Paste writer Shane Ryan and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson review each week of Better Call Saul in tiny scrawl on parking tickets that are lacking the correct number of validation stickers.
One of my favorite dramatic devices is something I’m going to call a life preserver—the sort of opportunity that emerges at the precise moment when a character seems to be drowning. To refine that a little, I like it even better when the life preserver comes in the form of something that character doesn’t immediately desire, and may even detest. At first, salvation may look like (and actually be) the death of a dream, and the fulfillment of a fate they never desired. Nevertheless, the best life preservers have a sense of dark excitement and fate—the character has been circling his destiny like water around a drain, convinced he’s been avoiding that final, exhilarating rush, when in face he’s been orbiting it the entire time.
James McGill wanted to be a respectable lawyer—one with money, who worked at a big firm, and did things the right way. Or so he thought. But deep down, he’s always been Slippin’ Jimmy, and his special talents emerge outside the realm of anything you or I might call respectability. Is he good at living a stable life? Hell no. He’s too inconsistent, too bored, too changeable. He’s one of Kerouac’s roman candles, destined to burn at a more frantic rate than the careful people around him. He vibrates, and people who vibrate can’t succeed at normalcy. BUT! Is he good at convincing a drug lord to break a pair of skateboarders’ legs rather than murder them? God yes. Put a little terror into him, induce panic, give him just the barest hint of a stage, and Slippin’ Jimmy is in his element. He will be disgusted at the violence, and he’ll shudder at the threats, but he won’t wilt, because there’s something inside him that was born for this life. And while his brother worries and the bigshots give him smug looks in passing at the courthouse, and he himself probably feels out of control and uncomfortable at the new turn his life is taking, the tug of destiny is going to prevail.
Which is why I didn’t have to watch the scenes from next week to know whether he was going to dial that number on the business card, Josh. It represented the perfect set-up—here’s the opportunity to take the road less traveled, and to risk everything, and to jump with both feet down the drain as you get sucked into situations unknown and unimagined. Of course he’s dialing that number!
Two episodes in, I think that’s what Better Call Saul is about—a man obeying his natural instincts. You could almost see it as the opposite of Breaking Bad. Walter White definitely embraced the role of drug kingpin, but it wasn’t necessarily him, and without the cancer, it’s easy to imagine him living a boring life with a hectoring wife who gives him half-hearted “favors” beneath the blankets while she reads a book and stews over a failed writing career. That was Walter White. But a staid lawyer with a nice income and a predictable life? That was never James McGill. The name change that we know is coming functions as a perfect metaphor, because this show is less about a transformation and more about crossing out the parts of your life that were never true to begin with. He was never James McGill—Saul Goodman lurked within him the entire time, just waiting until that first identity disintegrated under its own false weight.
And we can judge the show, I think, by how well Vince Gilligan and the writers convey the raw excitement of that transition. What they did with Walter White is arguably easier, because at its core, Breaking Bad was a fantasy, and they were free to let their story run wild—we never had to believe them, in the strictest sense. Better Call Saul is heightened reality—men like that really exist, and the burden is greater because it has to be tethered to truth.
That’s the benchmark, and two episodes in, I’m absolutely loving it. I realize now that I’ve mentioned essentially no specifics from “Mijo,” the second episode, and I promise to get there after what will surely be a more grounded (no cell phones!) response, but what I wanted to say is that I’m enthralled by this show, so far, and I can’t wait to see him dial that number, and then the next one, and then the one after that.
Can we just talk about the silent montage where James is sitting with the trashy-pretty girl at the bar but he can’t take his mind off the two skaters’ broken legs? That one scene says so much about who this guy is—much more than we ever got in Breaking Bad. He cares, Shane. He’s slimy, but he honestly cares. Along with his performance in the desert and the montage at the court, we learn that he actually enjoys using his silver tongue to help his clients, even when they’re stupid punks who turned on him twice—first trying to cut him out of the hit-and-run money then in the garage when he starts cutting them free. He talks them, as he puts it, “from a death sentence down to six months probation.” And still, he can’t bear the thought that he didn’t get them off clean—every breaking of a breadstick brings back the crack of a leg. He’ll probably betray his conscience dozens of times during the course of this first season, but we now know how heavy it’ll weigh.
So yes, his natural instincts are going to put him in the line of fire. He’s going to blur that line between lawyer and criminal until all that’s left is the tiniest smudge. But he’s not going there lightly, and that’s an important element if he’s going to remain the protagonist of the show. Walter White became the villain, but I can’t imagine ever not rooting for Saul Goodman, no matter how dirty his hands get. And yes, it’s pretty clear they’ll be getting dirty soon enough.
So back to yesterday’s question, is this innately who James is or is it an evolution? Yes and yes. There’s always been plenty of Slippin’ Jimmy in there, but enough desperation can tip the scales all the way to Saul. But being Saul isn’t about greed. It’s about pride. He’s a good lawyer in that he can talk almost anyone into almost anything (Walter White excepted). But that’s gotten him nowhere, especially in contrast to his brother. In the present-day series opener, it’s being the guy on TV that he misses, not the money. His pride is what’s going to make him call that number.
Yup, great points all. There’s a humanity to McGill that Odenkirk plays so well, and that’s going to be the element that keeps us with him. It’s important too, because an actual depiction of an actual sleazy lawyer would just be sad and enraging. There’s a kind of wounded idealism to Saul brewing just underneath the surface—he’s a scammer with a heart of gold. They should do a crossover episode with the cast of Pretty Woman, except I think that movie was already made, and it was Erin Brockovich. But now I’m confusing myself…
Here are a few smaller things I love about Saul, and then I’ll turn it back to you.
1. The stiff, semi-awkward way he gestures with his fingers pointed.
2. The way he does voodoo over his phone to conjure up voicemails.
3. The constantly shifting vocal inflections.
4. The confident, striding walk.
5. The way he can make a logical, convincing point, but also look like he’s about to cry.
What am I forgetting? And can we also take a moment to recognize the weird effectiveness of Michael McKean’s character? It’s such a good complement to Saul, and hints at the idea that they came from a troubled place—at least genetically. But probably more than genetically. Watching McKean re-wrap himself in the space blanket was heartbreaking.
That’s a great summation about what Odenkirk brings to McGill. I’ll add the calming effect he can bring to a situation as dire and morbid as negotiating what kind of damage to do to the skateboarders. The situation is as insane as Tuco, but McGill brings it back to the realm of the rational. It’s not a cool, devil-may-care calmness. Inside he’s frantic, but he’s on stage, and that’s where he was born to be. Performing the improv that will talk a psychotic drug dealer into thinking two broken legs is better than burying a couple of miscreants in the desert.
Stay gold, Saul.