The “Breaking Bad” universe created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould is essentially about choices and consequences. Of course, that’s Drama 101, but it’s striking that as much character ambiguity as there is in this ABQ world, you can’t come away from watching the whole thing thinking nihilistically. There’s good, there’s evil, there’s right, there’s wrong, and the wrongdoers not only deserve to be punished, they will be.
That is, you don’t hurt others without suffering something, either long or short term. Those scales of justice? They’re cosmic, really.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The intriguing question of “Better Call Saul” was, of course, how did Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman? The series answered that question, but what makes it great is that the answer the show gives isn’t simplistic.
The core struggle Jimmy faced, from both within and from without was always, “is this just the way I am?” His brother Chuck mostly seemed to take this view, although his scene in the finale hints at more complexity. Jimmy himself embraced his cheerful, talky scamming persona and made it work for him – most of the time. But did this personality fate him to get involved with the cartel and then Walter White, with all the consequences flowing from those entanglements? Did it mean that he had no choice in pulling the scam on Howard and ultimately playing a part in Howard’s murder?
The power of “Better Call Saul” is that it makes this journey complex, even though we know so much of how it turns out in the end. I recently re-watched several episodes of this last season and was struck by how many moments of hesitation there are. How many moments between Jimmy and Kim in which they pause, fall into silence and either ask each other or ask themselves if they should take the next step, if this is right, if they are bad for each other.
In “Breaking Bad,” Walter White had many such moments, but of course, every time his pride won out. What propels Jimmy and Kim forward is never so simply expressed.
There’s a bit of greed, there’s a bit of vengefulness, there’s some apparently innate attraction to the chicanery, and there is, of course, the fun, or to put it more bluntly, the turn-on that it affords. And in the end, that’s all that’s left, isn’t it? That burning heat, glowing in full color in an otherwise colorless world.
There’s a lot to be said about what “Better Call Saul” brought us. The more I think about it, the more I am impressed not only by the challenge these folks took up in creating this show but by the truth they’ve expressed here, whether they intended to or not.
The Time Machine
Jimmy/Saul/Gene. Which is he? And what kind of choice did he have in being … whoever it was? Of course, the framework of “The Time Machine” in the finale expresses this point and punctuates the final journey. He begins conversations about time machines both with Mike and with Walter White. All of the responses reveal something deeper.
If Mike could go back in time, it would be to the moment he took his first bribe, presumably, to make a different choice. He knows that his life since has been a trajectory of negativity and harm to others. He admits it. He’d change it if he had the power, and we’ve seen that sad regret in his character all along, in both shows. If Walter White could go back in time, he’d make a different decision about Gray Matter, but even so, he still blames others for what happens and scoffs at Saul for even presuming he, a joke of a lawyer, could help him. Pride, always pride.
In both conversations, Saul has his own response, reflecting his own greed and short-term thinking. He seemingly has no regrets about big choices or the greater trajectory. Not yet.
But as Walter White points out with great vigor, time machines are an impossibility.
We can, however, admit what we’ve done and try, in whatever small way we can, to embrace contrition, confess, and do penance. It’s the closest thing to a time machine we have and in the end, Saul steps into it and emerges, having gone backward? Forward? Both?
I’m Jimmy. Jimmy McGill.
He has been running, running, and running, and finally, in that moment of confession, prompted by Kim’s owning up and taking responsibility, he does the same. His moment, I think it’s safe to say, is framed by love. It’s a love he knows now will never be fulfilled, especially now, but it’s a love that demands nothing less than truth.
So back to the moments of choice and possibility, the interplay of who we are and the places we find ourselves in. The complex portrayal of Jimmy/Saul/Gene makes it authentic, for we are all complex, too. In some sense, he is who he is, as he’s reminded often – in this final episode by Walter White: “So, you’ve always been like this.”
But time and time again, we saw Jimmy make choices. We saw him want to do the right thing, to use, as we say, his unique powers for good, but every time give in to some temptation that tips those almost neutral qualities into a negative, harmful space. And, as I said, those temptations and moments are complex in themselves, but more often than not the most destructive choices of all emerge from moments of rejection.
I think the final scenes in the bus and in prison express this perfectly and even subtly. He’s accepted the consequences and even made a sacrifice, moved by Kim’s situation, and is on his way with his fellow prisoners. These prisoners recognize him, despite his assertion that no, he’s not Saul Goodman anymore and they start a chant: “Better! Call! Saul!”
In the midst of this acclaim, we see just the slightest look on Jimmy’s face of muted wry satisfaction and acceptance. It could have been a bigger, broader moment, but the fact that it didn’t underline the layers of this character and the strange ways in which our personalities and our life circumstances shape us.
Look where we’ve gotten ourselves. It’s a mess. But here we are.
A Toxic Power Couple
When we next see him, he’s in the prison kitchen. He’s called “Saul” by a fellow inmate, and he goes to meet his visitor, Kim.
Of course, “Better Call Saul” ended up being almost as much about Kim as it was about Jimmy – another point of greatness, as she’s not a simple character either. She wasn’t a “good” woman trying to make Jimmy fly right. She wasn’t an evil temptress re-opening up his bad side over and over, either. You could say she was a little of both, but even that would be unfair.
The character was a human being with some unknown issues of her own who engaged with Jimmy, bringing good out of him, but also his worst. They were terrible and toxic for each other (and for those who suffered because of their actions), but they were also a good team, who could have been a great team.
What I’m most grateful for and intrigued with is the subtlety of the show’s treatment of human nature, choices and the consequences of those choices, and what they say about who we are.
As Kim leaves Saul, we see them both behind bars in a way. It’s an image that brought home this entire motif to me: there are certain given elements of our characters that in a sense, imprison us. There are choices we’ve made in the past, the consequences of which, in a sense, imprison us.
But is it possible, nonetheless, even with all that limits us, to claim a sort of freedom, to choose and choose well, and even do some good. Or at the very least, less bad.