'Better Call Saul' is a show at war with itself
Saul versus 'Saul'
What the hell is Better Call Saul? Remember back in the series premiere, when it was the kind of show where twin ginger skateboarders got their legs broken by Breaking Bad fan service while Michelle MacLaren swan-songed out of TV by shooting the New Mexico desert like Sergio Leone homaging Salvador Dali? Remember when Jimmy bought a billboard and the Kettlemans went camping and Better Call Saul transformed into a USA network wacky-procedural—Burn Notice with a sunburn, Royal Pains with more pain—complete with a wacky HQ and a wacky suit and a wacky emphasis on the wacky brother with his wacky psychological malady? Remember when Better Call Saul suddenly coughed up a great episode that felt entirely different from everything else and focused specifically on the guy who isn’t Saul?
This hasn’t been not entertaining. Lead producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould know how to make television. They’re working with talented actors and talented writers and a talented crew—mostly inherited from Breaking Bad. Thus, Better Call Saul is one of the most meticulous messes in recent TV history. There are awesome scenes that come out of nowhere and stay there. (Saul—sorry, Jimmy—chats with a separatist loon who already printed separatist currency.) Like its predecessor, the show has an eye for snazzy visuals. The sun doesn’t shine on Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque; it attacks.
But unlike its predecessor, the show has no obvious narrative progression. Nacho’s important, or he’s not; the Kettlemans are half the show, or maybe we should care about Sandpiper. There are flashbacks to Jimmy’s past where Bob Odenkirk is playing either 25 or 57—a savvy criminal or a neophyte screw-up. In the lead-up to Better Call Saul, there were theories that the show would be funnier than Breaking Bad (maybe a sitcom?) or more procedural than Breaking Bad (maybe The Good Wife for bad boys?) or more episodic (like X-Files with lawyers!). None of that is true, and all of that is true. It’s interesting, but not the way great TV is interesting. Better Call Saul reminds me more of Treme or John From Cincinnati: post-masterpiece meanders.
Maybe this week’s season finale will click all the chaos into place. For me, though, the defining moment came in the penultimate episode. The least convincing and most spinoff-y part of this spinoff has always been Brother Chuck the Unelectric Man. The revelation that Saul—sorry, Jimmy—had a Bizarro-Successful Duplicate Alpha felt too easy, the upmarket cable-drama version of when every soap opera/comic book/Japanese videogame reveals the good guy has an evil long-lost brother/clone/alternate reality duplicate.
Michael McKean spent the season stranded in the gorgeously appointed shadows of his mansion-cavern. It seemed like Chuck’s role was to try keeping Jimmy on the straight and narrow—the Skyler to Jimmy’s Walt. But as the season progressed, it became clear that Chuck was actually the guy holding Jimmy (and THE SHOW) back. Chuck didn’t like Jimmy’s style; he didn’t respect his swagger; he didn’t like anything that makes Jimmy Saul. The show literalized that in this week’s ep, revealing Chuck was the guy who wouldn’t let Jimmy join his fancy law firm. This is the worst kind of surprise, in that it retroactively made Chuck even more annoying.
Better Call Saul was co-created/is vaguely co-run by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. Gould created the character of Saul in an all-time-great season 2 episode of Breaking Bad. Gilligan stuck around from Bad for this first season: He directed the first hour, co-wrote it with Gould. You could look at this first season as an extended hand-off from mentor to protége—Gilligan hasn’t taken a writing credit since that first hour, while Gould wrote and directed this weekend’s finale.
Is it possible to psychoanalyze some of that master-pupil relationship onto the Chuck-Jimmy relationship? I’m not saying Gilligan and Gould disagree; Gilligan is, by all accounts, the nicest guy to ever make a serialized descent-of-the-American-Dream tragedy. But is it possible to wonder if two similar-but-different men had similar-but-different perspectives on what this show should be? And don’t you wonder if the guy who first wrote the words “Better Call Saul!” maybe wanted a show called Better Call Saul to be about a guy named Saul?
This is where we need to discuss a fundamental prequel problem—what I have come to call the Wolverine Origins Conundrum.
After the first three X-Men movies, it was clear that everyone loved Wolverine, and clear that everyone would be very excited to see a movie about Wolverine. Wolverine was badass, and mysterious, and troubled by amnesia that led him to drink and rage. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie about that guy?
Except that instead, the studio made X-Men Origins: Wolverine—or Wolverine Origins as everyone accidentally calls it. Wolverine Origins is not a movie about Wolverine. Wolverine Origins is a movie about a pretty boring dude named James who cries when his dad dies and cries when his girlfriend dies. Like Saul’s Jimmy, James has an older brother who keeps holding him back. Like Saul’s Jimmy, James just wants to be a good guy and live a relatively peaceful life, which is a nice personal aspiration but is a horrible character goal when you’re making a movie that thinks it’s a superhero movie or you’re making a TV show that thinks it’s a descent-into-darkness character study.
There’s an idea that Better Call Saul is somehow intrinsically tragic because we know how Jimmy ends up. I get that, but it feels lazy. It locks the character on rails; the best parts of Saul feel very open-world. It also feels like a backhanded compliment: “Oh, Better Call Saul is way better after you watch Breaking Bad!”
But there is unmistakably a combustible element in Saul’s chemical compound. That element is Mike Ehrmantraut, played by the great Jonathan Banks with a stone face that suggests Buster Keaton playing a depressive Michael Mann safecracker. You might have thought that exporting Mike backwards into the prequel meant he’d be an essential part of Jimmy McGill’s transformation. Instead, Mike has spent this entire season off in his own cinematic universe. Everything about the show changes when he’s onscreen. The dialogue seeps away; the camera lens goes wide; the bullshit attorney-speak fades into no-bullshit noir quietude.
Does Better Call Saul want to be a show about Mike? It was hard to get over that idea, after watching “Five-O.” Essentially a dead-sea-scroll episode that could’ve fit anywhere in Breaking Bad season 5.1, “Five-O” was the Mike equivalent of Gus Fring’s origin story in “Hermanos.” Everything about “Five-O” worked: the train-POV opening, the veterinarian crime doctor, the mean-streets murder of two dirty cops. It was a great episode of Better Call Saul that felt nothing like Better Call Saul.
In the same way, Mike’s first-day-on-the-job as a security badass on this week’s episode resulted in a couple great scenes that felt completely different from the scenes around it. Quick, which is more fun: The elaborate demi-corporate power struggles of whiteshoe law firm Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, or Mike standing in a parking lot, waiting?
I’m not saying Better Call Saul should become Or Maybe Just Call Mike; I love Bob Odenkirk’s wild desperation, and only want to see more of it. But I do think that this is a show built on weird dissonance, between old and new, the Coenesque noir quirk of early Breaking Bad and the spaghetti western myth-making of late Breaking Bad, the urge to make a show about Saul Goodman and the urge to avoid ever actually getting to Saul Goodman. Just because the dissonance is fascinating doesn’t mean it’s not dissonance.
And what works about Mike on Better Call Saul is how the show keeps building out what we knew about him from the previous show. It doesn’t matter that we know that Mike winds up dead—just like it doesn’t matter that Ripley dies in Alien 3, or that Hannibal will almost certainly wind up in prison on Hannibal. With Mike, Better Call Saul is indulging its instincts towards mythmaking. “You thought Mike was cool on Breaking Bad?” the show seems to be saying. “You haven’t seen anything yet.” That’s a lot different from the pitch on the central character: “You thought Saul was cool? Meet Jimmy!”
I don’t know if the show needs to change; I’m okay with a weird mess of a show that occasionally coughs up an awesome episode. (In my ideal world, John from Cincinnati never ended.) But I do think the show needs to embrace its own weird wild heart. Dump Jimmy McGill; let Saul be Saul, so Saul can be Saul.
Also, kill Chuck.