Better Call Saul is returning soon for its sixth and final season.
The show is a remarkable piece of work, functioning as something of a eulogy for the “antihero” era of television that was so perfectly embodied by Breaking Bad. However, it is also of a piece with co-creator and co-showrunner Vince Gilligan’s larger body of work dating back to his time as a staff writer on The X-Files. Gilligan is a writer who is fascinated by the idea of morality, of the choices that people make and how those choices ripple outwards.
As a supernatural television show, The X-Files had a recurring preoccupation with the idea of evil. Showrunner Chris Carter often treated evil as a monstrous external force, something that infects or corrupts a person like the black oil at the heart of the show’s mythology. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong were more preoccupied with the idea of evil coming from within human beings. Gilligan tended to focus on evil as something banal, rooted in the familiar.
Gilligan’s second script for the show, “Pusher,” focuses on Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden), who gains the power to manipulate people from a brain tumor that is killing him. Rather than seek treatment for the tumor, Modell revels in the power it affords him. As with Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) cancer diagnosis in Breaking Bad, this provides Modell an excuse to indulge his worst self. Scully (Gillian Anderson) summarizes Modell as “a little man who wishes that he were someone big.”
That applies to many of Gilligan’s villains. In “Unruhe” and “Paper Hearts,” serial killers Gerry Schnauz (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and John Lee Roche (Tom Noonan) are sad men trying to cultivate mythologies around themselves. In “Small Potatoes,” Eddie Van Blundht (Darin Morgan) uses shape-shifting powers to sexually assault women. In “Dreamland,” Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean) uses a body swap to try to sleep with Scully. In “Je Souhaite,” low-rent hustlers exploit a genie in frustratingly unimaginative ways.
In Gilligan’s work, evil is often defined by laziness, sloppiness, and a lack of imagination. It is often presented as the easier option, one rooted in the sins of pride, vanity, or ego. This is true within Breaking Bad. Early in the show, Walt’s old business partners Elliott (Adam Godley) and Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) Schwartz offer to pay for his treatments. Walt stubbornly refuses to accept their cash, seeing it as humiliation, and so commits to a criminal career manufacturing crystal meth.
Breaking Bad understands that Walt is a genius. The show acknowledges the “purity” of the drugs that he cooks, and this becomes a source of pride. Breaking Bad repeatedly suggests that Walt could easily have used his skills for some greater purpose, had he been willing to swallow his pride. Walt worked with Elliot and Gretchen on their start-up Gray Matter but cashed out for $5,000 after his relationship with Gretchen fell through. The company went on to be worth millions.
This is indicative of the morality that informs and shapes the worlds of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. There is a recurring sense that good work is hard, and rewards come slowly. Evil creeps in through the attempts to take shortcuts for higher returns. In Breaking Bad, there’s even a hierarchy of morality within the show’s drug trade, as Walt’s ego and greed destabilize the carefully balanced operations run by Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).
Even after Walt defeats Gus, he refuses to accept the compromises necessary to keep the criminal enterprise running. He is unwilling to make the payouts to Mike’s imprisoned men to keep their silence and equally unwilling to trust them to remain silent even if he were to pay. Walt instead opts for an incredibly risky gambit: the simultaneous mass assassination of these captured men in prison, by white nationalists. The synchronized assault works, but Walt then finds himself dealing with Nazis.
Better Call Saul offers a somewhat more mundane example of this same corruption arc for Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Jimmy is a lawyer. He has worked hard to pass the bar and struggles to make ends meet. At various points in the first few seasons, Jimmy is offered good and honest work. In the first season, Jimmy comes to specialize in “elder law,” making wills for older people. In the second season, Jimmy secures a job in the modest firm of Davis & Main.
Jimmy is great at these jobs. He is thoughtful, charming, and considerate when dealing with older clients; he has a good memory and a lot of patience in working out the minutiae of these sorts of standard low-stakes paperwork cases. However, the show also captures the boredom that Jimmy feels in doing these jobs. These scenes are often quiet and deliberately slow. It is good and honest work, but it also isn’t easy and doesn’t pay well. Jimmy can’t help himself. He can’t stick it.
Breaking Bad often uses montages to speed the passage of time and make events seem to move faster. These montages can compress multiple days into a single sequence. Even montages taking place simultaneously often cut across multiple locations to create a sense of scale. In contrast, Better Call Saul tends to use its montages to the opposite effect, capturing the dull routine and exhausting repetition that often comes with professionalism and hard work.
In the worlds of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, there is an implication that characters should practice moral hygiene. It is hard to be a good person. It takes steady work. It is a consistent and ongoing process. If it has a reward, that reward comes slowly and over a long period of time. To Jimmy’s credit, he certainly tries harder than Walt. In the early seasons of Better Call Saul, Jimmy constantly makes sacrifices for others.
In the show’s second episode, he risks his life to barter the freedom of skaters Lars and Cal Lindholm (Steven and Daniel Spenser Levine) from drug lord Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). Later in the season, he gives up $30,000 and a high-profile case to help Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) secure her career. He deeply cares about his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who has never done anything but doubt and undermine him. None of this benefits Jimmy, but they are the right things to do.
Better Call Saul returns repeatedly to the story of “Slippin’ Jimmy,” the classic con that Jimmy pulled in Illinois. However, it also suggests something of the moral calculus of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. In Gilligan’s world, the road to hell is a slippery slope. It begins with small compromises, which inevitably escalate. Jimmy’s first con was stealing a few dollars from the register at his father’s store. Within a year, he’d stolen nearly $14,000, contributing to his father’s bankruptcy.
This moral sloth is reflected in the ensuing messiness. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul return time and again to the theory of unintended consequences, the idea that small evils ripple outwards in unforeseeable directions. It is no coincidence that Walt takes the criminal pseudonym Heisenberg, evoking the Uncertainty Principle. The second season of Breaking Bad effectively demonstrates how Walt’s small-scale criminality indirectly leads to a mid-air collision that kills 167 people.
Better Call Saul offers a much more direct example, as Jimmy’s hustling starts to rub off on Kim. Kim is the show’s most fascinating character. She’s introduced as a straight arrow but finds herself seduced by Jimmy’s schemes and gambles. She quickly becomes reckless and self-destructive. There is a sense that evil is catching, that corruption spreads, that moral decay is in some way contagious and can be passed from one person to another so that it has larger implications.
There’s something almost religious in the morality underpinning these stories, reflecting traditional notions of sin. The first episode of Better Call Saul even finds Jimmy quoting Ned Beatty’s pseudo-religious ranting from Network. Walt and Jimmy’s moral compromises aren’t bad solely because of the direct consequences, but also because those moral compromises spiral outwards, tainting and corrupting others and leading to wider degradations.
This language is woven into the show. Early in Better Call Saul, Mike reflects on how he corrupted his own son, convincing the young police officer to sully himself by taking a bribe because it was the path of least resistance. “You go along to get along,” Mike explains of the rationalizations that people make. “I was the only one that could get him to debase himself like that,” Mike confesses. “I made him lesser. I made him like me.” It’s a very spiritual idea of evil and corruption.
This is no real surprise. Gilligan’s mother, Gail, has remarked that her son was “an acolyte in the Catholic Church.” Gilligan describes himself as an agnostic, although he does believe in some higher power because otherwise he cannot see “any kind of unifying reason to be good.” Gilligan credits his long-term girlfriend Holly Rice with what has become an effective summary of his worldview: “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
In Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, the characters often live in a hell of their own making.