Why Better Call Saul Is a Masterpiece of the Midlife CrisisPhoto: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures TV Features better call saul
Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from Season Four of Better Call Saul.
Better Call Saul has weathered little brother syndrome for years in the shadow of Breaking Bad. But its lower stakes, its more grounded drama, and its more subtle characters were never meant to work the same way. If Breaking Bad was the ultimate “genius dude has a midlife crisis” show, Better Call Saul is what happens when the same crisis hits the rest of us: frustration, complacency, and failure. As the series’ fourth season inflicts real tragedy upon its characters, it’s a catalyst for listlessness—and in Better Call Saul, idle hands are the Devil’s workshop in BCS and everyone’s open for business.
Critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently tweeted about TV characters and change. He said that “most of the major television series of last 20 years have been about people changing over the course of a long period of time.” Sure. Characters develop. Sam Malone becomes an aging, depressing lothario. Walter White becomes TV’s greatest monster.
But most people aren’t meant for greatness, whether that means seducing every single woman in Boston or becoming a meth kingpin. “Many of the most interesting/haunting stories are about people who never figure things out, or remain set in their ways,” Seitz wrote. “Or who simply endure.” But Better Call Saul sees even endurance as a goal most people fail to achieve, perhaps because of some innate American frustration burrowed in its mediocre middle-men.
In the aftermath of Chuck’s death and Hector’s stroke, everyone’s boat is rocked—Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), Kim (Rhea Seehorn), even Howard (Patrick Fabian). The series’ central questions (How does a small-time criminal become a lawyer… who then becomes a criminal? What’s fueling this trip around the ol’ legal merry-go-round?) get closer to their answers, while new ones flesh out its world’s utterly realistic chaos. The death itself is treated with arms-length briefness that affects Jimmy inwardly and Kim outwardly. Howard, the pompous moral enigma, may most make Chuck’s death about himself, but so, too, do Jimmy and Kim—just more subtly.
Better Call Saul invests much of its dialogue-light, action-heavy screen time in the couple’s routine. They get takeout, they watch movies on the couch, they drink to reach complacent numbness. This season makes a setup that screenwriting beginners learn is the least engaging way to start their indie—alarm goes off, protagonist starts their day—into a cycle of infinite breakfasts, coffees, and newspapers that provide the seductive security of simplicity. But the death has jostled them from this routine. Kim snaps at Howard, finding brief catharsis in anger, but it’s only a brief respite from her boring, soul-sucking Mesa Verde job. And Jimmy? He can’t practice law, so he’s temporarily in the purgatory of unemployment.
But that, like much of the series’ small dramas, is his own damn fault. Jimmy interviews to be a copier salesman, crushes it, then turns it down, rubbing the employees’ noses in it. The self-defeating interview is a way to maintain his detached status quo (“I’m better than this”) while moving from a relatively benign con (screwing with job interviewers) to a slightly less benign one (swapping a valuable figurine with a worthless one). It’s a visual metaphor for Jimmy’s search for some intangible “value”—everything always looks the same. The mundane artifice by which we assign worth, whether to a porcelain kid or to a lifestyle, is the ever-present con society plays on Better Call Saul’s characters.
If the work of director Andrew Bujalski frames the mundane life as an attempt at stability (slackers want to settle down), Better Call Saul treats it as a form of entropy: The series’ universe is constantly decaying, not because of the actions of a central supervillain, but because it is its nature, and the nature of its world. Complacency in emotion (Jimmy’s tepid reaction to his late brother’s praise-filled letter), stagnation in intimacy (Kim and Jimmy drifting apart as they seek satisfaction elsewhere)—it’s when things slow down and become routine that are the dangerous times for normal people.
We’re not going to turn into Walter White-scale monsters; we’re not going to drop everything to build an empire. But we will find a way to rock the boat, and in the world of Better Call Saul, people usually don’t have the ability to want to change and effect that change. If you want it, you can’t have it. That conflict is at the heart of good drama, which is why Better Call Saul is such an engrossing watch, but the way the series delights in its lulls makes you itch along with the characters. It make you root for your own worst impulses. It makes you squirm when you know the characters will give in. Even though you want them to.
If Walt became a god-king doomed by his hubris, Saul and his co-stars are long-suffering Greeks always pissing off the pantheon. These aren’t hot-blooded characters, like so many people in TV dramas and so few outside them. They’re not impulsive. They seethe. They fester. They may be in Albuquerque, but they’re as Midwestern as they come. Everything is bottled up until the small, void-screaming eruption rattles their lives just enough to stave off an ulcer. They’re mundane as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Mike (Jonathan Banks) will do the crossword in the same diner with the same waitress with the same order, but he won’t just accept checks he didn’t earn. He’ll go stir the pot just so he can quiet a small, nagging voice. He won’t just smile and nod at someone’s bullshit in group therapy; he’ll call them out. It’s in his DNA.
And the series knows this. It knows boredom, breathes unfulfillment. It offers three camera angles in just as many shots of Jimmy playing wall ball in tonight’s episode, “Talk,” before the man desperate to succeed pulls yet another stupid, self-aggrandizing move that’s just up its own ass enough to be sad. Sad because you can see the hunger; sad because the context (courtesy of series creator Vince Gilligan and team) has taught you that the hunger will never, ever be sated. And that’s not because it’s bottomless, but because it’s indecisive. It’s the hunger of digging through your full fridge and not finding anything to eat. The hunger of holding out on job listings or relationships because perfection may be one small move away. It’s a petty hunger that the show’s fiery tragedy amplifies by evaporating everything else. All that’s left in the ashes is a charred, selfish, misinterpreted message to be discontent.
And the thing that makes it stick in Season Four is that it’s shown to be so essential to these characters. The mundane crises exist at rock bottom and they exist in the future, when things are supposed to be fixed. The flashes forward, showing a noir-ish future in which Jimmy runs an Omaha Cinnabon as Gene, speak to the tension and instability of “normalcy” when your normal state rejects it. Jimmy freaks out after the hospital runs his identification because his past haunts his fears and coats his conversations. You can’t just slap a mustache and a new Social Security number on a crook and make them straight, just like you can’t bottle ambition in a dead-end job. When a chronic malcontent’s hands are idle, they’ll try to fix their unfixable problem and find that Promised Land where they’re better, smarter, than everyone else. When exceptional people fall prey to that trap, things break bad. When it’s the scrappy average, there is instead the constant, violent, tedious shuffling of Better Call Saul.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.