During Better Call Saul’s opening sequence, the show’s protagonist, Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk), slouches into a dark armchair. The living room around him is nondescript—depressing even. Saul sits back as a VHS tape plays on the television. The camera meticulously takes its time focusing from the wall to Saul’s face. In the background, we hear a younger version of Saul reciting the tagline to Goodman’s now defunct law practice.
Better Call Saul.
As rays of former glory dance on the screen, a look of stoic sadness stretches across Saul’s face. This scene, shot in black and white, has one hint of color: the television’s reflection off Saul’s glasses.
Saul is a mere echo of the man he once was.
Better Call Saul, the prequel/spinoff to AMC’s genre-changing drama Breaking Bad, takes place over a decade before the above scene, tracking the rise and (anticipated) fall of Saul Goodman. In Breaking Bad, Saul is a cunning, crooked lawyer more concerned with accumulating wealth than following the law. In Better Call Saul, he is much more innocent, even hopeful at times. The show finds its tension, and wave of melancholy, in the journey that lands Saul in a dark armchair, watching reruns of his life.
While serving as an entry point into the themes of judicial ethics and moral consequences, Better Call Saul is best understood, I believe, as a primer to the question of masculinity. What makes a man, a man? Better yet, what makes a man a valuable contributor to society? Where do success, monetary possessions, and power fit into our modern definition of masculinity? For Saul’s character, the answers to these questions aren’t always easily defined.
Better Call Saul is successful, not necessarily because it answers these questions about manhood, but because it lets them linger before the viewer in the form of Jimmy’s struggle with his own personhood.During the show’s first season (set in 2002), Saul Goodman goes by his legal name, Jimmy McGill. He may not spend his evenings watching old VHS tapes, but his life doesn’t look much better. He overworks just to fall behind on his bills, taking public defense jobs to scrounge enough cash for a small office in the back of a working nail salon. He drives a beat up Suzuki Esteem. And the woman he pines for, Kim Wexler, seems content at staying just friends—that’s not even mentioning her job at a rival law firm. Legally speaking, Jimmy seems to have gotten his life in order, he no longer works as Slippin’ Jimmy (his con-artist alter ego), but his finances and self-confidence haven’t caught up.
It’s ironic that he drives an Esteem, because Jimmy exhales the dioxide of lostness. Unable to compete with larger law practices, stacked with wood-paneled boardrooms and sharply dressed attorneys, Jimmy settles for scraps. He struggles with feeling like a “real” lawyer. By society’s standards, Jimmy represents anything but success.
It’s the lust for a better life that drives Jimmy, little by little, to sacrifice his moral integrity—though he teeters between right and wrong rather frequently during the first ten episodes of the series. The drive for a well-coded masculinity outweighs his commitment to a personal set of ethics. He is willing to break the law to possess the life he doesn’t have.
There’s a sense of greed in Jimmy’s ambition, but that greed is no match for his pride, for his manhood. At one point during the first season, Jimmy is faced with making a decision regarding a multi-million dollar lawsuit he’s leading. Frustrated, he chooses to sacrifice fiscal security to make a point about his professional proficiency. As one character puts it, Jimmy longs to be his “own man.”
When the situation eventually turns Jimmy’s way halfway through the season, his demeanor changes. He dresses like the high-powered attorneys he previously viewed with disgust. He pays his bills on time. His confidence even catches the hovering attention of Kim.
Jimmy’s masculinity reaches a crescendo in episode seven when he parades Kim through his newly rented space, offering her a job along with a corner office. His thrust for success is as good as the view. He now owns something he can present to Kim—a person who’s been one step ahead of him for years. After six episodes, viewers can’t help but rejoice for Jimmy, even though we know he’s made morally questionable decisions to achieve this “success.” A steady job, financial power, and expensive possessions have, seemingly, made Jimmy into the quintessential, self-made American man.
This is exactly why the end of this episode burns with emotion. Jimmy is back in the rented space, hunched over. Kicking the door closed, Jimmy’s anguish claws at the camera. The corner office is no longer his, and he’s again unsure of his identity.
Better Call Saul stands apart as a television drama for a number of reasons. “Spin-offs are supposed to be worse than the shows that gave birth to them,” Esquire’s Stephen Marche writes. “But Better Call Saul has been like Breaking Bad without the boring bits.”
Marche summarizes the first season perfectly. Better Call Saul operates within a peaceful border between comedy and charm, drama and sentimentalism. The pacing is much quicker than Breaking Bad’s first few seasons, and Better Call Saul even finds a way to shed some of its predecessor’s darkness.
But it’s the central theme—Jimmy’s struggle with his identity as a man—that takes the show to its loftiest heights. Better Call Saul scrapes longingly at the surface of our modern, western definitions of masculinity and success. In a world where the icons of manhood are rich and powerful versions of Christian Grey or Liam Neeson’s physical prowess in the Taken series, what do we make of the “regular Joes?”
Better Call Saul is successful, not necessarily because it answers these questions, but because it lets them linger before the viewer in the form of Jimmy’s struggle with his own personhood. It’s ironic too, that Jimmy’s future accomplishments will inevitably lead him to adopt the surname “Goodman”—further evidence of what he considers acceptable, and desirable, masculinity.
As society mentally—possibly even unintentionally—often defines manliness as a large salary, form-fitting suit, and physical strength, the lure to trade in one’s morality for physical and material attributes looms large. As Better Call Saul displays through Jimmy, this hook can turn good men bad and bad men worse. It can turn one step forward into two steps back.
Watching Better Call Saul, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how the Bible speaks of one such bad man. His name, too, was Saul. Prideful and arrogant, Saul also found satisfaction in his outward abilities. When he finally discovered his personal brokenness, Saul was given a new name and a retooled outlook on life.
We later find that Saul, known to us today as St. Paul, began to look past his prior achievements. He boasted not in his accomplishments, but in Jesus’ finished work. This perspective transformed the way he understood power, possessions, and people. He learned that in whatever situation “to be content” (Philippians 4:11)—whether in richness, poverty, hunger, fullness, or imprisoned.
The tragedy of Saul Goodman’s story is that he didn’t begin as a Saul. No, in a reversal of St. Paul’s life, Saul is who Jimmy eventually becomes.