A down-and-out defense attorney, with a suspended law license, sits in a conference room at the white-shoe law firm cofounded by his deceased brother. The board has gathered to interview applicants for a college scholarship; we see a series of impressive candidates, including one young woman with a record for shoplifting. Once the votes are in, the attorney runs after the girl to deliver the news. “You didn’t get it,” he says bluntly. “You were never gonna get it. They dangle these things in front of you, they tell you you got a chance but … I’m sorry … it’s a lie … They’ll smile at you, they’ll pat you on the head, but they are never, ever letting you in.” But it’s okay, he assures her, because “you’re gonna be smart. You are going to cut corners. And you are going to win.”
Jimmy McGill—the protagonist of Better Call Saul (2015–2022)—isn’t really talking to this applicant so much as to himself. The monologue, which appears in the season 4 finale, may start as a pep talk but it quickly turns into a cri de coeur—an airing of Jimmy’s accumulated grievances against his dead brother Chuck, his smarmy partner, Howard Hamlin; and the elitist, blue-chip values they represent. Jimmy, an artful dodger in a long line of hustlers, from polytropos Odysseus to Melville’s The Confidence-Man, has finally absorbed the hard truth—perhaps self-evident to the young female candidate he’s confronting—that the meritocracy is, as he puts it, “a lie.” Between his discreditable origins and his law degree from the University of American Samoa, the Chucks and Howards of the world are “never, ever letting [him] in.”
In this sense, the speech could also serve as a manifesto for Better Call Saul, a show that similarly began life as an also-ran: an adjunct to the highly acclaimed Breaking Bad (2008–2013), a spin-off no one asked for and which awards shows have chronically overlooked. If the series doesn’t endorse its main character’s increasingly criminal acts of “corner-cutting” or his transformation from “Slippin’ Jimmy” into the proudly unscrupulous persona of Saul Goodman, it does suggest the problem isn’t just the player; it’s also the rigged game. By the time it ended its six-season run last fall, Vince Gilligan’s follow-up series had illuminated the social and structural forces that combine to produce a Saul, né Jimmy—which is to say, someone both dominated and ultimately destroyed by fantasies of winning.
That’s not to say the show is sympathetic to Jimmy’s ambitions. But it is curious about them. Put another way, Better Call Saul may qualify as television’s most sustained exploration to date of the phenomenon Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism.”1 For Berlant, the term denotes an attachment to “animating, sustaining fantasies” that are ultimately destructive because the desired object “is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”2 In the early 21st-century neoliberal landscape of Better Call Saul, as in Berlant’s 2011 book, such destructive fantasies include the dreams of wealth and upward mobility to which Jimmy is almost pathologically attached. That Jimmy is a white, able-bodied, cis-het man also means that these are quantities to which he feels—and has been taught to feel—particularly entitled.
It’s notable that in this regard Jimmy is an outlier within the show’s ensemble. Most of characters are more clear-eyed, less inclined to the kind of benighted optimism that leads Jimmy to adopt as his professional alias a homonym for the phrase, “It’s all good, man.” Two of Better Call Saul’s main players—impassive drug kingpin Gus Fring and his dead-eyed fixer Mike Ehrmantraut—could hardly be less prone to magical thinking. Then there’s Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s partner in love and occasional crime, a successful lawyer who by turns joins in and judges her lover’s hijinks. When their longest, most-involved con ends in disaster, she immediately grasps the full measure of her guilt.
That the show’s brute realists also tend to be its minoritized characters—Latinx, female—allows for one reading of the show as a meditation on the white man’s burden, with Jimmy’s resentments standing in for those of a generation, angry that the bargain historically on offer is now void. It’s no accident, after all, that delusions under which Jimmy labors mostly come to him from his withholding older brother Chuck, a successful beneficiary of the old world order. In the season four finale, appropriately called “Winner,” we watch Chuck steal the microphone during what Jimmy intended to be a duet performance of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.” The sequence tells us all we need to know about Chuck, who, having suffered a nervous breakdown, relies on Jimmy’s caretaking even as he insists on an individualist credo. “Jimmy, wouldn’t you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else’s coattails?” OK, Boomer.
At a glance, a thematic interest in the consequences of such “good-life fantasies” might not appear to distinguish Better Call Saul from its prestige TV benchmarks.3 Some of the most celebrated shows of the post-network era, from The Sopranos and Mad Men to predecessor Breaking Bad, explore the costs of unchecked ambition. Meanwhile, popular culture, from The Great Gatsby to Don’t Worry Darling, remains fascinated by the fallout of the white American dream—which hasn’t dampened its evident allure. Indeed, Better Call Saul’s season 6 premiere invokes the celebration of all Gatsby’s “beautiful shirts” with an image of the newly flush Saul, taking a spin through his garish tie collection.
What does distinguish Better Call Saul, however, is its commitment to narrating only downward mobility. When it comes to Jimmy, there’s no rise and fall—there’s just fall. If, as Toni Pape argues, Breaking Bad envisioned the “slow but steady decline into precarity of the American middle class,” Better Call Saul essentially starts there, with hard-luck characters who’ve mostly opted out of the mainstream, into extralegal endeavors.4 The show unfolds in what Berlant calls a “stretched-out present”: a temporality in which the attrition of the institutions sustaining our collective fantasies is well underway.5
It’s no accident that delusions under which Jimmy labors mostly come to him from his withholding older brother Chuck, a successful beneficiary of the old world order.
From its start, Better Call Saul takes care to convey this sense of non-advancement and proximity to failure. It’s telling that in the pilot, we mostly watch Jimmy lose—first, a court case; then, a pair of desirable clients; and finally, the anticipated payday from a scam involving a pair of skateboarders. Initially the skateboarders try to con him by pretending to get hit by his car before he points out the obvious fact of his penury. “Does this steaming pile of crap scream payday to you?!” he yells, gesturing toward his rusted-out sedan. By the fourth season, when Jimmy has lost much more—his brother, his law license, and very nearly, his girlfriend, Kim—he bemoans his fate. “There you go, kick a man when he’s down,” he complains to Kim. “Jimmy, you’re always down,” she replies. The show’s dialogue often reflects this kind of ruthlessly vertical thinking. One character, after meeting Kim, pays Jimmy the backhanded compliment of having married so far “up.”
Better Call Saul’s formal structures also work to convey this hierarchical logic. In later seasons, especially, the camera is frequently placed very low to the ground. The show features any number of these low-level shots: of melting ice cream cones, broken glass, character’s boots, desert scrub, cars peeling out or driving off. This aesthetic tendency may reach its apotheosis in season 5, when Jimmy, attempting to run money for the Salamanca cartel, ends up both literally and figuratively at his lowest—facedown and army-crawling through the dirt for his life. Cumulatively, one could argue that this visual insistence on the ground literalizes the “collective fears of falling” that, as Sheila Liming notes, have been central to the cultural formation of the professional-managerial class as theorized by John and Barbara Ehrenreich.6 It makes sense, then, that Jimmy equates “winning” with achieving more height. In the speech I opened the essay with, he imagines leapfrogging right over the PMC: “They’re on the 35th floor? You’re going to be on the 50th floor. You’re going to be looking down on them.”
Years after Breaking Bad’s conclusion, Nick Estes tweeted a critique of the series, calling it a “white middle class narco-imperialist fantasy,” in which the “brown drug dealers are irrationally violent” and “the whites … show the world how to properly crime.” Whether you agree with this assessment, there’s no doubt Better Call Saul represents a distinct vision, in which criminal enterprise, far from a fantasy, is mostly a grind. Apart from Gus’s elegant maneuvering, much of what we see is pretty tawdry: cell phone swindles and retirement home scams, gig-economy workers and “nail salon lawyers.” If Breaking Bad contained some vestiges of glamor—allowing Walter, in James Poniewozik’s words, to “brea[k] both bad and badass”—in this prequel “crime is mostly just sad.”7 From the very first episode, we know Jimmy’s endgame, reduced to working at a Nebraska Cinnabon under the name Gene Takovic, and, as Poniewozik puts it, “looking like an off-brand Walter White, down to the soup-strainer mustache.” Unlike Walter, Jimmy doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory; instead, he’s caught by the cops under a pile of trash. “They told me they found you in a garbage dumpster,” a character tells Jimmy in the series finale. “Well, that makes sense.”
Much as Twin Peaks: The Return complicated the more nostalgic aspects of David Lynch’s original series—by mixing in opioids, trailer parks, and chronic illness—Better Call Saul excises the vestigial romance of Vince Gilligan’s earlier show, particularly visible in the anti-heroics of its lead. (“I am the one who knocks,” Walter darkly intones, in a viral catchphrase.) At one point, Howard confides in Kim that “frankly, the firm’s reputation is not what it used to be.” But in Better Call Saul, nothing is what it used to be. It’s no wonder that Jimmy and Kim like to watch old movies. Classic Hollywood offers a kind of romance their grim timeline cannot.
Paradoxically, the casting of Bob Odenkirk, best known at the time of the show’s release as a comic actor, is definitive to the series’ specific sense of tragedy. Jimmy is a fast-talking screwball character, but the series owes more to film noir. It’s a genre regularly invoked by the show’s imagery, perhaps most indelibly in the first- and last-episode shots of Jimmy and Kim sharing a cigarette, half hidden by shadows. Gilligan seems deliberately to keep this tension alive, calling back over the course of the series to some of Odenkirk’s beloved sketches from his breakout comedy series with David Cross, Mr. Show. In one scene, for instance, Jimmy goofs with Kim in bed, acting out an ornery Southern character who sounds a lot like Senator Tankerbell. Later, in one of the always-shifting credits sequences, we watch Saul’s “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” mug crash to the floor in slow motion, invoking the Mr. Show moment when Odenkirk, seated next to a “World’s Greatest Gramps” cup, complains on the phone, “I’ve used the mug already!” Only a comic actor, perhaps, could convey the kind of increasingly desperate, myopic optimism that is ultimately the source of the character’s undoing.
In the end, Jimmy does get his epiphany—it just comes too late. In the pilot, which opens with a sequence from the “present-day,” post–Breaking Bad timeline, shot in black-and-white, we watch Jimmy, now Gene, gaze out a window at the wintry Nebraska landscape. “The snow will become pretty steady here across the region,” a TV newscaster reports in the background, a line echoing the conclusion of Joyce’s “The Dead,” in which another aging male protagonist looks back pityingly on his past. It’s not until the series finale, when Jimmy accepts his lengthy prison sentence—and reclaims his name—that he seems able to confront the depth of his previous delusions. “Eighty-six years,” Jimmy muses, during a final prison visit with Kim. “But with good behavior … ?” It’s both a joke and an example of the sort of logic he once lived by. Fantasies of future reward did their work and their damage.
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). ↩
- Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 261, 1. ↩
- Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 2. ↩
- Toni Pape, Figures of Time: Affect and the Television of Preemption (Duke University Press, 2019), p. 6. ↩
- Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 5. ↩
- Sheila Liming, Office (Bloomsbury, 2020), p. 64. ↩
- James Poniewozik, “‘Saul’ Great, Man.” New York Times, August 15, 2022. ↩