“East symbolises the dawn. It’s why pretty much every grave everywhere faces east; so the spirit of the dead person faces the rising sun. Dead things, burial things.”
As a prequel spinoff to BREAKING BAD, in some ways BETTER CALL SAUL would seem a “dead thing”. What happens to the titular character (and deuteragonist Mike) is known. While BREAKING BAD did play with flashforwards, it drew so much of its power from its nature as a thriller, the question of “what will happen next? What will Walt do next? How will Walt and Jesse get out of this one – will they get out of this one?”. That’s much less possible in a prequel. The question isn’t what will happen to Saul and Mike. The question is what sort of problem does becoming the men they were in BREAKING BAD solve?
Dramatic irony becomes the point of the show. Every single intro credits flashes imagery of the parent show, six years into BETTER CALL SAUL’s present of 2002. The show begins as sequel to BREAKING BAD, emphasising the extent to which Saul falls, and showcasing that even moreso than BREAKING BAD, the show plays out in whatever temporalities best serve its dramatic arcs. And given that the conclusion of these arcs is inherently already known, what becomes the show’s chief interest is process. BREAKING BAD shared that interest to a degree – its montages, some of the specifics of the drug business, the methodical progress of Walt’s apparent moral downfall (or moral unveiling, perhaps) – but here it is the whole point. The legal drama aspects of the show all focus on tedium and minutiae, something the showrunners point to as the way they could differentiate and elevate the show from the many great achievements already made in that genre that understandably focused on the more compelling parts.
Later seasons would hone in on methodical process to the point of fan memetics, but here a lot of it is more broad, as the show’s focus on slowly and methodically tracing the more subtle, nuanced moral downfall of Jimmy (in comparison to Walt’s in BREAKING BAD) becomes its reason to be. The dramatic irony of knowing what Jimmy becomes, and where he ends up, but also the internal paradox of the man – did an uncaring, unfair world exacerbate his insecurities and failings, pushing him to a moral downfall, or was he always predisposed to become what he becomes? He’s unmistakably a genuinely kind man here, and not just that but a man trying to – for the most part – follow the rules, at least in spirit. Whether it’s for his unwell brother Chuck, his best friend/ambiguous-former-or-on-again-off-again-lover Kim, or the principle of things themselves, he does try to do the right thing and mostly do it the “right” way here. Returning ill-gotten money. Straightening out after a “lapse” contained only to the inherent dishonesty of public relations. He is trying to be good and law-abiding here. But no matter how hard he tries, how much he tries to change, he can’t escape (well, at least not until the end of BREAKING BAD) who he has been.
[Season 1 spoilers under the cinegrid]
“I know you. I know what you were, what you are. People don’t change. You’re Slippin’ Jimmy. And Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine, but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun. The law is sacred! If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game. You have to know…on some level, I know you know I’m right. You know I’m right.”
The paradox of Chuck’s betrayal of Jimmy, his lack of belief in his capacity to be moral enough to be able to be a “good” lawyer (a criminal lawyer instead of a criminal lawyer) underpins the whole dramatic irony of the show. We know Jimmy ends up as that “chimp with a machine gun”. Would he have, had Chuck shown faith in him? Maybe, maybe not. But we understand and empathise with his moral downfall when he is such an underdog beset by a world refusing to reward, or even acknowledge, his attempts to be and do good. This isn’t a case of Walt finding himself increasingly enabled and empowered by entering into a world of crime he told himself he worked in for purely for “his family”. The world of crime here is sketched with more nuance. The distinctions between BREAKING BAD carry over visually as well, with the show’s use of digital filming giving it a flatter, cleaner look, less operatic and cinematic than BREAKING BAD’s, while also going dreamier at times (like the Vorkapić-inspired montage of cons in the finale). The tones of the flashbacks drawn in bleach bypass compared to the crudeness of the colour filter over Mexican scenes in BREAKING BAD. The camera is steadier than it was on BREAKING BAD, more dollies and less handheld. Everything is more precise, more detailed. This is a different world, with different rules.
MIKE: “The lesson is if you’re gonna be a criminal, do your homework.”
“PRYCE”: “Wait, I-I’m not a bad guy, I don’t…”
MIKE: “I didn’t say you were a bad guy. I said that you’re a criminal.”
“PRYCE: “What’s the difference?”
MIKE: “I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honourable thieves – you can be on one side of the law or the other, but if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours, and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one – that’s up to you.”
Mike’s role in BETTER CALL SAUL is a touch hazy in the first season, before it reaches more thematic clarity in season two, but his speech there makes plain the reality of moral nuance that Jimmy recognises (and is drawn to playing in), where many are blind to it, sometimes wilfully. Subversions like Howard’s apparent status as a villain being pulled out from under our feet towards the end of the season, the shifting allegiance of the Kettlemans, they all play into this idea. Chuck’s betrayal of Jimmy, even without the dramatic irony of knowing what it motivates him to become, is hardly a moral thing to do, and so the arbitrariness of the lines of the law becomes apparent to a character that will eventually gleefully (or perhaps spitefully, rather) flaunt them.
Jimmy straightened up after his vehicular mishap in Cicero. Worked years in the mailroom. Surrounded himself with people that inspired him to do better. Toiled years on a law degree. Passed it in secret, without asking his brother for help. Took care of his brother when he needed help. Refused easy money for even the rare crimes that seemed morally good. But the world around him, not even only his brother, barely even acknowledged it. Perhaps Jimmy should have persevered anyway, but the coldness of the world around him lets us perceive the self-fulfilling prophecy of his downfall as tragic, and the methodical, holistic process-based approach the show takes to that downfall and all the mechanics surrounding it have us pity Jimmy where one would move to scorn Walt as his downfall progressed. “You’re the type of lawyer guilty people hire.” Did he have to be?
In that sense, the sixth episode, focusing on the downfall of Mike’s son and his own sort of downfall in turn, acts as a sort of microcosm for the show. A prequel story, a story we already know the ending to, but one whose specific process deepens our understanding of characters and turns their eventual fates into tragedies instead of character status quos. The extended courtroom montage in episode two, the tedium of Mike planting a gun in the cop car he’d fall into later that night in Philadelphia, Nacho forgoing cleaning the blood out his van, Tuco taking his time making food for his grandmother; the show always goes for mundane specifics most stories would treat as connective tissue to be implied rather than depicted, and in doing so creates a grounded, deep understanding of character’s descents.
In the finale, Jimmy spins a con about coins with John F. Kennedy’s head facing the wrong way on them. He spins a tale about how Kennedy’s head facing east ties into death symbology, facing the rising sun, reminiscent of how graves fast that way. When offered the chance to “go clean”, Jimmy’s head faces the same way. Fingering a tacky ring we know he wears on BREAKING BAD (which we now know he wears to honour his dread friend who, like Jimmy, found beauty in the artistry of a con, and righteousness in undermining “the system”) Jimmy turns, headed in the other direction, the way his imagined rare Kennedy coin faced. To life, instead of death, to lies, instead of truth.
“I know what stopped me. And you know what? It’s never stopping me again.”
The righteousness of Jimmy’s descent is debatable, the paradox and arguable self-fulfilling prophecy of it all. But what’s unmistakable is that where the character seemed a joke and a cliche in BREAKING BAD, here he plays as a tragedy, and what a finely-sketched one at that. Four Fuji apples, and a coin facing the wrong way.