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Jimmy McGill Has Been Saul Goodman for a While Now

‘Better Call Saul’ is closer than ever to overlapping with ‘Breaking Bad,’ but the show’s main character isn’t transforming—rather, he’s embracing his inner self

AMC/Ringer illustration

While Better Call Saul is primarily focused on Breaking Bad’s past, the series has opened its seasons with black-and-white flash-forwards into the future. That future focuses on “Gene Takovic,” Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman’s post–Walter White identity, a Cinnabon employee in Omaha, Nebraska. Gene’s life is cheerless and literally colorless, but vestiges of the man he once was emerge at times. After ratting out a shoplifter in the Season 3 premiere’s flash-forward, Gene almost immediately tells the kid to get a lawyer and not say anything to the cops, as if helping a criminal beat a charge is an involuntary reflex. You can take the man out of New Mexico and change his identity, but you can’t make the man unlearn his conniving, exploitative nature.

As much as Breaking Bad was about Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, Better Call Saul has been about how Jimmy McGill, a low-level hustler, becomes Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer extraordinaire. Through the show’s first three seasons, that process has been gradual. Cocreator Peter Gould himself admitted that the show has delayed Saul’s emergence because they’ve become so invested in exploring Jimmy McGill. On Monday night, however, Better Call Saul came closer than ever to connecting the dots between it and Breaking Bad — and between Jimmy and Saul. “Quite a Ride,” the fifth episode of Season 4, opens on Saul in the midst of an office teardown, shortly after the cataclysmic events of Breaking Bad’s most renowned episode, “Ozymandias.” With his face still beaten up by Jesse Pinkman, Saul gathers stashes of cash, then makes a phone call to disappear and begin a new life in obscurity. “I guess that’s it,” Saul says to his assistant Francesca, realizing the enterprise he’s spent years building is meeting an abrupt end. “Quite a ride, huh?”

Using the cold open to throw viewers back not just to Breaking Bad, but to Saul Goodman’s last moments as Saul Goodman, is a powerful move by Better Call Saul. After seasons of delving into the life and psyche of Jimmy McGill, snapping into a scene featuring Saul is like a splash of cold water, reminding the audience where the show is headed, and what the hook was to begin with. But by dropping Saul into Jimmy’s atmosphere, Better Call Saul also forces the viewer to consider the contrast — or lack thereof — between the two versions of the same man. “Quite a Ride” features the most overt reference to Saul Goodman yet — up to this point, Jimmy had used the name only once, in a commercial for ad space — and hints that we’re barreling toward the creation of that alias. But what the episode also makes clear is that Jimmy has been Saul Goodman for quite a while now.

Better Call Saul has depicted Jimmy as a scam artist stuck in a cycle of one step forward, two steps back, but his Saul Goodman side has always lurked. It was there when Jimmy willingly scammed people at a retirement home for a payout. It was there in Season 2 when Jimmy sneaked onto an Air Force base and deceived an officer so that he could film one of his exuberant commercials — the kind of exchange that’d feel right at home in the parent series.

The antagonistic, Shakespearean rivalry Jimmy had with his now-deceased older brother, Chuck, once appeared to be the catalyst for his transformation. But with Chuck now gone, it’s clear that the sibling rivalry wasn’t a determining factor so much as a sail in the wind, putting Jimmy on an even more morally reprehensible course. “You think this is bad?” Chuck sputtered in the closing moments of Season 3’s “Chicanery,” at a loss to encapsulate the depths to which his brother could sink. “I took him into my own firm. What was I thinking? He’ll never change. He’ll never change. Ever since he was 9, always the same: Couldn’t keep his hands out of the cash drawer.”

Just as Breaking Bad revealed the true nature of Walter White, Better Call Saul is showing that Jimmy is not changing — rather, circumstances are merely bringing his true personality to the foreground. The more that Chuck attempted to pin Jimmy down — and the more the legal system attempts to do the same — the more Jimmy embraces the life of a criminal, as it proves to be a profession in and of itself. Better Call Saul is quickly approaching the events of its source material, but anyone watching the show waiting for the moment when Jimmy becomes Saul can stop now. Jimmy isn’t going to break bad; he already has.