This week, Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul set a new cable ratings record for a series premier: More than 10 million 18-49-year-olds tuned in to see what has become of “criminal lawyer” Saul Goodman.
Better Call Saul opened with a flash-forward scene that gives a glimpse into the sad current life of Jimmy McGill (evidently his real name. We don’t know when he decided to go with “Saul Goodman,” but you can bet that question will be answered in good time). After fleeing Albuquerque—under yet another identity—following the implosion of Walt White’s meth empire depicted in the final episodes of Breaking Bad, Saul has taken up a new life, hiding from the hit-men and law enforcement still out for retribution. Now the proprietor of a Nebraska food court Cinnabon, the former strip-mall attorney spends his days looking over his shoulder, drinking heavily and reminiscing about his past as the money laundering expert of choice for the Southwest’s most notorious drug kingpins.
This is his punishment for a life lived on the wrong side of morality.
Despite the depressing opening black-and-white sequence, the series—and the first two episodes that aired on back-to-back nights starting on Sunday—is focused on Jimmy McGill’s origins as an insecure public defender who would later become an infamous drug empire partner.
Though his story begins at a different starting point than the tale of a terminally ill chemistry teacher turning to meth-cooking as a means to provide for his family, the first two episodes of AMC’s Better Call Saul hint that the series will focus on the same theme: The deceptive power of sin.
When we meet Jimmy, he’s a down-and-out lawyer, forced to take on the most cringe-inducing public defense cases the county has to offer. He’s a laughing-stock among other lawyers at a firm that has shunned his mentally-ill relative (Chuck McGill, played by Michael McKean), gets disrespected by the grouchy local parking lot attendant (Mike Ermantraut!) and is mocked by the nail salon owner from whom he rents his tiny back-room office.
After yet another professional humiliation, Jimmy decides to take matters into his own hands, even if it means falling back into his old habits that gained him the name “Slippin’ Jimmy” (for intentionally slipping on ice patches and suing for damages). But in the world of series creator Vince Gilligan, sin itself always turns out to be a very slippery slope.
(Warning, some episode one and two spoilers are coming.)
Jimmy stages a little scam in an effort to deceptively gain a client and get vengeance on a rival. But like Walt White’s first foray into small-time criminal dealings, ironic “coincidences” cause plans to go extremely wrong, and things escalate dramatically. Jimmy’s moral compromise leads to a violent showdown with Tuco (a Mexican drug kingpin) that nearly costs two small-time scam artists their lives.
That’s the message of Breaking Bad and, so far, Better Call Saul: Sin is seductive, and those that succumb to its temptation will pay the consequences for their transgressions.
There’s an idea that is frequently thrown around in modern Christianity: art should have a redemptive value. That’s very true, but in order to maintain its spiritual power, redemption must have a counterweight. Part of making redemptive art is the ability to show what we are being redeemed from.
Breaking Bad excelled at this like few narratives in modern memory, and in the first episodes of Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan uses several plot devices that made Breaking Bad such powerful commentary. In the beginning of both shows, the protagonists make uncharacteristic moral lapses in an effort to help themselves and their families. But in both scenarios, Gilligan allows seemingly unlikely scenarios (Walt’s chance encounter with a drug dealer during a ride-along with Hank in Breaking Bad, and the grandmother of infamous drug dealer Tuco driving a similar car as the target of Jimmy’s scam), to serve as deeper symbols about what really happens when we choose to sin.
For Gilligan, there is no such thing as a small moral compromise. Once we intentionally choose to do wrong there are only two roads: repentance or escalation. Corruption only takes a moment, and once we go down that path, a chain of unintended yet totally inevitable consequences begins, and nothing (at least short of supernatural intervention) can stop it.
In Better Call Saul, we’re promised to see which path Jimmy chooses, and what happens as a result.
On the surface, neither Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad are traditionally redemptive shows. They show bad people (or good people who become bad people) doing very bad things.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say about redemption.
While attempting to convince Tuco to not violently execute the two young skateboarders he has roped into his scam, Jimmy makes a speech about justice. He tells Tuco that the punishment should fit their crime of disrespecting him. “An eye for an eye,” he explains to Tuco, in an effort to prevent the drug lord from taking the “nuclear option” of cold-blooded murder in a fit of rage.
But Gilligan knows more about justice than Jimmy does. He knows this isn’t true. He understands that justice isn’t a one-for-one proposition. It’s an all or nothing one. Once we choose to do wrong, the cost is everything we have.
That’s why both series are really about redemption: They show that redemption is the opposite of justice. To be redeemed is not having to pay a terrible cost for the sins we’ve committed. And, as Walt and Saul find out, sin may grant you some power, but not enough power to escape the terrible swiftness of judgment.
More than just great characters, Saul Goodman and Walt White are symbols of our own morality. They show how easily corruptible human nature can be, despite our best intentions. They show why we so desperately need redemption from a Savior: Because in our own power, we just aren’t capable of getting out of the messes our sin has got us into.
Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul may not point toward the Savior, but it undeniably points to the need for one.