by Danny Stout
AMC’s acclaimed dramatic series, Breaking Bad featured an unscrupulous and obsequious attorney, Saul Goodman. A Dickensian persona spouting clever one-liners all day long, writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould couldn’t let him vanish. Like David Letterman’s retirement, we’re still saying, “Where is he?” He’s missed at the same level of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) in Seinfeld.
Also set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Better Call Saul is a different story than Breaking. Now it’s a more human Saul McGill (Bob Odenkirk), and in the spin-off he has depth while maintaining the quick wit and tells even better jokes than in Breaking. Better Call Saul is a rags-to-riches tale, but an understanding of his quest for treasures, or even what the true treasures of life are eludes him. Odenkirk’s facial expressions are much like Woody Allen’s. He always looks confused, and he’s worried to the point of obsession about the meaning of it all.
In the spin-off, it’s Breaking Good this time, as Saul struggles mightily to shed his deep-seeded proclivity for the quick buck mustering admirable determination to become a respectable lawyer the right way. Saul is the millennial Silas Marner, toiling away when nobody’s looking on a distance-learning law degree while laboring in the mail room of his brother Charles “Chuck” McGill’s (Michael McKean’s) law firm. Chuck is a partner, and a lawyer of high reputation. For some, the drive to prove oneself to another is inextricably stronger than one’s own motivations. Saul is an ardent member of the “When I’m famous” club, going all-in for Chuck’s respect; he’s much more than “Slippin Jimmy,” the childhood moniker that drives him toward the age old myth that big brothers make room for a sibling at the top.
Brother Chuck takes a medical leave of absence, and Saul tends to his every need, and, in turn, Chuck mentors McGill-the-younger, fanning the flames of dreams of success even more. They’re working together, or so Saul thinks. Chuck tells him there’s life beyond the mailroom; his facial expressions, and this demonstrates Odenkirk’s nuanced acting skills, reflect longing and humility.
The cheated brother story is a cultural universal that we never tire of. Joseph of the Old Testament, the favorite son of Jacob was resented by his brothers. Laman and Lemuel’s guile for the favoritism shown to Nephi by their father Lehi formed their identities of rebellion. In popular culture, the theme is plays out in the film Gladiator where Russell Crowe (Maximus Decimus Meridius) is chosen over Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus) by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Who can forget the anguish that bubbles to the top when John Cazale as Frederico “Fredo” Corleone in the Godfather having lived in the shadow of his brother Michael Corleone all his life screams in anguish, “I’m somebody! I’m not dumb, I’m smart!”
Better Call Saul transcends the psychology of birth order, although even his childhood name, “Jimmy” invites us to contemplate how our position in the family affects us for life. Saul, however, knows he’s not ordinary; his character traits will soon sprout. In perhaps the most poignant yet placid scene, Saul informs Chuck that he’s not only earned a law degree, but has passed the bar exam. Shocked, big brother congratulates him, but despite the long talks and mentorship, Chuck will never allow Saul to shed his inferiority, even though he brings a multi-million dollar case to the firm expecting a prestigious job. Disclosing more would require a spoiler alert.
Suffice it to say, the dominant theme of Better Call Saul’s first season is brotherly love and the complex interplay between power and loyalty in such relationships. How is it that by birth order alone, offspring must deal with equality, codependency, and asynchronous situations. Unlike Breaking Bad, this series is intrinsic, looking inside the characters rather than the extrinsic Breaking Bad that is highly plot driven. The moral question, one that will inevitably be addressed in the next season, is do Saul’s flaws resurface when he realizes life’s narrative cannot be entirely planned? Sibling relationships remain a mystery, and the writers tease out a subject fraught with conjecture and misunderstanding.
Better Call Saul is an actor’s production. Saul’s lawyer friend Rhea Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is a convincing coach and advisor. Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin, the co-founder of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill plays the role of ambitious manager with skill.
Gilligan and Gould get excellent acting from all main characters, in fact. Saul’s vacillation between Slippin Jimmy and the mature Saul is believable, and carries the story. Watching a person transform, transcends entertainment, making the show more of a psychological sketch than a traditional drama.