with the possibility of bringing back his conman days turn into a catastrophe involving broken legs, drug dealers and an elderly lady.

Better Call Saul is a continuation of Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan’s obsession with the source of morality. In this illuminating interview, Gilligan and Gould recognize this and discuss the broader implications of these interests. At the core of it, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are set in worlds not unlike our own yet they also feel highly off-kilter. The reason for this is clear, as in these shows, the hand of the writer is clearer than in most settings*. And where in most shows, it would not work, Gilligan and Gould are confident in their belief that these two morality plays necessitate forcing the characters into situations where their moral mettle must be measured so that we can find an answer.

It is a testimony to the writers of this show that they fundamentally understand that the reasons why we’re good to each other are legion. Some of us like to be self-righteous and use our good actions as a way of gaining status among our peers. These are people who use seemingly good actions in the name of self-interest and maintaining a particular image. This kind of person is exemplified by Chuck McGill, a man who is willing to go to court against fraudulent corporations in the name of justice but that, when he sees Jimmy, he sees him as beneath him.

Others, like Jimmy, see good as penance. Jimmy has sinned. He has consistently hurt people in his life pursuing his passion for grifting alongside his best friend, Marco. By the time Better Call Saul begins, Jimmy has consistently struggled with the idea of doing right by others and sacrificing his own well being to play fair. He has worked consistently as an underpaid public defendant, he has taken care of his brother, who has fallen ill to a largely psychosomatic disease and for all of his troubles, he still gets dismissed as a huckster or a conman. He’s “the sort of lawyer guilty people hire”, as his potential clients, the Kettlemans tell him after they try to bribe him and he still desperately tries to go above board and convince them to disguise the payment as a retainer instead.

And yet, it doesn’t matter how much Jimmy tries to help others and behave according to a higher moral code. The people around him don’t give him a chance and most of them have legitimate control as to how much he can progress towards his goals of being legit. Hell, by the end of the first season’s 10th episode, we learn that not even his brother sees in him a possibly good lawyer. He sees his degree as laughable and his effort and experience as inherently tainted by his past. The people around him who are not familiar with his past as Slipping Jimmy can see his past written in his face and his future as a fraud written in stone.

In a way, Better Call Saul’s interests are incredibly refreshing and they share a familiarity with another show featuring Bob Odenkirk: Fargo. Both shows have an inherent interest in the idea of what makes us behave nicely towards each other. And both shows approach the matter with little to no cynicism, without being intellectually or emotionally dishonest. By the end of BCS, it’s clear that Jimmy has been a legitimately good person looking out for others because he hopes for a reprieve from the things he’s done. He feels he has been given a once in a lifetime chance to stop hurting the people in the city of Cicero, so he intends to do the best he can do to improve his life by way of improving the lives of others.

And yet, by the end of Better Call Saul, and after years of self-sacrifice and devotion to helping people like his brother or his ex-girlfriend, Jimmy still can’t seem to get the means to survive. He has meaninglessly sacrificed everything and passed on at least one legitimate opportunity to get rich fast just so that he could keep being the person everyone around him expects him to. And by the end Jimmy just can’t help ask himself “why?”. Why all of the grief and the pain and the sacrifice? The answer is the one that we have been chasing since we built morality alongside civilization. For many different people, it changes. If it was my turn to answer, I would say it’s because, for a while, Jimmy understood that there’s no point in living in this planet if we don’t leave something behind us. Something that works as a reminder that we were here. And while we were here, we didn’t stop thinking about the people who we shared this space with.
*: Look no further than the coin toss scene in Breaking Bad, where Skylar visits the Four Borders of New Mexico and tosses a coin several times, trying to figure out where to run away from Walt. The coin, with no exceptions, always falls without the margins of her state-wide prison of New Mexico as if some bigger force in the universe was begging her to leave. She refuses, sealing her fate in a way not too dissimilar to Walt letting Jane die or Jesse killing Gale.