Saul Is The Guy You Should Probably Get On The Phone
February 18, 2016
When Vince Gilligan announced, near the end of Breaking Bad’s lauded run, that he would produce a spinoff show starring Bob Odenkirk’s character Saul Goodman, I was skeptical. Saul Goodman is one of the strongest characters in Breaking Bad, a smooth-talking lawyer who specializes in working around the margins of the law, whether it be fitting “victims” with properly-sized neck braces before their court appearances or laundering massive sums of cash for drug dealers and other criminals. The humor that Saul injected into every episode of Breaking Bad in which he appeared helped counterbalance a show that often strayed into melodrama: he was the perfect foil for Walter White, an experienced manager who was willing to frankly tell his clients that they “suck at peddling meth.” Every scene that took place in his Constitution-bedecked office was a treat and a respite, no matter that Goodman frequently helped drive the show’s tense plotting.
The idea of placing that Saul Goodman, the Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad, at the center of his own show sounded foolish. Like the little-remembered Lone Gunman spinoff from the X-Files, Better Call Saul seemed destined to promote a player from the sidelines to center stage without doing the hard work of reframing and in many was reinventing that character as a protagonist. Luckily, from the first frame of the season one premier, Better Call Saul has walked a line that is parallel to, rather than intersecting with, what made Breaking Bad great. The Saul Goodman of Better Call Saul is so far removed from his eventual Breaking Bad incarnation that one could easily miss the through lines, and so from its very start Better Call Saul framed itself as the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, not how Saul Goodman met Walter White.
Moreover, the show exists in a pre-Heisenberg Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place that is at once gentler and more menacing than its Breaking Bad equivalent. Instead of flophouses and meth dealer hideouts, Better Call Saul represents the ABQ’s underbelly by showing us Jimmy McGill’s office in the storage closet of the nail salon he will one day own. Though we get to see some actual criminal activity through Mike’s storyline, the first season of Better Call Saul was more concerned with Jimmy being rejected by the legitimate world than it was with his seduction by the life of crime. If Better Call Saul is the story of one man’s fall from grace, season one took place in, or at least outside the gates of, that enlightened kingdom.
Season two continues to tell Saul Goodman's story as if the audience doesn’t know where all of it is going. Saul, here still Jimmy, spends a few days floating in a hotel pool, conning management and guest alike, before accepting the job at a major law firm that is the secondary reward for all his hard legal work in season one (his central goal, his brother’s approval, was denied him). The gorgeous opening sequence showing a post-Heisenberg Saul closing a Cinnabon in Omaha sets the goalpost so far in the future that its impact on the rest of the episode is symbolic rather than narrative: whether he’s locked in a garbage room in a mall in Nebraska or trapped beneath the weight of expectations laid on him by Kim, deep down Jimmy McGill will always be Saul Goodman, the subtle conman who bilks a stranger out of thousands of dollars of high-end booze as easily as if he were asking for the time. As Breaking Bad viewers, we know where this internal conflict will end, and while we might want to see the process sped up so that we can be reunited with the Saul Goodman with whom we all first fell in love, there is joy to be found in the journey.
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For all of that, my absolute favorite storyline in Better Call Saul is that of “Pryce,” the awkward drug dealer who hires Mike as security. “Pryce” is the proto-Heisenberg, a normal citizen whose ability to obtain drugs leads him to make inroads into the criminal underworld. Mike’s calm, vaguely disinterested manner in his interactions with “Pryce” presages his dismissive attitude towards Walter, and goes a ways towards explaining why Mike underestimated Heisenberg from the beginning. Still, watching “Pryce” go about his business is a treat, like viewing Walter White through a funhouse mirror. He’s an arrogant white male with access to illegal drugs who believes that he is smarter than everyone he encounters, but what makes “Pryce” hilarious is that he so clearly lacks the intelligence that set Walt apart from those around him. When he drives up in his brightly-color H2 with spinning rims, what seemed like naiveté in season one is shown to be pure stupidity.
What makes “Pryce” fascinating is how his failings explain what made Walter White so successful in the drug business. The two men have many surface similarities, from their relative inability to be subtle with their money (remember that Walt also purchased a number of flashy cars) to their habit of hiding their cash in their walls. “Pryce” even possesses the same independent spirit as Walt, as evidenced by his refusal to bow to Mike’s demands about the vehicle they take to the meet. The differences are manifold, but are best summed up by two specific factors: intelligence and motivation. Simply put, for dramatic purposes Walter White possessed a Sherlock Holmes-level of intelligence, and was capable of thinking himself out of nearly every unfavorable situation in which his criminal dealings placed him. Second, and almost as important, was Walter’s motivation. Sure, he was driven by pride, but his reason for cooking and selling meth was always his family. Where “Pryce” just sees money and the things that he can buy for himself, Walter saw a future that he could leave for his family when he was gone. And while he would be damned if Skyler didn't know that he earned every cent, Walt’s concern for his family was what kept him from making many of the same mistakes that “Pryce” does, despite the common ground on which they stand. As this season of Better Call Saul continues, we can expect these contrasts to become increasingly apparent, and to help explain Mike’s attitude towards Walter when the two finally meet.