Better Call Saul goes back in time to reconstruct how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) became Saul Goodman, the criminal lawyer (with a stress on criminal) of Breaking Bad. In Breaking Bad, Saul employs his cunning mind and wicked charm in the pursuit of money, but how did he get that way? Pre-Saul Jimmy is a good guy who has been dealt a bad hand. He tries to do his best and do the right thing, but, as he notes, ‘a good man can’t succeed.’ The series is an exploration of moral agency and the ideal and reality of the American Dream (see post on Breaking Bad).
Jimmy has a history of swindling and jail time, but he is driven and works hard to make something of himself. He gets a law degree through a correspondence course while working in the mail room. He works as a public defender and comes across a fraud perpetrated by a company running a nursing home against its own residents. Jimmy builds up the case, which calls for extra resources and staff. He takes it to his brother’s firm, but his brother Chuck does not believe in Jimmy and wants him out. Chuck thinks that Jimmy will always want to follow the easy route. He tells him that he lacks respect for the law and adduces as evidence the degree by correspondence.
Jimmy has been caring for Chuck, who has had a mental breakdown and has become a recluse suffering from extreme phobias. Jimmy has looked after Chuck selflessly for over a year and has built a case out of a sense of justice; yet he stands accused of lacking constancy, discipline, and commitment. Morality is here something that results from the development of one’s character through ethical practices, as Aristotle would have it. Chuck’s stance comes across as harsh and judgemental. Jimmy, betrayed by his brother and seemingly unable to succeed legitimately, will take the criminal path.
Maybe Chuck is right. Jimmy lacks the conviction that would keep him on the right path and when he doesn’t get his way by playing by the rules, he gets creative. He is cunning in his scams and publicity stunts. A great story-teller, he bends the facts and pushes the boundaries in order to get ahead. The series paints a great contrast between Jimmy’s colourful and theatrical persona and the quiet and rigorous parking guard, Mike. Mike does not compromise and demands the correct parking stickers from Jimmy.
Mike has a Kantian-stoic persona. He is rigorous, resolute, and intransigent, yet he is just as crooked as Jimmy. Mike is honourable and uncompromising. He is a ‘good criminal’. As he tells one of his clients: ‘there are good criminals and bad criminals, a good criminal keeps his word.’ Unlike Jimmy’s continuous wavering, Mike has a code that needs to be honoured regardless of the means. Outside the law, he metes revenge against the corrupted policemen who killed his son. Yet, much like Jimmy, Mike is a victim of a society where the ‘good man can’t succeed’. The ethical ideal of the American Dream of success through hard work is out of reach for both Mike and Jimmy. That’s how Jimmy becomes Saul.