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‘Better Call Saul’ and Our Fascination With Weasels

Plus some other random thoughts about the new season of the ‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff

Last year, Bob Odenkirk was thinking back to when he was first cast as Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad’s wonderfully sleazy lawyer character who since 2015 has been the lead in the spinoff Better Call Saul. Odenkirk had been a working actor and filmmaker for decades, but he’d never before been part of an Emmy-nominated drama, so he always wondered why they chose him. So he asked Better Call Saul co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould.

“They both said it was because of Mr. Show,” Odenkirk told a reporter. “I can’t take that answer apart and give you specifics, because it doesn’t make complete sense to me. … I don’t want to look that gift horse too closely in the mouth.”

Better Call Saul returns for its fourth season tonight, and while Odenkirk may not understand the connection between Goodman and the actor’s beloved 1990s sketch-comedy series, it makes perfect sense to me. On Mr. Show, Odenkirk (alongside his comedic partner David Cross) played a bunch of different characters. But a lot of them were weasels, paving the way for a career in which he specialized in similarly oily portrayals. Those were all precursors, though, to Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul, in which Odenkirk has found the most fascinating and nuanced embodiment of the weasel in Saul Goodman.

Most TV dramas are led by morally complicated men whose embrace of their dark side is meant to be some profound human tragedy. But while Saul Goodman is a complicated figure, he’s not cut from the same cloth as the antiheroes of Breaking Bad or Ozark. He’s a weasel — their morals are always situational and fluid. There’s no “light” or “dark” side to Saul. Everything is negotiable.

The typical Odenkirk character on Mr. Show was deeply inauthentic. He could be a country singer, a company spokesperson, a convicted rapist, a talk-show host or a white-collar worker, but no matter the guise, the persona was always disingenuous — Odenkirk utilized an expert smarm that was a perfect compliment to that show’s irony and attitude. From there, it was an easy transition for him to play Stevie Grant, a real weasel of an agent on The Larry Sanders Show. A prelude to Saul Goodman, Stevie would say anything to protect his own interests, using a torrent of obsequiousness and fawning blather to wear down those around him.

Odenkirk first played Saul in Season Two of Breaking Bad back in 2009, portraying a lawyer without ethics who fights for his clients while worrying about his own bottom line. On that acclaimed show, Saul was the comic relief — a colorful supporting character who was the embodiment of our collective negative assumptions about ambulance-chasing attorneys. But even scumbags have back stories, and so in Better Call Saul (which is set about half a decade before Breaking Bad), we’re in the process of discovering how lowlife Cicero con artist Jimmy McGill became Albuquerque’s notorious Saul Goodman.

But whereas Breaking Bad examined how a seemingly ordinary guy could transform into a ruthless, power-mad drug kingpin, Better Call Saul (at least thus far) doesn’t seem so concerned with charting a catastrophic fall from grace. Instead, the show wrestles with our conflicted feelings about screw-ups — fundamentally decent people who can’t get out of their own way. It’s not that weasels like Jimmy don’t have a moral compass — it’s that they aren’t equipped to read the damn thing properly.

Another actor might tip his hand about how we should feel about Jimmy. But while Odenkirk’s acting is far defter than in the Mr. Show days, he continues to project that same air of insincerity that forces us to question everything he says. We don’t think he’s always lying, but what’s endlessly fascinating about Better Call Saul is that often we’re not sure when he’s being disingenuous — or what the percentage of genuineness might be at any moment.

Adding to our uncertainty, the character is a bundle of contradictions. Jimmy truly admires his accomplished older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), but although Chuck loves him, he doesn’t respect him or take him seriously, always viewing Jimmy as a ne’er-do-well — which seemed to spur Jimmy to act out, convinced that nothing he does will ever be good enough for Chuck anyway. Something deep inside Jimmy is convinced that the only way a loser like him can get ahead is by cutting corners — it’s the only way to level the playing field. And he brings down those around him as a result — particularly those who care about him. In Season One of Better Call Saul, he’s terribly smitten with his fellow lawyer Kim (Rhea Seehorn), but although she eventually falls for him, he habitually lies and does unethical things that cause her pain, always explaining them away later with rationalizations and effusive spin.

If Walter White’s growing evil was an addiction he couldn’t resist, Jimmy’s benign weasel behavior feels like a troublesome personal failing he’s too lazy to correct. That makes it hard not to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt — Jimmy has the capacity to be a good guy, and he sometimes is, which only makes us more disappointed when he isn’t.

Chuck, who knew Jimmy probably better than anyone, told his brother as much the last time they saw each other before Chuck’s death. After Jimmy tries asking for forgiveness, expressing regret for shaming him in court, Chuck advises him not to bother: “You’re just gonna keep hurting people. … Jimmy, this is what you do. You hurt people, over and over and over. And then there’s this show of remorse. … I know you don’t think it’s a show. I don’t doubt your emotions are real. But what’s the point of all the sad faces and the gnashing of teeth? If you’re not going to change your behavior, and you won’t, why don’t you skip the whole exercise? In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologizing and accept it. Embrace it.”

It was easy to read previous dark dramas’ descent into murky moral waters as emblematic of something inherent about men. Greed, envy, ambition, heartlessness: It’s not as if women don’t possess such qualities, but these TV series practically took it as a given that their male characters were almost genetically doomed because of their worst gendered traits. By comparison, Jimmy’s fast-talking feels relatively harmless, almost unmasculine. Odenkirk gives the character a series of frantic hand motions that seem telegraphed to the lies he’s spewing — if his rapidly flailing wrists and fingers gyrate quickly enough, maybe they can distract the listener from the truth.

It’s hard to respect a guy like Jimmy in the same way you can become captivated by a Walter White or Tony Soprano: Weasels have no spine, no convictions, and so, there’s something a lot less compelling about them. But that’s how guys like Jimmy survive — he doesn’t seem like the bad guy. On Better Call Saul, his displays of sweetness work on plenty of people, but it’s mostly women: his dead mother, his retiree clients, Kim. He’s not the fearsome alpha-male — he’s the wimp looking for sympathy or the loophole. And Odenkirk’s ability to reveal the vulnerability in Jimmy’s face — the nervous desperation and those hangdog eyes — tricks us into feeling for this weasel. In some ways, we’re as easy a mark as the folks Jimmy cons during the show.

But don’t ever doubt that Jimmy knows exactly what he’s doing — and that his own behavior sickens him sometimes. There’s a moment in the new season that I can’t reveal, but it requires him to perform a little impromptu spin in order to get what he wants. And it works because, hey, he’s Saul Goodman, a born salesman — it’s what he does. But once he succeeds, he doesn’t feel triumphant — he’s just disappointed in the saps he’s fooled.

“You don’t know me,” he scolds his suckers, a mixture of outrage and disgust in his voice. “I could be a serial killer! … I feel sorry for you.” That reaction is at the heart of what makes Better Call Saul so thought-provoking. The Walter Whites of the world are a violent menace who unleash misery wherever they go and must be stopped. Saul Goodman may just be a weasel, but he can do his own damage — and, deep down, he realizes that if he doesn’t stop himself, no one else will.

Here are a few other takeaways from Better Call Saul. (Warning: There will be spoilers from the first three seasons.)

#1. Rhea Seehorn is the show’s secret weapon.

Who could fall in love with a guy like Jimmy? On Better Call Saul, that’s Kim, who’s played by Rhea Seehorn. Before this AMC series, Seehorn was probably best known for her work on Franklin & Bash and Whitney, two not-particularly-well-regarded series. But Better Call Saul has given the actress a chance to really shine — her character has been one of the show’s consistently intriguing surprises. It’s not that it’s so weird that Kim loves Jimmy — it’s how Seehorn keeps showing us the metrics the character is doing in her head to determine if he’s worth it that’s so engaging.

On one level, there’s no way these two would be together. As noted, Jimmy is a weasel, while Kim is a conscientious straight-arrow who takes the law very seriously and does everything by the book. She’s a grown-up, while he’s a hopeless child. And yet, they work — even though she’s constantly disappointed in his fuckups.

So why does she stay with him? Seehorn keeps that a bit of a mystery, inviting audiences to decipher her character’s motivations. Deep down, I think she sees in Jimmy an outsider not unlike herself. Jimmy’s hardly polished or professional, but Kim grew up in a small, rural community in Kansas, which she’s embarrassed about, and so she connects with his sense of not belonging. There’s an insecurity within Kim — a certain stiffness and distance, a sense that she has to compensate for her meager origins — that matches well with Jimmy’s flop-sweat outgoingness. She’s cerebral and stoic, while he feverishly glad-hands — he makes her feel not judged, and she inspires him to be a better person. Kim isn’t trying to change her man, but she is trying to convince him that her mature worldview is right.

That worldview has resonated with Better Call Saul fans. “Lots of people tell me, constantly, how much Kim means to them,” Seehorn told The Wall Street Journal this month. “On Twitter. On Instagram. In person, at panel discussions, at fan events. It’s women and men talking about working 16-hour days just to get a foothold in the middle class, and struggling, and being the person who deeply needs to believe that if you work hard enough you’ll always be okay.”

During Breaking Bad’s run, the show became an unexpected treatise on Skyler, who some (dumber) fans thought was “shrill” and unlikable because she stood in the way of Walter’s meth empire. Whether consciously or not, Better Call Saul has worked to make its central love story a more equal partnership. Kim has her own storyline that’s only tangentially connected to Jimmy’s — in Season Four, she’s still dealing with the fallout from her near-fatal car accident — and Chuck’s death affects her in ways that are very different from her boyfriend.

As a result, Kim remains this fascinating character on the margins of Better Call Saul. Amidst the battles between Jimmy, Chuck and Howard (Patrick Fabian), she’s quietly found her calling, breaking away from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill and setting up her own practice, growing in confidence along the way. And on a show that values crafting characters who are often inscrutable, she might be the most mysterious. Kim doesn’t talk as much as her male cohorts, and so her choices are often more surprising.

With that in mind, there’s a scene in this new season where she delivers a monologue that’s unlike anything she’s done before. Seehorn is flat-out incredible — partly because the character seems a bit shocked by her own visceral reaction. Everybody watching Better Call Saul wonders what Jimmy will do next — I’m also keeping a close eye on her.

#2. ‘Better Call Saul’ is riveting without resorting to killing lots of people.

Prior to Chuck’s stunning suicide at the end of Season Three, Better Call Saul’s most traumatic death concerned a character we never met — or even saw on screen. It was the innocent passerby who tried to help the truck driver who’d been ambushed by Mike (Jonathan Banks) — for his trouble, Hector’s men murdered him so there would be no witnesses. That man’s death deeply bothers Mike, and it has greater weight because the show hasn’t been killing off characters left and right.

That’s different than Breaking Bad, which chronicled Walter White’s moral collapse by forcing him into situations where he had to kill enemies early and often in the show’s run. (There’s a whole wiki devoted to that show’s fatalities.) For White, death was just a byproduct of doing business, but it’s a testament to Better Call Saul that the writers haven’t felt the need to up the body count to legitimize the spinoff’s relevance. Instead, they’ve gone in the opposite direction, almost challenging themselves to create compelling situations where the threat of danger exists but no one actually dies.

For three seasons, it’s been an impressive feat, but the new season appears to be breaking with that tradition — to crushing effect. I’ve only seen the first three episodes, but there are shocks that indicate this season’s escalation of stakes. We’ve been given a brief respite from the bloodshed that coated Breaking Bad. Better enjoy it while we can.

#3. Here’s a video of Odenkirk and McKean working together long before ‘Better Call Saul.’

I’m really going to miss Michael McKean, who was fantastic as the prideful, wounded, conflicted brother Chuck. (Jonathan Banks richly deserved his Emmy nominations as the efficient, tight-lipped enforcer Mike, but McKean’s work was equally superb.) To get over my sorrow, I remembered that McKean put in a cameo on Mr. Show back in 1998, starring alongside Odenkirk. It’s even funnier now in retrospect because it’s a law-themed sketch.