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Saul Goodman v. Walter White - Why They Break Bad (Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad)

Yes, we’re doing an in-depth comparison of Saul Goodman and Walter White. What links the antiheroes of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, and how are they different? As Better Call Saul continues into Season 5, let’s figure how just how much has changed since Breaking Bad first aired.

TRANSCRIPT

Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul tell the cautionary tales of two iconic antiheroes who’ve kept viewers entertained for a decade and counting: Walter White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin, Heisenberg; and Jimmy McGill, the struggling litigator-turned-sleazy “criminal lawyer,” Saul Goodman.

Jesse Pinkman: “When the going gets tough, you don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.” - Breaking Bad 02x08

Yet these two characters are strikingly different when it comes to their personalities, their relationships, the nature of their geniuses, and their motivations for breaking bad. Walt’s epic heel-turn is sudden and swift, while Jimmy’s downward spiral in Better Call Saul is an understated, slow-burn tragedy.

Chuck McGill: “In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it”. - Better Call Saul 03x10

So, as insincere Saul Goodman comes into clearer focus in Season 5 of Better Call Saul, to what extent is he Walt’s spiritual descendant, versus an entirely new kind of antihero reflecting how times have changed since Breaking Bad first aired? Here’s our Take on how the similarities and differences between Saul and Heisenberg help us pinpoint what each man’s story is really all about.

Antihero Origins Compared: Why Do They Break Bad?

Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, is the study of a man who feels he’s not reaching his full potential and turns to embrace his shadow self. But Walt and Jimmy’s dark evolutions are motivated by very different personal and emotional needs.

Walt is driven by ego. He feels a need to dominate a world that’s belittled and underestimated him — to prove by any means necessary that he’s a great man. His hunger to be recognized as a genius sparks a violent quest for power.

Walter White: “I’m in the Empire Business.” - Breaking Bad 05x06

By contrast, Jimmy is driven by anti-establishment resentment. He doesn’t seem to share Walt’s grandiose aspirations to greatness. At first, he just yearns for acceptance, especially from his better-educated, more accomplished older brother Chuck. Living in the shadow of Chuck — and his firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, led by the ultimate embodiment of privilege, Howard Hamlin — has pushed Jimmy to continually strive for approval, both from his brother and the system he represents.

But after Jimmy is rejected time and time again by a stuffy closed-minded establishment that looks on him with contempt and equates him with the worst parts of his past, he becomes disillusioned. Since he’s always going to be an outsider (Chuck McGill’s joke of a little brother, he decides to tear the system down — or at least, make some money off of its hypocrisies and loopholes.

The contrast between Walt’s and Jimmy’s motivations exposes that while Walt is an exceptional man (who won’t be happy until the world understands that), Jimmy is more of an everyman, channeling the anger of any person who feels excluded by a rigid and judgmental elite.

Jimmy McGill: “You look at me, and you see Slippin’ Jimmy.” - Better Call Saul 04x09

These men’s triggers for breaking bad are also different: for Walt, the catalyst is his cancer diagnosis. The revelation that he has very little time left shocks him into admitting that he’s not satisfied with his humdrum life of suburban inhibitions. Walt’s buzzword is “family” — the thing he claims to be doing all this for- but in reality, he’s fleeing his family, distancing himself from them with every action he takes. For once in his life, he’s putting himself and his own solitary significance first.

Skylar White: “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…”

Walter White: “I did it for me.” - Breaking Bad 05x16

Whereas Walt pretty much runs at breakneck speed toward his alter ego, Jimmy has spent most of his life running away from his dark self. He’s long struggled with the temptation to cut corners, whether he was stealing cash from his dad’s store as a child and worrying that, to be honest, is to be a sucker, or engaging in a series of small cons that gained him the moniker “Slippin Jimmy.” A keyword in Jimmy’s story is “sincerity.” When he’s trying to get reinstated as a lawyer, at first he’s rejected because the committee thinks he’s “insincere.” But Jimmy’s way through this problem isn’t to be more sincere — it’s to perform a lie more convincingly.

While Jimmy McGill is originally a heartfelt person, Saul Goodman comes to be defined by his insincerity — which in turn comes from his lack of belief in a steadfast moral code. Gradually he admits to himself that he thinks the established rules of right and wrong (and even laws themselves) don’t matter.

So while Heisenberg is defined by his egomaniacal sense of self, Saul Goodman is more defined by an absence at the center of him — the total lack of moral principle leading to a wholly flexible, empty opportunism.

Chuck McGill: “But Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.” - Better Call Saul 01x09

The two men’s skillsets are also very divergent. Walt’s genius is scientific and solitary. He gets the nuts and bolts of internal processes on a chemical level, in both the drug he makes and the people he manipulates. His thorough understanding of cause and effect culminates in his perfect product, and it’s also part of the mental game of chess he plays to conquer his opponents.

Jimmy’s genius of sorts, on the other hand, is social and performative. His superpower is manipulating an audience. The more Jimmy evolves into Saul, the more he hungers for public exposure. And after he becomes Gene, in his post-Breaking Bad life, he feels so foreign to the character we know precisely because of his antisocial, private life of hiding.

Then there are the names Jimmy and Walt choose. The Heisenberg moniker — an homage to german theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg — captures Walt’s prestigious aspirations and view of himself as a great man. But Heisenberg also used his genius to help the Nazis’ nuclear weapons program in WWII — just as Walt ends up using his smarts in service of the drug trade, death, and destruction.

For Jimmy, the Saul Goodman name stems from a motto of sorts: The words echo Saul’s philosophy and justification for going outside the law to get what he needs — if it’s all good, nothing is really bad; so everything is permissible. Jimmy’s also exploiting a tired Jewish lawyer stereotype, which gets at how he feels he can’t be himself if he wants to succeed in this world.

Despite their differences, there is a commonality in both of these men’s urges to break bad. Both are driven crazy by a mundane, normal life. They’d rather have larger lives than do everything by the book. Both of their journeys are not just transformations, but also self-discoveries… Because Heisenberg and Saul Goodman have always existed inside Walt and Jimmy.

Both series are infused with an aura of inevitability. In Better Call Saul that’s largely because we’re watching a prequel haunted by the Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad ominously looming on the horizon. But really, in the philosophies of this universe, it’s because these men’s choices lead to consequences as inexorably as the steps in a chemical reaction.

Walter White: “l alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, no one else.

And those consequences they’re coming…” - Breaking Bad 04x12

Walt and Saul are two sides of the same coin. One side is calculated, cold-blooded, and violent. The other, colorful, quick-witted, and slippery. Ultimately, though, both have the same goal: winning, no matter the cost.

Partners in Crime (And Out of Crime)

The contrast between Jimmy and Walt is captured in the defining relationships we’re given when each series starts: One is the emasculated husband who feels tragically underappreciated; the other is the perpetually disapproved-of younger brother. In certain ways, Chuck is the Skyler of Better Call Saul- both are righteously reminding our main character of how he’s failing to measure up.

Chuck McGill: “See, that’s your problem, Jimmy. Thinking that the ends justify the means. And you’re forever shocked when it all blows up in your face.” - Better Call Saul 02x04

Over the course of the series, Jimmy and Walt liberate themselves from these oppressive starting dynamics - but that’s not wholly a good thing. Chuck and Skyler are both, to a certain extent, moral anchors. As Walt stops worrying about what Skyler thinks and coerces her to stay in the marriage through threats and intimidation, he displays a brutality that he didn’t previously seem capable of.

Skylar McGill: “We’re getting a divorce.”

Walter White: “I don’t agree to a divorce.” - Breaking Bad 03x03

And after Jimmy detaches from Chuck, ultimately driving his brother into a relapse of mental illness that leads to his death, his cold lack of feeling about his brother’s demise precedes his slipping more and more into the emerging Saul persona. The last thing left keeping Jimmy from going full Saul is his girlfriend, Kim Wexler.

As a romantic partner and female lead, Kim in some way feels like a correction to Skyler. Like Skyler, she’s an intelligent, morally conflicted, strong female character who has to watch the man she loves become something darker. But Breaking Bad was sometimes complicit in letting viewers enjoy Walt’s dominating his nagging wife — and this led to widespread audience vitriol directed toward the character. Better Call Saul offers Kim more nuance and consistent sympathy. Like Jimmy (and Mike), Kim has a light and dark side she’s constantly struggling to keep balanced.

Meanwhile, in terms of her central importance to Jimmy, she’s less Skyler White and more Jesse Pinkman. For both Walt and Jimmy, there’s one person who comes to matter more than anyone else — for Walt, that’s Jesse, and for Jimmy, it’s Kim. Walt is obsessively controlling, manipulative and abusive toward his partner, but when it comes down to it, he can’t give up on Jesse, and he actually dies taking a bullet while saving Jesse’s life.

Jimmy’s loyalty to Kim likewise drives him to risky behavior and breaking a law or two. But he has a lot more respect and appreciation for Kim — And his sweet devotion to her (compared to Walt’s cruel mistreatment of Jesse) reveals their underlying temperaments.

Jimmy McGill: “I mean it, by the way.” Kim Wexler: “What?” Jimmy McGill: “Thank you, seriously.” - Better Call Saul 03x04

Lastly, we have Mike, who in other ways is Jesse’s equivalent in Better Call Saul more than Kim is. This partner in criminal activity shares Saul’s moral relativism and his disenfranchised, anti-establishment perspective of the world. Just as Walt moves away from Skyler and toward Jesse, after Chuck is out of the way, it feels like Jimmy’s got Kim as the good angel on one shoulder and Mike as the bad angel on the other. We know Saul works regularly with Mike in Breaking Bad, while Kim isn’t at all mentioned in that show, so it’s clear which angel Jimmy is going to be listening to.

Jimmy McGill: “So I’m here because you want me to assault a police officer.”

Mike Ehrmantraut: “I am asking you to take a few ounces of lukewarm coffee and spill it on him. I doubt that satisfies the definition of assault.” - Better Call Saul 01x06

Different Storytelling For Different Antiheroes

There’s a noticeable difference in the pacing of these two stories. Walt’s transition into his new self happens in the very first episode of Breaking Bad. He’s already cooking his first batch of meth in the pilot. From there, Breaking Bad barrels out of the gate — once plots are set in motion, they escalate at lightning speed and while the show has five seasons, the events take place over only two years.

By contrast, it’s hard to nail down just one pivotal moment that turns Jimmy into Saul, and Better Call Saul takes its time, playing on our sense of dread for what we know will eventually happen, but don’t know when.

Jimmy McGill: “I’m so lucky I have this letter. God, I could see the Matrix, you know? I was invincible. I could dodge bullets, baby.” - Better Call Saul 04x10

According to show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, it was imperative to slow down the hero’s progression in this second show. Not only did they realize there was a lot of fertile ground to cover in Jimmy McGill’s backstory, but they also never expected how connected they’d feel to the man behind the Saul Goodman mask.

Another big component that separates these two shows is the way they make us feel. Many viewers were living vicariously through Walt’s hell-raising rampage. That sense of glee is all but missing in the more tragic prequel series. The constant push-pull of the story frequently punishes Jimmy — as well as the fans who just want to see him succeed.

Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between these two men’s fates is that, at the end of Breaking Bad, Walter White is dead. But black-and-white flashforwards in Better Call Saul tell us that, even after the events of Breaking Bad, Saul is still on his downward trajectory. He’s got yet another new (fake) name. So whereas Walt has a more binary Jekyll-and-Hyde personality split, Jimmy-slash-Saul-slash-Gene is a three-part individual whose past, present, and future selves capture how we often do feel like different people over time.

The result of many bad decisions, Gene may be only a shell of his former selves, but he still has the possibility of a future, the chance to make different choices and become different, maybe even redeemed. It’s only when we’re truly gone, like Walt, that the story is over for good.

So taking into account all these similarities and differences, why did creators Gilligan and Gould follow up Walt’s story with Saul’s? It all started as a joke in the Breaking Bad writer’s room, but the idea caught on. Throughout most of Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman offered some ancillary laughs to break up the tenser, darker moments of the series. But as the show headed to its climax, viewers got a glimpse of the flawed human hiding behind Saul’s loudmouth exterior.

Saul Goodman: “Stay. Face the music. Hey, I mean, how much time have you got left?” - Breaking Bad 05x15

That little glimpse of humanity was the springboard for the prequel series, whose success owes much to Bob Odenkirk’s performance in the role. You might say that the differences between Walt and Jimmy highlight how much has changed in our world over the last decade or so. Walt is the embodiment of the lone, great, misunderstood man archetype, reflecting a myth that had more resonance in 2008 when the show premiered. Breaking Bad is one of the case studies featured in the 2013 book Difficult Men, a phrase that has very different connotations just a few years later.

In Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s anti-establishment anger speaks more directly to our current era of mistrust, division, and “fake news” rhetoric. So as we watch and hope that this character’s better angels might somehow prevail, we might really be hoping for ourselves — that we can still summon our best selves even when the world seems beyond saving.

Jimmy McGill: “I’m not good at building shit, you know? I’m excellent at tearing it down.” - Better Call Saul 03x10