“You look at me and you see Slippin’ Jimmy.”
Jimmy McGill. Saul Goodman. Gene Takavic. James Morgan McGill. Lawyer. Con man. Husband. Brother. Son. These are just some of the many personas and roles Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill (Bob Odenkirk) has taken on throughout the years. Some are self-anointed, and others are earned – good or bad. He’s a man who hides behind false smiles, dizzyingly colorful suits, and one scheme after another. But who is Saul Goodman? He’s the symptom of a much larger illness that plagues the American paradigm: the need for labels and one-dimensional personas. Assigning worth through arbitrary measurements homogenizes human complexity. What happens when a destabilizing force like Jimmy McGill disrupts that impulse? For starters, it lets him work within the system to unintentionally dismantle and expose its own hollow promise.
What is a con man? And what is truth? There’s an absolute “truth” by which everyone abides. We all have our own systems of belief. We accept them to be our absolute reality – yet we choose to ignore the subjectivity through which these careful sets of rules are created. Regardless, Jimmy McGill doesn’t ignore it. Better Call Saul exploits the idea of “identity” to the nth degree. It tears away at the tenuously crafted facade of the American dream with its idealistic white picket fences. It raises the question: What makes a lawyer any better than a drug dealer?
Amid so much ambiguity, Better Call Saul makes one thing clear: identities are constructs. They are easily created and can be just as easily destroyed. Among the perfectly manicured lawns and stylized middle-class suburban homes there’s just as much violence and crime as the local Los Pollos Hermanos. People like Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) lurk inside these beautiful homes – as do Betsy (Julie Ann Emery) and Craig Kettleman (Jeremy Shamos), whose racket of choice is not amphetamines but local taxes. After embezzling $1.6 million in public funds from the Bernalillo County treasury, Betsy and Craig hire Jimmy as their attorney – but hesitate because he’s “the lawyer guilty people hire.” This from a woman who refuses to disclose the whereabouts of stolen public funds even at the risk of Craig serving jail time, and who believes with all the ignorance her brain will allow that her husband is being wrongfully accused of the crime she knows he committed. That Jimmy’s character is being questioned is a lie.
A middle-class white woman like Betsy Kettleman is immersed so thoroughly in her sense of identity that her lack of self-awareness becomes second nature. And why would she develop self-awareness when her culture has dictated that women like her – and families like the Kettlemans – don’t abide by the same moral and sociopolitical standards as those classified as “other”? Betsy clings so tight to her identity that it almost cost her husband 30 years in prison despite losing their money, reputation, and livelihood. Almost.
What does this say about the overall nature of American life and culture? Of the supposed American dream we all chase – including Jimmy? That it doesn’t exist. Jimmy McGill didn’t turn into the Saul Goodman we’ve come to know from Breaking Bad from one day to the next. It was a slow transformation of Jimmy’s beliefs chipped away by the same person presumed to love him. The man whose own hubris came at a cost higher than he could’ve ever imagined. Like Betsy Kettleman, Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean) clung to an identity not his own (and on borrowed time). Jimmy’s brother Chuck genuinely believed that this curated persona with which he cloaked himself, much like the tinfoil he used to protect himself from the “electricity” to which he claimed he was allergic, would protect him from his own identity crisis.
Chuck and Jimmy became reflections of morality, blurring the lines of ethics and identity. Chuck lacks a similar self-awareness, never aware that being a lawyer isn’t as infallible as it seems, standing as he does in the already-quaking foundation of American identity. By contrast, Jimmy, perhaps too aware of how interchangeable self-identity can be – think of the many colorful suits Saul Goodman owns – oscillates between so many personas that they ultimately obfuscate who he is. What truly separates Jimmy from Chuck is Jimmy’s ability to understand humanity in its full complexity. Chuck is bound by the rigidity of binaries, dismissing anything and anyone that doesn’t fit within his narrow worldview. Jimmy implodes those binaries.
Chuck forged an entire life based on his role as an attorney, building an ivory tower in order to escape the murky reality of his brother. Chuck couldn’t tolerate the way Jimmy bent the law and the structure of the world to his whims. Falling for the trappings of a world that somehow owed him nothing was, for Charles McGill, unacceptable. And empirical logic doesn’t apply to someone like Jimmy, not when emotions don’t run in tandem with it. Chuck always saw Jimmy not as his brother, but as something that needed to be fixed. And despite the cold indifference Chuck offered in response to his kindness, Jimmy still saw Chuck as a human being, not a title at a law firm. Therein lies the disconnect between the two brothers. One brother saw the other as family; the other saw his brother as the sole perpetrator of everything gone wrong in the world, the immoral center of his own grievances against the flawed world he inhabited.
Where do the two meet? Sometimes it’s through the elusive presence of Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). One could argue that Kim becomes the center on the spectrum between Jimmy and Chuck, the place where the line gets drawn when you both revere “identity” and reject it? When you crave it just as much as you despise it? If you’re Kim, you make your own middle high ground. You muscle your way through and basically break the spectrum in half. The more morally dubious Kim reveals herself to be, the rawer her humanity she becomes. She’s more than her no-nonsense attitude and perfectly combed ponytail. All of her respectable qualities only serve to restrain the Kim we see running out of a hotel bar, hand-in-hand with Jimmy, after completing a con. It’s those rare glimpses into the little girl who waited out in the cold for her alcoholic mother to pick her up from school late at night that makes Kim’s love for Jimmy that much more believable.
Loving Jimmy McGill somehow becomes an active choice Kim makes every single day, to the point of defying the understanding of those around her. That’s because Kim is just as good at hiding behind facades and platitudes as Jimmy is. She’s just marginally better at pretending she can “fit” in because she desperately wrestles with needing to and wanting to. It’s why she’s fully willing to partake in Jimmy’s schemes and also hesitant to let herself indulge in them full-time. Yet the unconditional love and care Kim shows for Jimmy signals how much she sees his humanity – and her own moral complexity – more than his own brother ever did.
Often living in the shadow of Breaking Bad’s cultural currency and acclaim, it is no coincidence that Better Call Saul relies heavily on themes of identity. With Saul Goodman as a substantial base for source material, we find Jimmy McGill, the man “behind” the obnoxious colored suits. But that’s the point: are they not one and the same person? Iterations of the same person? Better Call Saul is not so much an origin story as the sanding away of fine veneer, the cover after endlesscover that Jimmy McGill used to hide his past, his mistakes, his fears, his wounds, and everything Chuck has deemed inadequate in him. The cover was always there on Breaking Bad, as Saul Goodman lorded over Albuquerque’s criminal underworld and made secret deals with drug lords. Uncovering him was only a matter of knowing where to look.
The bleak reality is that American culture values men like Saul Goodman more than it does its Jimmy McGills. Earnestness and sincerity are overrated. This was true in the early 2000s, when Better Call Saul takes place, and it’s even more so today. The Jimmy we know as Saul Goodman is a symptom of the American fallacy that if you hustle hard enough – if you pretend convincingly enough – everything will fall into place. The suit will fit just right. The company car will drive smoothly across every gravel road. And the courtroom of high-powered lawyers will no longer make you feel out of place.