Better Call Saul is a spin-off, a prequel, and sequel to the immensely popular TV show Breaking Bad. During its run, the only question that was often asked of Breaking Bad was: best show on TV right now, or best show of all time? Tension on Breaking Bad reached unthinkable peaks, forcing its characters closer and closer to the point of no return. It was a zero-sum game where the rules were made by a madman with a death wish, convinced he was a hero in disguise.
In an informal study of people who couldn’t stomach Breaking Bad (my parents and my girlfriend), they’ve pointed to the fact that they could never even halfway believe that it’s main character, scientist-turned-drug dealer Walter White, was a good person. They saw nothing but death and destruction wherever he followed. So while Better Call takes place in the same world as Breaking Bad, it’s early episodes have figured out the trick of how to follow it up: don’t. Rather than focus on destruction, Better Call Saul has found its footing in talking about creation, in trying to make it in the world whatever way possible. Rather than railroading death, it finds life wherever it blooms.
Finding life and using it properly are very different things, and when we meet Saul Goodman, going by his given name of James “Jimmy” McGill, he’s about as low as a lawyer can get. Working out of the backroom of a nail salon, his clients are $70-a-head defendants in federal cases, the only differences between them being the idiocy of their destructive crimes.
Working them hardly pays rents. His dream payday — cashing his brother out of a very successful firm in which he is no longer active due to a debilitating condition — is hitting a wall. He’s got no real friends to speak of, and he doesn’t just work in the back of a nail salon; he sleeps there too. Similar to Breaking Bad, the show starts with its central character in his own personal hell, just scraping by.
But where Jimmy/Saul finds failure (and he finds it a lot), his attitude is radically different than Walt’s. Jimmy, brilliantly portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, only needs the tiniest opening to slam through a door. A sticker on the back of a car suggests where runaway potential clients have gone. When con artists try to play him, he quickly enlists them in higher-level scams. A few older clients agree to get their wills made up, and suddenly he specializes in “elder law.” A potential client tells him he wants to secede from the United States, and he nods his head until the money turns out to be non-existent. He moves through these worlds effortlessly because he knows that they’re better than the alternative: standing still.
The show keeps hinting that sooner or later, Jimmy will find his life of crime. The show isn’t called Jimmy Works Hard at His Law Practice, after all. The end is predestined for anyone who has seen Breaking Bad (however the show totally works if you haven’t; my girlfriend loves it).
Presumably, though, Vince Gilligan has found a balancing act to base Jimmy’s transformation. He may get into criminal activities, but that will only be one part of the hustle. The law can pay when you know how to play it, and there are few players as entertaining as Odenkirk’s.
By David Grossman. This post originally appeared in the We Work Magazine. Republished with permission.