Way back in season two of Breaking Bad, in April of 2009 to be precise, we were introduced to a new character named “Saul Goodman” in an episode with the catchy title “Better Call Saul”. Played, in a bit of stunt casting, by comedian Bob Odenkirk (among other things, Odenkirk had been a standup comic and a writer for Saturday Night Live), the character was immediately appealing as comic relief and a “third member” of what previously had been a two-man gang of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. While there were, at that point, some other characters who were aware of and involved in the White-Pinkman methamphetamine production and distribution company, these were mainly Jesse’s old gangster friends with nicknames like “Combo”, “Badger” and “Skinny Pete”. But Saul Goodman was different. He was an adult, and accomplished professional in his own right. He could speak with Walter as an equal, something unimaginable for a character like Badger. And, as time would reveal, Saul served as the important connection between Walter and the larger criminal underworld in the Southwest.
Now that Saul has his own series, aptly titled Better Call Saul, which is one of the most respected adult drama programs currently on television, it’s interesting to look back at where we started with him, and consider where his prequel series is headed.
Saul is first seen, in Breaking Bad, through his sloppy and amateurish TV commercials, playing heavily on tropes of American patriotism and setting himself up as some sort of modern Robin Hood, defending the rights of the downtrodden. This is all, of course, a smokescreen for a simple ambulance-chasing litigator who pursues civil suits for cash (an identity that conceals an even more problematic role as a lawyer for professional criminals). Even from these early commercials (one of them is featured in this episode), we see that Saul projects an image of being completely at ease with his lot in life. Saul Goodman is a character he loves to play, with all the showmanship and tacky energy he can muster. His reputation is among the lower class of Albuquerque, not the white collar market. A visit to his strip-mall office a bit later in the episode shows us that his clients are among the working poor, who have nowhere else to go. Saul exploits them, but he does also help them, and he must win cases often enough to keep his reputation growing. It’s Jesse who recognizes Saul, not Walter, after all. (In a scene from season three, Saul offers to make a Nescafe – even his coffee is low-rent and working-class.)
At this point in Breaking Bad, we have yet to meet Gustavo Fring, and Mike Ehrmantraut is largely still waiting in the wings. These are the “old days” of the show, when it features just Walter and Jesse in the “Crystal Ship” (an old 80s RV), manufacturing small amounts of meth and selling it through Jesse’s friends. Walter actually trusts Jesse with distribution at this point, a responsibility that’s clearly way beyond his capacity and experience. It was only a matter of time before he or one of his guys would make a mistake, and this episode starts with that very mistake.
Badger (or Brandon Mayhew, which we learn is his legal name) sells some meth to an undercover Policeman, although in Badger’s defense, he does take the proper precautions, asking the man repeatedly to reveal if he’s a cop. Now busted dead to rights, Jesse panics right along with Walter, and suggests that they had “Better Call Saul”, since Goodman might be the only lawyer who can help them. Saul is a step ahead, having already offered his services to Badger in his regular trolling of the low-lifes caught in the share of the justice system.
Odenkirk literally bursts onto the scene, interrupting an attempt by the police to interrogate Badger with a nonstop flurry of legal talk, insults and quips. (The detective looks very young, so Saul gets as many digs in as possible, with lines like, “There are laws, detective, have your kindergarten teacher read them to you. Now, go grab a juice box and have a nap – go on!” ) When he sits down with Badger, Saul immediately pulls out the wrong case file, but plows on ahead, disregarding his client’s puzzled look. “Ah – public masturbation. I don’t get it. What’s the kick? Why don’t you do it at home like the rest of us?” Badger’s correction of him doesn’t particularly slow him down, as Saul transitions easily to defending him for meth peddling.
Things become more complex when Walter and Jesse later walk into Saul’s office, seeking his representation for Badger. Walter, posing as Badger’s Uncle behind an unconvincing disguise, is recognized immediately by Saul as being something more than his usual clientele. He offers up his secret identity almost immediately, saying with a chuckle, “My real name’s McGill,” and almost winking at a fellow fallen member of the middle class. Walter, despite being taken generously into Saul’s confidence, is extremely wary. At this point in the series, Walt is still, by his estimation and from the perspective of his own titanic ego, the only real adult in the whole criminal underground. He has trouble seeing past Saul’s tacky artifice to the extraordinarily sharp lawyer underneath. He has no inkling of this man’s dark, tragic past or the depth of his capacity for love and generosity, nor has he any reason to at this point. Now, with the benefit of almost two seasons of Better Call Saul, we as an audience read this scene in a different way.
Walter’s lack of trust for Saul results in a ham-fisted scheme to kidnap the lawyer and frighten him into silence about Badger, or threaten him, or some other ill-defined venture. Walter and Jesse are still very much amateurs, and it’s up to Saul, even though he’s blindfolded with two guns pointed at him standing over a grave in the middle of the desert, to calm everyone down and appeal to reason. After getting a small amount of cash from each of them (which makes their conversations inadmissible in court due to attorney-client privilege), his expertise earns their grudging trust, and thus a relationship between these characters is born.
Beyond his legal skills, Saul’s main claim to fame in these early episodes is his seemingly endless social and professional network. Saul seems to know everyone, or at least he knows someone who knows someone who knows everyone. It takes him very little time, for example, in “Better Call Saul”, to arrange for a stand-in for Walter (who Badger only knows as “Heisenberg” and a middle-aged bald man) who agrees to do time in prison on his behalf, for a price. Hank Schrader, Walter’s DEA Agent brother-in-law, who believes he is hot on the trail of the source of the blue meth, doesn’t buy it but can’t argue with it. Badger, working for the DEA, is caught receiving a supply from a bald, middle-aged man in a public place, just as he promised. Most law enforcement people would be satisfied with that, as Saul knows. But Saul hasn’t dealt with an agent with Hank’s intelligence and determination before. Their paths will cross again.
In terms of Saul’s character history, what’s interesting is how he put together this handy network of criminal and quasi-criminal connections. In season two of Better Call Saul he knows only a few very low-ranking people in the criminal underworld. It’s Mike, indeed, who is making the connections towards the end of this current season, not “Jimmy McGill”, who we know will become Saul. By the time Breaking Bad rolls around, Jimmy’s name is Saul and he is straight-up famous, or at least infamous. Somewhere between the end of one series and the beginning of another, Jimmy is drawn into the deep waters of the Mexican cartel and the world of professional criminals and wraps his tattered soul in the American flag, becoming Saul Goodman.
It’s also very interesting to note the difference between Bob Odenkirk’s performance back in 2009 and his performance as the same character in 2016. For one thing, somehow Saul seems a lot older than Jimmy, a little heavier, with less hair and more miles on his face. Usually actors have trouble ageing backwards, but Jimmy does seem lighter on his feet, more callow and more spry than his original interpretation of the character. The Saul we meet in season two of Breaking Bad is a middle-aged man who heroically strikes out with hitting on his secretaries (he apparently succeeds in bedding each of them a grand total of once) and buys into all manner of comfort devices, such as pedicures and automatic back massagers. He’s a fundamentally older man than Jimmy McGill, living in the back of the nail salon and sleeping on an old cot, and Odenkirk plays that, even though we must presume that in 2009 he could not have been aware that he would eventually play the character’s entire backstory.
More than physical age, Saul Goodman is less trusting and more wise than Jimmy McGill. He isn’t easily fooled, and loves giving advice (it’s his profession after all). He’s the first person to have an answer to any question and come up with any sort of strategy to get out of a fix. We can only presume that he learned those skills by being in a fix more than once, and finding his way out of it. In Better Call Saul, we see the beginning of that aspect of Jimmy but it’s interesting to revisit the character on Breaking Bad and see how much distance the creators of the spinoff show have yet to cover.
One thing that the early “Better Call Saul” episode can teach us is how little of Saul’s character is actually shown, and this is consistent throughout the run of Breaking Bad. We see Saul almost exclusively under professional situations, not at home, not speaking with friends, but constantly at a distance from the rest of the drama. For all we know, he could have a rich private life out of sight of Walter and Jesse and the main cast. That leaves ample room for the Better Call Saul team to retrofit his character, moving forward. We always, as an audience, seemed to think we knew more about Saul Goodman than we were ever shown. Now that we’re being shown behind the facade, it makes the facade that much more fascinating, just like the complex, sympathetic and tragic man underneath.