Note: Contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of Better Call Saul.
A prequel is a tricky thing to pull off. Besides the challenge of living up to the quality of the original material, there’s the question of how to manage the assumptions and expectations the audience will inevitably bring. Then, too, there’s the fact that by definition, at least some of the ending has already been given away. Some prequels work around this by diverging significantly from the original material so that there’s less overlap. The best prequels, though, work by subverting their audience’s expectations in ways that surprise and challenge them. They use the fact that their audience already knows to some extent what’s coming to imbue the plot with deeper meaning and nuance.Defining yourself is as dangerous as living by other people’s definitions.
Coming into AMC’s Better Call Saul, we already know, if not the ending exactly, at least the general trajectory. We already know that by the time Saul shows up in the Breaking Bad story, he’ll be a scuzzy strip mall lawyer with connections to the criminal underworld and a desk drawer full of prepaid cell phones. (To be fair, we still don’t know what happens to Saul post–Breaking Bad, and it’s still unclear as of this writing how far into that future Better Call Saul plans to take us.)
Still, knowing where our protagonist is headed colors our viewing, and it’s plain that the show’s creators understand this. They understand that one of the main things that keeps people watching TV shows—the curiosity to see what will happen—is less of a factor here. If they’re going to hold our interest, they’ll have to find other ways to do it. Specifically, they’ll have to make us interested in how the man we first meet in Better Call Saul as Jimmy McGill eventually becomes the Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad. What circumstances, what serpentine plots, what dubious moral choices will lead to this transformation?
The Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad hangs over Better Call Saul at every moment. In the very first scene of the show, a post–Breaking Bad Saul, now the manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, forlornly watches his old Saul Goodman lawyer ads in an apparent effort to reconjure the glory days. As the show begins and we watch the scurryings and stratagems of Jimmy McGill, Esq., Saul’s previous self, it’s not hard to imagine how that transformation might come about.
But it’s here that the show subverts our expectations. The potential is always there, certainly, for Jimmy to “break bad,” as it were. In fact, he already has a history as a con-man—“Slippin’ Jimmy” from back home in Chicago—and the temptation to return to his old lifestyle is always with him. But in Better Call Saul’s first season, Jimmy is trying to fly straight. In a particularly telling moment, he passes up an easy $1.6 million in cash in his efforts to, as he puts it (in heartbreaking air quotes ) “do the right thing.” (“Tax free!” he later agonizes. “No one on God’s green earth knew we had it!”)
The Jimmy of Better Call Saul’s first season is torn between two identities, and it’s the fact that we already know which one he’ll eventually choose that makes his teetering back and forth so tortuous to watch. The tragedy of the first season (and it is a tragedy, in the classical Greek sense) is that circumstances—cruel, cruel fate—continually frustrate Jimmy’s best attempts to make a clean, honest living.
Behind all of Jimmy’s disappointment, we gradually realize, behind the mysterious circumstances that keep thwarting his best efforts, is Jimmy’s older brother, Chuck. A gifted and successful lawyer, Chuck once got Jimmy off a serious criminal charge and has helped him leave his life of crime, but he can’t stomach the idea of his ne’er-do-well younger brother taking up the law. When, near the end of the first season, it finally dawns on Jimmy that it’s been his own brother working against him all along, it’s one of the most heartrending scenes I’ve watched in a long time.
“You’re not a real lawyer,” Chuck sputters as Jimmy gapes in disbelief. “I worked my ass off to get where I am, and you take these shortcuts and think suddenly you’re my peer? . . . I know you. I know what you were, what you are. People don’t change. You’re Slippin’ Jimmy. And Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine, but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun. . . . You have to know on some level. I know you know I’m right.”
But Chuck is wrong. Jimmy’s tragic flaw is not that he’s just incurably bad, that “people don’t change” (one of the most tired tropes in popular philosophy). Jimmy’s tragic flaw is that he has acquiesced to his brother’s definition of who he is. All his hard work was an ill-fated attempt to gain his brother’s good favor: earning his law degree (from the University of American Samoa) and passing the bar on his own time, serving tediously as a public defendant, and finally, his coup de grâce, bringing in a massive case to his brother’s big law firm in a desperate attempt to prove himself. “Are you proud of me?” he asks Chuck plaintively on several occasions. But the answer is always disappointing, and when Chuck finally voices his real opinion of his brother in that devastating scene, Jimmy’s good-guy identity crumbles. His best efforts aren’t good enough, and Chuck’s betrayal breaks him. The balance finally tips. Jimmy turns back to the only other identity he knows, and his new trajectory—the one we knew all along would win out—is set. Saul Goodman is born.
But defining yourself is as dangerous as living by other people’s definitions. Walter White, the antihero of all antiheroes, also refused to live by other people’s definitions of him, and instead built himself a terrifying alter ego: Heisenberg. Both Heisenberg and Saul Goodman are examples of what we’re capable of when we eschew society’s vision for our selves. Both draw on the ideal of the self-made American man, albeit in different ways, and both mine the dark depths of what the human heart is capable of, left to its own devices.
As Christians we believe that only one definition of us is finally true: the one spoken over us in our baptism. That identity precludes all others, and only in it can we find the kind of freedom and hope that tragically elude Jimmy/Saul. Because if there’s no freedom in living out other people’s definitions of us, there’s no freedom in defining ourselves, either. The iconic final shot of Breaking Bad may have seemed to affirm a kind of freedom—to go out on your own terms, to have the last laugh—but the wake of destruction, suffering, and heartache Walter White left behind told a different story.
In the first scene of Better Call Saul’s second season (another flash-forward to the post–Breaking Bad world) a despondent, trapped Saul idly scrawls his initials on a graffitied wall: “SG,” not “JM.” In this moment, at least, he’s made his choice. Will the show’s creators offer him another chance?