The entire premise of Breaking Bad was that life is like chemistry; changes happen all of the time, and sometimes they occur faster than you realize. A seemingly normal, likeable man snaps and becomes a cold, calculating, merciless crime lord, and yet you could also argue that maybe he was never that great of a guy in the first place. It could be that he was just waiting for the last straw to bring his demons out into the open.
It could also be a cautionary tale about society’s lauding of hyper-masculinity (and the derision of anything that differs form it), and how unchecked greed and pride can lead to bad, stupid choices.
Rewind now to the events of Better Call Saul. We saw a fully realized Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad (selfish, hollow, but immensely intelligent and crafty), and at the start of this prequel series, we saw Jimmy McGill, the man who will become Saul. Not the greatest guy, certainly, but still a likeable, charismatic, scrappy little defense lawyer trying to do what he thought was right.
Now, we are finally approaching the point of no return, as Jimmy’s disillusionment with his brother and society as a whole builds and he struggles to earn money and hold onto the love of his life, Kim, who is clearly stressed by the trial and Jimmy’s shady behavior. And in this week’s episode, right before the season finale, Jimmy does something that cannot be defended or spun in any sort of positive light: he convinces his former clients, a bunch of little old ladies, to turn against each other to force a settlement of their lawsuit, which gives him a quick and substantial payout.
“Fall” was the most painful episode to watch this season, other than “Chicanery.” Watching a sweet old lady get bullied by her friends as Jimmy played puppet master was, as another review put it, “like watching a puppy get kicked.” There was nothing noble about it whatsoever, and while the episode “Expenses” showed Jimmy at his emotional low point, “Fall” shows him at his moral low point so far. I feel bad for him, but that just makes this character degradation feel all the more tragic and wrong.
I watched the show entirely because of this eventual change, and now part of me is really regretting it. Not enough to quit Saul or denounce it, by any means, but I grew to really like Jimmy, despite his numerous flaws. Objectively, in just about every way, he was a better person than Saul Goodman.
Walter White, Jimmy McGill, and their respective criminal personas are intelligent in different ways. It’s clear that the two men could not switch places and succeed at one another’s jobs. They are also both brash and prideful, easily swayed by powerful emotions, and their sense of morality and justice often battle for dominance as they plan the way forward. Saul Goodman is a tamer but also more subtle kind of evil than Heisenberg; the latter breaks the law and hurts people directly and personally, while the former uses the law itself to his advantage. You can more readily guess and grasp at the consequences of Heisenberg’s actions, and yet Saul doubtlessly has his fingers (or ass, if you’d prefer) in way more pies.
Put that way, maybe Saul Goodman is worse than Heisenberg. How many criminals go free because of him? How many injustices are allowed to continue, all so this guy can make money?
For me, I think the tragedy comes from Jimmy’s fate already being known. Walter could have gone anywhere and done anything in Breaking Bad, and while his moral fall was inevitable, we couldn’t know to what extent or where it would ultimately lead him without following the show all the way to the end. We also saw how selfish he could be, and how minor snubs and hurts could lead to ridiculously stupid outbursts from him. Looking back now, I think Walter might actually have a lot in common with Chuck; maybe even more than he does with Jimmy.
But the audience of Better Call Saul has (more than likely) seen Breaking Bad, and knows what Saul Goodman is like. They may have liked his sleazy charm and the creative resolutions he had for various problems that popped up during Heisenberg’s reign, but now there is a sweeter, more naive version with a sad family backstory with which we can compare him. We have followed him as a protagonist, not a side character; we’ve seen his personal struggles, and identified with him on some level. His love and loyalty have been severely tested, and while you don’t want him to give up hope, you could conceivably understand why he’s losing the strength to care.
It’s genuinely hard to see Jimmy crossing over to the dark side in strides, and I didn’t realize just how hard it would be until Monday night. I’ve been losing track of things on and off throughout this series, because as I said, the fact that it’s prequel is not all that overt or distracting once you get into it. I knew from the very beginning where Jimmy would end up, both morally and the fate of his general person; I just didn’t know how or why, and I didn’t expect to like him as much as I do.
The tragedy of exploring the past is that you see, by various degrees, how it could have been prevented. By contrast, the tragedy of seeing the future is that you (but more relevantly, the other characters) can’t do anything to prevent it. The sensation fills you with helplessness, because the situation gains more depth, more meaning, in the context of the original story/character. It adds to the weight of the loss of a man who might have been an asset to society, had he not taken this path.
Contrast this with someone like Mike, a smart man who had every opportunity to help people as a police officer, but fell pray to a corrupt community and let his morals be corroded by greed and self-preservation. He toes the line between right and wrong across both series, but with his added backstory in Saul, I have no doubt that, above all else, he does whatever he thinks is necessary to protect himself and his family. He utilizes the training and knowledge from his previous life, but his personal pride generally knows when to take a back seat (unlike Walter’s, for example).
Neither Walter nor Jimmy had enviable lifestyles, but at least in the latter’s case, he had a woman he loved who supported and challenged him, and he could find some degree of passion, even as a low-rate public defender. He had stress and discontent, sure, but he also had a seemingly loving and supportive brother, despite Chuck’s debatable illness. Walter, meanwhile, needlessly drove all of his friends and family away, all because he was disappointed with himself, too proud to seek help, and rendered reckless by the first real excitement he had ever felt in his life.
Walter’s situation seems more tragic…but only because of the countless (seen and unseen) victims of Heisenberg. He may never have had the capacity to help people, because deep down, he was proud, bitter, and greedy. Jimmy was no peach back in Season 1, but at least he seemed to genuinely want to help people. And his less legal antics were mostly harmless; they either backfired, netted him some minor success, or they screwed over people like the Kettlemans, who seemed to deserve it.
Plus, in the end, Walter admits that he liked being a meth lord and was good at it. Jimmy didn’t want any of the nonsense that tore him and his brother apart.
Losing Kim will probably be the final push for Jimmy, whether it’s by her death or social departure from his life. I can’t say for sure how it will happen, but just the idea of the latter makes me think of A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge lets his fiancé walk out of his life with hardly a protest, and he subconsciously regrets that choice for the rest of his life. That is the impression I get from the brief scenes of future Saul, as he quietly manages some middle-of-nowhere Cinnabon.
I’d rather not have Kim die, but if they don’t do that, I’m sure the writers will make it feel as painful as if she had.
I’m eager to see what happens with Mike, Gus, Nacho, and Don Hector – even Howard and Chuck, if only because I want to latter to get knocked down a few pegs further – but now, anything involving Kim or Jimmy just fills me with dread. How crazy will this season finale be?