Culture

Film & Television

A new career in a new town, just like the old career in the old town

By Adam Rivett
With each season, ‘Better Call Saul’ feels more like a corrective to ‘Breaking Bad’

The third season of Better Call Saul ended last week. Its final episode was for the most part a melancholy affair, its final scene at once shocking and, retrospectively, grimly inevitable. Still, last week? Measuring time by the TV recap clock – where each new episode of each new show is consumed by night and cremated early the next morning – that’s roughly equivalent to four or five months. By now we’re supposed to have moved on to the next streaming phenomenon, the next essential pop culture conversation starter. Yet Better Call Saul lingers. This is what it does. It hangs around. It’s in no hurry. It seems unable to surrender its sorrow.

So how did we get here, all hangdog and half-paced? After three seasons, we inch ever closer to the creation of Saul Goodman, the stupendously amoral lawyer who represented Breaking Bad’s sprawling cast of criminals. For now, however, the show’s centre remains the man Who Would Be Saul: Jimmy McGill, a far less successful (if no less ingeniously deceptive) iteration of Breaking Bad’s Mr Fixit. It was the astonishing success of that show that granted its creator, Vince Gilligan, the opportunity to pursue almost any project imaginable, yet I can’t have been the only one who shrugged when production of Better Call Saul was announced: a prequel, that most doggedly unnecessary of narrative spakfilla? Was the legal training of Saul Goodman something that needed dramatising? Was this a cash-in, an attempt to keep spinning a story that had, after five seasons, definitively ended? It’s clear now just how wrong those early impressions were. After an opening episode that offered the necessary fan service, the show has slowly but surely walked away from cheaply gratifying its audience. With each season, it increasingly feels like something bordering on a corrective statement.

Nothing has signalled this intent clearer than where each new season of Better Call Saul begins: at Saul’s end, Omaha. It’s there, sporting a new name (Gene) and a far humbler job (managing a shopping mall Cinnabon), that Jimmy/Saul winds down his days, the scorching yellows and reds of the show’s dominant colour scheme temporarily replaced with stark black and white, and the fast-talking lawyer now a near-mute, slump-shouldered sad sack. Having paid handsomely to disappear and leave no trace of his old life, he resembles nothing more than the nameless narrator of William Gass’ masterpiece of Midwestern despair and isolation, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’: “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose: what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?”

Though these glimpses of Jimmy’s third and likely final life are brief, they’re telling. They signal the show’s pace and sensibility, its mood of humbled regret. Watching his old TV ads one night after work, Jimmy/Saul/Gene has all the time in the world to ponder what went wrong. As self-pity dictates, he’s happy to linger at length. The show proceeds accordingly.

I’d wager most networks and showrunners could comfortably squeeze the raw narrative material of Saul’s three seasons into a tidy one-and-done, and still feel they lacked a few cliffhanger endings. In direct contrast to its frenzied brethren, this is a show that moves at a pace that lets logic, rather than audience irritability, dictate plot. At every turn the show emphasises difficulty: distance, slowness, boring details. Even its plotting is obsessed with the sort of fine print most shows would skip over: much of season two, for example, hinges on a small but crucial typo in a lengthy legal document. A standard episode consists of three to four long and nuanced conversations given maximum time to breathe, where the smallest gesture or throwaway line carries the greatest weight. While the legal profession has been and remains a rich source of dramatic minutiae, it’s how the show applies this same approach to the drug trade that stands it apart from its predecessor. Both lifestyles – legal and pharmaceutical – are portrayed as joyless grinds, a long game played by stone-faced sufferers that always ends up rewarding someone a rung higher up the ladder. In place of Breaking Bad’s swaggering Meth mythology, Saul brings slow financial accumulation and simmering resentment between uneasy allies to the fore. The entire drug trade is ruthlessly deglamourised: the business is mostly a matter of fraught border runs and airless rooms where men grimly count and recount dollar bills while avoiding each other’s eyes.

Meaningful happiness evades all the show’s characters, a melancholy that soon enough settles over the viewer. Even as the bodies piled up, Breaking Bad’s headlong momentum granted the viewer a queasy, nervous pleasure. Saul can only leave a viewer to wonder if any of its characters’ gains are worth the price they finally pay. If the empty spaces of the New Mexico setting afforded Bad the sweep of a modern-day Western, the same landscape this time around feels infinitely lonelier and less grandiose. Characters are abandoned to their surroundings, even indoors – swallowed up by the boardrooms and lobbies they hope will cement their power, lost in car parks as large as the buildings they serve. Even the show’s most reliable source of action, Mike Ehrmantraut (another returning Bad regular, played by Jonathan Banks), is, in numerous scenes, a mere dot on the landscape, either killing nights at a car park toll booth or waiting, gun in hand, for a single shot that might justify a day spent in the desert.

Should all this sounds hopelessly dour and dull – a hectoring scold to Breaking Bad’s lawless glee – it should at this point be emphasised that Saul is often both darkly funny and, thanks to its uniformly superb cast, utterly compelling. In a show committed to the patient and gradual revelation of character, where moments of quiet moral failing and compromise move the story along, its actors carry an unnaturally large burden. None suffer under it. While returning characters such as Giancarlo Esposito’s Gustavo Fring continue their excellent work (never has a character’s restraint suggested such ferocious depths), it’s the new characters and actors Gilligan and his collaborators have added to this world that truly distinguish it. As lawyers at Jimmy’s occasional place of employment, the work of Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler and Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin deftly captures every imaginable type of business etiquette, from Kim’s slightly nervous professionalism to Howard’s practised smarm (the show’s most underrated comic asset). And as Nacho Varga, right-hand man to drug dealer Hector Salamanca, Michael Mando brings a nuanced and pained ambivalence to a character type – the Mexican heavy – often rendered cartoonish on Breaking Bad.

But for all the talent on display in these supporting roles, it’s finally a show of two characters: older and younger brother, success and failure. Over numerous Christopher Guest films, Michael McKean has perfected a kind of haughty delusion, and it’s this quality, given tragic weight, that defines his role as Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s older brother. Like any fully developed character, an audience’s attitude to Chuck can change from scene to scene – at one time his uptight aloofness makes perfect sense when contrasted with brother’s gamesmanship, while at another it plays as utterly monstrous.

As for Bob Odenkirk, he continues the outstanding work started on Breaking Bad. For anyone who’s revered him since the days of the now legendary Mr. Show, and who regularly marvelled as his besuited calm morphed into unstoppable comic rage, watching him over these two shows feels like the validation of long-held fandom. Rarely is a comedic actor asked to mine such darkness, and with such compelling returns. Without Odenkirk, the despairing nature of the character’s inventions – Jimmy is always talking himself out of trouble, and simultaneously right back into it – would likely be only half as funny, and half as bleakly moving too. Even the logical slip-ups inherent in a prequel (why does Jimmy look older when he’s supposed to be significantly younger?) are rendered irrelevant by Odenkirk’s performance. His Jimmy grows heavier each season with shame and need – it’s a portrait of a young man struck down early by regret and betrayal. The other Jimmy waiting just offstage – the more vibrant, shameless Saul Goodman – is the younger man he never truly got to be first time around. For now, he’s a hustler whose fundamental desperation is barely masked by his strained brio.

Selling a show on its timeliness can often be a trap, the sort of critical approach that venerates the emptily topical over the less immediate and fashionable. Nonetheless, it’s not hard to see, with each new season, the despairing vision of business and “success” that Better Call Saul summons before any audience patient enough for its longueurs and digressions. Walter White’s story was for many the ultimate wish fulfilment, a story to be venerated and envied, even as it decimated all life around it. There will always be people who can rationalise any action as long as it grows the business it supports – just look at Grenfell, or the comments section of any Wolf of Wall Street clip on YouTube for that matter. Walter White was the bitter fruit that grew from land prepared by many hands. By the time the destruction of Jimmy McGill is complete, the void at the centre of Saul Goodman and the world he defended and defined might be just a little clearer. 

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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