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19 August 2022

The deep realism of Better Call Saul

This Breaking Bad spin-off was a high point in television drama: never has a series better conveyed the complexities of human lives.

By John Gray

Only a medium featuring intertwining narratives and characters not fully legible to others or themselves can fully convey the complexities of human lives. Long-form television drama enables this kind of deep realism, and never has it been achieved more successfully than in Better Call Saul, which ran for six seasons and aired its final episode on 15 August.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was a timid chemistry teacher and devoted family man, slowly transforming after a diagnosis of terminal cancer into Heisenberg, an empire-building drug lord. In its incomparable spin-off Better Call Saul, James McGill (Bob Odenkirk) was “Slippin’ Jimmy”, a youthful scam artist who became a well-meaning lawyer, only to morph into the criminal Saul Goodman.

We have been taught that our lives disclose enduring selves, with qualities that hang together through all our changes. Our moods may shift, we may lose our way, but still we are who we used to be. In truth there may be no continuing personality, only a jumble of traits and impulses, entwined and unravelled by our choices and chance events.

It may not be accidental that Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad were American series. They reflect a society more decayed than any in western Europe. For an American majority mired in debt and exposed to ruin by chronic or catastrophic illness, a safe middle-class existence is not even a dream. Crime is the only way most people can hope for serious money, and nothing is as profitable as the illegal drugs industry.

In Better Call Saul’s closing episode, Jimmy and Walter appear together in a final flashback. Hiding from their enemies in a basement, they talk of the year to which they would return if they had a time machine. Jimmy picks the year in which he could have invested in Warren Buffett’s fund and ended up a billionaire. Walter picks the year in which he sold his stake in a company that could have made him rich. Though it failed to give them the life they wanted, they still dream of money.

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[See also: Who wants to be “normal”?]

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These American tragedies have little in common with the reassuring tales of Scandi-noir, where danger is found on the edges of a mostly bourgeois society. In Britain, Our Friends in the North (1996) was a similarly ambitious chronicle of intersecting lives, but the country in which they unfold remains a social democracy. Only one of the characters falls out of society completely. That might be different if the series was remade today.

It is tempting to view Better Call Saul as a commentary on the quickening decline of American life but it is more than an exercise in social criticism, for what it subverts is our understanding of human identity and agency. James McGill’s transmutation into Saul Goodman – rendered with exquisite subtlety by Odenkirk – shows him never really whole, wavering between different selves even as he makes irrevocable decisions. His girlfriend and sometime partner in crime Kim Wexler is a less fractured figure. Over time, in Rhea Seehorn’s delicate, powerful performance, Kim grows colder and more artfully unscrupulous than Jimmy. She turns away from the person she has become, immuring herself in a deadly normality. Yet she cannot leave Jimmy behind and forget what she had with him.

Breaking Bad was a high point in television because it showed Walter White coming alive as he morphs into a remorseless killer. It is only then that he exhibits courage, resourcefulness and determination. In the theory we inherit from Christianity and classical philosophy, the virtues of human beings come as a package. If we are kind we are brave, if we are morally upright we live well and without regrets. In Walter White – as in many human beings – there is no such unity. People may become stronger and happier as they cease striving for all-round virtue. In the show’s last image of him, Walter is dying with a smile on his face.

In Better Call Saul, good and bad qualities are bound together in several of the characters. Played with awesome understatement by Jonathan Banks, the former cop Mike Ehrmantraut becomes a fixer and hitman for Saul and the psychopathic drug dealer Gustavo Fring to support and protect his daughter-in-law and her daughter. Nacho Vargo, a criminal whose calculating ruthlessness and defiant integrity is beautifully captured by Michael Mando, is ready to sacrifice his life to save his father’s.

The heart of the series is the interplay between Jimmy and Kim. They are linked, possibly indissolubly, and what was good between them is not wholly lost. If Saul is gone – as the title of the finale tells us – it is because Jimmy has chosen to sacrifice his alter ego for Kim’s sake. But is the persona that kills off Saul the Jimmy that once existed, or another self that has only just been born? Who does Kim think she has loved, left and perhaps come to love again? It is hard to believe that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the co-creators of the series, will leave the pair in limbo.

“Better Call Saul” is available to stream on Netflix

[See also: House of the Dragon review: sex, violence and top notes of incest]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars