Gimme Jimmy: Looking for Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman

Saul Goodman is one of the most memorable (and colorful) characters in Breaking Bad. With his Technicolor suit-and-tie combos, over-the-top office décor, ridiculous TV commercials, and more-than-questionable morals, he is the apotheosis of the sleazy lawyer trope. Saul’s scenes in Breaking Bad are almost always funny, which is a testament both to the show’s writing staff and to Bob Odenkirk’s inimitable comedic talents. For me, Saul Goodman was always the much-needed comic relief in a show that’s often incredibly dark.

But then Better Call Saul happened, and we met Jimmy McGill, and now it’s impossible for me to watch Breaking Bad in the same way. It’s not that Saul isn’t still consistently hilarious to me, or that I’m able to forgive his many, many trespasses—he’s still an absolute scumbag, albeit an entertaining one. But there’s a depth of character and tragic context that we, as viewers, now have, and it allows us to go back into Breaking Bad with fresh eyes when it comes to Saul’s character.

The Better Call Saul writers are a brilliant bunch, and one of the things the show does so well is to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) remind us of Breaking Bad in ways that elevate both shows. I’m not talking about Easter eggs (although there are many) but about giving emotional context to what we’re currently seeing and what we’ve already seen. In Better Call Saul, it makes Jimmy more tragic because we know where he’s headed; in Breaking Bad, it makes it all the more fascinating to watch Saul do the things he does.

There are several moments that take on a larger significance in light of what we’ve learned (so far) about Jimmy McGill, the first and most obvious of which is the name “Saul Goodman” itself. Obviously Jimmy McGill did not exist as we now know him when Breaking Bad was written. He was mentioned only once: during Saul’s first meeting with Walter (who was disguised as Badger’s uncle, “Mr. Mayhew”):

“Faith and begorrah! A fellow potato-eater! My real name is McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak. I digress.” – Saul Goodman, “Better Call Saul” (S2E8)

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The simple act of telling “Mr. Mayhew” that his real name is McGill is so much more impactful once we know that Jimmy McGill spent much of Better Call Saul season 1 fighting desperately to be able to practice law under his own name. The name “Saul Goodman” is not a random choice to attract “the homeboys.” It’s an alias Jimmy has been using since his Slippin’ Jimmy days, when he was running scams with his best friend Marco in their hometown of Cicero, Illinois. With Better Call Saul season 4 about to start, we have yet to see Jimmy abandon his given name for good, although he’s already assumed the Saul Goodman name for his TV commercial production business. But what we do know is that, at one point, Jimmy’s name was important to him, and the choice of the name “Saul Goodman” was not for marketing purposes; it was Jimmy choosing a name that signified his love of the grift and the hustle, and embracing that side of himself over the side that had wanted to go (mostly) straight. With this context, what was once a throwaway line in Saul’s introductory episode takes on a heartbreaking significance.

In Breaking Bad, we never learned anything about Saul’s life beyond his legal practice. We never saw him at home. We never saw him with any friends or loved ones. As far as we knew, he had no family. In light of Better Call Saul, we now know exactly how much family meant to Jimmy McGill—that, in fact, his family played an enormous role in making him the man he was in Breaking Bad. The toxic relationship between Jimmy and Chuck is at the heart of Better Call Saul, and if there’s one thing Breaking Bad has in spades, it’s toxic family dynamics.

In many ways, Chuck was a father to Jimmy. Their actual father died when Jimmy was relatively young and Chuck was forced to take on that role for his little brother. This was a role that Chuck never wanted, especially given the disdain he had for Jimmy even from a young age. Chuck blamed Jimmy for their father’s death and resented Jimmy for being their mother’s favorite, which is understandable given that Chuck was ostensibly the perfect child and Jimmy was nothing but trouble. But whether we view Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship as father/son or big brother/little brother, several things hold true: Jimmy looked up to Chuck, relied on Chuck, and (later in life) desperately wanted Chuck’s approval. Despite their differences and many disagreements, Jimmy always loved Chuck and was there for him when his older brother was the one who needed help. Unfortunately, Chuck did not feel the same way. As Marco so bluntly put it to Jimmy, “I hate to break it to you, but he doesn’t even like you.” (BCS, “Marco,” S1E10)

Considering the role that family played in Jimmy’s life, it is interesting to take a look at the role Saul plays in situations where he sees toxic family dynamics at play. One such instance is when he assists Jesse in buying his aunt’s house from his parents. Jesse’s family dynamic is a mess. His drug use damaged his relationship with his parents beyond repair and took away any chance he had of maintaining a relationship with his little brother, Jake. The Pinkmans (understandably) believe that Jesse will be a bad influence on his little brother. The irony there is that when they kick Jesse out of their house because they find marijuana, it isn’t actually Jesse’s. It belongs to Jake.

Even though Jesse consistently makes terrible life choices, it is hard to be sympathetic to the Pinkmans. They abandon their eldest son, who is clearly in trouble, and choose to focus on their youngest. The Pinkmans seem callous in comparison to Jane’s father, who was there for her through all her relapses. He was frustrated with her and angry with her—all completely natural responses—but in the end, he loved her and would never give up on her. The Pinkmans not only give up on Jesse completely, they sabotage his chance at recovery. Knowing he has nowhere else to go and that he will likely turn to drugs to cope, they hire a lawyer to evict him from his aunt’s house, even threatening to turn him in for meth production if he doesn’t vacate the premises. To be fair, they are the legal owners of the house and any federal seizure would blow back on them, but it’s the way they go about handling the situation that makes them unsympathetic. However much it may pain them to do so, in the end Jesse’s parents give up on him and leave him to fend for himself—something they know he’s completely incapable of doing.

Enter Saul Goodman. In “Caballo Sin Nombre” (BrBa, S3E2), Jesse hires him as representative of an “anonymous” potential buyer for the house. Armed with the knowledge that Jesse’s parents are trying to conceal the fact that the property was used as a meth lab, Saul takes a special delight in telling the Pinkmans they have no choice but to sell for $400K—less than half the asking price. It’s obvious that Saul is enjoying the fact that he has outplayed the Pinkmans’ lawyer, who blatantly looks down on him during the meeting. But what I find interesting is the joy that Saul must be taking in sticking it to Jesse’s parents—people who were supposed to love and support him but tried to sabotage him instead. That’s a feeling that Saul would be all too familiar with, and our knowledge of Chuck’s attempts to sabotage Jimmy provide a whole new level to Saul’s smug self-satisfaction in this scene.

Jesse’s relationship with Walt is even more toxic than his relationship with his parents. Throughout the series, Walt plays the role of surrogate father to Jesse, but their father-son relationship is destructive and downright abusive at times. Walt is aware of the fact that their relationship holds a deeper emotional significance for Jesse and he constantly uses that fact to his own advantage. And Walt isn’t the only one who knows it; Mike knows it, Gus knows it, and so does Saul.

All sleaze and flamboyance aside, Saul is incredibly observant and intelligent. He sees the dynamic between Walt and Jesse for what it is. In many ways, I think Saul sees some of himself in Jesse: the misguided young ne’er-do-well, constantly screwing up and trying to start over only to have the people in his life drag him back down into the dirt. Not that Jesse is an innocent—many of his bad choices are solely his own, but the same thing can be said for “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill.

saul jesse

There are aspects of the Walt/Jesse relationship that have painful echoes to events in Saul’s life, and in many ways Walt is the Chuck to Saul’s Jesse. Walt and Chuck are similar both in their arrogant, know-it-all personalities and in the way they treat (and mistreat) their surrogate children. Nowhere is Walt’s similarity to Chuck more obvious than in his meeting with Saul in “Live Free or Die” (BrBa, S5E1). Walt, angered by Saul helping Skyler with the Ted-Beneke-IRS situation, coldly tells him, “You’re not Clarence Darrow, Saul. You’re a two-bit, bus-bench lawyer.” Watching this now, I can’t help but hear Chuck’s voice in my head, showing his true colors to Jimmy for the first time when he tells him, “You’re not a real lawyer” (“Pimento,” BCS, S1E9).

Saul is willing to do a lot of very bad things in the name of money and self-preservation, but there are several instances where he’s been either an active participant in or privy to things that do actually disturb him. It doesn’t stop him from doing these things—and that’s how we know that he’s left Jimmy McGill in the past—but Saul’s reactions to things that cross his line give us little glimpses of Jimmy. Interestingly, these instances are all related to the safety of innocent women and children.

In my opinion, the most “Jimmy-esque” we see Saul in Breaking Bad is during the scene in “Hermanos” (BrBa, S4E8) when he delivers money to Andrea and Brock Cantillo on Jesse’s behalf. Jesse cares for Andrea and Brock but has been keeping his distance for their own safety. However, he still wants to provide for them to make sure Andrea and Brock can live in a safer neighborhood. Saul delivers the money and has a conversation with Brock, who is a shy boy but seems to respond positively to Saul. The way Saul talks to Brock reminds me of the way Jimmy was able to talk to his elderly clients: there’s a kindness and playfulness to his tone that effortlessly puts people at ease. In the same way, he is able to assure a worried Andrea that Jesse is doing well.

When Saul returns to the car, where Jesse is waiting, he seems to really want Jesse to reach out to Andrea himself. There are very few moments in Breaking Bad where we see Saul acting without selfish intentions, and this is one of them. He can charge Jesse for his time and services if he keeps taking Andrea the money, but he can see how much Jesse cares for her and Brock. He seems to truly want Jesse to reconcile with them and find happiness—perhaps to find the kind of fulfillment in a relationship that Saul himself does not have.

Of course, we can’t speak about Brock without discussing the poisoning incident. While we now know that he was not poisoned with the ricin cigarette but with Lily of the Valley (courtesy of Walt), that doesn’t change the fact that Saul (in helping Walt lift the ricin cigarette from Jesse) played a part in Walt’s plan to poison a child. In “Live Free or Die,” immediately after Walt makes his Clarence Darrow dig, Saul brings out the ricin cigarette—it’s his last straw, and he tells Walt that he’s done doing his dirty work. Walt’s response is one of his most menacing moments in the series: “We’re done when I say we’re done.”

walt saul were done

Saul is legitimately afraid at this point, and rightly so. As he cowers from Walt, who’s got him backed up against the wall, Saul’s facial expressions and posture remind me of Jimmy’s fear of Tuco and Nacho. There’s a level of visceral physical discomfort here that we’ve seen from Jimmy before, in other situations where he has faced down dangerous criminals who are capable of heinous acts of violence. At this point, in Saul’s mind, Walt is the most dangerous criminal of them all, and Saul’s involuntary physical reaction to this threat is no different than Jimmy’s was.

In Breaking Bad, we don’t know much about Saul’s relationships with women except that he has stated that he has two ex-wives (only one of whom has been referenced so far in Better Call Saul). His sexual interactions with women are limited to transactions with sex workers and a one-sided flirtation with/harassment of his secretary Francesca. Of course, there is much about Saul that we don’t know, which is part of the genius of Better Call Saul. Since we don’t know for sure what was going on in Saul’s personal life during the events of Breaking Bad, the Better Call Saul writers have the freedom to take us wherever they want to go.

Which brings me to Kim Wexler. Kim does not appear and is not referenced in Breaking Bad, so we don’t yet know what her trajectory is. What we do know is that she is clearly the love of Jimmy’s life, and whatever ends up happening between them, those feelings never go away. Whatever is happening in Saul’s personal life, Kim is solidly a part of who he is and how he got there. After all, he named his loan out “Ice Station Zebra Associates” (after one of Kim’s favorite movies), which would serve as a constant reminder of her. After Better Call Saul, it’s impossible not to feel Kim’s absence. But in one particular scene, she is very much present.

In “Sunset” (BrBa, S3E6), when Jesse and Walt are trapped in the RV and Hank is closing in on them, Walt calls Saul for assistance. That “assistance” comes in the form of a phone call to Hank from Francesca, who pretends to be a police officer informing Hank that his wife, Marie, has been in a serious car accident. Hank hightails it out of there, as Walt knew that he would, and they are safe for the moment.

This is something so emotionally manipulative that even Walt seems to struggle with doing it, and both Francesca and Saul are visibly disturbed by what they’ve done. Saul is painfully aware of how Hank must be feeling because Jimmy experienced that same fear when Kim got in her car accident in “Fall” (BCS, S3E9). Watching this scene now, and the way that Saul looks almost physically ill as he breaks the cell phone used to make the call, I feel Kim’s presence in the scene. Francesca, too, would remember Kim’s accident, which makes her guilt over making the call that much more meaningful (and makes it even worse that Saul asked her to do it in the first place).

310-kim-jimmy-hospital

With season 4 of Better Call Saul premiering in a few days, and Jimmy barreling ever closer to Saul Goodman, I expect there will be more scenes in Breaking Bad that take on new significance. I’m particularly interested (and emotionally invested) in the evolution of Jimmy and Kim’s relationship as Jimmy becomes Saul. Many people assume that the fact that she’s not around in Breaking Bad means that she will come to a tragic end during the course of the prequel series, but I don’t believe that. First of all, it’s lazy writing, and the Better Call Saul team is better than that. More importantly, I believe that killing Kim doesn’t serve either show. When we learn the full story of Kim Wexler—whenever that might be—I think it will inform Saul’s character in Breaking Bad as much as (if not more than) his relationship with Chuck. We can already see Chuck’s footprints all over Breaking Bad. I’m waiting to see where Kim’s turn up.

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Better Call Saul season 4 premieres Monday, August 6th and 25YL is pleased to announce our weekly coverage of the series. Look for in-depth analysis of the latest episode, which will be published every Wednesday. We hope you’ll join us as we begin our deep-dive into one of the best shows on television. It’s (almost) showtime, folks!


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