One season in, and Better Call Saul viewers have yet to meet Saul. Breaking Bad’s lovable scumbag lawyer still goes by his birth name, Jimmy McGill, even though there have been plenty of times during the first 10 episodes of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s show that he’s been both lovable and a scumbag.
What is a scumbag, though? Are they born or made? It's now clear that Better Call Saul is, like Breaking Bad, a great meditation on the nature of wrongdoing, which incidentally is much the same question pondered by basically all great religions and philosophers. The Albuquerque (and, sometimes, Chicago) of Gilligan and Gould’s imagination bustles with normal-seeming individuals somewhere in the process of breaking bad. Under the crummy surfaces of strip malls and tract homes, accountants, teachers, veterinarians, parking attendant, cops, and lawyers are all playing the angles.
For many of these folks, morality isn’t quite black and white; instead, it’s invisible, unconsidered, something whose bounds are transgressed in dumb fumbling. Take those white-collar Stepford crooks, the Kettlemans, who try to absolve their misdeeds through sheer force of denial; Craig barely bothered to cover his tracks as he bilked the county government for millions. Or take the pill slinger in dad pants who goes by “Price” and hires Mike Ehrmantraut. After selling drugs to a cartel worker, he’s shocked to be told that he’s a criminal, stammering, “I’m not, like, a bad guy.” To which Mike gives the clearest explanation of how the BB/BCS universe, and maybe our own, works:
I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again. But you took something that wasn’t yours, and you sold it for a profit. You’re now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.
It's up to you: This is the Ehrmantraut ethos, and it might be why he’s possibly the best character Gilligan has served up. In Breaking Bad, the old man turned out to be terrifyingly competent whenever he opted to make a move, which wasn’t often. The episode “Five-O,” Better Call Saul’s most raved-about hour, gave Mike a classic and tough backstory involving crooked policemen killing his son, the only upstanding guy on the force. It became clear that Mike's capable of doing terrible things even when not on a job, but only after great preparation and with great intention—as when he avenged his son with a double murder. He’s realpolitik, with heart. Should his daughter-in-law keep dirty money? If it helps her and her kid, Mike says, yes, of course.
Jimmy can, and does, learn something from Mike’s clearheadedness. The proto-Saul has a gift for deception and knows how to persuade. But in last night’s finale, viewers saw that Jimmy, for a time, got caught up in a confused swirl of emotions, pride, and expectations as he tried to make something of himself. Back in his Slippin’ Jimmy days, a lewd prank landed him in jail; his stuffy and successful brother freed him, and offered him a role in his law firm’s mailroom. Jimmy saw this as an opportunity to do more than straighten out—he could go good. It was Walter White in reverse, a guy trying to prove himself as a normal human being, not a monster manipulator. He buckled down. He passed the bar.
But brother Chuck, afflicted by both delusions about electro-magnetic fields and a vicious kind of pretension, didn't think reform was possible. He secretly resented and undermined Jimmy’s moves toward lawyerdom. When it finally became clear last week that Chuck had been ankling his younger brother, Jimmy seemed deeply wounded. But in the finale, hurt turns to bingo-calling rage turns to self-reflection. He realizes that all along, his desire to become a respectable person wasn’t actually driven by his own pursuit of self-respect. It was about his brother’s admiration—but his brother's admiration was never on offer.
Which explains why Jimmy turns around when offered a chance to get back in on the Sandpiper case. His parking-lot epiphany in the closing moments of the finale felt abrupt to me, until I thought back on the arc of the episode and the series. The visit to Chicago reminds Jimmy of what he's good at. If Chuck, who Jimmy thought was the best person in his life, is just going to cheat him, why shouldn’t Jimmy cheat too? With his new legal skills, he should be able to score Kettleman-level cash—as his con-artist pal Marco says, if you’re just getting by as a lawyer, you’re doing it wrong.
So it’s a mix of retribution and self-interest that powers him as he drives away, grunting out “Smoke on the Water.” But more than that, it's a deliberate choice. Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, nicely explained the new Jimmy philosophy as “the American escape hatch” to Salon: “If everything else goes off in your face, if your family can’t stand the sight of you, if you can’t hold a job, if you can’t stay away from drugs and booze, well, at least you can make a lot of money and have all this f-you money stacked up.”
This transformation is a little bit more complicated, and a little bit truer to life's messiness, than Walter White's linear descent to evil ever was. Accordingly, it hasn’t been accompanied by nearly as many lethal confrontations as first-season Bad served up. As entertainment, Better Call Saul has been more scattershot, and it wasn’t always clear that the show knew what it was. But when it was great—I think back to the desert standoff in episode two, the Mike episode, and the swindler’s montage last night—it reminded that Gilligan and Gould are experts at filming crime scenes that feel like no others on TV. Surely there are more of those scenes to come once Saul Goodman shows up. Jimmy knows where he’s driving now, and the show does too.