“I’m a lousy brother. I’m a big screwup. And if I was just a better person, I would not only stop letting you down — you know what? I’d stop letting me down. And it’s about time I started to make both of us proud.”
-Jimmy McGill in “Nacho”
When the Internet buzzed with rumors of a “Breaking Bad” spinoff, I was skeptical.
It didn’t matter that Vince Gilligan was hot off one of the best TV dramas ever made, and it didn’t matter that I was absolutely enamored of the show. With the Hollywood cycle of endless sequels, character universes, companion series and the now-standard practice of breaking a final film/season into two parts, shit just gets tiring, you know?
It was easy to assume “Better Call Saul” was more of the same, but I was wrong. While a show like “BCS” is forever tied to “Breaking Bad,” its core beautifully dovetails with that of its predecessor. Together, one could view these series working in tandem, telling two different tales of the same thing: The impact of choice.
We watched Walter White start out as a man with no options, his back against the wall, the life sapped out of him with each round of chemotherapy. From that lowest of lows, we watched him blossom into a manipulative mastermind. A king of kings. The one who knocks.
“What I want, what I need, is a choice. Sometimes I feel like I never actually make, any of my own choices. I mean, my entire life…it just seems I never had a real say about any of it. This last one, cancer, all I have left is how I choose to approach this.”
—Walter White in “Gray Matter”
Then there’s Jimmy McGill, the man of many tricks, be they the occasional con in a back alley or a stint in jail that manages to involve property damage, assault and a potential sex offender label. (Jimmy charmingly refers to his situation as “a bit of a pickle.”) When his estranged brother, Charles, hikes across the country to get his brother out of jail, Jimmy says he’s ready to get his act together.
Charles (or Chuck, as Jimmy likes to call him) doesn’t buy it. He’s likely heard that line before.
What we’ve since seen in the first season of “BCS,” though, supports the idea that people can actually change. While working at Charles’ law firm, Jimmy manages to secretly attend law school via correspondence classes and pass the bar. He just wants to do the right thing by himself, by his brother — even by the law, as we see when he returns the bribe money given to him by the clandestine Kettlemans.
In a life of choices, Jimmy knows he’s made his fair share of bad ones. But he hopes — and is actively trying to — make good ones as well.
That makes the ninth episode, “Pimento,” all the sadder. After making some impressive headway on a class action lawsuit, Jimmy finds himself stonewalled by the partners at Chuck’s law firm HHM. They want the case but they don’t want him on the legal team, and in some truly impressive acting on Bob Odenkirk’s part, he, while baffled, furious and trying to maintain a semi-professional demeanor, just wants to know why.
Chuck. As it turns out, Chuck had been blocking Jimmy’s career advancement for years and feigned ignorance in the whole matter. A true betrayal.
Walter White made decisions from a standpoint of helplessness. An absence of choice. He tried and tried to forge his own path, and often (knowingly or not), hit a new low while doing so. (Sometimes, literally, as in the case of “Crawl Space.”)
Meanwhile, Jimmy McGill thought he had choices: To be a decent person, to do the right thing, to try his hand at an honorable, if unglamorous specialty like elder law. The world was his for the taking — or so he thought, until he learned Chuck had been pulling the puppet strings the entire time.
While Walt and Jimmy are two different people with two different lines of thinking, they compose two sides of the same coin. But no matter how you flip it, the outcome is disastrous.
After this episode, it’s no wonder Jimmy became the entity that is Saul Goodman. Both he and Walt have a commonality: Caving to what’s easiest, even if it’s wrong.
- Mike Ehrmantraut also discusses choice in “Pimento” when he describes “Pryce,” the comically naive wannabe drug distributor, as a criminal. “I’m not a bad guy,” Pryce replies. Whether he likes the label or not, though, Mike calls ’em likes he sees ’em: He made the choice to do something illegal, therefore, he is a criminal.
- Just sharing this because I love it so much. If you ever find yourself wondering why “Breaking Bad” was so awesome, just watch this tribute: