Better Call Saul!, the highly anticipated Breaking Bad spinoff that scored the best premiere ratings in cable TV history, was really, really depressing. That’s OK. It had to be. Bob Odenkirk’s characterization of Heisenberg’s crooked lawyer was so fascinating that the most compelling aspect of this new prequel was the character’s back story. Much like Walter White had to do in Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman needed to hit rock bottom in order to turn his life around.
But then, “turning your life around” is a relative term. We know from the original show that both characters end up making significantly more money than they start with. Yet what does that success get them? We also know from Breaking Bad that both characters live a life of constant struggle to stay ahead of the law, ahead of the drug cartels, ahead of Albuquerque’s criminal underworld. They never get a moment to rest and enjoy the wealth that they create. The loneliness is painted vividly in the new show’s ads:
Like the tipped scales in the logo, both the lawyer and the teacher-turned-drug-kingpin lead lives that are soulless and out of balance. They live lonely, hollow lives that no pile of cash can fill. That’s why they keep looking for more. I have nothing against the pursuit of wealth, but what good is that wealth if you can’t stop long enough to enjoy its benefits? What good is setting up your family’s financial future if you constantly fear that your enemies will take them out?
With the premiere of Better Call Saul! we’re beginning to see some context to the world we were introduced to in Breaking Bad. It’s a world of Strength without Beauty, Mirth without Reverence, Power without Compassion. It’s a world where the scales are tipped way too far in all the wrong directions.
For me, one of the hallmarks of Paganism is the recognition of polarity instead of a narrow focus on good and evil. Where some see a stark contrast between virtues and vices, we tend to see a spectrum of possibility between the extremes. Too much of anything can move us toward the undesirable side of the spectrum. Too much love becomes smothering and confining. Too much achievement risks egotism. The scales of Saul’s world, like Walter White before him, lean way too heavily on the side of power and wealth at all costs. The result is characters who, despite their achievements (good times will come for Saul), remain unhappy and unfulfilled.
In the new series, the writers even gave Saul a foil, a successful but ailing lawyer named Chuck McGill, who reminds the younger attorney that practicing law is not all about amassing wealth. He’s the voice of reason, who tries to provide a counterweight to Saul’s lack of scruples. As the series develops, I hope it continues to explore these themes to help us understand his steady descent into darkness and his friend’s attempts to pull him back. Saul Goodman and Walter White’s paths will only briefly intersect, but viewers already know that neither road leads to a pleasant destination.