Recapping “Better Call Saul”



Most stories are about growth and change.  But most series drama is not about growth–they are about revelation of character.  This is cyclical in a James Bond movie–the arc is always from external image (playboy) to internal reality (world’s deadliest commando), with only a couple of exceptions to the rule.


Television is evolving into a multi-season arc of personal revelation.  BREAKING BAD is a perfect example, and I suspect that BETTER CALL SAUL will be similar.   Maybe two more seasons to dovetail the story? And it is unfortunate that some of the actors seem to be aging swiftly, making it harder and harder to believe the events took place earlier in the time line.


But hell, it’s make-believe.




Can we now make a guess about Jimmy and his arc?  We know where he ended up, as “Saul”: an amoral toadie to monsters, with a certain sweetness and sincerity that ingratiated him. But he was a bottom-feeder, a remora among sharks, at the best.  That’s his end point.


I think that for most of human history, we’ve assumed that people are simply born a particular way, and they then act out that essence over their lifetmes. It is a far more contemporary outlook to suggest that we are the products of our environments, and more modern still to suggest that we are interwoven therewith–that there is an interaction between that environment and our potential that is so complex we can barely model it.


This is why I find it safer to assume equality between groups–any other point of view risks simply ignoring data, and glorifying your own tribe. Even worse if your two tribes are interwoven, such that you might well merely be deflecting guilt, or justifying theft and even murder.


Looking at Jimmy, we certainly have an interwoven braid, a basic corruption combined with a real sweetness and likeability that makes him even more dangerous.  Remember where he ends up: alone. Broken and broke.  Having facilitated countless deaths, many of them innocent. And probably still believing he had no other options, that he is the good guy in all of this.


How do we get there?  Let’s try a story.




We know that Jimmy and Chuck were close when they were children, and that Chuck felt some responsibility for Jimmy…well, actually, he was just the “responsible” one.  “Slippin’ Jimmy” was the one who got away with everything, stole and lied and cheated, but somehow made people love him anyway.  In comparison, people RESPECT Chuck, but don’t really warm up to him.


Chuck is brilliant, Jimmy is clever.  “Clever” means he can figure out a way to get the results, but always by cheating and lying.  And here he had a choice: modest results in life being an honest man, or try to live up to his Big Brother’s example and produce massive results…but have to cut corners at every turn.


Caught in a Smother’s Brothers nightmare (“Mom loved YOU best”)  Chuck excelled at building a business, but his personal life was…well, so far as we can see, non-existent.   Jimmy leverages his “likeabilty” to accomplish things, which is fine, so long as that combines with a sense of genuinely wishing to serve people, seeing them as ends rather than means.


But Jimmy doesn’t.  People aren’t quite real to him, and you can see the waves of corruption and damage washing out from him.   There is no trace of Chuck or girlfriend Kim.  Those relationships are either destroyed…or the people themselves are dead.


I made a guess a year ago: some traumatic incident would destroy Jimmy’s willingness to continue using his birth name.   Watching what he was willing to do to “win” against his psychologically fragile brother made me suspect that Chuck would die.   We needed an event that could not be undone. Jimmy believes he can sleaze his way out of anything–he’s pretty much gotten away with it his whole life.



Let’s try this:

Once upon a time there were two brothers named Chuck and Jimmy.  Chuck was brilliant, but had few friends.   Jimmy was clever enough, but everyone liked him.  Jimmy saw that he could be clever enough to get money without working, while Chuck tried to win his parents’ love by studying and working hard.


It didn’t really work: on her deathbed, their mother called for Jimmy, not Chuck. In anger, Chuck lied to Jimmy about it.   Over the years, Chuck buried himself in creating a successful law firm. To his horror, after watching Jimmy lie cheat and steal his way through life, he watched his younger brother graduate from a cut-rate mail-order law school and actually get a degree…and a job at Chuck’s own firm.


Chuck opposed that hiring, knowing that Jimmy would cheat and lie here as well.  Jimmy resented the fact that Chuck can’t have faith that he could turn over a new leaf.  And there the basic conflict entered its fatal death-match.


Because Jimmy did cheat. And get fired.  And sought to compete with his brother through unethical means, leading to a confrontation where Jimmy used Chuck’s mental instability to “prove” his own innocence.


This is the turning point in the story, a death spiral for Chuck’s career and life, and the beginning of an action that cannot be undone.   Jimmy has a brush with conscience when girlfriend Kim has a near-death experience (plausibly triggered by Jimmy’s own problems), and tells the truth to a group at a retirement home out of guilt, sacrificing his own profit to save an old lady’s friendships.


But his peace offering to his brother doesn’t go as well. Chuck sees/believes that Jimmy will never change, will destroy anything and everything around him, and tells Jimmy he never really cared much about him.


Plausibly this is a lie.  Why?  To hurt Jimmy?  Or possibly to make the next action less painful?   Because Chuck, having lost his position at the firm, attempts suicide, and there the season leaves things.   Did he actually feel guilt that as Big Brother he “failed” Jimmy so completely?  And reducing the pain Jimmy would feel on hearing of his brother’s death by damaging their relationship?  Or was it just a final “fuck you”?


Hard to say.

Their relationship was so poisoned, love and hate and resentment and admiration so intertwined that there is only one thing I think can be determined for sure:


Jimmy will not and cannot recover. Chuck may die, or may be in a hospital, horribly disfigured, for life. Kim may die somehow, or simply leave him. Perhaps Jimmy will grasp what a spoiler he is, and drive her away for her own good.


What was Jimmy as a child?  Charming, clever, dishonest.  Had he not succeeded in his early transgressions, he might have experienced enough pain to force him to change his ways.   Had he not admired his big brother so much, he might have settled for a smaller life that didn’t require lies and cheating.


If Musashi’s first principle is “Do Not Think Dishonestly” it is reasonable to think that nothing, NOTHING that went wrong in Jimmy’s life would have been irreversible and ultimately destructive, but for the lying.  That single thing would have made the difference.


Jimmy failed his test, couldn’t survive his leap of faith: to believe a life of meaning could exist without “beating” Chuck at his own game.   Honesty would have saved him. Or genuinely seeing other human beings as ends rather than means.  Or shrinking his ego and settling for a smaller life. Or even not being so plausible and likeable.


In combination, it was deadly.  He trashed his life completely, to the point that he needed to reinvent himself.


Jimmy cannot clean up his mess. He’ll just become a new person and start over again. But all that rot is down in the psychic basement.


This is what happens when you don’t START with a commitment to be honest, to value others for their own sake, and not place yourself above them, not value yourself by whether you can accomplish what they accomplish.


It’s a nightmare. And a tragedy.


Saul is coming.   I can’t wait.


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