Friday, April 24, 2020

Better Call Kim: Thoughts on Better Call Saul's Fifth Season

When the creators of Breaking Bad announced, six or seven years ago, that they were working on a spin-off prequel series focused on Walter White's loud-mouthed, sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, I think I wasn't the only one to roll her eyes. The whole thing reeked of a cash-in: take a well-liked minor character, with a memorable catchphrase, played by a talented comedian, from a show that had become a runaway success a little too close to the end of its run to have really wrung all the benefits out of that, throw him in some new adventures, and watch the money roll in. That Better Call Saul has instead turned out to be a heartfelt, intelligent, winning series that has surpassed Breaking Bad in almost every respect is by now a commonly-accepted view, and yet despite agreeing with it wholeheartedly, I nevertheless approached the show's fifth, penultimate season with a feeling of, if not fatigue, then resignation. I wasn't sure the show had anything new to show me. What I want to talk about in this essay is why I had that expectation, how Better Call Saul still managed to surprise me, and why I think its ability to do so is rooted in the same qualities that made it such an unexpected success in the first place.

Given how widely—and rightly—praised Breaking Bad was, you might have expected Better Call Saul to rest on the previous show's laurels. To deliver a similar caliber of tight plotting, ingenious problem-solving, thrilling heists, clever direction, and gorgeous New Mexico scenery, simply with a different story and cast of characters. Better Call Saul does this, but from the first moment it also feels like a show reckoning with Breaking Bad, trying to learn from its missteps and do better. Take, for example, the character of Ignacio "Nacho" Varga (Michael Mando), the low-level drug dealer who finds himself caught between the Mexican-based Salamanca cartel, and the ruthless crime boss Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). When I watched the Breaking Bad sequel movie El Camino last year, it suddenly occurred to me that Nacho is a better-considered version of Jesse Pinkman. Like Jesse, he is fundamentally good-hearted, but also weak-willed. He becomes a criminal out of greed and a lack of options, and is carried in the wake of stronger personalities, committing worse and worse acts at their behest, and because he fears what they might do to him if he said no. But whereas Breaking Bad tended to infantilize Jesse, obscuring his responsibility for his own bad choices and blaming other people for leading him astray, Better Call Saul treats Nacho like an adult. He's a sympathetic character whom we want to see escape his difficult situation, but we're never in any doubt over why he's in that mess. Neither is Nacho, which is perhaps the reason why he's so far been far more successful at striking back at the people who try to control him than Jesse ever was. It's a more satisfying, more complex portrait, a second go-around that improves on the original (not least because in Nacho, the Breaking Bad universe finally breaks its streak of treating Latino characters as an undifferentiated mass of badass but terrifying criminal potential).

In the character of its protagonist, as well, Better Call Saul feels like a show reckoning with its franchise's history and trying to improve upon it. From the first moment, in which we meet not Saul Goodman, criminal attorney, but Jimmy McGill, struggling lawyer trying to find his way, there seems to be an attempt to create a softer character than Walter White, and thus avoid the veneer of coolness that turned him from a human character into a design on a t-shirt. The Jimmy we meet at the beginning of Better Call Saul is not a repressed genius like Walt, but a frustrated swindler, a small fry struggling to be taken seriously by the big fish in Albequerque's legal pond, working out of the back of a nail salon, coming up with desperate schemes to acquire clients and keep them out of jail. Despite how pathetic this portrait sounds, here's also a lot to admire and enjoy about Jimmy. Like most protagonists in the Breaking Bad universe, he's smart, resourceful, hard-working, a natural problem-solver. And in one of Better Call Saul's key innovations on Breaking Bad's original format, he is also a former con artist who uses those skills in his legal career, spinning fantasies whose goal is anything from the prosaic and seedy to the high-minded and noble.

The fundamental difference between Jimmy and Walt is, first, that Jimmy is a joyful person, who takes genuine pleasure out wringing a victory against a gigantic legal firm, or swindling a self-satisfied fat-cat out of the price of an expensive bottle of tequila. And second, that Jimmy is trying to change. He's a much more humble character than Walt, because his con artist ways have landed him in trouble one too many times, and as we meet him at the beginning of the show he is earnestly trying to go straight. Breaking Bad, we were told, was a show about change, but the transformation it ultimately depicted felt hollow, a loss of humanity rather than an exploration of it. Better Call Saul is a show about a man trying to change for the better, and its core dilemma is the tension between the two parts of Jimmy's personality—his joy at using his brains and creativity to get one over people, and his genuine desire to go straight.

Again and again, Jimmy finds himself at an impasse in his career, or convinces himself that the fight he's in is too lopsided to be fought with conventional, legal means. And, again and again, the extra-legal maneuvering he comes up with to even the score or strike one for the little guy has consequences that he can't predict or control, and which end up impacting on the people closest to him. It's a more productive tension than Breaking Bad's moralistic "will Walt become a terrible person who is nevertheless much more fun to watch?" because there are arguments for both sides of Jimmy's personality, and so the show becomes more nerve-wracking and compelling than Breaking Bad ever was, even though we know that Jimmy's struggle to be better will ultimately end in failure.

If there's a Walt-like character in Better Call Saul, it is Jimmy's brother Chuck (Michael McKean), which in itself feels like a repudiation of some of the choices made in Breaking Bad. Brilliant but cold, Chuck is a highly-respected lawyer and all-around success story who has spent his life cleaning up Jimmy's messes, and seething over the fact that, despite being an undeniable fuck-up, everyone seems to like Jimmy better. We, the audience, can understand why that is—Jimmy is a fundamentally kind person who puts genuine thought and effort into his interactions with other people, sometimes because he's trying to get something out of them, but often simply because that's who he is. Whereas Chuck is imperious and transactional, allowing his pride in his intellect and sense of superiority to justify running roughshod over other people's feelings. At the same time, we can also see that Chuck is often in the right, and that his distrust of Jimmy, and hurt over never being preferred over him, are well-earned.

The conflict between the brothers drives the show's first three seasons, and makes them some of the most exhilarating and emotionally wrenching TV I've ever seen. Jimmy initially tries to prove himself to Chuck, but eventually realizes that nothing he can do will ever be good enough. That his attempts to win Chuck's approval by following him into the legal profession in fact do nothing but horrify the older McGill brother, who sees the law as a hallowed realm into which a conman and shyster like Jimmy should never have been admitted. Jimmy's response is to strike at Chuck with increasing cruelty, which we nevertheless root for because Chuck is so unpleasant and so unlovable, and has clearly brought this enmity on himself by refusing to unbend and accept a brother who has tried to please him. The whole thing comes to a crescendo at the end of the show's third season, when Jimmy outsmarts Chuck's efforts get him disbarred and turns them back on him, discrediting Chuck and causing his firm to push him into retirement. Chuck, robbed of the thing in which he has rooted his entire identity, commits gruesome suicide.

And from that point, a lot of air comes out of the show. As I wrote a few weeks ago, in my review of a book that borrows a lot from the anti-hero prestige dramas of which Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are key examples, "The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be." Chuck's death is that point for Jimmy. It releases him from the burden of having to be seen by the one person whose good opinion he couldn't win or swindle. There are still steps along the path to Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman, and the fourth season shows us some of them, as he shakes off, first, any lingering guilt over the role he played in Chuck's death, and finally, any sense of connection he had once felt towards his brother. And there will no doubt be more twists and turns, particularly when it comes to the show's cartel-focused storylines, in which Gus and the Salamancas fight over power and territory, a battle into whose orbit Jimmy is slowly being pulled. But fundamentally, Jimmy is now on rails. It will be interesting to see how his story concludes (or rather, reaches the point where Breaking Bad starts), but I don't think there will be anything in it to surprise us. He is the person he was always trying to be, even if he's not yet completely Saul Goodman.

The second-biggest surprise in Better Caul Saul's fifth season is that the show recognizes this. In a conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Gus's laconic, ultra-competent fixer, Jimmy tries to bargain his way out of acknowledging that he is now knee-deep in cartel business, following a job-gone-wrong that left him in the middle of a shootout. Mike, with typical resigned self-awareness, lays down the facts while making it clear to the audience that the show realizes what stage in its story it has reached:
We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off, but eventually you're back on it. And the road we're on led us out to the desert, and everything that happened there, and straight back to where we are right now. And nothing, nothing can be done about that.
The biggest surprise in the season is that, having brought its protagonist to the end of his emotional journey, if not his actual one, Better Call Saul refuses to coast for the remainder of its run. It turns around and finds another emotional journey to focus on, one that gives the season a renewed sense of urgency and tension. That journey belongs, of course, to Jimmy's lover, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). To begin with, Kim felt like another way for Better Call Saul to make up for Breaking Bad's missteps. That show's heroine, Walt's wife Skyler, was famously derided and reviled by fans for getting in her husband's path as he ascended the ladder of Albequerque's criminal world. But for all the conversation that spurred, about Bad Fans and fannish misogyny, what the reaction to Skyler came down to was that the show's writers had positioned her as a spoilsport. She made decisions that were perfectly rational for a person in her situation, at first unwittingly and later knowingly trying to stall Walt's criminal career and protect her family from it. But the result was a character who was always an obstacle to the protagonist's forward motion, never a protagonist in her own right.

Kim feels like a direct response to that failure, not in the Cool Girl way of never interfering with Jimmy's progress, but in the far more exciting, and extremely rare way of having her own storylines and agenda, which Jimmy, a natural-born follower, often subordinates himself to. Kim shares a lot of qualities with Jimmy. She's smart and hard-working and creative, and takes a genuine pleasure in her work and in being good at it that is still an extremely rare quality for a female character (unless they're treated as pathetic workaholics who don't know how to live outside of the office and have to be cured of that failing). But she's also better than Jimmy—a better person, a better lawyer, and a better player of the game, ascending the corporate law ladder and arriving, by the beginning of the fifth season, at a senior position in one of Albequerque's most prestigious law firms. But like Jimmy, Kim has another side to her personality. She may have won the game, but she also sees how rigged it is, and she keeps finding ways to set herself apart from the people who play it whole-heartedly, whether taking on pro bono cases for the public defender, or participating in (and eventually instigating) some of Jimmy's cons, just for the thrill of feeling like an outsider tilting at The Establishment, rather than part of that establishment herself.

For people who, like myself, have fallen head over heels in love with Kim Wexler, the question of her fate has become one of the most urgent ones about the show. What, we keep asking ourself, is Jimmy going to do to her? How is he going to screw up her life? What scheme will he rope her into that will go catastrophically wrong, and tear down everything she's so painstakingly built? Will she die? Will she go to prison? Will she be publicly humiliated and stripped of her legal license? Or will she come to her senses and drop him, completing her transformation into a member of the elite that Jimmy could never reach? A lot of people in Better Call Saul's fifth season seem to be asking the same questions. People on the legitimate side of Kim's life, like her former boss Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), keep advising her to leave Jimmy, warning her about his unstable, shady side on the assumption that someone as upright as Kim couldn't possibly know about it. People in Jimmy's criminal life keep expressing surprise at their relationship, wondering what someone as classy as Kim could see in him, and warning him that by revealing details about his cartel connections to her, he is putting her in danger. Even Jimmy himself finally gives voice to a worry that has probably eaten away at him since the beginning of his and Kim's relationship. "Am I bad for you?" he asks her, after the cartel boss he'd been dragooned into working for arrives at their apartment and terrorizes them.

The answer, which Kim gives to everyone questioning her and which the show gives to us, is at once exhilarating and terrifying. Why, the show seems to be asking, would you assume that someone as awesome, as determined, as in control of her own life as Kim Wexler, could be destroyed by anyone other than herself? In a mid-season episode, we see a flashback of a teenage Kim refusing to get into her drunk mother's car. The lesson seems to be that Kim has always been drawn to toxic but charismatic people, but that she's also had the ability to draw boundaries with them, and keep them from dragging her down with them. That's what she did in earlier seasons of Better Call Saul—when Jimmy suggests that he and Kim should form a law firm together, she considers, and then counters with an offer to share an office while operating separately, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of entangling herself with someone she knows to be untrustworthy. But in the fifth season, with Kim having seemingly achieved everything she ever aspired to and finding it unsatisfying, she throws caution to the wind. When Jimmy, in one of his classic clusterfucks, causes chaos in Kim's career, we (and he) expect Kim to put her foot down, and even to end their relationship. Instead, she proposes marriage. The girl who once knew better than to get into a car with a drunk now loves—and, more importantly, needs—Jimmy badly enough to tie herself to him in a way that, she thinks, will protect them both from his destructiveness.

But Kim's transformation over the course of the season isn't driven only by love, but by her frustrated sense of adventure and search for meaning, which her pro bono work can no longer satisfy. She enlists Jimmy's help in outsmarting her own top client, who is trying to throw a recalcitrant tenant out of his house. She quits her prestigious big-law job. She exposes herself to Jimmy's cartel connections and calls their attention to her. And, in the season finale, she engages Jimmy in a risky scheme to frame Howard in order to force a settlement in a lawsuit from which Jimmy stands to profit handsomely. This isn't some lovestruck, verging-on-middle-aged woman entangling herself in illegality because her no-good boyfriend dragged her into it. It's an intelligent, determined woman deciding what kind of person she wants to be, and realizing that that isn't the person society tells her she should be.

It would be triumphant if it wasn't obviously all going to go wrong, but either way, Kim's journey adds a sense of excitement and possibility to the fifth season of Better Call Saul that I didn't think the show was still capable of. Better Call Saul is still Jimmy's show, but by giving Kim her own journey that parallels his—and of a type that is still so rare for a female character—the show reinvents itself and its main character. It's the crowning example of why Better Call Saul has proven to be a better show than Breaking Bad—because even in a story whose ending we know, and whose moral we thought we understood, it finds ways to innovate and become something else.

1 comment:

Iceman said...

I don't know if it's commonly held view that "Better Call Saul" has surpassed "Breaking Bad". "Better Call Saul"'s first two seasons were pretty damn weak, half sluggishly-paced character drama and half pointless crimes story. Even since then the Mike sections have never risen beyond wholly inessential dot-connecting--which is exactly what I feared the show would be when I heard of it for the first time. Jimmy's story has proved to be much richer and more dynamic than Walter's, which beat the same drum over and over again, but "Breaking Bad" didn't have any major structural weaknesses. It's a toss-up.

Season 5 had an okay first half and a pretty great back half that set up an interesting final season. I assumed that Kim would dump Jimmy once he did "Something Unforgivable", but the writers proved once again that they know how to do their job better than I do by making the show just as much about Kim as it is about Jimmy. Kim's moral decay I didn't see coming, but it's been a long time coming, and I am eager to see how that plays out whenever it comes back. Hopefully before 2024 or something.

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