If you believe one Charles McGill, Esq., then you might just agree with my column title this week. Charles, or just Chuck to his brother James – err, Jimmy – is quite the cantankerous coot when he wants to be. And when he’s not being cranky, he’s stripping his brother’s soul away, through a cruel and twisted life-view. It’s enough to drive a guy to throw years of attempted redemption down the drain in lieu of cheap wins and morally ambiguous behavior. And it’s a damned beautiful shame.
I’m of course talking about the recently completed first season of Better Call Saul, the progenitor to Breaking Bad. To be totally fair, Saul isn’t what one might truly dub a prequel per se. Instead, it’s a same-universe flashback, fleshing out of an otherwise ancillary character into a fully developed lead, worthy of his own show. Suffice to say, I’ve been on board since the first episode. But unlike Breaking Bad – which I believe attempted to keep its audience at arms length from truly embracing Walter White – here we’re given Saul Goodman in the real flesh, and we’re welcome to call him our hero.
If Breaking Bad is Vince Gilligan’s (and Peter Gould’s) grand opus, then Better Call Saul is most certainly his encore. Liken it say, to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (but not definitely not Twelve, and not Thirteen). But, I digress. We have content to dissect!
As we knew him from Bad, Saul Goodman was the epitome of a made-for-the-late-night lawyer. The kind whose waiting room brimmed with the lowest of the lowlifes in the ABQ. His office, a mock Oval Office replete with faux-columns, and the finest pleather, was a testament to what a sleazy con man might surround himself with when he wants to appear above board. It took only seconds of screen time to define him as anything close to it. But, in true fashion to deliver more than meets the eye, Saul wasn’t an idiot. He was sharp, knowledgeable, and safe enough – a con man with a coherent (if often errant) conscience. Now, flashing back six years from when we’d first seen him, we get the details behind the facade. And all of it is built on a house of cards when we learn that Saul Goodman is actually ‘Slippin’ Jimmy McGill of Cicero, Illinois.
One of the biggest themes to be presented throughout the first season was change. Over the course of ten episodes, we found the soul of someone seeking redemption. Pinned for giving a Chicago Sunroof (look it up) to the man that would steal his wife, Slippin’ Jimmy – life-long loose-change con man – is given hard time. His clean-cut brother, high-powered Albuquerque lawyer is there for his brother’s release. And its there Jimmy vows to finally change for the good. His brother’s smile through the frown is enough to show us how much belief he had in the sentiment. As we’d later learn, Slippin’ Jimmy took his pledge in all seriousness. A move away from bad influences, a menial job mastered, and a night-course law degree earned over years begat a bar-passing honest-to-goodness lawyer out of a man who once slipped for money. Real change.
When Jimmy dropped his degree-bomb on his brother, he literally had to squeeze the phrase “I’m proud of you” out of Chuck’s bewildered lips. It was not a con (but it was a degree from University of America Samoa…). But in the eyes of the good brother, it wasn’t true penance for an otherwise wasted life. Jimmy, ever eager to prove his mettle, would start a home practice when the evil partner of Chuck (The Hamlin, of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill) let Jimmy go from his mailroom position, and opted to only reassess Jimmy’s desire to work within the firm in six months. It was all a lie. This was merely the first jab in an astounding one-two punch.
The haymaker came shortly after Jimmy managed to wrangle a million-dollar class action lawsuit by literally swimming in sh*t long enough to earn it. And in the face of this victory – now cementing our hero as an imperfect guy willing to roll up his sleeves and earn his stripes – he met with the crushing realization that he’d never earn that spot at the table. Charles McGill, Esq. had been the one to force Hamlin to fire Jimmy before. And he made Hamlin out to be the bad guy once again, in offering to take on Jimmy’s big case… just without him anywhere near it.
There have been few moments on TV that rendered me utterly speechless. When Jimmy confronted his brother over the betrayal, and Chuck snapped back immediately with “No one ever changes!” I couldn’t muster anything but warm breath. Slippin’ Jimmy would always be Slippin’ Jimmy to Chuck. No matter the journey. No matter the facts. And with that statement, Gilligan and Gould shot Bruce Wayne’s parents. They killed Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy. They activated James McGill’s X-gene. Because now, fueled by the sentiment of the brother he still cares for, James – Jimmy – is no longer in the picture.
Long live Saul Goodman, manager of an Omaha Cinnabon.