With the close of the series, Better Call Saul’s acute rendering of evil turns unexpectedly toward hope
As the sixth and final season of Better Call Saul, the AMC spin-off prequel to Breaking Bad, reaches its conclusion (the series finale airs this evening: Monday, August 15), it is receiving nearly universal accolades, including a glut of Emmy nominations. Although occasionally punctuated by intense conflict and violence, its pace is often more leisurely than what was common on Breaking Bad. In very different ways both shows provide compelling depictions of human evil and its devastating consequences, not just for the victims but also for the perpetrators.
Better Call Saul is the seemingly unpromising origin story of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), previously known as Jimmy McGill, a sleazy, opportunistic attorney who gladly offers his services to the central character in Breaking Bad, the meth-producing Walter White (Bryan Cranston).
An ineffective high school chemistry teacher with indifferent students who mock him for his modest middle-class station, Walter had once been on track for a promising career as a scientist. When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer he begins to question his lifelong commitment to playing by the rules. Doing so has left him with nothing to show for his life and minimal financial resources to leave for his family.
Chemistry, as he tells his students in the opening episode, is about transformation. And that’s just what the story of Breaking Bad is about: the transformation of a mild-mannered conformist, Walter White, into the character he calls Heisenberg (after the great scientist), a creative and dominating genius who comes to rule the meth trade in the southwest.
Breaking Bad has a classic narrative arc: It traces the rise and ultimate demise of its main character. It illustrates the ways in which envy, pride, and wrath feed one another and destroy souls.
Until the very end Walter proclaims that what motivates him is a concern to provide resources for his family, which they will need when he dies. But in a key moment toward the end of the series he admits to his wife that he has been lying to himself, that his motivation was entirely self-interested: “I did it for me. I liked it.” Producers of the series have commented that at that moment, the moment he is no longer lying to himself, “Walter White” is finished. His entire project was predicated on self-deception.
If Walter White is a Nietzschean superman, striving to live beyond good and evil, Jimmy/Saul has only ordinary aspirations. When we first meet him, his chief desire is acceptance, affection, and recognition from his brother, a brilliant and successful attorney. In fact, roughly the first half of the series focuses on Jimmy’s unrequited affection for his brother. In a sequence of violently escalating encounters, Jimmy seeks approval from Chuck, and Chuck, with increasing ruthlessness, thwarts him. In response, Jimmy often succumbs to juvenile impulses for retaliation. Because the partners in Chuck’s firm, particularly Howard Hamlin, consistently take Chuck’s side, Jimmy’s hostility turns to animosity toward Hamlin and the firm.
But all is not lost for Jimmy, who changes his name from McGill to Goodman to distance himself from the name he shares with his brother. And he has Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) at his side, a character never mentioned in Breaking Bad, whose role as Jimmy’s partner in misadventure comes to dominate the series, eclipsing even the part of Saul himself.
Their relationship constitutes one of the most peculiar and compelling love stories in TV history.
C. S. Lewis once remarked that friendship often begins with one person exclaiming to another, “What, you too?” The magical connection between Jimmy and Kim is both negative and positive. They share a distaste for the sham and hypocritical world of corporate law; conversely, they share in the thrill of the well-played con.
The more polished Kim often acts as a mediator between Jimmy and the world of corporate respectability. She tempers him. Her love provides solace for, and to some extent heals the wounds caused by, his brother’s rejection. His desire for her respect and affection motivates him do better than he otherwise would.
Combining their resources, their scheming becomes increasingly complex, ruthless, and malevolent. Some of their schemes are harmless enough; in fact, they often involve helping underdogs or undermining the powerful and arrogant. Viewers thus sympathize with them, just as viewers were often led to sympathize with Walter White when the Breaking Bad writers would pit him against obviously despicable characters.
Kim, one of whose passions is pro bono legal work, is more admirable than Walter or Jimmy. Yet as the series progresses, Kim becomes even more intoxicated by treacherous ploys than Jimmy does. In one of the defining moments of the series, just as they are about to launch a plot against Howard, Kim is driving to a meeting that promises to fulfill her dream of a career devoted to pro bono work. When she learns that a key element in the plot has come undone, she recklessly makes a U-Turn to try to fix things. She thus sacrifices her professional dream in order to satisfy deeper and darker desires.
Yet it turns out that Kim, once she is forced to face the grave harm they have caused, is incapable of continuing the life she leads with Jimmy. Kim’s appearances in the last few episodes of season six have highlighted the reality of conscience and the cost of its violation.
Partly because she does not appear in Breaking Bad but also because of Seehorn’s career-defining performance, Kim’s fate has preoccupied devoted viewers of the series. In its final episodes the writers have elected to have Kim embody, in a dramatically arresting way, the reality of the moral conscience in the soul of a character who finds herself incapable of suppressing its nagging accusations. In scenes that viewers will have difficulty forgetting, Kim displays paroxysms of remorse
During a panel discussion on AMC immediately following the airing of the penultimate episode of the series, Seehorn described her character as doing penance, seeking atonement, and recoiling from “the erosion of her own conscience.”
Over the past few decades, American TV has given us some high-quality series: Homicide: Life on the Street, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, Friday Night Light come to mind. All feature absorbing plots with complex characters who have great chemistry among them. Yet none of these series quite rivals Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul in the presentation of the complex psychological roots of evil.
Kim Wexler is the rare character who is admirable not because of what she does but because of what she is unable to continue doing. Hers is a soul incapable of stamping out the natural instinct to recoil from evil, especially when we are its perpetrators. That eventually spurs action of a different sort—not deceiving others or herself, but truth-telling in the form of self-accusation. She thus gives testimony to the presence of a power deeper and higher than any human desire.
Thomas Hibbs is J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy and Dean Emeritus at Baylor University