Now entering its third season, Better Call Saul stands heroically on its own, defiantly unlike its parent show, Breaking Bad. Of the two, it has become the sadder, slower, more deliberate series. It has played out like that joke reproduced in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, about the man who visits a doctor to cure his depression and is told to go see the great clown Pagliacci, to which the man responds, despairingly, that he is Pagliacci. As the centerpiece of his own narrative rather than comic relief, Saul can no longer hide his distress with humorous ingenuity deployed from behind a desk.
Equally dead-serious exponents of so-called Quality TV, Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad diverge when it comes to who their protagonists are and where they’re headed. Walter experiences the rise and fall of a gangster, from middling school teacher to crystal meth cook. Breaking Bad explicitly references De Palma’s Scarface in its fifth season, and Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, has even admitted that his overarching goal was to turn Mr. Chips – that is, Walter – into Al Pacino’s infamous Puerto Rican drug dealer. It’s not just the directors and screenwriters who are aware of this structure, but also the actual characters. Walter knows what shape his life has taken; when he sees Scarface on TV, his expression is one of self-recognition, but Saul is on another path. His journey is seemingly devoid of glory, either the triumphant or disastrous sort.
The openings of both shows quickly sketch out different attitudes towards their main characters. When we meet Walter, he’s in undies and a gas mask, maniacally driving an RV down a desert road. We then turn the clock back three weeks and find him in a classroom, teaching chemistry to High School kids. This, in condensed form, foreshadows his growth from hazy, undefined, defeated suburbanite to a powerful expression of will and ambition. Saul transforms, too, but in the other direction, from expressiveness to defeat. At the end of Breaking Bad, he goes into hiding under an assumed identity. In Better Call Saul, we catch up with him some months or years later, dragging his feet as a lonely middle-aged Cinnabon manager in a black-and-white Nebraskan landscape. His sole source of happiness is popping in VHS tapes of his old commercials from his former life in which he offers viewers “the defense you deserve.” The only color in his weekly despair are these videos, which punctuate his monochromatic living room with forgotten reds and browns. From this desolate image, we jump to an earlier time, before he was even called Saul, back when he was still Jimmy McGill, budding small-time lawyer trying to play it straight with dogged, energetic determination. Rather than a dramatic rise and fall with a redemptive final shootout, like Walter, Saul will flow like a sine wave, suffering crests and troughs, finally reaching death before death, existing only to be afraid of his own shadow in Nebraska.
It’s a fittingly subdued end for someone who prefers operating in the background. In Breaking Bad, Saul is usually the office-bound legal counselor of hungrier and more driven men, and the same holds true in Better Call Saul. He may be capable and quite clever, but he’s fundamentally mediocre, like most of us viewers. He possesses no extraordinary skills, save perhaps a quick wit and a good eye for con jobs, and is endowed with neither Walter’s fiery intelligence nor kingpin Gustavo Fring’s imposing self-control. Jimmy hopes only to avoid disappointing those he loves – his brother Chuck and his friend, colleague, and sometimes lover Kim, exemplary professionals whose sheer competence is intimidating. While Walter treats his younger partner in crime Jesse with loquacious paternalism, Jimmy speaks to Kim – and especially Chuck – with fidgety eyes and sometimes drooping head. Even when he lashes out at his brother, a respected lawyer who believes Jimmy is befouling the profession, he does so not out of self-respect, but hurt and desperation, not with confidence in his strength, but suspicion of his own worthlessness. Walter has his eyes on the prize, dragging everyone down with him, including Jesse, and his wife, Skyler. Jimmy has his eyes on the void, and he lets himself be dragged down by others and his circumstances.
Far from the alleyways of the drug business, into which Walter insinuates himself after a single episode, Jimmy has wandered in and around law firms and Albuquerque courts. While Walter is quick to realize his calling, Jimmy remains confused and unfocused after two seasons. The show has followed his zigzagging career path: a failed private practice, a disastrous attempt to work at his brother’s firm, a botched stint at another respectable firm, etc. The title sequence, with its music abruptly cut off, echoes the protagonist’s litany of frustrations.
Crime sagas set in the United States – as The Godfather reminds us – are always partly about the American Dream. They may reveal its dark underbelly, but they are still about self-assured (usually male) upstarts picking themselves up by their bootstraps and striking gold after years of toil and effort. We derive a secret pleasure from their success, despite the moral greyness of their actions. In this sense, Walter, and even Gustavo, “speak in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful,” to quote the first line in Don Delillo’s 827-page Underworld.
Jimmy bucks this trend. Forget the epic victories and thunderous falls of legal and illegal capitalism; he trudges along, scaling no mountains and falling off no precipices, stumbling in inefficient and unproductive circles. He has a unique relationship to time, because being stuck, he is essentially wasting time. This may explain the show’s penchant for digressions or slow-cinema-esque interludes: an old lady riding a stairlift for a minute, a game of bingo hijacked by one of Jimmy’s more hilarious meltdowns, artful shots of him in dark parking lots bearing the weight of buildings and responsibilities on his shoulders. Jimmy is stuck, and narrative momentum in Better Call Saul can be as meaningfully plodding as its protagonist.
This all may change in the third season. Yes, we know Jimmy will eventually find himself watching videos in a living room, but we also know that between then and his current state of suspended animation, he will achieve a period of relative success and satisfaction next to Gustavo, soon set to make his triumphant return. Thus far, Jimmy has been surrounded by those like Kim and Chuck, who have only highlighted his inadequacies. In Gus, he may finally find someone who appreciates his gift of the gab, and who can tell him, perhaps not in so many words but with the same intent, “That’ll do, Jimmy” (Or is that Saul? This season may see the long-awaited birth of Saul Goodman).
Jimmy wants to make something of himself, that perennial American obsession, but for twenty episodes, he has tried to do so according to the upright, legally-bound paradigms honored by Kim and Chuck. Still, he has failed to live up to them time after time. He has been like a bird that loves the cage but can only fly out of it. Now that his rescuer is coming from South America, what will happen to Better Call Saul? Defined for so long by Jimmy’s immobility, his delayed but imminent introduction into organized crime may push this brilliant spin-off into its parent’s more muscular, high-octane turf. Or maybe not. We know where Jimmy’s going, and that Saul will be another dead end, one more interrupted path in this show about American dreams deferred.