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.