Better Call Saul is the warmest, sweetest tragedy on TV — as unsettling as The Americans, but sneakier, because it’s so colorful and funny. It has many obvious points of overlap with its predecessor, Breaking Bad, including shared major and minor characters, starting with its lead duo of lawyer Slippin’ Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and ex-cop turned criminal fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). But the best continuation is the way the show examines the chicken-and-egg questions posed by corruption. Among them: If you do bad things for a good reason, are you a bad person? If you do good things for bad reasons, are you a bad person? If we are all products of our upbringing and our conditioning, and if we all inhabit the same cold capitalist system that rewards people who don’t play by the rules and punishes those who do, then who, short of a knowingly vicious and destructive person, can be written off as completely bad?
Season two, which wrapped up on Monday, etched those questions more starkly than before, while always stopping short of telling viewers what to think. If anything, Vince Gilligan and Pete Gould’s prequel series decisively mucked with our preconceived notions about what a Breaking Bad prequel should be and made it harder to decide which character, if any, to root for. This is an improvement on Breaking Bad, a great show that sometimes surrendered to the adrenaline rush of its hero’s cleverness, got high on its own supply, and brought out the worst in fans who saw Heisenberg as their fictional alter ego, acting out fantasies their Walter White lives would never allow. Heisenberg’s fanboys saw any character standing in the hero’s way as an enemy, even a villain—none more so than Walter’s wife, Skyler, who at first was oblivious to her husband’s criminality and then horrified by it, then plotted to escape him until she succumbed and became complicit in his empire-building. Anna Gunn, who played Skyler for five seasons, wrote about the hostile response to the character in a New York Times piece, “I Have a Character Issue.” She wrote: “A typical online post complained that Skyler was a ‘shrieking, hypocritical harpy’ and didn’t ‘deserve the great life she has.’… ‘I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,’ one poster wrote. The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.’”
There are a couple of Skyler White figures on Better Call Saul. One is Jimmy’s girlfriend and onetime law firm colleague Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who stewed over her inability to advance in a boys’ club before finally working up the gumption to break free. The other is Jimmy’s older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), an accomplished senior partner at a white-shoe law firm who has a paralyzing fear of electricity and resents Jimmy for his charm, his shamelessness, his willingness to take legal and moral shortcuts, and most of all, the fact that he was always their late mother’s favorite. I’ve seen a bit of resentment against Kim online and a bit more aimed at Chuck, but nothing on a Skyler level.
This, too, strikes me as an indication of how much more sophisticated Better Call Saul is compared to its wilder predecessor. It all comes back to how precisely BCS navigates the question of what people do and why they do it, and whether why they do things should affect our willingness to label them as good or bad. Everybody on this show makes decisions that erode moral high ground, often for financial gain but also to bury shame or escape punishment, and the writers make sure you see everyone’s point of view without endorsing any single one, accidentally or on purpose. (Even the arms dealer who sells Mike the sniper rifle, played by my friend Jim Beaver, has a moment where he admits the ugly nature of his work.)
Kim hasn’t done anything actively as bad as Jimmy stealing and altering documents to sabotage his meddling brother’s representation of Mesa Verde’s new branch. In fact, she criticized Jimmy for his showboating, his indifference to workplace protocol, his failure to let his boss know that he was shooting an ad starring himself, and his overall tendency to act as if he’s the hero of a story in which everybody else is an extra. But she is still entering into a limited partnership with him (two adjacent solo practices sharing costs and helping each other), she appreciates the way he encourages her, she’s proud of his attempts to improve his station in life, and, after all his shenanigans, she’s still his girlfriend. In the penultimate episode, when Kim responded to the revelation of Jimmy’s crime by saying they should never speak of it again, their conversation was pillow talk. In more ways than one, she’s in bed with Jimmy. These two characters are easy to like but hard to endorse, and they’re on altogether more equal footing than Walter and Skyler, who embodied the gendered stereotype of life partnerships consisting of a dreamer and somebody whose job is to say “no.”
Chuck’s a thornier figure. He’s a jerk. Showrunners Gilligan and Gould talked about Chuck’s likability in post-season interviews, including one with Geoff Berkshire of Variety. “It’s funny that so many viewers just hate his guts, that he’s such a villain and such a bad guy,” Gilligan said. “I wouldn’t argue that, but I feel sorry for the guy. He’s so damaged on some fundamental level. He’s so jealous of his brother.” Gould added, “I think it’s fascinating that people hate Chuck so much and we don’t hear about that for Hector Salamanca. Hector will threaten a man’s family. Watch while a man is shot in the head just because he didn’t tell Hector what he wanted to hear. We’re not hearing how much people hate Hector Salamanca, we’re hearing about Chuck. It’s an interesting thing to think about, because people will talk about what the stakes are in this story, but there’s something about the relationship between these two brothers that really gets you in the gut.”
Chuck is almost never wrong about Jimmy’s moral and ethical slipperiness, but he calls him out in such petty, domineering ways that Jimmy has an allergic reaction to his truth. He reminds me also of Laura Innes’s supervisor character from E.R., Kerry Weaver, who was often derided as a cold “bitch” on message boards. Kerry usually managed to keep things professional (which is something Chuck can never do when talking to Jimmy), her bedside manner was almost nonexistent, and she was often the only person standing in the way of a wannabe-hero doctor or nurse who wanted to fudge insurance forms or attempt some wildly dangerous medical procedure. All of this made her a bit of a Skyler, harshing the audience’s vicarious buzz. But she was often right on the merits, and so is Chuck. I don’t like Chuck personally, but I love the character and feel for him, because he does the right thing for the wrong reason as often as Jimmy does the wrong thing for the right reason (like staking his own claim in the legal community, or helping Kim pay off her debts and realize her own dream).
Better Call Saul creates a world in which the temptation to take moral shortcuts and resolve problems with deceit or violence is all around the characters at every moment. They breathe the lure of corruption. The air is polluted and they know it, but they breathe it anyway, because — they tell themselves — what else can they do? And they spread the rot around them — Jimmy most disturbingly, because he’s such a sweet character, a bouncy Harold Hill type, oblivious to the harm he causes others. He saves his brother physically by rushing back into the copy shop to help him, but he’s been hurting him professionally, legally, and emotionally throughout their lives.
“You remember that time I accidentally invited Kathy and Cheryl to mom’s surprise party?” Jimmy asks him during the flashback to their mother’s death. “It was kinda tricky out on the dance floor. It was a fun night.” Chuck says, “I just remember cleaning up after you. And Mom leaving her own birthday party to drive one of them home.” Jimmy remembers the fine time he had and forgets the check that he skipped out on. Chuck doesn’t forget. He can’t forget.
Chuck’s condition is the closest thing to an operative metaphor on the show. It’s the cancer that took root in Walter White, and that Walter spread across the American Southwest. Like a lot of people, Jimmy thinks good intentions excuse almost everything, and that the phrase “good intentions” is a synonym for “what I personally want.” Chuck is an asshole Cassandra in a fancy suit, a prophet everyone chooses to ignore. He sees, hears, and feels the seething, poisonous energy that others don’t notice. Yes, he lacks heart and is too concerned with the letter of the law — but in a world like the one on this series, are those horrible flaws to have? And McKean makes you feel the sting of Chuck’s jealousy of Jimmy so acutely that you don’t hate him even when he withholds their mother’s last words or secretly tapes him confessing to altering the Mesa Verde documents. Chuck’s domineering peevishness is much more active than Skyler’s fretting, mainly because he has real veto power over the person he opposes, and because his unusual medical condition marks him as an eccentric, not as a “normal” person locked into a relationship with a dynamo who’s just more fun to watch. Plus, deep down, you know he’s onto something bigger when he calls out his brother’s misdeeds or rails against his partners’ inability to care as much about clients as he does, and the small-mindedness and corruption of the world at large. He wraps himself in foil to keep the evil waves out. “This goddamn electricity!” Chuck cries in the finale. “It’s wearing me down! It’s wearing down my faculties! My mind!”
As much as I love the show, there are times when its slowness tests my patience: Most series would’ve gotten through Better Call Saul’s two seasons of plot in one season, or maybe less. But the whole thing is so purposeful that I come to the same conclusion: This is my conditioning as a TV viewer, saying “Get on with it.” The show knows what it’s doing, and it tells us how to watch it. It’s the sheer doggedness of this series, its commitment to small moments and long scenes and silent or near-silent close-ups, that lets the realities of compromise and betrayal sink in. Corruption happens in moments, the moments aren’t usually instantaneous, and we often aren’t even aware that they’re happening. It’s like that metaphor about the frog in the pan of water that doesn’t notice the temperature rising until the simmering begins and it’s too late to escape. Jimmy likens his foil-wrapped brother to a baked potato. That last shot of the season finale makes you worry that he’s done.