By David K. Goodin
The narrative world of the Breaking Bad has reached its conclusion. The original series (2008-2013) centered on the pyrrhic ascendency and tragic final days of drug kingpin Walter White. The follow-up movie El Camino (2019) added a postscript for the one seemingly redeemable character, Jesse Pinkman. Whereas the final episode of Breaking Bad showed him escaping in a stolen car, screaming and crying in exasperation and relief, the movie takes us further down that “road” to redemption—a journey that will find him in Alaska with a new name a new life. And then came a prequel series, Better Call Saul (2015-2022). We were invited to explore the fate of a side character, Saul Goodman. This raised a lot of questions for me. Could anything top Breaking Bad? Or would this just be a nostalgia fueled cash-grab by the writers and producers? Even worse, or so I thought, could it disastrously undo the goodwill of the fandom in “retconning” Breaking Bad and El Camino? The new series, at least to my eyes, risked more than it could possibly gain in revisiting an odd comic relief character, Saul Goodman. Boy, was I wrong!
Better Call Saul ran for six glorious seasons (61 episodes), comparable to the five seasons (62 episodes) of Breaking Bad. This is surprising since the majority of the storytelling takes place in the past, with only a few episodes, in whole or in part, providing a Breaking Bad postscript. How would it be possible to maintain narrative interest in the backstory to a comedic sidekick? We already knew the fate of Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, Hector Salamanca, and the rest. The only “wild cards” were Ignacio (Nacho) Varga, Eduardo (Lalo) Salamanca, and the new character, Kim Wexler. This meant Better Call Saul would have to be almost exclusively a character study of Saul Goodman, and a crime drama (for which we already knew the conclusion) only secondarily. The show writers certainly had their work cut-out for themselves. They certainly delivered with a series that not only complemented Breaking Bad and El Camino perfectly, but quite possibly surpasses them both.
With three narrative foci, each an antihero redemption tale, the challenge for the writers would be to make them different enough to merit the storytelling. All three characters simply could not end the same way—that would be boring, repetitive, and a wasted opportunity. And so, we witnessed Walter White, at peace and smiling amidst carnage and horror, dying from a ricocheting bullet from his own murderous contraption, a poetic justice. Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand, reclaims his agency and life in Alaska, finally free from manipulation, defeatism, and drug addiction. His would be a true redemption, unlike that of Walter White which was more of an apotheosis in self-immolating pride—reconciled to himself, but certainly not to most viewers who still see him as nothing more than a murderous drug lord. What, storytelling-wise, is left for Saul Goodman against that spectrum of possibilities?
Being set as a neo-Western crime drama, the easy road would have been to create Better Call Saul as an homage to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). With Jesse and Walter taking the “good” and the “bad” story arcs respectively, this would have left Saul to playout the “ugly” role of Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez from that classic western. In some ways, the stories do lineup: the Bad dies, the Good gets away, and the Ugly is left stranded alone with money he cannot possibly carry away by himself. It certainly does fit Saul as Gene Takovic in Omaha, working a menial job, yet with a shoebox full of cash and diamonds he cannot spend back in his shabby apartment. Saul, like Tuco, is also a comedic buffoon who wins through cunning and luck, and he also has a holier-than-thou brother who despises him. The homage is certainly there, no doubt. That’s where his story begins. But the writers did something else for the conclusion that elevated Better Call Saul beyond even that classic western, or even Breaking Bad itself.
The new element is life partner, and partner-in-crime, Kim Wexler. She does not appear in Breaking Bad at all. Her fate is not pre-known by the viewers, and we do not get answers about what happens to her until the final episode. Would she be just another hapless victim to patriarchal power, like Jane Margolis, Skylar White, Marie Schrader, Andrea Cantillo, or Lydia Rodarte-Quayle? True, Lydia was a callous criminal—yet Kim too is an instigator of crimes that hurt others and got someone killed. Would she, like Lydia, Andrea, and Jane, end up murdered, or perhaps abandoned to live in some dismal emotional hell like Skylar and Marie, all to serve as a “plot point” for a larger story in a male-centric universe? No, Better Call Saul needed to do something more to distinguish itself.
It was an audacious move by the writers to end the storylines of Nacho, Lalo, and Howard Hamlin early. They were fan favorites, to be sure. Yet the writers “cleared the plate” to focus on Jimmy and Kim for the final episodes. And what we got instead, surprisingly, is a love story unlike any other. It is not revealed as a love story until that final episode, creating immense suspense for the fates of Kim and Jimmy. She had been punishing herself by living an unremarkable life where she would make no decisions that could possibly impact the lives of others—even looking for validation on recipe substitutions than trust her own judgement. It was painful to watch the actress’ stellar performance in this new pathetic role after witnessing her destroy all obstacles in the courtroom (and outside it running scams) for season after season! In a final act of contrition, she returns to Albuquerque to confess her role in the death of Howard, which placed herself in legal jeopardy. Jimmy, who in Breaking Bad, admonished Walter White for leaving Skylar “high and dry” to face the drug charges alone while he escaped (s5e15), uses his arrest as a way to save her from a possible indictment. To be clear, he did not “save” her, as she had begun saving herself by volunteering at a legal clinic—she was already on the way back, by her own power and agency. But Jimmy sacrificed a sweetheart deal (he would only serve seven years in a cushy jail with a golf course) not only to protect her, but to confess all his crimes, and reclaim his true name, James McGill, with newfound confidence. When they meet later in the prison interview room, she is literally shaking in his presence. This is the man she fell in love with—the man she knew he could be, if only he saw himself the way she always saw him, free from his brother’s condensation, free from his own low self-worth, free from the need to prove himself constantly. When he takes the cigarette from her lips as they talk, you could have “knocked her over with a feather” at that moment. It was glorious television.
Where this becomes theological is from the fractured image of Saul in the mirror just before he confronts Howard in the episode JMM (s5e7). He has always been living “a life in pieces” as Slippin’ Jimmy and as Saul Goodman, but never as James Morgan McGill (that is, JMM). He feels that Howard has been pitying him, looking down on someone lesser than himself. In his rage, Saul screams at him: “I’m like a god in human clothing! Lightning shoots from my fingertips!” This signals the ascendency of Saul Goodman as his public persona, someone who truly became godlike in his profession, and godlike in the splendor of his opulent home built with his ill-gotten wealth. Saul got it all … expect for love, and except for respect of the people he most wanted it from.
But where did it get him? In the final episode, we find him trapped in a filthy dumpster with a box full of cash and diamonds, surrounded by the police. After resuming the Saul persona briefly, and battering the prosecution down to a trivial punishment in pretrial negotiations, he gives it all up in open court to confess to his role in humiliating his own brother, a scam that resulted in his suicide. His advising counsel whispers to Saul, “That wasn’t even a crime,” to which he replies, “It was.” He then states for the court record, “The name is McGill, I’m James McGill,” and looks back at Kim who is also in the courtroom.
It is said in the 12 Step Fellowships that, when it comes to Step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood Him”) that there are only two rules here: there is a God, and you are not it. It is about surrender. It is about self-honesty. It is about a fearless moral inventory about the wrong-doings that harmed others, and making restitution as best as you can for the rest of your life, in whatever ways that are possible for you to do so. And it is about helping others. It is a spiritual fellowship, not necessarily a religious one. When alcoholics and addicts hit “rock bottom” (think Jimmy in a dumpster here), they need to surrender all self-will, and only then can they find their true selves buried beneath the ego, shame, trauma, and hurt.
In many ways, this is Jimmy’s story. In the end, we now see him as a man of integrity. Yes, he is in prison, but he surrounded by those who see him as a hero—not for his crimes, but for being the only one ever to care about them, and someone who fought like hell on their behalf before the courts. Saul Goodman may have been the only person to truly care about their wellbeing, and now James McGill is in there with them, ready to “sponsor” them with legal and life-advice if they are ready to listen. He is at peace, reconciled to his past, and heroic in the eyes of the people who matter to him them most. It is a true redemption story. Plus, he will be up for parole at some point, and I am sure we all know who will be at his side before the parole board to argue his case with unparalleled legal expertise.
David K. Goodin is a lecturer for the McGill School of Religious Studies in Montreal, Professeur Associé at the Université Laval, Institut de Théologie Orthodoxe de Montréal, and co-editor of Theology and Breaking Bad.