April 14, 2021

Don’t Call It a Spinoff  — “Better Call Saul” Is a Great American Film

By Stuart Mitchner

I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine! You can’t conceive what I’m capable of!  I’m so far beyond you, I’m like a god in human clothing! Lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!

—from Better Call Saul, Season 5

Better Call Zeus is more like it. In fact that passionate utterance comes from the owner of a Suzuki Esteem named Jimmy (“S’all good, man!”) McGill, who is at a transformative breaking point not unlike the Shazam moment where Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel.

So, you may be thinking Saul Goodman of the lightning bolts is either a Shakespearean actor in rehearsal or a deranged black comedy superhero out of the Marvel comics universe, surely not a shyster lawyer with a University of American Samoa law degree (by mail) driving a vehicular alter ego of a color somewhere between a “yellow matter custard I-am-the-Walrus” shade of yellow and the Crime and Punishment yellow symbolic of corruption, dilapidation, decay, and soulsick decadence. And don’t forget the slightly unhinged strip of chrome on the passenger side, just down from the blood-red rear door that suggests the work of a body shop mechanic with delusions of abstract expressionist grandeur.

Every time Jimmy speeds off on another mission, the camera makes sure you get a clear view of the word ESTEEM to the right of the New Mexico Land of Enchantment license plate. And every time you see that word you’re reminded of how brilliantly far the show’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have gone — the proverbial extra mile — to put their hero behind the wheel of the perfect car for a driver on his way to the far side of “esteem” as Saul Goodman, a Friend of the Cartel.

Jimmy’s 1998 Esteem takes a hit almost as soon as he puts it in motion in the series pilot when an insurance-scamming skateboarder tumbles accidentally on purpose over the hood and smashes the window. Amazingly, the Little Yellow Car That Could almost makes it to the end of Season 5 (spoiler alert) as Jimmy/Saul drives it to the Mexican border. You could say that when the Esteem goes literally over the edge — it’s goodbye Jimmy, hello Saul.

The Winner

Better Call Saul wins the Best Picture Oscar in my own private award show, dwarfing the competition, be it full- length film or multi-season series, much as Breaking Bad did a decade ago. If I’m not playing by the Academy/Golden Globe rules, blame the anything-goes spirit of this so-called “prequel.” In fact, it’s time to stop thinking of Better Call Saul as a mere spinoff; you might as well say the same for The Godfather Part 2 or Henry IV Part 2.

When I first wrote about Breaking Bad, it was after an online fishing expedition baited with the tag, “Breaking Bad/Dostoevsky.” I was guessing that a series about a terminally ill high school science teacher’s evolution into a methamphetamine overlord had qualities that the author of Crime and Punishment would find compelling. For that matter, so would Robert Louis Stevenson, had the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde witnessed Walter White cooking up batches of crystal blue meth in his lab as a Hyde named Heisenberg takes possession of his soul.

Jimmy’s Genius

Even before Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) breaks up or down, bad or good or doomed, in the process of becoming Saul Goodman, he exhibits the genius of a born showman, a word-slinging sales pitch virtuoso. Imagine an unhinged, unstoppable travesty of Mad Men’s Don Draper who isn’t afraid to risk everything in the shameless pursuit of his goal. Jimmy suits the action to the word to the action with a vengeance (never mind “the bounds of modesty”). Consider the erection of a gigantic sky-high billboard showing James M. McGill, Attorney at Law, in blue pinstripes, next to the JMM logo (his initials, Justice Matters Most or Just Make Money take your choice). Forced to remove the ad because he’s borrowed (as in theft) the logo of his older brother’s law firm Hamlin Hamlin & McGill, Jimmy stages a spectacular rescue stunt, wherein he scales the heights to pull a dangling workman to safety (“It took you long enough”), thereby making the front page as an Albuquerque Harold Lloyd, or, given the circumstances, Douglas Fairbanks as The Thief of Bagdad. It’s by way of stunts like these that he haphazardly showmanships his way into the middle of a drug war.

Jimmy’s gritty genius takes him in the opposite direction when he plumbs the depths of a dumpster reeking of nursing-home garbage in his quest for shredded documents he will piece together as evidence in a class action suit against the corporation that runs the facility. At this point Dostoevsky comes to mind again, given the Karamazovian intensity of Jimmy’s relationship with his older brother Chuck, a distinguished lawyer, the pride of the firm, albeit out of the office because of his electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Chuck is played by Michael McKean 30 years this side of Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, speaking of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Kim is Key

With the winds of excess and extremity at his back Jimmy/Saul does good without intending to, abets evil without knowing it, enchants, bewilders, terrifies, and delights the lawyerly love of his life, Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn in a performance that earns her the Best Actress Oscar in my one-man awards ceremony (it goes without saying that Odenkirk wins Best Actor for his Zeus-worthy portrayal of Jimmy). The way a buddy-movie workplace friendship blooms into a love story is among the special joys of Better Call Saul. Romantic comedy with screwball elements is only one among many genres left out by Wikipedia’s scattergun attempt to label the series (crime drama/legal drama/black comedy/tragedy). Call the show what you will, Kim and Jimmy make one of television’s most appealingly offbeat couples. They even have a song, “Something Stupid,” which accompanies a split-screen video of their life together. When the romance takes on film-noir shadings toward the end of the fifth season, and then goes the extra mile into a life or death epic in the desert, the split-screen song is movingly reprised, with Kim fretting and fearing the worst and Jimmy very nearly succumbing to it in a sequence that may rouse smiles of fond recognition in fans of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Kim’s Fate

Writing in The Ringer (“Don’t Kill Kim”), Lindsay Zoladz finds Kim “perhaps the easiest character to root for on Better Call Saul. In a show full of crooked morals, her compass is true — even when she’s taking the fall for Jimmy.” Or helping him scam a Wall Street loudmouth out of an $800 bottle of tequila. Seehorn plays Kim “with stoic grit” and “a clenched jaw that very occasionally cracks into a sly smile, mostly when she’s with Jimmy …. But in another sense, loving Kim Wexler is complicated.” True, the more you feel for Kim, the more you fear for her when pondering what’s in store in the sixth and final season as Better Call Saul closes in on the timeline of Breaking Bad.

The Strongest Character

In the two previous columns I devoted to Breaking Bad, I only mentioned Saul Goodman in passing, with praise for “the sleazy ingenuity of one of the most charming shyster lawyers you’ll ever see,” and for providing “all kinds of unlawful advice along with indispensable comic relief.”

There was no mention of Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut in either column. That I’m saving him for last is a tribute to his character’s stature and complexity. Mike is not only indispensable, he’s virtually unfathomable. How is it that a killer emerges as the strongest and single most sympathetic character in the human comedy of Better Call Saul? It’s not enough to simply label him an anti-hero. Once again, as with “spinoff” and “prequel,” terminology falls short, and you find yourself bringing the big names Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Shakespeare, or Hemingway or Faulkner or Philip Marlowe into the discussion. Even then, it’s a cop out — no pun intended, Mike being an ex-cop from Philadelphia whose son was murdered for standing up to two corrupt fellow officers. Having killed both men after determining their guilt beyond any doubt, Mike turns up in a parking garage kiosk in Albuquerque just in time to refuse to let Jimmy McGill through when he lacks the required number of stamps on his ticket. As soon you as you begin to see the gate-keeping dynamic of that relationship, you’re smiling because you know the series you’re about to watch is going to live up to — or surpass — your expectations. 

Searching for information about Jonathan Banks, I was pleased to find that three decades ago he was a theater student at my alma mater, Indiana University. In April 2016, the university awarded him an honorary degree. In accepting it, he said, “This place gave me my life.” Then, speaking to aspiring actors in the audience, he said he would be developing Mike Ehrmantraut’s backstory until the day he dies. “You don’t need to decide where your character went to kindergarten, but you do need to know where their pain comes from,” he said. He also advised actors to embrace being an artist, and “if you’re an artist, you’re going to have to be prepared to die with your hands empty but with the thought in your mind that ‘I’m an artist, and I’ve done the best I can.’”