By Peg Aloi
Having just triumphantly ended its sixth and final seasonYou better call Saul could be seen as the story of a man who thrives under pressure as he plays with the system.
Saul Goodman is the chosen professional name (“it’s all good, man!”) of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a fast-talking, risk-taking lawyer. breaking Bad viewers know as the guy who helps Walter White (Bryan Cranston) launder the drug money generated by his crystal meth empire. Jimmy’s approach to the law is equal parts charisma, rule-breaking, and verbal dexterity. (“Better call Saul!” is his marketing slogan, plastered on billboards and in local TV commercials.) His folksy charm contrasts with his flashy fashions and favorite over-the-top office decor. There is an ongoing pattern in the series (a prequel series based on Vince Gilligan breaking Bad) that I’ve always found fascinating: Saul’s obsession with clothes. There are hints that Saul acquired great wealth working as a lawyer for drug lords, financing a lavish lifestyle that bought him a huge mansion with a huge dressing room that would make Jay Gatsby proud: plenty of a colorful range of suits, shirts, and ties. Of course, there were a lot of expensive pairs of shoes. Excerpts from a television mockumentary titled American greed feature Saul as a once-wealthy, now-missing lawyer whose conspicuous drinking was as brazen as it was hilarious. Interestingly, two drug cartel assassins (the Salamanca brothers played by Luis and Daniel Moncada) encountered on occasion by Saul are also immaculately dressed in colorful costumes, suggesting an intriguing connection to the lawyer’s presence in this world. infamous underground, where money equals power and status.
For both breaking Bad and You better call Saul, show writers and directors Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould established a distinctive approach to the short prologue sequences that precede the brief opening credits. These sequences lasted from a few seconds to several minutes; they were often prefigurations, sometimes devoid of any dialogue or human presence. One of breaking BadThe most memorable openings feature seconds of a pink stuffed animal floating in a swimming pool, a reference to a “debris field”, the result of a fatal plane crash being triggered, as we learn at the end. of the episode, by Walt’s Actions. The tragic significance of the seemingly innocuous and random image is strategically concealed.
A similar mute opening for You better call Saul shows gloved workers (presumably cataloging the items for law enforcement purposes) meticulously packing the contents of Saul’s house, including many pieces of clothing. It is a fascinating indication of things to come. We sense the obsessive extent of Saul’s efforts to immerse himself in the lifestyle of a wealthy man who can afford the best of everything, including several designer suits, silk and linen shirts and beautiful Italian shoes. We don’t see Saul fleeing the authorities on money laundering charges, abandoning his house and expensive furnishings: only the consequences. We learn that the life he creates next is colorless and dull: managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. These segments are filmed in black and white. Saul’s previous flashy wardrobe is replaced with drab khakis and button-up shirts worn by an alter-ego (“Gene”) who lives a quiet, uneventful life. But we learn that Saul, whose career largely consisted of helping criminals escape the law and prison, is actually a wanted criminal hiding in plain sight. The flatness of these scenes, where it always seems to be winter, is a dramatic departure from the garish colors and gorgeous natural lighting in Albuquerque sets.
When Gene meets an old cohort from Albuquerque, whom he must convince to shut up, he organizes a shoplifting operation that briefly allows him to come into contact with the expensive and fashionable clothes he doesn’t. no longer dare to wear. He hatches an elaborate but effective game plan to get his accomplice to steal thousands of dollars worth of high-end goods from the department store in the mall where Gene works at Cinnabon. Merchandise includes cashmere sweaters, expensive sneakers, linen shirts and designer suits. The plan goes off without a hitch, but Gene dissuades the thief from repeating the heist. He knows he has already risked more than he should have. The intricacy of characterization here is brilliant. At first, it seems Saul misses the danger and adrenaline of his old life. But there’s a moment after the heist where he wanders into that same department store and considers trying on a fancy jacket. He lovingly caresses the fine fabric and walks away. He accepts that part of his life is definitely over. For a time, he was a guy who was able to indulge his knowledge and taste for beautiful fashionable clothes. His realization that the past is past is painstakingly constructed and perfectly rendered, a subtle but unequivocal revelation. The creation of empathy is masterful: despite everything he’s done, we feel bad for Gene, who had to give up being Saul, who he became when being Jimmy wasn’t enough.
Saul briefly mentions his previous life as Jimmy McGill in breaking Bad, but it’s only in the prequel series that we get the backstory of this fascinating and complex character. We also learn more about Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who handles security issues for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), king of a meth empire who does business with Walter White. Watching how Mike goes from his low-key job as a parking attendant to being a security guard for one of the Southwest’s biggest drug kingpins is a wild ride, and Banks is more than up for the challenge. Of course, one thing that’s immediately noticeable about the prequel is that the actors have aged since the end of breaking Bad. They play much younger versions of themselves. Hairstylists and makeup artists can work wonders, but most viewers easily accept this time machine conceit, especially given the nimble performances of the actors who don’t need magic.
Several major characters from You better call Saul had everything to do with how Jimmy McGill got to where he did: they include his brother Chuck (played absolutely brilliantly by Michael McKean) and Kim Wexler (the phenomenal Rhea Seehorn), his colleague, girlfriend and sometimes legal partner. Jimmy works from the mailroom of his brother’s law firm, attends a correspondence school program at the University of American Samoa, and passes the bar exam. Chuck is educated in ivy, successful and considered a brilliant legal mind: yet he is proud of his little brother Jimmy. and the proud Jimmy. But there are underlying issues of competition and favoritism unresolved since childhood. This tension affects their ability to work together professionally; they continually (unconsciously) act an almost unspoken animosity. At one point, Jimmy goes out with some friends to celebrate passing the bar, and after a few drinks, people start singing karaoke. Jimmy is a terrible singer but has fun with Abba’s “The Winner Takes it All”, inviting Chuck to join him. Chuck, naturally, sings very well and subtly steals the show, a cruel reminder that he will always “win” in any situation with his brother.
Yet, while Jimmy’s style of practicing law can be rather scattered, there’s a charming sparkle to his peddler persona and his knack for turning a profit working with petty criminals and the elderly, who aren’t able to pay a lot. , if anything. Jimmy builds his business in a dubious way, with Kim as the main cheerleader: she knows he has a good heart. But Jimmy’s unresolved bitterness towards Chuck takes its toll. And, after a strange delusional fixation keeps Chuck from working for years, Jimmy’s drive to care for his brother seems less about brotherly love than an act of control and condescension. It’s not until Jimmy “sucks the fuck up”, using his status as a lawyer to help the bosses of dangerous drug cartels, that he throws himself fully into the dapper persona to the max that he relishes. But this costs his personal happiness dearly.
We could describe breaking Bad like the story of an underachieving genius who, when given the chance, thrives when he treads a path of danger and anarchy. His skill is unleashed — in the service of morally reprehensible ends. In this way, You better call Saul could be seen as the story of a man who thrives on acting under extreme pressure: he works recklessly against the law while using it as a shield. Both Walter White and Saul are power-hungry and narcissistic. But White eventually comes to terms with the fact that he is a bad person who can never return to a normal life. Jimmy McGill finds all his attempts to be a bad person fail after he sacrifices his freedom to prove to Kim that he can do the ethical thing. These archetypal, anti-heroic reverse character arcs are an amazing study in contrast. Walt, once the mild-mannered, cash-strapped family man, is transformed into a monster that hunts everyone he loves. He dies rich but alone. Jimmy, the selfish trickster, is an honest man at heart who loses everything when he agrees to pay the price for his crimes. But in doing so, he regains the respect of the woman who loves him. In the end, Saul wins.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for boston phoenix and Fellow of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes about film, television and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Hustle, Microphone, Orlando Weeklyand Bloody disgusting. His blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.