Reflection on Better Call Saul

Impeccably cast, technically flawless, superb in its ability to subvert expectations despite the predetermined narrative trajectories of some of its characters, Better Call Saul (BCS) is an example of a prequel done right. It belongs to those that provide a heart-rending and occasionally wryly jocose story of a person trying to leave his past behind only to find that it always sticks with you.  Moreover, BCD also adds additional context that enriches its big brother it spun off from, well, Breaking Bad. In short, in case you want to stop reading right here, it’s marvelous.

Bob Odenkirk returns to his career-best role as James McGill/Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul (Photo: AMC)

It’s interesting that BCS has never reached (and probably never will) the cultural zeitgeist of Breaking Bad. Carrying the status as (mostly) a prequel to Breaking Bad might have discouraged viewers from getting back in given the known fates of some of its characters. That is unfortunate. The show adopts a universe of storytelling that can still provide so much, in terms of depth and added details to its characters and setting that even Breaking Bad can benefit from. BCS gracefully provides some additional context such as why things are what they are before our Mr Chips-turned-Scarface chemist, Walter White, enters the scene. It also propels the story forward for our favourite goofball lawyer, now having his role turned titular, while also showcasing the events that will eventually land him in an ill-fated encounter with Walter and Jesse.

BCS started out in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2010. Due to the fallout from the events of Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) doesn’t exist anymore. He now lives as a Cinnabon maker called Gene Takovic. This peaceful existence is in stark contrast to the criminal world he dabbled in, but peace seems to be what he needs right now. Still, he can’t help but reminisce about his olden days of verbally wrangling with judges for better sentencing for his clients in the courtroom, as he loads up a videotape of his old commercials. This is when we go back, way back, to the time before Breaking Bad took place in 2002. There’s no Saul Goodman in this period. At least, not yet. What we have is James “Jimmy” Morgan McGill, a lawyer who struggles to make ends meet as a Public Defender in the Albuquerque Court. There’s no famed 1997 Cadillac DeVille yet in his garage, only an old Suzuki Esteem.

A string of flashbacks, mostly in Season 1, show fragments of his past before his venture into the legal world. Before his attorney days, Jimmy is what you would call ‘an old-fashioned hoodlum’. He is a stray who spends his days conning people for a chunk of change. Money doesn’t seem the point though. He simply loves the grift, to the point where he’s nicknamed “Slippin’ Jimmy”. That is until he gets caught under some surreal (also hilarious) circumstances but with dire consequences, at least until his brother comes in: Charles “Chuck” McGill. Chuck is a lawyer and an upstanding one at the subject. He gets Jimmy out of his pickle and gets Jimmy a job at the mail room in the Law Firm he’s a very respected partner of. After spending years changing inks on the photocopiers and cleaning up ink stains, Jimmy musters up the courage to study. Now we have “Slippin’ Jimmy with a Law Degree”, or as Chuck would call it, “a chimp with a machine gun.”

Chuck McGill refers the old version Jimmy as ‘a chimpanzee with a machine gun’ (Photo: AMC)

To call Jimmy’s pre-Breaking Bad journey tumultuous is understating. It’s one rife with struggles, legal battles, familial disputes, interesting interactions with Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks in fine form) and eventually grief, as Jimmy has to face the heart-breaking reality. Your past will always be your label, no matter how much you try to rise above it. He sidles up to criminals not because he wants the money. He accosts them about his services because that’s all he thinks he’s worth. If the world thinks you’re a joke, why not treat it like a joke?

Amidst all of the heartbreak, a love interest finally presents in Jimmy’s life. The lady is Kimberley “Kim” Wexler, and boy what a treasure she is. She’s smart, resourceful, and in a way, a female and more suave version of Jimmy. She goes through everything thick and thin with Jimmy, especially in Season 4. This is when she serves as an emotional conduit for Jimmy’s repressed feelings over the loss of his loved one. However, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her own agency. It’s a marvel to see her evolve season by season throughout her relationship with Jimmy. She’s nowhere to be found in Breaking Bad. This remains a big  mystery of the show.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul (Photo: AMC)

Better Call Saul may have surpassed Breaking Bad. It’s also a story of a person “breaking bad”, which is painful, because the show highlights a person who desperately tries to be good (despite his “Slippin’ Jimmy” impulses). Saul has been trying so hard only to be constantly told that he’s actually an outsider by the legal world. This is not a man breaking bad out of desperation, this is a man who breaks bad because he finds nowhere else to belong. We will watch closely if Better Call Saul is able to maintain its momentum, for it still has its sixth and final season to stick the landing. One thing for sure: no matter what curveballs life throws at Jimmy/Saul/Gene next, I’m very much eager to find out the heart-break and everything left.

Faiz Aziz, Jakarta Cinema Club

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