Niall Anderson thinks Saul Goodman is just about worth your money.
All of the main characters in Breaking Bad – and most of the minor ones – exist somewhere along a spectrum between greed and desperation. Walter White starts out desperate, but his initial desperation unlocks the greed that’s always been there. Jesse Pinkman would like to be purely greedy, but he just doesn’t have it in him, so he’s doomed to desperation. Even the icy Gustavo Fring, who appears beyond any human consideration whatsoever, is finally undone when he can’t resist a confrontation with the historic source of his miseries. It turns out he was desperate too.
So where does that leave Saul Goodman, the Technicolor criminal lawyer (“criminal lawyer,” as Jesse puts it), with his bad wigs, his hundred cell-phones, his papier-macher office? At first he looks like a comical example of pure greed, and over the course of Breaking Bad there’s nothing he won’t try to keep the money flowing. But in the process he genuinely fights for his clients. Even the notorious ricin cigarette switch is an attempt to get Walter and Jesse back on the same side of the desk – fighting together rather than dying apart. Over the course of Breaking Bad, Saul might be the only person who doesn’t break his word.
When AMC announced last year that it would be producing a Breaking Bad spin-off specifically about Saul, it was hard not to feel trepidation. Sure, it would be nice to be back under the neon skies of New Mexico; it would be nice to see Bob Odenkirk as Saul again; and there’d surely be some kick-ass musical montages and good jokes. But spin-offs come with the major risk of being too cute. Exactly how many nods and winks would there be to the show’s illustrious forbear? Breaking Bad itself relaxed a little into fan service during the home stretch: there was a real chance that Better Call Saul would never quite become its own thing.
Initial impressions were not terrific on this score. Saul’s last line in Breaking Bad is: “If I’m lucky, a month from now – best case scenario – I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.” Guess where we find him in the opening scene of Better Call Saul? The pilot also ends with the reintroduction of a famous psycho from Breaking Bad’s early seasons (albeit acting a little calmer than we remember him). Was Better Call Saul just going to be Breaking Bad with actors looking a bit older, wearing slightly different clothes?
Thankfully, no. And yet, while the nods and winks and overt fan service have been dialled down, the longer Better Call Saul runs the more it looks like Breaking Bad retooled. Like Breaking Bad, it’s an origin story: one about how dissolute chancer James T McGill transforms himself into all-purpose criminal fixer Saul Goodman. (The name change even recalls Walter White’s gradual transformation into his drug baron alter ego, Heisenberg.) Like Breaking Bad, it pivots on the main character’s inability to distinguish between desperation and greed. And like Breaking Bad, the main character is motivated by a sense of generalised vengeance that’s only half-apparent to him.
None of this is exactly breaking the mould, then, but Better Call Saul perhaps has a little more room to manoeuvre than Breaking Bad. This isn’t just because Saul is a more playful figure than Walter White, or attractively more open to suggestion; it’s because Saul’s very job puts him at the sharp end of American capitalism – where the winners win big and the losers are destroyed.
This theme was always present in Breaking Bad, without ever quite coming to the fore. Walt had rich and successful friends whose success he resented, but he wasn’t the sort to develop this into any kind of critique of his society. Likewise, Breaking Bad’s vision of an octopoidal German conglomerate straddling legitimate business and narco-terrorism: this was eventually folded into the deadly personal antagonisms of the main characters. Breaking Bad’s sights remained narrow throughout. What Better Call Saul has is the opportunity to break big.
There are tentative signs that it’s going to take this opportunity, too. In the most recent episode to air (“Alpine Shepherd Boy”), Saul is at least temporarily convinced to become an advocate for the elderly. This being Saul, we see the dollar signs flash behind his eyes as he tots up what it will cost him versus what it will earn him. It helps that the idea is put to him by Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who is the closest thing the show has to a love interest. But the idea takes hold precisely because Saul actually wants to do good for people at the sharp end. He has been broke enough and desperate enough himself to know that life isn’t fair. So why shouldn’t he be an equaliser?
It’s in this sense of society and social justice – however restricted by the system – that Better Call Saul feels broader and more engaged than Breaking Bad, which was a descent from claustrophobic beginnings into even greater claustrophobia. Saul hasn’t quite clicked yet (quite a few of the relationships feel enforced by the plot rather than by anything naturally arising from the characters’ interactions), but there are many reasons to hope that it turns out to be something other than Breaking Bad Redux.