If your career ever stalls, if you hate your boss, if you’re unfulfilled or frustrated or just bored — basically, if you’re a human being who works — might I suggest a marathon of Better Call Saul, the rare binge that’ll trick you into feeling productive? The AMC drama, which is currently wrapping up an excellent fourth season, is a paean to patience, to slow, hard work that may or may not pay off. Who’d have thought a show about the origins of a shyster/lawyer with a fake name whose clients are murderous drug dealers would turn out to be TV’s most satisfying depiction of an honest day’s work?
Much of this satisfaction comes from creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s delight in the rhythms and patterns of their characters’ workaday lives — as they prepare processed snacks in a mall food court, help a regional bank expand operations or sell burner cell phones out of the trunk of a car. On the surface, Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spinoff that tracks the rise of Saul Goodman, née Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), has a lot in common with its progenitor, Gilligan’s drama about a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who starts a lucrative business cooking meth. But in a deeper way, Saul is the anti-Breaking Bad. It’s less interested in the premium cable fantasy of the powerful bad man than in the minutiae of the work itself. Whether that work is criminal or not is almost beside the point; as Jimmy’s now-deceased brother Chuck (Michael McKean) tells him in an earlier season, “No one ever accused you of being lazy. Every other sin in the book, but not that one.”
Last season, Chuck, a respected lawyer and co-founder of a prestigious Albuquerque law firm, attempted to get his brother disbarred for life after Jimmy admitted to falsifying documents to make his brother look sloppy and send a valuable client running back to his lawyer girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). The gambit works, but Jimmy’s law license is suspended for a year.
In the current season, he gets a job in a cell-phone store — but Jimmy being Jimmy, he quickly cooks up a scheme to make more money faster by selling burners out of his car, to the kind of customers up to whatever it is people do with single-use phones. Meanwhile, Kim takes a partner-track job at a prestigious law firm and handles pro bono public defender work in her spare time. When she reluctantly agrees to help Jimmy keep his bodyguard — who mistakenly attacked a cop — out of jail, she surprises herself by cooking up a less-than-kosher scheme straight out of the Jimmy McGill playbook.
She also surprises herself, and the viewer, by enjoying the transgression. She’s come a long way from the harmless grifts of previous seasons, when the couple would con clueless rich guys in bars by posing as siblings who had just inherited a fortune. At its best, Better Call Saul is a keen study of these slippages between what’s legal, what’s just and what you can get away with if you’re smart and lucky.
And in its observance of the labor of ordinary people — the juxtaposition of scenes involving Jimmy, Kim and Albuquerque’s legal community, and the underworld of the drug trade — the show doesn’t really distinguish between legal and illegal work. There’s work that’s dignifying and work that degrades, to be sure, but whether it’s square in the eyes of the law doesn’t change the satisfaction of the effort itself.
The series’ trademark is long, wordless scenes of people at work: drug henchman Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) meticulously switching out his boss’s heart medication with placebos; former cop Mike Ehrmantraut (the divine Jonathan Banks) scouting a rival drug cartel’s route through the desert; Kim making phone calls on her lunch break to poach potential new clients. These sequences often zero in on a single person carrying out a specific task, as if to bear witness to the kind of labor that normally goes unseen and unremarked upon. In the hands of Saul’s directors, what’s tedious in real life is spellbinding on the screen.
For all that, it doesn’t much matter what side of the law these people are on; whether they’re selling drugs or heading up a law firm’s banking division, Better Call Saul’s characters are susceptible to the inevitable boredom and letdown of having gotten what they have worked so hard for. The ends might not always justify, or live up to, the means, but this show has always been more interested in the means, anyway.
Gilligan and Co. understand that most of us harbor the urge to “break bad,” but rather than offer another deadening TV antihero daydream, they’ve conjured reveries of everyday life. The show’s directors relish disorienting their viewers; an episode might open on a hypnotic close-up shot of burning pieces of tattered paper floating up from the bottom of a pitch-black frame or a paper shredder mutilating documents. They focus on the essential weirdness of everyday life and objects — shining a light on the mundane, rendering it newly foreign and fascinating.
In Breaking Bad’s final installment, Walter White got to die in a glorious shootout, an epic, Hollywood ending to his tragic story. But most of us just have to keep going, keep working, keep supporting our stupid little lives, even if it makes us miserable, even if it doesn’t look cool. When it comes down to it, any work is better than no work.