Anyone planning a Breaking Bad rewatch might find themselves viewing Jimmy McGill in a very different light compared to when the show first aired in 2009 – and Better Call Saul is entirely to blame. With Gus Fring, Skyler White and Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad boasts one of the finest supporting casts ever assembled on a television screen, but few characters made a bigger impression than Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman. Introduced in Breaking Bad season 2 as Walter White’s prospective legal counsel (with less emphasis on the “legal”), Goodman rapidly became a show standout, lighting up the screen with his exasperated wit, and adding drama through his colorful use of American legislature.
His backstory largely untouched, uber-popular Saul was the perfect choice to lead a spinoff venture, but while hopes were certainly high, few were seriously expecting Better Call Saul to match Breaking Bad‘s quality and enhance the original show quite like it has. The early life and crimes of Jimmy McGill haven’t just supplemented Breaking Bad, they’ve completely changed the context of Walt and Jesse’s story for the better. Mike’s background makes his eventual death even more tragic, a more human side to Gus Fring reveals itself, and viewers witness how Albuquerque’s meth trade was the perfect stage for a Walt-esque figure to come along and seize the reins.
But, without question, Better Call Saul‘s most telling influence upon Breaking Bad is on Jimmy McGill himself. By putting Bob Odenkirk front and center of his own show for 5 (soon to be 6) seasons, the self-styled “criminal lawyer” has turned into a criminally good protagonist. Digging out that old Breaking Bad box set (or, indeed, switching on Netflix), it’s impossible to view Jimmy McGill in the same 2009-hued light. Here’s how Slippin’ Jimmy has been forever changed by Better Call Saul.
From Sleazy Lawyer To Tragic Victim
Part of the reason Saul Goodman deserved a Breaking Bad spinoff was his delicate blend of despicable likability. On one hand, Saul is incredibly easy to root for; he’s physically harmless, comedic in the face of super-serious drug lords, and refreshingly open about his capacity for deceit. These qualities drop Saul Goodman firmly in antihero territory – he’s someone viewers hope can keep his neck above water, but they still enjoys his frantic flailing nonetheless. Sure, there’a a touch of sympathy when Saul is forced to run away alone, tail between his legs, but Breaking Bad suggests this is no more than the lawyer deserves. After all, Goodman is a sleazeball with questionable legal qualifications and ethical standards several miles below sea level. He’s not completely rotten, but neither is Saul helping Walt’s meth business out of the goodness of his heart. Very rarely in Breaking Bad does Saul actually show remorse for his role in the murder and drug trafficking business of Gus Fring and the Salamancas.
Better Call Saul doesn’t just provide its main character with a more human backstory – it completely redefines his motivations. Jimmy McGill wanted desperately to be a proper, legitimate lawyer and make his older brother, Chuck McGill, proud. He fought tooth-and-nail for a position at a top law firm, but constantly found himself on the wrong end of fortune. While you could certainly argue that Jimmy is the architect of his own demise (and you’d be right), so many of his mistakes come from a good place. Finally, Breaking Bad fans realize that Jimmy wasn’t acting out of greed, self-interest or callousness. He was a victim of bad luck and ill-advised decisions – someone life decided would be the ball more often than the foot. His position as a lawyer for Albuquerque’s most unscrupulous folks is a (mostly) understandable reaction to what Jimmy has suffered.
Saul Goodman Is Walter White’s Mirror, Not Just His Lawyer
In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is just one cog in Walter White’s wheel of illegality. A fascinating, multi-faceted cog, but a cog nonetheless. He’s the legal vulture moving things along and connecting Walt to the wider world of criminality, sometimes giving Heisenberg a little push, other times trying to rein his client in. Only through Better Call Saul, however, does the true dynamic between Walter White and Jimmy McGill finally emerge.
Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman is a close parallel to Walter White’s own evolution into Heisenberg. Both were forced onto their journey by circumstance and misfortune, but both also refused to stop when the chance came, too enamored with the business (and themselves) to quit. And just as Jimmy used “Saul Goodman” to empower himself when life kept dealing a bad hand, Walt used Heisenberg not just as a solution to her cancer diagnosis, but also to satisfy years of pent-up frustration at being a genius teaching high school chemistry. McGill even receives his own “I’m the one who knocks moment” in Better Call Saul season 5, yelling at Howard, “I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine.”
So when Walt and Saul exchange verbal barbs in Breaking Bad, their relationship isn’t simply one of a client and his downtrodden lawyer – it’s a cautionary tale, with Walt staring directly at his potential future. By Breaking Bad‘s timeline, Jimmy McGill has been all but eclipsed by Saul Goodman, whereas Walter White is still only flirting with his Fedora-wearing alter ego. Jimmy, hopeless and without power, is what Walt has to look forward to when his Heisenberg alter ego inevitably self destructs.
But Jimmy is, in a manner of speaking, also the opposite of Walt. Whereas Bryan Cranston’s antihero ran away from “Walt” to become the more thrilling, dynamic, successful “Heisenberg.” Jimmy has spent years trying to suppress the “Saul Goodman” inside him. One might say that Jimmy’s transformation only begins once he stops resisting his true nature. Watching Breaking Bad with the benefit of Better Call Saul‘s hindsight, it’s perfectly obvious that Jimmy is in his element, and that the underbelly of society is his natural habitat, for better or worse.
Jimmy’s Influence Is Bigger Than Breaking Bad Revealed
As mentioned above, Breaking Bad presents Jimmy as a cog. In the grand, awful scheme of the Albuquerque meth scene, Saul Goodman is a bit-part player whose influence upon the drug world is limited to advising clients and laying foundations for others. It’s impossible to discern from Breaking Bad just how heavily Jimmy McGill helped establish the landscape of Vince Gilligan’s world but, fortunately, Better Call Saul has the answers.
Jimmy has played a major role (not always willingly) in helping Gus Fring rise to power, while reducing the influence of the Salamanca family. Essentially, Jimmy is smoothing the road for the world viewers see in Breaking Bad season 1. As per Fring’s design, it’s Jimmy who ensures Lalo Salamanca is released on bail and, therefore, available for a botched assassination at his Mexican compound. Without Jimmy’s interference, this shot could’ve never been fired, and the feud between Los Pollos Hermanos and Casa Salamanca may have never erupted in quite so explosive fashion.
You could even argue that Saul’s machinations inadvertently lead to the creation of Heisenberg. In Better Call Saul season 5, the aspiring Goodman offers 50% discounted legal counsel, which prompts a pair of junkies to embark on a substance-fueled joyride. The wild actions of said junkies cause Krazy-8 to get arrested for dealing. Krazy-8 is interviewed by the DEA’s star team, Hank and Gomez, who later recruit their guest as an informant. And, finally, it’s Krazy-8’s intel that leads Hank (and Walt) to Jesse’s house, bringing Breaking Bad‘s infamous duo together, and proving that Jimmy is a much more central figure than his cheap suits and strip mall office implied at first glance.