Better Call Saul recently finished a third season on AMC. The Breaking Bad prequel, which invited skepticism when it was initially announced, has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, solidifying itself as one of the best shows Peak TV has to offer. The series does so many things right. It’s gut-bustingly funny but also a taut thriller. It’s a slick con-man caper while simultaneously being a heartbreaking meditation on regrets and missed opportunities. But perhaps the greatest merit Better Call Saul has accomplished has to do with it’s two, masterfully drawn leads: Jimmy and Chuck McGill. The contentious brothers offer something TV viewers rarely see on television these days. They create an empathy for the devil.
Saul’s parent show was all about sympathy for the devil. Though not impossible to understand, Walter White’s inner-workings were always purposefully unclear to viewers. As fascinating a character as he was, part of Walt’s appeal was that he was an enigma wrapped up in a quagmire. Fans worked hard to grasp his motivation throughout the entire series, and they’ll continue to do so long after its conclusion. And though some fans might be ashamed to admit it, Walt could often be uncomfortably cool (“I’m the one who knocks!”). You would not be laughed out of a room for calling Walt a badass. Jimmy McGill, however, is an entirely different matter. As is his brother.
The characters on Better Call Saul don’t exist to mystify audiences. Co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould lay everything out on the table— if not immediately, then eventually. With Jimmy and Chuck, what you see is what you get. If there’s any discomfort in watching the two onscreen, it’s in the fact that both are shockingly relatable. We’re never in morbid admiration of the brothers the way we might have been for ‘ol Heisenberg. But time after time we’re coaxed into empathizing for the McGills, pitiful though they may be. While all of this description might, at first glance, paint the two as dull and pedestrian, the truth is, Gilligan and Gould have managed to dig so much wonderful drama from their petty conflicts. And all of it is as compelling as any battle taking place in Westeros.
Both characters are empathetic, albeit in wildly different ways. First, there’s Jimmy, the forever con-man. He’s living proof that you can take the criminal out of the crime game, but the game will eternally be with him wherever he goes— safe in the knowledge that he’ll one day return. Jimmy is paying, with ever increasing interest, for the mistakes he’s made. Mistakes that, while downright embarrassing (see “Chicago Sunroof”), are backed by sorrowful motivations. Of course, the character of Jimmy owes one of his many debts to a slimy yet charming performance from Bob Odenkirk. But what really makes Jimmy impossible to dislike is that his reasoning is impossible to dismiss. And that reasoning isn’t based in some tragic, Bruce Wayne-esque backstory. It’s based in something that, as the saying goes, feels way “too real.”
Then there’s Chuck, whom many consider the Skyler White of Better Call Saul. Except while Skyler was actually in the right most of the time, reasonably expecting her husband to stop putting their family in danger, Chuck is insufferably vain. Due to parental favoritism, Chuck always has it out for Jimmy. And while Chuck seems like the upstanding brother from an outside perspective, on the inside it’s clear he’s just as cunning as Jimmy— he’s just better at working within legal and ethical limitations. This, on its own, makes Chuck annoying, but what pushes it over the edge is Chuck’s posturing. He wants to believe his pride is a non-issue, and that he was Jimmy’s best interest at heart. While this is BS, it’s not unthinkable that Chuck, or any human being, would want to rationalize their actions. Add this to the fact that he’s weathering heavy mental illness— an illness that Jimmy exploits —and you have a character who, like his brother, is impossible to completely hate.
What makes Jimmy and Chuck such unique characters, in this or any era of television, is that neither fits any clear archetypical designation. Neither is a hero. Neither is a villain. And neither can even be considered an anti-hero. Their transgressions aren’t harrowing like those of Walter White’s, and their origins are far from chilling. Their characteristics are completely wholesome and totally unglamorous— Jimmy with his Chicago sunroof, Chuck with his perceived, biological aversion to electricity. You won’t find Jimmy or Saul killing somebody and making it look like a suicide, but you might see one embarrass the other in court. Or you might see one try to aggressively stifle the law career of a brother who has worked so hard go legitimate. No matter which way you decide to look at the McGill brothers, it’s hard to see them as anything but people— not so pure and definitely not simple.
Better Call Saul is a truly special show because it does what no other current show (except maybe Fargo) has been able to do. While other series go hard after the anti-hero driven prestige drama— like Houses of Cards or Ray Donovan —Saul focuses on two men who are shockingly relatable. Their petty issues somehow manage to break our hearts and get our blood pumping. Their stakes are far from life or death (at least for the most part), but they still feel immeasurably high. Their conflicts are pedestrian, and yet those conflicts generate some of the most riveting television around today. While Breaking Bad mined tension from a hidden machine gun, rigged to mow town some sadistic neo-Nazis, Better Call Saul mined drama from a hidden phone battery. This isn’t to say Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad (as if that were the only way to measure the show’s worth), just to point out what makes it such jewel that deserves a place at the summit of Peak TV.
What did you think of Better Call Saul season three? What’s your favorite part of the show? Tell us in the comments!
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