Saul, Good Man?

The genius of Better Call Saul is the complex moral questions posed by the show, which as in Breaking Bad, are what make it so compelling. Was Saul driven to the life we know he’s headed, by the betrayal of his brother, or is it a result of his underlying character? Is it fair for an ostensibly good person to snap if life is sufficiently unjust? The writers make it very difficult to decide convincingly one way or the other. They present strong evidence supporting either argument, and leave it to viewers to make that uneasy determination about sympathetic protagonists.

The supporting characters also serve as metaphors for the moral complications presented by life and the struggle every person faces on a smaller scale every day. The Kettlemans, for example, are basically late-stage Jimmies. They feel justified in embezzling funds because they have played by the book for so long and never have gotten ahead. Mike offers further moral rationalization, and tries to reconcile crime with morality. His belief that you can be a good criminal implies that the law is not the final arbiter of what is good and evil — that our human goodness is dictated by other qualities.

He is the antithesis of Chuck, who repeatedly exhorts the law as sacred and is willing to betray his own brother to preserve the institution he perceives as the ultimate and immutable source of right and wrong. Chuck views Jimmy as a fundamentally corrupt man who will pervert the law for impure purposes. But if the law is so sacred, why is it so easily subverted? And if it can be so easily subverted, is that not just a further reflection of the complex nature of the human experience and the futility of attempting to adhere to a static and uncompromising moral code.

I don’t believe the writers are suggesting there is no right and wrong, but rather that life is complicated, often presenting challenges that test our notions of morality in subtle and incrementally complex ways. Over time our decisions and their consequences build on each other, in ways that are not obvious to us in the immediacy of the moment. Through this seemingly disconnected sequence of events, and our responses to them, our character is forged and slowly can mutate into forms we never thought possible and which our earlier selves might be appalled at.

It begs the question whether our earlier selves were naive and unencumbered by the trials of life, or have we strayed from our original goodness and innocence and become less pure people? The message I derive is that life is complicated and no rigid set of rules adequately can address that complexity. Even attempting to do so is perhaps literally crazy (e.g., Chuck’s insanity). We all need to make moral compromises, and expand our understanding of what it means to be a good person, in order to learn from experience and move forward in life. The balance, however, is important, because each time you cross a line, it becomes easier to go further the next time. Crossing some lines expands our comfort zone, crossing others diminishes our morality — and some do both. Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad seem to warn us that if we are not mindful, that evolution can lead us to places we would not have thought possible.