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Saul Goodman Isn’t Going to Break Bad

Jimmy McGill’s alter ego is at the center of a stranger, slower show

(AMC)
(AMC)

This is how one man’s well-meaning attempt at self-improvement ends: not with a bang, but with a sketchy commercial on a late-night Murder, She Wrote rerun. He hasn’t yet coined his infamous catchphrase, but there’s a name on the screen and a number to reach him: Saul Goodman, 505–842–5662.

It’s true to the insistently low-key Better Call Saul that the seasons-in-the-making introduction of Jimmy McGill’s alter ego isn’t a climactic turning point. Instead, Saul’s first appearance — in Episode 7 of Season 3 — is just another domino in the sad, slow-motion chain that is Jimmy’s life, his earnest efforts at reform somehow corralling him back into the criminal lifestyle he’s trying to leave behind. Heading into the final episodes of Saul’s third season, something seems to have fundamentally shifted in Jimmy’s character, but Saul doesn’t give us the luxury of a single, decisive moment when Jimmy chose to follow his worst impulses. Not even the invention of the Saul Goodman character gets to mark the point of no return. On this show, breaking bad is just … a thing that happens, even to the best-intentioned characters.

The last three Better Call Saul episodes (nos. 5, 6, and 7 out of 10) have seen Jimmy take the most dramatic and irreversible steps yet on his journey to becoming Walter White’s attorney. In “Chicanery,” he manipulated his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), into a humiliating breakdown on the stand to save his own law license. In “Off Brand,” he rejected the pleas of Chuck’s ex-wife, Rebecca (Ann Cusack), to check in on his devastated sibling, finally renouncing fraternal ties to the man who’d just tried to disbar him. And in the final minutes of Monday night’s “Expenses,” Jimmy crosses the line into outright maliciousness, informing his and Chuck’s mutual malpractice insurer of his brother’s deteriorated mental state. He’s desperate, banned from practicing law for a year and struggling to find a replacement source of income — so when he can’t get the money he prepaid for the insurance back, he lashes out.

Jimmy’s most craven act yet isn’t an elaborate, premeditated scheme, the kind Slippin’ Jimmy used to employ and Saul Goodman will soon pull on Breaking Bad. His betrayal is the impulsive cruelty of a man who doesn’t see any better options. It’s the wrong choice, but an understandable one, as were all the wrong choices before it. Bob Odenkirk’s face as he leaves the insurance office is a strikingly ugly mask of rage and frustration. On Better Call Saul, Jimmy is the frog, and his transformation is the water around him slowly coming to a boil.

Notably, Jimmy doesn’t do any of this under the guise of Saul Goodman. The Saul character’s origin is entirely innocuous, part of Jimmy’s efforts to make an honest living in the year he’ll be suspended from the law. He’s trying to sell the ad space he’d bought to promote his now-dead practice to other Albuquerque small-business owners, and he’d prefer not to do it under his own name — so he dons a fake mustache and shades to pose as Saul Goodman, ad man extraordinaire. Jimmy’s explanation for the moniker is both hopelessly charming and heartbreakingly ignorant of its dubious future: “It’s like, ‘S’all good, man,’” he tells his skeptical girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). “It’s just a name.”

The common factor of all the recent twists in Jimmy’s downward spiral is that none of them were preventable. He couldn’t not defend his right to practice law, and he couldn’t not try to make his ends meet when that right was suspended anyway. Breaking Bad gave Walter White multiple outs he refused to take out of a combination of pride and stubbornness; creator Vince Gilligan has said the writers introduced Walt’s wealthy former partner, Elliott Schwartz, in an early Season 1 episode for that very reason — to make clear that every action Walt takes after turning down Elliott’s money is his own choice. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, makes every phase of Jimmy’s trajectory an inevitable consequence of what came before it.

That fatalism is especially unavoidable when it comes to the hopelessly complicated relationship between Jimmy and Chuck. Their strained sibling bond was always going to be the catalyst that pushed Jimmy from a sleazebag reforming himself through the law to a sleazebag using the law to his own amoral ends. That doesn’t make the long-brewing rupture between the two of them any less tragic. Chuck has lost his marriage, his health, and all but the most token elements of his once-thriving career; of course he’d try to keep his thoroughly undeserving brother from violating the sanctity of the law. Jimmy finds the man he looked after for years sabotaging his attempt to leave petty crime behind; of course he’d write off any obligation to his brother. Their feud takes on a life of its own, with each party powerless to stop it. Better Call Saul makes Jimmy’s decline a fait accompli where Walter’s was anything but.

Jimmy hasn’t done anything so dramatic as dissolve a dead body in a bathtub, and it’s improbable he ever will. What he has done, however, is follow his cold war with Chuck to its logical conclusion: inflicting pain on someone he knows is struggling, simply because he considers it adequate payback for the pain that Chuck inflicted on him. Jimmy’s backslide into criminality comes with collateral damage, too; Kim already had to live with profiting off her boyfriend’s forgery, but as cocounsel for the disbarment hearing, she now has to live with being an active participant in Chuck’s public disgrace.

With all that, Saul Goodman has entered the building. His callousness — the indifference to others’ suffering necessary to become a peripheral player in the meth trade — has always been there, but now Jimmy’s done trying to repress his predatory streak. It’s only a matter of time before Jimmy channels his least savory personality traits into their ideal persona, and it’s unclear what Jimmy could have done differently to have avoided the fate we know awaits him. Making the wrong decision over and over again is sad, Better Call Saul argues. Never having the luxury of one to begin with even more so.