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In ‘Better Call Saul,’ the Wages of Sin Was Always Death

In ‘Better Call Saul,’ the Wages of Sin Was Always Death

Better Call Saul was show about scheming. So was Breaking Bad. Schemes, more than the crossover characters, are what tie this universe together. Both shows, created by Vince Gilligan and apparently dubbed the “Gilliverse” by his writers’ room, followed men and women who figured their only way to get a cut of the American Dream was to cheat. Walter White, Jimmy McGill, Kim Wexler, Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmentraut and the rest saw a gulf between what they had and what they could have, and decided the best way to come by those things was the wrong side of the law, at the expense of whoever wasn’t smart enough to stay ahead of the con.

One of the things that makes this world — mostly in New Mexico but also California, Chicago, Nebraska, Mexico and more — so compelling is that this attitude is exceedingly relatable. In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino unpacks what she calls “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” in which she unpacks her theory that grifts are the core of the American millennial existence. Upward mobility has become so laughably impossible that now the only way to achieve anything approaching financial success is to con your way across the wealth gap. On TV, we see the stories of tech entrepreneurs like Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, WeWork’s Adam Neumann and any number of crypto scammers who faked it until they made millions. In politics, we see the men and women who make the decisions that shape our way of life skirting accountability as a matter of habit. And so it gets baked into our skulls that this must be the only way to win. It’s as American as anything else.

Walter White’s primary motivation was ego. He was an boring loser in a dead end job with a medical death sentence and no way to pay for treatment who struck on a pathway for the notoriety that had always eluded him in life. While Redditors and Youtubers idolized “Heisenberg,” the show’s disdain for Walter became clearer with each successive season, as it became more and more apparent that we were watching a very sad man continue to sculpt taller and taller sandcastles as the tide washed in around him. To the bitter end, Walter was willing to sacrifice everything – his friends, his partners and even his family — before giving up on the idea that he was meant for greatness.

The follow-up, Better Call Saul, is more nuanced and ultimately better. Its finale heralded not only the end of one of the best shows on TV, but the end of a certain type of show — the peak of prestige cable TV.

Jimmy McGill, the man who would become Saul Goodman, isn’t a bad person. As played by Bob Odenkirk (magnificent, every season) Jimmy starts out as a kindhearted but crafty social climber — a man who doesn’t wish anyone any harm but isn’t above pulling a fast one if he doesn’t like which way the wind is blowing. Jimmy’s not a fan of authority, bucks attempts to squeeze him into a mold and enjoys lightening the wallets of people he sees as undeserving of their goods. But he’s a caring brother and, unlike Walt, seems aware that he doesn’t really deserve the love and romance of Kim.

But Jimmy’s refusal to play by the rules continues to pull him and those associated with him deeper into situations in which the only choices available are facing the music or continuing to dig. Again and again, Jimmy chooses the latter, convinced that this is the last time. It never is, and these choices pair with cruel circumstances to turn Jimmy into the worst version of himself just in time to meet Walt at the worst version of himself. The results are, well, Bad.

Something Gilligan understands deeply about human nature is that we all think we’re special. Or at least, we think our circumstances are special. Jimmy didn’t want to sever his family bonds, but he felt justified given the circumstances. Walt didn’t want to become a meth kingpin, but he thought his situation was unique enough to warrant it. It would be wrong for most people, they seem to be thinking. But this is different.

We have these same excuses. Flirty texts with someone else’s wife. Cruel words in a conversation with a co-worker. Little lies to our family. Usually, we understand, these things are bad. We wouldn’t do them normally. But we’re in a unique situation here. The circumstances are different for us. This is different. This is special.

In Better Call Saul, the limitations of this way of thinking unveil themselves over and over, though nobody ever bothers to learn the lesson. Consequences don’t care about your special circumstances, and the wages of sin are what they are, no matter how you plead your case to the judge.

At the very beginning of the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11, we’re told that it takes place “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war …But David remained in Jerusalem.”

We’re not told why David remained in Jerusalem. He surely had his reasons. Maybe they were justified. They certainly were in his mind. But it was the first “special circumstance” that led down an exceedingly dark road, first to raping Bathsheba and then to having her husband killed. A bad choice leading to increasingly worse and ones until David was left with nothing but blood on his hands. He had unlimited power and no shortage of men willing to help him carry out his schemes, but every account comes due in the end.

This is true of the Gilliverse as well. It’s why this franchise feels so lived in, so true. In it, we see the simple acts of cause and effect, played out with tantalizing drama and delicious stakes towards inevitable results. The men and women of these shows never learn life’s most obvious lesson: That, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Most of them don’t learn  until it’s too late.

But it’s not too late for us.

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