Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Better Call Saul… but only once a week.

I can’t say that I’m an intense binge watcher. I did get through “Firefly” in a couple of days and I watched the first three seasons of “Game of Thrones” in fairly rapid succession—then watched it all again to make sure I didn’t miss anything. With other series, I guess I’ve been more casual. I just finished watching “Weeds,” for example. An interesting and unusual story with elements both hilarious and heartbreaking but instead of binging, I would watch it casually, as I’ve done for a few other series.

I kinda dig this method of watching programs but I’ve come to realize that I can’t do this for all programs. Case in point: “Better Call Saul.”

I loved “Breaking Bad” and when I first heard the rumors about a prequel series focussing on Walter White’s crooked lawyer—of all people!—I was simultaneously intrigued and skeptical. Intrigued to see how Vince Gilligan and company would tell the story of how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) becomes Saul Goodman and skeptical about whether that was enough to carry the whole series. The addition of the complicated origins of Mike Ehrmantraut and the judicious use of “Breaking Bad” character cameos have put my skepticism more than at ease.

Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan
on the set of "Better Call Saul"
I think it’s safe to say that “Better Call Saul” is one of my favorite series currently airing and I’m glad that I can only watch it one episode at a time with a week in between to process. I don’t think I could binge this series because as much as I love the show, every week it breaks my heart. Sometimes for the events that unfold on the show (“You’re not a real lawyer!”) but mostly because, as in “Breaking Bad,” I already know that it can’t end well for anyone involved. Sure, it’s no secret that Jimmy will become Saul and then later become an anonymous manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha. There’s no mystery about where he winds up, only now we’re learning what set him on that path. I knew that going in. What I didn’t fully anticipate, however, was that I would also learn about the body count that Jimmy/Saul would leave in his wake.

In “Breaking Bad,” Walter White was deliberately breaking the law and doing whatever he could to build his empire. The body count in Heisenberg’s story was literal. In “Better Call Saul,” Jimmy starts out trying to do the right thing. As his brother—played brilliantly by Michael McKean (Every time I see him, I still think, “Hey, it’s Lenny!”)—Chuck says, “Jimmy has a good heart.” It’s obvious. We wouldn’t love him as a character if he didn’t. His motivations for the actions he takes are sincere, even if they do range from ethically murky to blatantly illegal. From my observations, Jimmy’s main character flaw—which is exactly the thing that brings us back to his story every week—is that he doesn’t think about the long-term consequences of his actions. His reasoning always seams to be, “If I do A then B will happen.” He doesn’t stop to consider that B leads to C, which effects D, E, F and every other letter down the line. Once in a while, someone is there to give him a course correction. Like his assistant Omar reminding him about some important minutia in his contract with Davis & Main that prompted him to rethink resigning from the firm.

One would think that Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) would be the perfect moral compass for Jimmy. She has a strong sense of ethics (at least where her job is concerned) and she cares about him but she would rather have plausible deniability about Jimmy’s actions than have any part in trying to help rehabilitate him. When she is first made aware of an action Jimmy took that she knew would get him disbarred if it were to ever come to light, she doesn’t say to him, “Please, don’t do it again.” Instead she says, “I can’t know about anything like that.” At first I wondered why she would not just ask Jimmy to play it straight. Is it because she doesn’t want to try and change him? Is she attempting to maintain some boundaries in their relationship? Then I realized that my thinking on the matter was kind of sexist. Kim is a lawyer. Her actions are dictated by that fact. She doesn’t want to know about Jimmy breaking the law because, as a lawyer, she can’t appear to be complicit. It’s not just a selfish act to cover her ass, it’s the default position any lawyer would take in that situation. That’s how lawyers are trained to think. In light of that fact, it’s no wonder that she applies this way of thinking in her personal life, especially considering professional priorities and her youth where the lines between one’s personal and professional life tend to be blurred.

I love Kim’s character. I find myself repeatedly rooting for her, celebrating her victories and mourning her losses but at the end of every episode, no matter how Kim’s character is doing, I feel sad. Because, as a beloved character, I know that this series cannot end well for her. She’s closer to Jimmy than anyone else so, of course, she’s going to be the most tragic victim of his actions and will probably wind up being the most painful of Jimmy’s/Saul’s long list of lifetime regrets.

What’s especially interesting to me about the experience of watching this show is that we’re seeing all of the skeletons in Saul Goodman’s closet, all the things that made him who he was in “Breaking Bad” and yet, none of it was written when we were first introduced to the character. It makes one wonder how Odenkirk envisioned the origins of the character to divine his various motives and motivations and what sort of influence that had on the development of “Better Call Saul.”

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