Monday on “Better Call Saul” Jimmy took another step toward becoming a professional criminal. He extorted a guard, enabled a drug dealer and committed an insurance fraud. Meanwhile. His mentally ill brother is being kicked out of the firm he created because in a previous week, Jimmy “accidentally” revealed the depths of his illness in a fit of pique. Let’s see…what else did he do? I don’t even want to go into it. But I thought that, as he makes his progress toward being “Saul”, the fixer and middleman to genuine monsters like Gus Freng and Walter White, (Jimmy is a puppy in comparison), it might be useful to devise a model of Jimmy’s internal state, so that we can see how he step by step becomes what he ultimately becomes…a hugely “likeable” Igor.
Jimmy starts life as a kid with a brilliant older brother with whom he constantly competes, a strong strain of likability, and little moral compass. He is “clever”, not really smart. In other words, he can see ways to cut corners, but could never build anything himself. People who burn buildings down can feel superior to the people who planned and built it.
Like all human beings, he wants to avoid pain and gain pleasure. Clearly, he associates money with pleasure, but the only things we EVER hear about in terms of his money-making is scamming and stealing. Always with a smile, of course.
Meanwhile, his brother Chuck, brilliant but emotionally damaged, almost certainly resents the fact that Jimmy is such a little thief, but PEOPLE LIKE HIM BETTER. Get this? They respect Chuck. But they LOVE Jimmy. Jimmy has that plausibility. So Chuck doubtless does things to undercut Jimmy, including the worst thing that we know of: he doesn’t tell Jimmy their mother asked for him on her death bed. That is terrible, no question about it.
But don’t take your eyes off the ball–and Jimmy is the ball. Jimmy continues to desire the respect Chuck gets, but cannot change his habit patterns–continues to cut corners, lie, and steal, and then acts surprised when people see through his “who, me?” act and actually TREAT him as if he is a liar and thief.
And this is where it gets interesting. Where “Breaking Bad” is a tragedy of a genuinely amazing human being who is destroyed by the discovery of his power, “Better Call Saul” is the story of a little man who wants to be a big man, and is destroyed by the gap between his dreams and his reality.
He attends a cut-rate law school. There are THOUSANDS of occupations he might have chosen. Does anyone doubt that he is specifically competing with Chuck, who built a mighty law firm on the strength of his knowledge and intellect?
Does anyone think that, having established that Jimmy cheats at EVERYTHING, he didn’t cheat in law school? Anyone?
One of the really amazing things that Vince Gilligan achieved with both Walter White and Jimmy is the degree to which people justify their behavior. I can only figure that they are thinking “under those circumstances, I would do the same thing.” Brrrrrr.
Because no matter what Jimmy does, the excuse is: “he HAD to do that!” I mean, what choice did he have to extort a guard and enable a drug dealer for seven hundred dollars? He needed the money, and his back was hurting.
Why did he need the money? Because he lost his ability to practice law for a year and was on “community service.: Why? Because he broke into his brother’s house. Why? Because his brother had evidence Jimmy had stolen and fabricated legal documents. Why did Jimmy do that? Because because because.
Why did his back hurt? Because he faked an injury to blackmail a store owner. Why? Because he needed the money. Why? Because that store owner refused to buy commercials from him, and Jimmy considered this unfair. Why? Because he desperately needed money. Why? Because he’d lost his license…
Because he wanted to compete with his brother, and fabricated documents to do it…
Because he wasn’t smart enough to compete with Chuck without cheating…
Because he HAD to be a lawyer, to both get Chuck’s respect and to drive him crazy like little brothers do (“this law stuff isn’t so tough…”)
Because his ego is based on getting a specific acknowledgement from Chuck and the world. With a thousand other professions, a million other places to live, he had to do that, there in New Mexico, even though he simply doesn’t have what it takes.
Watching Jimmy McGill is watching a slow-motion car wreck. He could probably own a car lot and be a success. Any number of other things. But he has to do THIS, even though he simply doesn’t have the problem-solving ability to do the job without lying and cheating, then doesn’t have the moral strength to take responsibility when he is caught.
But man, is he ever LIKEABLE. He will enable thieves, drug-dealers, killers. Will be complicit in death and destruction on an impressive scale. But every step is tiny. He CANNOT awaken to the reality of the path he is on without questioning his core identity: Slippin’ Jimmy. NOT a good person. NOT a smart person. “Clever” yes. He can see holes in the structures others create, and wiggle through them…but couldn’t create anything himself to save his life.
Watch him drag down anyone who ever loved him. Watch him justify any level of nastiness because he HAD to do it.
But he’s so damned LIKEABLE.
Now…look around you. If YOU justify Jimmy, I have to ask: do you have “Jimmy’s” in you own life? People who are plausible, and “nice” and “warm” and break everything they touch and corrupt the people who love them? Are YOU ever a “Jimmy”?
I think we all have a bit of “Jimmy.” We all want to believe we’re as smart as anyone else, and if we have to cut corners, well, if we don’t get caught, what difference does it make? Who gets hurt…?
Musashi’s first principle is “Do Not Think Dishonestly.” Jimmy might, just MIGHT have an epiphany and finally understand what he is, perhaps later in life. He might, just MIGHT understand all the damage he has done, after it is too late to do anything about it. And chances are that he will NOT have the strength to admit, genuinely regret a wasted life, where all he had to do was set his goals a little lower, and he wouldn’t have had to lie and cheat. He lied to himself, he lied to the world, and he is responsible for every bad thing that happened.
All he had to do was tell the truth. Jimmy won’t wake up.
But will you? Will the audience? Can we love this show, love Jimmy, and still see what he is? Because if we can, BETTER CALL SAUL is an AMAZINGLY moral show. As was BREAKING BAD, viewed from a distance. It is less blunt than “The Shadow” with his “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit” but it is the same thing. And all we have to do is look at the fascination with such characters, the tendency to justify them, and even our own love of such scoundrels and ask “why?” and we can understand human life more clearly, from politics to “gaslighting” relationships.
THIS is fine drama. BETTER CALL SAUL and BREAKING BAD are so far above most of what passes for drama on television that it is pretty clear, in mid-series, that we’re watching a modern classic unspooling before us. But…it’s up to us whether it is just “entertainment”…or “art”: the revelation of deep truths about the human condition, told with such craft it can be mistaken for triviality.
Man oh man, do I love this show.
He is so LIKEABLE!!