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Better Call Saul: The moving story of an honest sleazeball

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The Binge — Jessica Zafra

“YOU’RE the kind of lawyer guilty people hire,” the embezzler’s wife tells Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Even the most clueless criminal can tell that the protagonist of Better Call Saul is a shady character. But when the AMC series begins, Jimmy has not fully embraced the shady side. He’s still trying to do the right thing — it’s just that in Jimmy’s world, “good” and “bad” are relative. Yes, he gets a pair of scam artists in trouble, but he does bargain their punishment down from death to one broken leg each. All things considered, that’s a great lawyer. Great-ish.

Better Call Saul is the story of the man who would become Saul Goodman (As in, “It’s all good, man”), the unscrupulous lawyer on Breaking Bad. Many of the characters from Breaking Bad deserve their own series — I would watch one in which Badger pitches story ideas to Hollywood, or Gus Fring cooks chicken — but Saul is an excellent choice. Not only does he find creative solutions for dire situations, not only is he a vending machine of hilarious quotes, but he takes such delight in being his scuzzy self. He’s not a hypocrite. Everyone should love their job as much as Saul does. “Don’t drink and drive,” he reminds his clients, “But if you do, call me.”

“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work,” he says on another occasion. “I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.” Produced by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, Better Call Saul is set six years before the events on Breaking Bad, in the same sun-drenched, color-saturated New Mexico landscape. It also employs flashbacks and flash-forwards, which get a bit confusing because Bob Odenkirk looks to be the same age in every scene. Is it necessary to watch Breaking Bad before starting on Better Call Saul? No, but I urge you to see Bad first, if only to appreciate the suicide mission aspect of the spin-off.

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In 2002, James “Jimmy” Morgan McGill is a public defender representing the accused at $700 a case. He drives a decrepit car and has frequent run-ins with the parking attendant, who is a stickler for the rules. The carpark attendant is none other than Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) — it’s the same thrill of recognition you get from identifying a future superhero in a Marvel movie. Mike, a former cop who’s moved to New Mexico to be near his granddaughter, takes a course of action that leads him to Jimmy and to their future association with the drug cartel.

Jimmy has a tiny office at the back of a salon (It’s that salon!) and gets zero inquiries from prospective clients. He looks after his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a successful lawyer who is incapacitated by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” Chuck believes that technology is killing him, so he lives in a house with no electricity and will not allow cellphones or even flashlights inside. His self-diagnosed condition sounds a lot like schizophrenia.

In an effort to kick-start his legal career, Jimmy pursues Craig Kettleman (Jeremy Shamos), a county treasurer who has stolen $1.6 million in public funds. His desperate scheme to get Kettleman’s business results in an unwanted introduction to the Mexican drug cartel, in the person of Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). Tuco! I hope his uncle Tio shows up, ding ding ding. (This is less annoying if you’ve already seen Breaking Bad.)

Writers are often advised to begin with a character, and in Jimmy they have a bonanza. Like its parent series, Better Call Saul has much to add to the nature vs. nurture debate. Was Jimmy born sleazy, or did his environment push him in that direction? Why does everyone assume that he’s corrupt? We learn that before coming to Albuquerque, Jimmy had been a grifter in his hometown of Cicero (like the famed Roman lawyer), Illinois. One of his favorite scams was pretending to slip and injure himself, hence the nickname, “Slippin’ Jimmy.”

After his brother gets him out of prison, he decides to go straight. He moves to New Mexico, works in the mailroom of Chuck’s prestigious law firm Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill, and gets a law degree from the University of American Samoa. The key word in Jimmy’s legitimate career is “try.” He tries to be a good public defender, approaching the soul-killing work with brio, like Roy Scheider in All That Jazz: “It’s showtime, folks!” He bursts into the law firm’s boardroom doing Ned Beatty’s rant from Network. Jimmy makes so many film references, we suspect that he can’t distinguish between artifice and reality; he’s only playing a righteous man, and nature will out.

Even his better ideas are undermined by his shiftiness and his desire for revenge against his brother’s law partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). However, the fact that his ex-girlfriend, lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), remains a loyal friend speaks well of him: there’s no better character reference than an ex. Eventually Jimmy finds his niche — elder law — and starts envisioning his Erin Brockovich moment in which the working-class hero takes on the corrupt system and triumphs. He gets to work side by side with his esteemed brother, even if it’s to piece together a dumpster’s worth of documents shredded by the plaintiff. And we root for this loser to get a break and win for once in his grubby life.

Whenever Jimmy listens to his better nature, it bites him in the ass. Some people are good at being good, he’s good at being… let’s just say he finds the loopholes. Better Call Saul Season 1 is a black comedy whose denouement achieves a kind of tragic majesty. Not bad, not bad at all.

Contact the author at TVatemyday@gmail.com.

Read her work every week at BusinessWorld, every day at JessicaRulestheUniverse.com.

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