A Story Of Two Immortal Men: Why Better Call Saul Makes Other Shows Seem Lazy

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Better Call Saul features two immortal men who can never die.  For the entirety of Better Call Saul’s existence, Slippin’ Jimmy and Mike are completely immune from physical trauma, because we’ve seen them in Breaking Bad and they’re okay.
The show knows that is a prequel, and more importantly, it knows that you know it’s a prequel.  The show has Mike walking into a room full of angry gangsters with guns, and he is wary – but the show, wisely, does not try to fill it with the tension of ZOMG WILL HITMAN MIKE SURVIVE, because we know he will.  Likewise, Slippin’ Jimmy is currently embroiled in legal battles, and millions are on the line, but his opponents are largely noble men who battle it out in courtrooms.  He’s not going to get shanked over an old-age home dispute.
And yet Better Call Saul is one of the tensest shows I have watched.
If you’re a writer, watching Better Call Saul highlights how fucking lazy “death” is as a threat.  What Better Call Saul is about is excruciating compromise – playing on the tension between the man Jimmy wants to be and what he wants now.  He wants to be a good lawyer because he admires his brother – but dammit, the straight and narrow path has not worked out for him.
So Better Call Saul is a master class in subtle pressures.  There is no reward for Jimmy if he follows all the rules – so he bends the rules a little, just to make way, and it gets him a better job as the kind of noble lawyer he wants to be.  But then one of three things happens:

  1. One of his past foibles requires him to do something even scummier to get himself out of it, or:
  2. Something good and wonderful and beautiful he’s gained by these small compromises is endangered, and the only way he can solve it is by falling back on the huckster Slippin’ Jimmy thing that he is so good at, or:
  3. He does something noble, and loses ground.

That’s pretty much the plan, from a writer’s perspective.  But that tight focus really keeps Jimmy where it hurts emotionally.  Everything he gains, he’s gained because he’s born to be a slimy, double-crossing cheat.  Everything he loses, he loses because he has not been slimy enough.
What’s holding him back is his morality, and the show is about watching Jimmy desperately try to hold onto that human streak – to not betray the people he’s loved, even as they betray him.
And that’s what I find more compelling about Better Call Saul than Breaking Bad – Jimmy is redeemable.  Breaking Bad made the very wise decision early on in Season One to give Walter an out, and watch Walter throw it aside because dammit, Walter prioritized “Feeling potent” over “Fixing the actual problems.” Jimmy, though…
Better Call Saul is a complete train wreck, because you’re watching two brothers actually make each other into what they’re accusing them to be.  Jimmy does have a tendency to fall back on his con-man habits, but his brother’s relentless anger just forces him to be slimier.  Chuck wasn’t out to get Jimmy, but thanks to Jimmy’s anger he sure is now.  And if Jimmy just stopped trying to impress Kim, or Kim cared less for Jimmy, then Jimmy might not keep going to such radical lengths to “protect” her, but…
This is an entirely avoidable outcome.  Take one of these factors away and Jimmy might not become Saul Goodman, late night TV huckster, as he is predestined to become.  Yet what’s driving them is not fate but people who are each battling the tension between who they want to be and what they need now – and the show is relentless at showing them who they actually are when the lights go down.
And all of that is without a death.  (Well, not on Mike’s blood-soaked rampages, but it’s as if the show’s all but admitted there’s not much for Mike to do now.)  Too many shows raise the stakes by reaching for the literal jugular  – which is easy.  Some asshole can always come crashing through a door with a gun, and you apply pressure externally because if these characters aren’t saved, they’ll die!
But that’s so easy.
What’s hard here is watching all the characters in Better Call Saul choose to become the people they didn’t want to be. The violence is purely psychological as they realize that what they’re getting isn’t nice and who they’re becoming isn’t nice and what’s holding them back are those thin scraps of loyalty and decency – and yet they know, every last one, that those scraps mean something and they’re going to be truly damned if they just let them go.
They’re circling the drain.  They won’t die – no, not until their eyes have been truly opened.  They make choices that cost them something every time.
And that’s so much harder to write than some asshole with a knife.
Yet so much more satisfying.

1 Comment

  1. Aleks
    May 8, 2016

    Though the show Supernatural has a lot of things messed up with it I find I enjoy watching it for the same reasons. The difference is that the characters die all the time on the show and it’s not a source of tension at all except for the consequences of what happens after that death and how poorly they respond. One of the characters sold his soul after his brother died to get him back and it wasn’t the death that was the worst thing to come out of it but the resulting 40 years he spent in hell and how that kick-started a wave of worse and worse consequences.
    I remarked to a friend that after a couple of seasons of them declaring that they were good guys out there protecting people they were no longer color operating under that model except in name and the slimy twists and turns they had to make in order to survive and keep going kept putting them closer and closer to the monsters they fought, to the point that one became a demon and the other… Well, neither of them ended so pure of heart as they possibly started. Eleven seasons later and the writers upped the ante by making a Reaper promise that this time they would not be brought back from Death so for the first time in 11 years the threat of death actually looms and even so, that’s not even close to being the scariest thing they’re facing. I’m not interested in my emotions being twisted and run out by a character dying.
    What interests me is the psychological trap of knowing they are falling so short of what they aspire to and how they react when going there either costs them or isn’t something they can do and not face worse consequences for trying to do the right thing. Better still, I am into watching unhealthy patterns like codependency and self-sacrifice and lying for the sake of whatever the reason is this week be addressed and see the characters really struggle to break free of those cycles. So I’m very curious to check out this show and see how the two brothers you discuss fuck up and keep trudging on.

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