Film and TV

What's Really Driving Better Call Saul's Jimmy McGill to Break Bad and Become Saul Goodman?

Jimmy McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, is stranded in a desert with $7 million in cash toward the end of the fifth season of the AMC series Better Call Saul.
Jimmy McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, is stranded in a desert with $7 million in cash toward the end of the fifth season of the AMC series Better Call Saul. Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
The Breaking Bad universe is an anomaly in pop culture: It's so good that even its spinoffs and sequels stand up to the original.

For starters, the storytelling holds up across all the works. Creator Vince Gilligan lives and breathes the "... and so this happens" style of screenwriting that sticks to a timeline in which characters' deeds and actions have effects and consequences and never happen unchecked throughout their stories. Ultimately, they all either lead to a character's liberation or destruction.

So far, we've seen one of each happen to the AMC drama's original characters. The infamous Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, achieves some sense of redemption by leaving something for his family and freeing Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, from his drug peddling, skinheaded captors by trading away his own life. Then, just when we thought we were done learning all we needed to know about the vibrant and familiar characters, we were treated to El Camino, a Netflix movie that picks up where Jesse's story leaves off and shows us how he finally finds an escape and sense of peace from the irreparable harm he tried so hard to prevent.

The original Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul follows the origin story of Breaking Bad's legal shylock from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk. Better Call Saul will start its sixth and final season tonight on AMC.

Naturally, many of us have been rewatching the shows and movie, and not just to get caught up on the events leading up to the demise of Jimmy McGill and rise of Saul Goodman. Like all great stories, there's something at play that the eye can't catch in just one sitting. Although Breaking Bad and all of its subsequent stories birthed the concept of TV bingeing, the fun is taking it all in over time, not just one sitting.

Saul Goodman's backstory is similar to that of Walter White's in varying degrees. Both feature a down-on-his-luck schlub in dire financial straits who turns to the dark side as a shortcut. Saul/Jimmy's turn is different and the main reason is something even more sinister than all of his and Walter's misdeeds: pretension.

McGill was already on this path long before we're allowed to witness his character-defining moments. His  younger and wilder days in Toledo, Ohio, as "Slip 'n Fall Jimmy" show just how malleable Jimmy's moral flexibility is to working a great con for a quick buck. However, he earnestly tries to learn how to trust himself, others and the system by earning an honest buck instead of a conned one, but as goes with all honest endeavors, it's pretty damn hard.

Better Call Saul's run starts with Jimmy as a poorer-than-dirt attorney working out of the boiler room of an Albuquerque nail salon. He wants to do right by his older and wiser brother Charles, played brilliantly by Michael McKean, who's a much more celebrated and successful attorney dealing with his own issues, which manifest in a psychological disorder that make him believe he's allergic to electricity.

Jimmy desperately seeks Chuck's approval as an attorney and a brother. Just when Jimmy builds a multimillion dollar class action case against a corrupt chain of senior care centers by going the way Chuck wants him to, Chuck stills rips out the floorboards underneath the trust Jimmy has built up by turning against his own brother because he thinks Jimmy can and will never change. Chuck doesn't even have the guts to do it to his face. Chuck has law firm partners pretend to play the heavy so he can still come out on top as the wise and caring older brother.

Why does Chuck do it? He and his partners ignore Jimmy's actions for purely selfish and shallow reasons. Chuck's cynicism for his brother Jimmy shapes Saul Goodman because for Jimmy, becoming Saul is the ultimate revenge for breaking his heart. It's the same reason for all of Jimmy's earliest misdeeds. No matter how Jimmy tries, he doesn't fit Chuck's mold or model for a respected attorney or man. Chuck is cynical about his own brother and believes Jimmy can never be redeemed.
Pretention is a driving force of Jimmy's inevitable turn towards Darth Saul. From the very beginning, Chuck worked behind Jimmy's back to undermine Jimmy time and time again even when Jimmy's earnestly trying to do the right thing from his law practice to taking care of Chuck and his non-existent illness. What feels worse: being let down by someone who you know doesn't trust you or being let down by someone who's just pretending to have an ounce of faith in you only to rip it all away in the end?

It also doesn't help that Jimmy is surrounded by a sea of pretention in the law business, an industry where image and prestige are often more important than results. For instance, Jimmy finally gets a straight job as a lawyer with the Davis and Main firm run by Clifford Main, played by Ed Begley Jr. Jimmy's job is to find more clients for his class action suit so he airs a creative commercial that actually gets the phones ringing but Main loses his shit because he didn't approve it and he's more worried about how his higher priced clients will react to it than how effective it is for helping people who need it.

Even worse, Jimmy's ambitious attorney girlfriend Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, gets moved to the records room highlighting files with the interns at her firm because she's blamed for not warning her bosses about Jimmy's ad. Chuck may or may not have had something to do with Kim's demotion but he still could've stopped it. He also knows it's a way to get at Jimmy even if his stubbornness for following the law won't let him even admit he considered extorting his brother by demoting Kimmy.

Hurting a loved one who only seeks acceptance can make anyone go against their better judgment purely out of spite. Anyone who even has an ounce of control over their own feelings knows what rejection feels like and how much it hurts when it comes from someone you love and admire. Chuck may think he's doing the right thing by undermining Jimmy, but Chuck's snooty standards for acceptance do more to shove Jimmy towards Saul Goodwin's loud, technicolor suits by showing him how powerful pretentiousness and image can be when you know how to weaponize them.

Jimmy McGill isn't the Walter White of Better Call Saul. Charles McGill is. Chuck abandons his principles and ideals because he thinks he's saving the world from Jimmy. However, all of Chuck's actions, even ones produced by proxy posthumously, create the "and so this happens" moments that fuel Saul Goodman's rise to his Cocobolo desk of unchecked power. 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.