Saul Goodman used to be a joke. When he first popped up on a 2009 episode of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s zeitgeisty crime thriller about chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White, he was comic relief — a transparently sleazy criminal lawyer (Walt’s sidekick Jesse Pinkman emphasized the criminal) with suits as loud as his wisecracking voice. He was played by Bob Odenkirk, one of the world’s funniest people, whose then-recent acting gigs included several bit parts on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! He was comic relief, and he remained so until the bitter end. Even his name was a bad pun: S’all good, man!
That was then. Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel series that premiered its fifth season this weekend, is now. And while Saul can still be funny, his story is no laughing matter. It is not all good, man.
“Saul Goodman” is the assumed name of Jimmy McGill, a two-bit conman turned lawyer whose skill at gaming the system for his obviously guilty clients will one day lead Walter White to his door and make him an accessory to mass murder. Jimmy/Saul often means well, but his willingness to cut ethical corners, his seething resentment of his naysayers — including his older brother Chuck, a brilliant but mentally ill attorney whom Jimmy helped drive to suicide — and his contacts in the criminal underworld make him stray him further and further from God’s light. All the while, he functions as a sort of moral contagion, leading his lawyer girlfriend Kim Wexler, his ex-cop acquaintance Mike Ehrmantraut, and even his late brother down lonesomely amoral roads they likely would not have traveled but for Jimmy’s presence in their lives.
Only the story does not stop there. Intercut with the increasingly austere material that shows how Saul came to be, Better Call Saul presents the occasional flash-forward, showing its antihero’s life after he was forced to go on the run when Walter White’s criminal empire was exposed. He now works joylessly as the manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, an environment we see exclusively in black and white and gray. He never smiles. He barely speaks above a whisper. His hairline has receded so patchily it looks like he’s rotting from within. He lives in terror of discovery, an anxiety so severe that at one point it engenders a health crisis.
In the fifth season premiere, a stranger recognizes him from his ubiquitous old commercials and insists he drop the assumed-identity facade and say his catchphrase. “Better call Saul,” he murmurs in response, like he’s uttering a curse, or summoning a ghost in a bathroom mirror. His guilt is eating him alive.
Do you buy it?
For the purposes of enjoying the show, you kind of have to. Time and again, prestige dramas have promised us that their antiheroes have consciences — rudimentary, perhaps even vestigial, and often overridden by their venal drives and actions, but consciences nonetheless. Think of Tony Soprano, momentarily transformed into a better version of himself by a near-death experience or a trip on psychedelics, realizing there’s a better way to be, then backsliding right back into his old habits. Think of Don Draper, on the verge of suicide at a hippie healing center over his compulsive infidelity and lifetime of deception, then packaging a moment of enlightenment achieved during a group therapy session into the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola commercial. Think of Walter White, apologizing to his wife and freeing his protégé from captivity, but still ensuring that all his enemies pay for opposing him. Better Call Saul, the follow-up to the last of the great wave of “difficult men” prestige dramas, follows suit, showing how a glib hustler becomes a hollowed-out husk of a man after being forced to live with the consequences of his actions.
The fantasy present in all these cases is not only the vicarious thrill of watching men break rules simply because they have the power to do so. The fantasy is that any of them harbor any doubts whatsoever about the bad things they do. Their stories hold out the hope that with hard work and relentless self-inventory, they can overcome their bad instincts to do good, and that when they backslide, they feel pangs of guilt and shame that drive them to begin the cycle of redemption and damnation all over again. Underlying it all is the idea that bad people are plagued by guilty consciences.
If the antihero with a guilty conscience is a fantasy, then it takes its place among beings from other forms of fiction animated by the unrealistic.
We know this to be a fantasy because we can see what bad people do in real life and, if we have the stomach for it, follow their careers closely enough to detect any glimmers of conscience, and come up empty. Granted, we can’t know the inner workings of other people’s hearts, but I’ve never seen anything to convince me that Donald Trump regrets, for one moment, being Donald Trump. I suspect Mitch McConnell sleeps the sleep of the just. I don’t think contradicting his previous political stances, courting big-money donors, and preemptively (and erroneously) claiming victory in Iowa’s clusterfuck of a caucus troubles Pete Buttigieg even a little bit.
You can insert your own pet villains here. Can you picture them sobbing on the phone to Peggy Olson, or shouting “I get it!” into the desert while peaking on shrooms, or looking back on their lives of crime in somber black-and-white flash-forwards that show them beaten down and exhausted by what those lives led them to? I sure can’t.
I’m also not sure I need to. If the antihero with a guilty conscience is a fantasy, then it takes its place among beings from other forms of fiction animated by the unrealistic, the supernatural, the fantastic: dragons, zombies, alien invaders, masked slashers, haunted hotels, mad titans, sinister doppelgängers, xenomorphs, terminators, predators, you name it. No one holds the unreality of these entities against the works they inhabit, or at least no one should. No, we accept the unreality in exchange for what these things can reveal to us about our own lives — how they give us an imagistic vocabulary commensurate with the outsized and enormously powerful emotions we feel, emotions too strong for the vocabulary of everyday reality to properly convey.
And what do Saul Goodman and his difficult peers enable us to address? Our own guilt, our own shame, our own regret, our own conviction that had we been a better person in this or that moment, our lives and the lives of those we care about might have turned out very differently. Much maligned for allegedly teaching us to sympathize with the devil, the prestige-TV protagonist instead invites us to take a ruthless inventory of ourselves. On a much larger canvas than we ourselves possess, they play out the dramas of conscience we ourselves face on a smaller scale. That’s what they’re there to do: not to encourage us to give real-world bastards a pass, but to drive us to look at our own bastardry, however minor or major it may be, with fresh and unblinking eyes.
As for Saul, life in his Omaha purgatory may continue the way it is now in perpetuity. He could be exposed and apprehended — or, as his concluding declaration that he’ll fix the problem of the man who recognized him himself indicates, he may return to a life of actual, active crime — but it doesn’t really matter. He’s been made to face what he’s done, and the knowledge has broken him. And in the black-and-white Cinnabon of our minds, we too can see ourselves for what we are. The Saul tolls for thee.