Sunday, November 14, 2021

"Better Call Saul": Seasons 1-5 review

[Any spoilers will be minor.]

"Better Call Saul" is the spinoff series following Saul Goodman (né Jimmy McGill), who made a splash in "Breaking Bad" as the unscrupulous lawyer who helps Walter White and Jesse Pinkman out of several jams. I guess series co-creator Vince Gilligan thought Saul was an interesting enough character to merit his own series, so here we are. Season 1 was released in 2015; Season 5 came out in 2020, and a sixth season, the finale, is due to air next year. I thought, at first, that I'd wait and watch the final season before committing my thoughts to paper, but I've since changed my mind.

The series follows several interwoven plot lines, focusing primarily on Jimmy McGill (who ultimately renames himself Saul Goodman—"S'all good, man"), his girlfriend Kim Wexler, crusty old Mike Ehrmantraut, quietly dangerous Gustavo Fring, conflicted Ignacio "Nacho" Varga, and various members of the Salamanca crime family: old patriarch Hector, Hector's clever nephew Lalo, and Lalo's unstable cousin Tuco. Jimmy finds himself in conflict primarily with his older brother Chuck during the first three seasons; Chuck became a lawyer first, was married and then got divorced, after which he developed a strange hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields—a mental illness and not an actual physical condition. Chuck has also acquired a set of eccentric habits as a result of his condition, habits that prevent him from doing regular work at the firm Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, which he co-founded.

I'll attempt to lay out some of the series's major subplots. Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) idolizes Chuck (Michael McKean) while also resenting Chuck's lofty disdain of Jimmy's methods and character, which betray Jimmy's uncomfortable relationship with the truth, the law, and integrity. Jimmy is a pragmatist and a utilitarian, but he's morally retarded and constantly engaged in a pattern of self-undermining behavior that both sabotages his own plans and causes problems for those around him. Jimmy thinks on his feet in often-clever ways, but he fails to think anything through deeply, and he acts impulsively, which is why he becomes mired in the unintended consequences of his actions. This also affects Jimmy's relationship with his girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a straight-arrow lawyer who loves Jimmy despite his obvious flaws, even as she's often repelled by the "creative" methods Jimmy uses to obtain results. Jimmy begins the series in an adversarial relationship with crusty old parking attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), and as the series progresses, we learn more about Mike's background and how he ended up being a lieutenant of the quietly precise and menacing Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Mike turns out to have been a police officer back in the day, but he was corrupt. His son Matty became a cop like his dad, but he was killed by fellow officers for being clean while the rest of the force was dirty. Mike lives with the ever-present pain of his son's death, and he does what he can to care for his daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon, Irish and doing a perfect American accent). He keeps the seamier side of his life separate from his family life: after arriving in Albuquerque, New Mexico (where the series is mostly set), Mike finds himself ultimately working with Gustavo "Gus" Fring, who respects Mike for his brutal honesty and pragmatism. By this reckoning, Kim Wexler and Mike Ehrmantraut are the antitheses of Jimmy McGill in terms of their character. Meanwhile, parallel to all the law-office and familial shenanigans, another major subplot is the ongoing Game of Thrones among various crime families that are part of a drug cartel extending from Mexico to the American Southwest. These families ostensibly work together, but there are rivalries and animosities, with certain families trying to undermine the others, each vying for power. As I said, some of these subplots are interwoven, so it's inevitable that Jimmy McGill will end up involved in cartel business. Thus far, Mike Ehrmantraut has successfully kept his remaining family from being swept up in cartel affairs, but one has to wonder whether it's all going to go to hell in the upcoming Season 6.

There are many who think "Better Call Saul" is not merely a worthy successor to "Breaking Bad"—it's superior to "Breaking Bad." This is where I voice my unpopular opinion and say that "Breaking Bad" remains my favorite of the two series. Without a doubt, "Better Call Saul" is well written—funny and sad, tense and contemplative, taking time to explore and develop its many characters, turning them into people we care about. And while both "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" have protagonists who end up in the muck and mire of the criminal world, Walter White's character arc is far more pronounced as he evolves from a nebbishy goody two-shoes into Satan himself. Jimmy McGill eventually turns into Saul Goodman, but from the beginning, he's an iffy character, so it's nowhere near as far of a fall for him: Jimmy/Saul is already primed to accept corruption as a normal part of his reality. Some might claim the greater moral ambiguity of "Better Call Saul" is what makes it superior to "Breaking Bad," but I think Walter White's plunge into darkness makes for a better story than does Jimmy McGill's transition into Saul Goodman.

Actually, more interesting than Jimmy is his girlfriend Kim Wexler* who, in later seasons, starts to adopt some of Jimmy's own underhanded tactics as a way to get ahead and gain the advantage. Watching her erosion is actually far more interesting than watching Jimmy get further mired in cartel business. Jimmy is a bumbler who lacks self-control; Kim, meanwhile, is becoming more comfortable exploring her dark side. Kim's slow descent into the muck parallels that of Skyler, Walter White's wife, in "Breaking Bad." Skyler, too, started off as something of a straight arrow, but she ends up helping Walt once she discovers his game. Kim begins the series clean as a whistle, but over time, she learns a certain cynical pragmatism from Jimmy and finds herself in the weird position of occasionally doing bad things, feeling guilty about having strayed, then doing more bad things. Kim, like many of the other characters in "Better Call Saul," is morally complex.

Charles "Chuck" McGill, Jimmy's older brother and co-founder of a law firm (HHM, or Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill), is also a complex character. I normally associate Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, with comic roles (you may recall McKean's performance in the long-ago "This Is Spinal Tap" mockumentary), but in "Better Call Saul," McKean plays it fairly straight. His mental illness is treated with seriousness, never for laughs. And his attitude toward Jimmy is a fairly authentic portrayal of sibling rivalry mixed with a combination of arrogance and pity. Chuck often believes he wants to help his little brother, but it's obvious he also looks down on Jimmy—who is neither as smart nor as talented as Chuck—and can't respect him. How different would Jimmy's life have been had his big brother made the effort to love Jimmy more? Hard to say; Jimmy's own self-sabotaging tendencies seem deeply ingrained, so it could be that Chuck is right when he declares that Jimmy will never change, and that he'll always make trouble for himself and others because he just can't help himself. Mike Ehrmantraut, meanwhile, is blessed or cursed with a clear sense of what's right and what's wrong, and for him, it's a conscious choice to sell his soul to the Devil because he already sees himself as hellbound. Mike is gruff and taciturn; he has trouble expressing his feelings, but a bit like Walter White, he sees himself as earning income to help his family out. Having lost his son, Mike concentrates his love on his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, insinuating himself into their lives and doing what he can to keep them secure and happy. Jonathan Banks plays Mike with a sort of tired, tough stoicism; Mike is an ex-cop who's seen it all, and nothing about the human condition surprises him any longer. Gus Fring secures Mike's loyalty by observing that both he and Mike share a need for revenge. Mike exacted justice on the dirty cops who killed his son, but he's still got plenty of vengefulness in his heart.

Other recurring characters are given plenty of room to breathe and show off their own complexity. Hector Salamanca is a temperamental patriarch, but his lieutenant Nacho Varga is constantly conflicted. Nacho has a decent heart; he bonds a bit with Mike Ehrmantraut (who, I suspect, sees a bit of his son in Nacho), and we eventually learn he wants out from the life of crime, but the cartel is constantly watching Nacho's father Manuel (Juan Carlos Cantu). Since Manuel, an honorable man, refuses to flee in the face of cartel threats, Nacho has little choice but to remain close by. Nacho works for the Salamancas, but he gets roped in by Gus Fring to work as a spy for Fring, all of which merely adds to Nacho's inner conflict. At the offices of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian doing his best Michael Douglas impression) starts the series as Kim Wexler's boss and another of Jimmy's antagonists. Howard often comes off as simultaneously self-possessed, stiff, and pompous. He seems to be inhabiting a different universe, although later in the series, we get to see a different side of him when a tragedy occurs. The shrewd and dangerous Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) doesn't appear until later in the series, but when he does appear, he dominates the screen with his cheerfully murderous demeanor, intimidating everyone around him. And here's a surprise shout-out to Ed Begley, Jr., who normally appears in comedic roles, but who shows amazing chops as a dramatic actor (as is true with a lot of comedians who decide to try their hand at serious acting). I admit I've hated Begley in the past: I normally find him bland and unfunny, but in "Better Call Saul," he plays a person of some significance and inhabits the role well.

Overall, the characters in the series, both major and minor, are interesting. I find Jimmy/Saul to be compelling but frustrating because he just can't seem to help himself when it comes to fucking up, and because he resembles some morally flexible, unscrupulous, seemingly people-pleasing people in my own life who are, like Saul, likable but dirty and/or depraved. I suspect we all know someone like Saul Goodman, i.e., someone who does bad while rationalizing that his acts are good (or at least not harmful); either that, or some of us are Saul Goodman, unprincipled and impulsive, constantly giving in to our vices, unable to control urges or act with self-discipline (the very thing that makes Gus Fring so dangerous: the man has a methodical intellect and no vices). Kim and Mike, meanwhile, bring moral clarity to the show, although Kim is wavering by the fifth season thanks to Saul's influence, while Mike—who is old and inflexible—is steady throughout the show.

Let's step back and talk about the series as a whole. I have to wonder how, in this "woke" day and age, the series gets away with portraying blacks and Latinos in such a negative light. While we see examples of "good" (for lack of a better word) minorities who work peacefully side-by-side with white folks (and no one makes a big deal about this), many of the series's conflicts are driven by minority issues that, in a more PC show, would never see the light of day. Mike Ehrmantraut walks through a black-majority neighborhood and gets jumped. The Latino characters in the show are mostly gangsters. Illegal cross-border smuggling is just one of several unpleasant US-Mexico realities that the show explores. Another consideration is what moral message, if any, the show is trying to convey. "Breaking Bad" was clearly a morality play about the consequences of a Faustian bargain as Walter White's soul steadily descends into the inferno. "Better Call Saul" seems to be offering a different moral message, one that is most clearly given in a flashback scene when a scammer comes into a store run by young Jimmy's dad. The scammer tells little Jimmy that the world is divided into sheep and wolves, and you have to decide who you're going to be. The rest of the series has this morality as its subtext: you're either a wolf or a sheep. The powerless go on living their lives, often unaware that they do so only because more powerful people allow them to do so. It's a discomfiting thought, but it's hard to shake the suspicion that you're not nearly as free as you think you are because there are others, more influential, whose decisions determine the course of your life. These powerful people could be your bosses; they could be unseen criminals who own whole blocks of the city or town you live in, and you never know when you might end up crossing a line, at which point you discover your puny life is possible only at the sufferance of the powerful. The cold, Darwinian morality of "Better Call Saul" is, in many respects, bleaker than the more black-and-white morality of "Breaking Bad."

Is the series worth watching? Hell, yes. It's got a complex story stocked with rich, fleshed-out characters who interact through well-written, smart dialogue. The acting is on point (including that of the series of little girls who portray Mike's progressively older granddaughter); the direction is both consistently good and consistently similar in style, so you never feel a jarring transition from one episode to the next. The musical choices fit the mood of any given scene, and the plot propels itself forward at a decent clip, enough to keep a viewer interested in finding out what's going to happen next. There were times, though, when certain moments would telegraph what was going to happen next, and that leads to one major issue: while "Better Call Saul" includes flash-forwards to Saul's time after the events of "Breaking Bad," the show is primarily a prequel, so in a sense, we already know how things are supposed to end up. The flash-forward scenes serve to warn us that Jimmy's/Saul's future doesn't seem to include any of the main characters we've been following thus far, including Kim Wexler. That's why I think Season 6, the show's final season, is going to involve a lot of deaths and/or partings. Either Kim is going to leave Jimmy for good, or she's going to die. Either Mike is going to end up permanently estranged from his family, or they're going to die (I don't think they die, actually: Mike's granddaughter made an appearance, I think, in "Breaking Bad"). I predict that Lalo Salamanca will likely come to a bad end at the hands of Gus Fring, and the same could be true for Nacho Varga, who is mentioned in "Breaking Bad" but never shown. We know Gus survives and is killed by Walter White, who wires Hector Salamanca with a bomb that Hector explodes in Gus's presence. So to some degree, "Better Call Saul" is circumscribed by its prequel status: it has to end in such a way that "Breaking Bad" makes sense. That said, that predictability aside, the series has proved to be binge-worthy, and while I can't rate it as superior to "Breaking Bad," I deem it a worthwhile watch.


*In German, the verb wechseln means "to change." I've wondered whether "Wexler" might have symbolic significance: a Wechsler (fem. Wechslerin) is a "changer," one who enacts change, and Kim spends a lot of time trying to save Jimmy from his own worst tendencies. Kim herself also changes over the course of the show, so perhaps she's an unconscious agent of change for herself. She's also constantly talking about "making a difference" for people.

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