Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Temptation of Saul Goodman

If anyone still wonders whether “Better Call Saul” has cheapened the reputation of “Breaking Bad,” the show it came from, that question was probably answered last season in the second episode with two simple words:

“Squat Cobbler.”

We are in 2002, when the show’s titular subject still goes by the name Jimmy McGill. A small-time lawyer coming into his own, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) is threatening to become respectable, but he is approached to represent a clueless middle-class baseball card collector who has been selling drugs on the side. The police found a hidden panel in the man’s house and now Jimmy must reassure two investigators that his client is clean.

I couldn’t help but think about the interrogation of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cole in the first season of “True Detective” during this scene. Jimmy exudes an air of confidence as he begins to offer his explanation that nothing illegal has happened. He tells his story with just the right pose of candor, mixed with reticence, to draw them in. At first, his explanation makes it sound as though the cops have stumbled onto a porn operation, then a homosexual relationship. No, Jimmy assures them, you know what it is.

Squat cobbler. Full moon moon pie. Boston Crème Splat.

“It’s when a man sits in a pie,” he finally levels with them, after they insist on an explanation. “And he…he wiggles around. Cry baby squats...And there is a costume involved.” The look of incredulity on the detectives’ faces only adds to our enjoyment as we hear this heretofore unknown fetish.

The story is so incredible, the cops realize, that he must be telling the truth, which of course, he isn’t. But then, Jimmy began the conversation by asking, “Who among us is without sin?”

When these moments happen in “Better Call Saul,” we are awed by what showrunner Vince Gilligan is doing before our eyes. After all, don’t we know already where Jimmy is headed? Doesn’t that make it harder for us to be entertained this time?

There was a moment early in the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” when its creators telegraphed to the audience the nature of the journey this  “Breaking Bad” prequel/spinoff would take. Jimmy leaves the courthouse with his lighter-than-expected public defender’s check and walks to his car. He does not get into a glittering Cadillac like we expect him to – he instead angles his ill-fitting brown double-breasted into a Suzuki Esteem, which features one miscolored replacement door.

This isn’t meant to be “The Misadventures of Saul Goodman.” Something on a grander scale is taking place and like its predecessor, this show will feature a rise that is a fall.

There have been plenty of moments like this. “Better Call Saul” glories in its long pauses. The slow motion of the prosecutor wheeling out the TV and VCR to play video evidence in a trial of three juvenile delinquents. Jimmy waiting for the elevator to descend at his brother’s law firm.  The slow steps of a widow going to fetch the money for the writing of her will. The time it takes Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) to take Jimmy’s parking sticker. The show wants you to know that the slick-talking, cellphone-hoarding, ambulance chasing genius of Saul Goodman didn’t spring fully-formed from the head of its creator. This is a creative risk, though. Fans of “Breaking Bad,” with the show’s bloody climax still fresh on their minds, might switch off as the action isn’t meth deals and money laundering but establishing a law practice and building a RICO case against a chain of price-gouging retirement homes.

Still, the style of “Better Call Saul” clearly mirrors “Breaking Bad,” and we are treated to helpful cameos by Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), Walt’s original meth distributor, and the presence of the aforementioned Mike, the fixer. We even get Mike’s backstory, about which more later. But while many Internet dissections have looked at how “Better Call Saul” stacks up to its predecessor in terms of action or style, few have looked at how Jimmie’s metamorphosis into Saul Goodman compares to Walter’s budding as the homicidal Heisenberg.

“Better Call Saul” has opened both seasons with its title character in the present day, fulfilling his own prophecy that he would be the manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, adapting to a new identity after the fall of Walter White. At night, still afraid of being recognized, he sits down to watch videos of the over-the-top commercials for his former law practice. A similar thing happened to Walt once in the meth Superlab while he and Jesse Pinkman were chasing a fly: He sat down to wonder, in a daze, what the perfect moment for his death might have been. In doing so, it was his way of asking, “How did I get here?”

The rest of “Saul”’s action takes place six years prior to the start of “Breaking Bad.” James McGill is a bedraggled lawyer operating a seedy office out of a nail salon, practicing on a law degree he earned online through the University of American Samoa. He is his own administrative assistant, speaking over the phone with a ridiculous British accent. As his car testifies, he is barely hanging on through maxed out credit cards and legal grunt work. That’s because he must also support his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a brilliant lawyer holed up in his expensive house, unable to work because of a psychosomatic fear of electromagnetic fields. Sources of power, such as electricity, or communication, like cellphones, terrify him.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Chuck owns a sizable stake in a major law firm. If he simply cashes out, he would have millions. But Chuck insists he will overcome his circumstances, and Jimmy doggedly believes in him. That’s why he rips up a sure lifeline in a $26,000 check from Chuck’s partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian).

We like Jimmy. He’s such a grinder, hosting bingo games at the retirement home in order to get clients, and even Howard is awed at the legwork he puts in. He’s indomitable. A montage shows him marshaling through weeks of cases, going over his courtroom monologues in the men’s room, fueled by coffee. He’s a lovable rogue, as we might have suspected. After a scam to (in essence) blackmail a couple into taking him on as a lawyer backfires, Jimmy is able to not only talk his way out of a desert execution at the hands of a drug lord, but also escape with the lives of two extortion-minded skateboarders (though with some injuries to them.)

Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between Jimmy and Walter White. When we first meet Walt, he appears to be what we would call a good man. Still, he is a man with a brilliant future behind him – a scientific genius who missed out on his big chance and instead works in a carwash to make ends meet while working honorably as a teacher. It is his pride, though, that needles him enough to seize on a terminal cancer diagnosis as the pretext for a criminal enterprise that will warp him and kill scores of people. All of this is done in the name of protecting his family, but even in the end, at his last moments, Walter is proud of what he has done.

Jimmy has his own pride. But he is also “Slippin’ Jimmy,” a former con-artist who used to scam money from unsuspecting strangers and narrowly avoided a sex offender wrap thanks to his brother. (Like “Squat Cobbler,” the show has done a lot to add the term “Chicago Sun Roof” to the public consciousness.) And like Walter, Jimmy at first cares about his family, in the person of Chuck. Jimmy knows who and what he is – a man who takes shortcuts. He tries out Chuck’s high-minded advice – “Do good work and the clients will come” – but Chuck’s example, in the end, pushes Jimmy further toward darker waters. Even the act of returning more than $1 million to the authorities is morally compromised, as Jimmy enlists Mike to “steal” it, all in the name of “doing the right thing.”

Jimmy, like Walter, expects, even insists, on something more for himself. He takes a dubious “retainer” from a stash of embezzled funds to fund his attempt at publicity, announcing to himself, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”  He stages a high-profile rescue to gain clients. And he realizes he will never be anything more to his brother than “Slippin’ Jimmy” with a law degree, which is infinitely more dangerous.

Jimmy finds his way to a respectable law firm for the second season, but almost immediately, he is unable to restrain his darker side. He falsifies evidence. He violates the ethical cannon in search of clients for a class-action lawsuit. He films a commercial without the knowledge of his law firm and runs it without permission. This places the audience in an uncomfortable position. We don’t like Chuck because he doesn’t warm to Jimmy’s act, but we already know what will become of Jimmy, and we grudgingly realize that Chuck is right.

Mike is one constant between both shows, and it is Mike’s morally-compromised ex-cop turned fixer that allows us to realize the ultimate cost of Jimmy’s chicanery. “The law is sacred,” Chuck tells Jimmy. “If you abuse that power, people get hurt” – something we already know. “Better Call Saul” gives us a roll call of clueless characters across the moral spectrum: The Kettlemans, a couple of embezzlers who believe they deserve their ill-gotten money;  a militant ranch owner who wants to secede and prints his own money, and even an inventor who unwittingly creates a double-entendre spouting toilet for toddlers. But Mike reminds us that though there are good criminals and bad criminals, we should dispense with the idea that there can be such a thing as a clean dirtiness. A lovable rogue is still a rogue. Mike is willing to take a savage beating at the hands of a drug dealer in the second season, but only because he resists the idea of killing him. Mike knows the cost of murder.

“The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” John tells us, “comes not from the Father but from the world.” (I John 2:16 NIV) The world is unforgiving. Perhaps the most powerful moment of “Better Call Saul’s” first season was Mike’s tearful confession to his daughter-in-law about how her husband was killed. Mike’s son Matt was a Philadelphia policeman who was gunned down because he would not immediately go along with a precinct’s corruption. Instead, at Mike’s urging, he took money, and still got killed. Why did he take the money? Because Mike admitted that he too was corrupt.

“I broke my boy. He couldn’t be trusted. I got Matty to take the money. And they killed him two days later. He was the strongest person that I ever knew. He would have never done it, not even to save himself. I was the only one. I was the only one that could get him to debase himself like that. And it was for nothing. I made him lesser. I made him like me…”

And Matty still died. Mike lost the pedestal his son gave him, and then lost his son. The insatiable hunger of evil eventually takes everything.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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