A Brilliant Calling: Better Call Saul

A look at the brilliance of the Breaking Bad spin-off at the mid-season finale

While Better Call Saul is not and has never been solely Jimmy’s (Saul’s) show, to limit the length of this review the emphasis has been put on his personal storyline. In regards to context the review assumes readers are already familiar with the show.

This review contains massive spoilers for seasons 1-6 of Better Call Saul.

“It’s showtime, folks.”
Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have created something remarkable. Better Call Saul is not only a welcome sequel to long-gone and long-missed crime drama series Breaking Bad.
While being pally with Walt and company will certainly give you opportunity to point at your screen with high-pitched utterances of delight at the flood of both subtle and obvious BB-references, the world surrounding Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, is truly a show in its own right.
From its signature language – visually, with its colourful montages and coffee-cup perspectives, as well as verbally, with its unmistakable tone that is a mix of Tarantino-esque wit and heart-felt truths – to its ability to balance suspense with the relatable absurdities of everyday life, its humorous originality (“Hoboken squat cobbler,“ anyone?) and, not least, the incredibly intrinsic plot chain of causality that leads to life-altering choices, Better Call Saul is a masterpiece of modern writing.

It’s easy to forget at times that this is really a drama. This is especially true for the first three seasons, while the world of Jimmy is being established. Of course, all that happens feeds into the overarching narrative in one way or other, but it’s mainly Jimmy’s relationships with his brother Chuck, somewhat-nemesis Howard Hamlin and HHM in general, first girlfriend-, then wife-to-be Kim Wexler, and a variety of colourful come-and-go clients (looking at you, Kettlemans) that take the focus.
None of these relationships are easy ones, and their backgrounds therefore deserve near full attention for the first half of the show. With the emphasis on these sometimes extreme, but still relatable interpersonal struggles, BCS slowly shifts its tone from court-related absurdities (“oh, to be 19 again”), elaborate family squabbles (“a chimp with a machinegun”), and first cartel-directed steps (“judging from the salsa stain”) towards a darker note.

Oh b(r)other
Nothing underlines this better than the ongoing battle between Jimmy and Chuck, with the end of season 3 marking a turning point in many ways. It’s perhaps at this moment, where quickly growing flames can be seen raging behind Chuck’s windows, that we’re reminded that this is, in fact, a heart-breaking story. One whose end we already know – at least up to a certain point some years in the future. Fittingly, the episode ends not with its theme outro music, but with silence, broken up only by distant suburban neighbourhood sounds.
Apart from its immediate terrible implications, it’s an unnerving moment because we as viewers aren’t entirely sure how to feel. In Chuck McGill, Gilligan and Gould have created a singular kind of villainous character. Singular in terms of the broad current film and TV landscape, not within the world of BCS, where no major character entirely fits the definition of either good or bad.
What makes Chuck fascinating is founded in the fact that he is simply a human being. Of remarkably high intelligence, sure, but a human nonetheless, whose emotions get the better of him and define his major choices time and again, despite his best (and worst) efforts to stand above them.

His creators have written the character arrogant, belittling and, frankly, unlikable enough for us to sanction Jimmy’s vengeful counter-moves (that, after all, usually happen for some semi-noble reason). And yet they have given him the frailty needed, both mentally and emotionally, plus various hints at a complex backstory reaching into childhood, to make us feel an uncomfortable lump at the back of the throat as soon as Chuck plunges his screwdriver into the wall the first time.
There’s no way around feeling bad for him, despite all, and it’s this feeling we’re left with as Chuck leaves this world for good, and we follow Jimmy down a now markedly darker path.

“What you dreamed of when you were 12”
Those mixed emotions are the key to complex character and story development. It would have been easy otherwise to exclusively root for Jimmy, who is often the most charming and entertaining, if not straightforward one in the room, and prioritises the people in his life who mean most to him with a persistence that is touching, precisely because he never directly states his love in so many words. In general are emotions, especially those warm fuzzy ones, not something that is being poured out freely in the show.
Chuck’s love for Jimmy (it’s in there somewhere… deep down) is perhaps closest expressed not when thanking his brother for taking care of him after a bad night spent in between space blankets, but in his pleading and plainly frightened “Jimmy? I wanna go home” while first being hospitalised after having been tasered during season 1. With Jimmy there he is not alone, and in that moment he not only knows it but seeks comfort in that fact.

But Chuck is gone, and in terms of important people for Jimmy, by the final season that only leaves Kim. This is probably not for the greater good of either of them, as becomes more and more blatantly apparent, best visualised during episode 6.6 that ends with literal steering towards disaster.
Up until the fourth season Kim provides something of a counter part, not only to moral ambiguities, but also to the destructive role Chuck increasingly plays in Jimmy’s life. The less his brother believes in Jimmy, the more Kim does.
It’s exactly the outrageousness of Chuck’s dismissal of the good in Jimmy that drives Kim to shine a clearer light on what it is that makes her stick with him. While she might not mean every word she says in standing up to Chuck, at the core of it all is a very real sense of love and protectiveness towards Jimmy.
It’s, in other words, at least partly Chuck’s attempt to warn Kim about his brother that binds her to him more closely, a pattern we see repeated with varying opponents in the seasons to follow. Chuck’s oversight here shows once more how he never fully understood (or cared to understand) his brother beyond the Slippin’ level.

Chuck is only one example of a world that might pretend to forgive Jimmy his past faults, but that certainly never truly forgets, something that both Kim and Jimmy are aware of. This is continuously evident throughout the show, from Jimmy’s well-intended but misplaced speech towards one of the (failed) HHM scholarship candidates, to Kim reminding ADA Suzanne of calling Jimmy a scumbag when she approaches her for help with the Salamanca family.
What matters to Kim is not that a murderous sociopath has slipped through the system (this is not news to her anyway), but that Suzanne, like all the rest, only regards Jimmy as an equal when he is needed for something. Chuck’s attitude towards his brother was one building stone in the initially touching, finally worrying Jimmy and Kim against the world foundation.

Combine that with a “Kimmy, it was one beer”-while-driving mother who admittedly thought her daughter too soft for shoplifting, and we’ve got Jimmy’s perfect (and quite literal) partner in crime. It’s noteworthy that their relationship got to the next level thanks to Ken Wins and the famous spike-capped Tequila. This post-scam passion is a recurring image increasingly shown in the final season. Ah, that adrenaline spike(-cap).
If Kim’s trademark earrings and necklace seem heavy on the symbolism after the season 6 childhood flashback, it’s because they’re not intended as such. What they are is a polished reminder of a world that has shown Kim(my) early on the rewards of taking short-cuts, something that has been emphasised daily by her husband and that she has for the longest time struggled not to succumb to.
However it all eventually plays out, Kim has certainly never taken the easy route, no matter how hard a U-turn she hauls her car into.

“Forever shocked when it all blows up in your face”
Jimmy’s and Kim’s way of communicating has come full circle by the final season. Starting with Kim decisively keeping Jimmy from telling her anything incriminating over a leftover prop of banana pie (un-sat on by Pryce, thank you very much) and a space-blanketed tape recorder, to a demand for full transparency after a ring-less (but Huell-fuelled) wedding, Jimmy’s U-turn-inducing phone call has to make at least us viewers question that transparency.
Kim might have revitalised the plan Jimmy was about to cast (pun intended) away, but with the regard for traffic rules goes the meeting that could have led to her idea of a perfect job and, more importantly, a fairer justice system. Huh. Wasn’t the point of going after Howard to get Sandpiper settled and then have the financial means to create exactly such a system?
The means have in truth long become an end in themselves.

While the desire to take Howard down a notch is, frankly, perfectly understandable (remember “Hamlindigo blue”?), there is no question about whether he deserved what came to him in the end. Once again, it’s not the direct actions, but the indirect consequences of Jimmy’s (and more disturbingly Kim’s) doing that have led to a terrible outcome. Neither of them pulled the trigger. Just like Jimmy didn’t knock over Chuck’s lantern.
And yet, here we are. Only one episode after seeing Howard propose milk-foamed peace to his wife, who then pours it, if not down the drain, then at least unceremoniously into her travel mug, nearly splattering the white-collar (Hamlindigo?) blue shirt he’s wearing after choosing just the right one from an identical row.
There was always just something a little too ridiculous about his meticulous routines, his on-demand smile and his eternal attempts to keep face in the wake of the McGill v. McGill disaster, to ever wish him something truly evil. Jimmy might not have felt like rubbing elbows with Howard at Hamlin headquarters after their shared history, but if a full-turned Saul has to be convinced to go through with a scam, it’s an indicator that things have reached a level even Huell questions. “A minor career setback.” If only.
The excuse that it’s for the greater good has finally exhausted itself as Kim has literally turned away from exactly that and any potential of peace has been shot to hell.

How ironic then that it’s Howard’s greeting-card wisdom from the very first episode that rings more eerily true than ever here: “Sometimes in our line of work, you can get so caught up in the idea of winning that you forget to listen to your heart.”

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