“People don’t change, you’re Slippin’ Jimmy!”
In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is an anomaly. In a series full of complex characters, Saul is a two-dimensional, cartoonish sleazebag with a one-liner for every moment. Played by the comedic genius, Bob Odenkirk, Saul served as comic relief in a world where the dissolving of children in barrels of acid is shrugged off as “shit happens.”
In Better Call Saul, the prequel series centred on Saul Goodman’s life prior to meeting Walter White, we meet James McGill. With the added context of the prequel, Saul is recontextualised from a clown to a mask worn by a broken man addicted to lying and swindling others. This addiction cost all of his personal relationships and pushed Jimmy to put on the clown-like mask of Saul to escape all of the pain he inflicted on his loved ones.
Because Better Call Saul is a prequel series, we are acutely aware of where Jimmy ends up. As such, a feeling of inevitability looms over every significant character moment. We despair as Jimmy slowly morphs into Saul because there is nothing admirable or redeemable about Saul.
But there is hope. Despite being a prequel, the series is bookended with black-and-white scenes taking place after the events of Breaking Bad. Here, Jimmy dons a new face: Gene Takavic. Hiding from the DEA, Gene lives in a purgatory where time is marked by the baking of cinnamon buns. As such, while we watch Jimmy’s downfall and the permanent wearing of the Saul Goodman mask, the black-and-white scenes pose the question: As Jimmy can’t redeem himself under the mask of Saul Goodman, can he do so as Gene Takavic? If so, what will that take?
Who is Jimmy?
Through flashbacks and dialogue, we learn that Jimmy’s early adulthood was spent with him wearing his first mask: “Slippin’ Jimmy.” Slippin’ Jimmy was an infamous con artist in Cicero, Chicago who pulled slip and falls and other cons to swindle hundreds out of strangers’ pockets. According to Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill, Jimmy was a liar who not only scammed hundreds but embezzled thousands from his father’s shop, resulting in the business’ collapse and his father’s subsequent death.
But when we meet Jimmy in the series, Jimmy McGill is a genuinely loveable character. Audiences liked Saul because he was funny in a world full of murderers; audiences love Jimmy because he is kind-hearted, charismatic and a hard worker. When we first meet Jimmy, he’s struggling to build his solo law practice while caring for his sick brother, providing food and supplies for him daily. Jimmy becomes a champion for the elderly by building a multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit. He was the only lawyer who cared enough about his clients to notice they were being defrauded by their retirement home. Despite his criminal past, Jimmy did his best to be an honest person, even going so far as to return stolen millions to the District Attorney to ensure a criminal client secures a plea bargain.
Despite this, not everyone wants him to succeed because to do so would acknowledge that people who were once ‘bad’ can become equals with those who view themselves as ‘good.’ In the show’s pivotal moment, Jimmy learns his brother Chuck, the one he cared for daily, never respected him and gatekept him from a top-tier law firm. “I know what you were,” shouts Chuck, “what you are, people don’t change. You’re Slippin’ Jimmy! And Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!”
“I thought you were proud of me,” Jimmy responds. And so, all of Jimmy’s efforts to change crumble. What’s the point of changing if he will only be seen as a sleazy con artist?
Jimmy the Addict
I use the language of addiction to describe Jimmy’s characterisation because it allows us to understand the sheer difficulty and urgency for Jimmy to change his behaviour. Despite Chuck’s resentment for his brother, he’s right in telling Jimmy that he needs to change “before you destroy yourself.”
Jimmy’s addiction to the bottle of the con stems from an early memory of a criminal using a sob story to swindle Jimmy’s father out of $10. Despite Jimmy protesting that his father was getting scammed, his dad gave the man the benefit of the doubt and paid him. “There are wolves and sheep in this world, kid. Figure out which one you want to be.”
This psychopathic worldview taught Jimmy that everything is a zero-sum game where the winner takes all by any means necessary. For Jimmy, it doesn’t matter that he can humiliate his brother’s mental health issues in court to vindicate himself; it doesn’t matter that he can lie to the court to help his drug lord client flee the country for the murder of a nineteen-year-old. Jimmy is not a sheep. But who are the wolves?
We learn that the “wolves” are whoever Jimmy thinks is looking down at him. This stems from his troubled relationship with Chuck who, despite all of Jimmy’s efforts to reform himself, believes that Jimmy will always be Slippin’ Jimmy the con artist. Unfortunately, this has blinded Jimmy from seeing that there are genuine people who aren’t out to get him or gatekeep him like his brother. For example, in Season 2, a top-tier law firm offers Jimmy a job – complete with a company apartment and car – out of respect for him building the class action elder abuse case. Jimmy takes the opportunity only to force his boss into a game of chicken to fire him simply because he feels like a “square peg.” When Howard offers Jimmy a job, Jimmy says, “I’ll think about it,” before wrecking Howard’s car and embarrassing him at a business lunch by sending two prostitutes.
Jimmy’s past and his estranged relationship with his brother fuelled his feeling of inferiority to the point where he earnestly believed that he cannot be anyone else except for Slippin’ Jimmy. The final words that Chuck told Jimmy before his suicide were: “In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you, so stop apologising and accept it, embrace it.”
Instead of proving his brother wrong, Jimmy gives up any prospect of change and embraces the Slippin’ Jimmy mask. Not only that, he begins to craft a new one: Saul Goodman, the criminal lawyer who is unafraid to engage in chicanery to get his clients unethical – and the best – criminal defence. Saul was going to be a wolf.
The Mask of Saul Goodman
In the episode “Fun and Games,” Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s wife, divorces Jimmy after their scams result in the murder of Howard, one of their friends. Immediately, the next scene jumps forward four years to a Jimmy unrecognisable at the start of the series: he’s no longer in Kim’s apartment but in a grand mansion with a prostitute in his bed. Throughout the day he shouts into a Bluetooth earpiece, threatens to sue a doctor and harasses his secretary.
The long-awaited moment Jimmy transforms into Saul Goodman isn’t the triumphant return of the fasttalking sleazebag universally loved in Breaking Bad. Instead, we see a pathetic man desperately trying to convince himself that he’s happy. At this point, there is no one left who calls him “Jimmy.” The kind-hearted man who was once a champion for elders, is gone.
What were once the comedic antics of Saul are just a lie Jimmy repeats to forget the trauma of destroying his loved ones. It’s impossible for Jimmy to change because to do so would mean facing the consequences of his actions and the enormity of the hurt he inflicted. Jimmy surrendered to the mask of Saul. If he was going to hurt everyone around him, he might as well do it well and do it full-time. It is as Saul that he meets Walter White and becomes indispensable to the creation of a drug empire responsible for a methamphetamine epidemic and the murder of hundreds.
Gene Takavic and the Possibility of Redemption?
After Walter White’s empire crumbled, Saul escaped to Nebraska under the identity of “Gene Takavic.” Throughout Better Call Saul, it was inevitable that Jimmy would transform into the irredeemable Saul Goodman. The presence of the black-and-white scenes with Gene Takavic opens the possibility of redemption but very quickly, Gene, much like Slippin’ Jimmy, returns to the bottle of the con, working with low-level criminals to rob stores and scam rich bar patrons.
Eventually, Jimmy is arrested and faces a life sentence. Never the sheep, Jimmy uses the mask of Saul to sell a sob story of how he worked under the threat of Walter White to coerce the DEA into offering a plea bargain of seven and a half years in prison. In a room full of federal agents, Jimmy, the man in the prisoner jumpsuit, was still the wolf.
As Jimmy is about to get sentenced in an Albuquerque courtroom, he catches a glimpse of his ex-wife Kim. It’s a pitiful sight. Even though Jimmy successfully negotiates a seven-and-a-half-year sentence, nothing awaits him on the other side. His brother is dead, he has no friends, he will never return to work as a lawyer, and his ex-wife has no love or respect for him.
Jimmy had always been a liar but to everyone’s surprise, he confessed to the judge that he lied to the Government. He was never a victim of Walter White; he was indispensable to the whole operation. For the first time in the series, Jimmy is no longer wearing a mask and is earnestly facing the consequences. He confesses to Howard’s death. He confesses his tumultuous relationship with Chuck and how he didn’t try hard enough to mend the feud that drove Chuck to suicide.
“And I’ll live with that,” says Jimmy.
As Saul, he escaped from the trauma that he inflicted. As Gene, he escaped the law for the crimes he committed. Returning again as Saul, he swindled the Government into an 8-year plea deal for crimes that carried a life sentence plus 106 years. But Jimmy threw away the deal, confessed to all of his sins and regained his name.
“Sit down, Mr. Goodman,” says the judge.
“The name’s McGill. I’m James McGill.”
Better Call Saul shows us why we don masks. In Breaking Bad, Saul was a sleazebag but in Better Call Saul, we learn it is the ultimate coping mechanism. For all his life he was running away from who he really was: a kind-hearted man plagued by addiction. His ultimate triumph is that for once, he told the truth, not to win back anyone’s respect or to save himself, but to admit his crimes to the court and to himself.
After a life of lies, Jimmy is sentenced to 86 years in a maximum security prison. However, it’s not all bad: Jimmy wins back his humanity and some small semblance of respect from Kim. The tragedy of Jimmy McGill is that he had too many opportunities to save himself and never took any of them; it was only when he lost everything did he decide to turn around. But Jimmy also proves that even after a lifetime of running, a liar like Jimmy can turn around and tell the truth.