by Isaac Butler
Better Call Saul, like its pre-or-is-it-post-decessor Breaking Bad is obsessed with the idea of character as destiny. Or, perhaps, destiny as character. It regularly circles around the idea of whether people are capable of change, but richly complicates Breaking Bad’s view on this subject using the oldest of dramaturgical devices: dramatic irony.
Breaking Bad’s obsession with whether or not people are capable of change is a teasing one. As we never know what Walt was like prior to getting cancer, we don’t really know if he was simply a monster in hiding all along or if he is profoundly changed by the experience of becoming a drug lord. Throughout the show, he is given chance after chance to get out of the game. Early on, we the audience are given a sign that the show is after something more interesting than its pilot suggests is when the wealthy Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz offer to pay for his cancer treatment and he refuses. Up until the final season, you’re never quite sure where the one way gates are, or if they’ve been passed even before the story began, and the season finale of the penultimate season held out the possibility that Walt could have maybe reverted to his “old self” anytime he wanted, had such a self existed.
Better Call Saul, by dint of being a prequel, is doomed to operate differently. We know what will happen to Jimmy McGill and Mike (and, for that matter, Tuco). We know what all three will become. Should the show get canceled tomorrow, we will have to connect the dots between their current selves and their eventual forms on the show on our own, but no matter what, these characters become who they are when Walt meets them. And, as Breaking Bad is firmly Walt and Jessie’s show, neither character progresses much after they meet him.
But this still leaves open the question of whether the men they will become, and in particular whether the man Jimmy McGill will become, is destined or the result of the story we’re going to see. Nature or nurture, if you will. This lends Better Call Saul a vein of richness and tension that the show is finally beginning to exploit, in part by filling in an important part of Jimmy’s backstory: that he used to be a small time con artist named Slipping Jimmy, and that he’s become in lawyer in part as an attempt at the kind of reform that Walt steadfastly refused to try.
That brings us to the latest Better Call Saul episode, Pimento, in which it is revealed that the man sabotaging Jimmy’s chances at the big law firm Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill is not the oleaginous Howard Hamlin, but rather Jimmy’s seemingly kindly brother Chuck. When confronted with this truth, Chuck, heartbroken and furious, tells Jimmy that he will never be anyone other than Slipping Jimmy, that people are incapable of change and that the law is a sacred trust that can do grave harm when used in the wrong way.
What makes this scene so fascinating is that we know that Jimmy will, indeed, become a criminal again, and that he will do great harm by abusing the sacred trust of the law. We know this, but, most importantly, Jimmy does not. This dramatic irony allows the audience to have a truly complex reaction to a fairly simple moment of family betrayal. Indeed, we are compelled by the show to hold seemingly contradictory sympathies and ideas simultaneously: Jimmy is right. What Chuck did was an unforgiveable betrayal that may have doomed his brother to failure. But Chuck is also right. Jimmy will become everything Chuck fears.
Which then suggests, of course, a whole different set of questions about character and destiny. Is it that people never change? Or is Chuck’s fury at Jimmy ensuring that Jimmy never will? Or will that become, as with Walt, just an excuse for Jimmy to do what he was destined to do all along?
Really these questions point to a large one: in the universe of Breaking Bad, do characters have free will, or are they fortune’s fools? Asked literally, this question is absurd: characters don’t have free will, they are governed by their real life creators. But stories can vary widely on this question. David Simon felt the characters of The Wire had very limited free will and agency because of the institutions they were stuck within (or, perhaps, underneath) which he likened to the Gods in ancient Greek Drama, which is, not coincidentally, where we get dramatic irony from in the first place. Free will, and to what extent individuals have it, is a question for Simon that was equal parts philosophical, literary and political.
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul exist in a very different universe from The Wire, however. Their world is filled with Rube Goldberg schemes and clockwork plots and no small amount of determinism. Yet the forces controlling the characters are all self-created, rather than external. Breaking Bad is Macbeth with the witches taken out, or perhaps Macbeth where Macbeth is also the witches. Better Call Saul is, thus far, something very different and more humane, something that appears, at least for now, to believe that people can choose to be decent. Yet underneath it all, we know the time will come when—whether because of fate, or character, or something else entirely—decency will be hard for everyone to find.