The fourth season of Better Call Saul marks a profound break from the first part of the series. Most notably, Chuck McGill, played by Michael McKean, died at the end of the third season, and his absence hangs heavy over these twelve episodes. In fact, Jimmy McGill’s transition into Saul Goodman revolves around the legacy of Chuck, especially in the final episodes of the series, which focus, among other things, upon Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) trying to regain his lawyer’s license, with the help of Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Although Jimmy makes an authentic bid to be reinstated at his first hearing, his authenticity is called into question by the fact that he doesn’t mention Chuck at any point during his appeal – neither in the context of Chuck’s death, nor in terms of his own legal background, let alone as one of the key factors that led him to break the law in the first place. Ironically, this inability or unwillingness to allow Chuck to continue dictating things after his death is one of the most sincere gestures that Jimmy makes over the course of the series, but given that the panel require a more ceremonious testament to Chuck’s legacy, he has to make the appeal again.
This second appeal takes place in the final episode of the series and, at first, seems to offer precisely the authentic negotiation with Chuck’s legacy that the panel are looking for – a testament so authentic that it not only convinces Kim of Jimmy’s final willingness to face Chuck’s emotional impact head on, but initially seems to mark a pivotal moment in their relationship, after a rocky season in which she has recommended, more than once, that he attend therapy. Yet in a final, brutal twist, it turns out that this authentic gesture was itself performative, a performance that Jimmy revels in on their way out of the courtroom, reassuring a shocked Kim that “it’s all good man” – or “it’s Saul Goodman” – before the camera cuts and we’re left with the most callous and indifferent image of Jimmy yet as the closing note of the series. For the first time, Better Call Saul approaches the cynicism and pessimism of Breaking Bad – a moment that coincides with what may well turn out to be Kim’s definitive moment of dissociation from Jimmy, begging the question of whether the fifth season will be marked by her absence just as this season has been marked by Chuck’s.
Between those two gestures on Jimmy’s part – a display of authenticity that is deemed performative, and a performance that is misread as authentic – lies Better Call Saul’s complex relationship with Breaking Bad. From the very outset, it was clear that the two series dealt with such different types of masculinity and characterology that they seemed to respectively encapsulate two totally different eras of television. As possibly the last great flowering of what was known as quality television, Breaking Bad focuses on auteurist agency above all else, with Vince Gilligan’s role as showrunner and Walter White’s role as father collapsing into the same vision of the declining American patriarch that animated The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and most of the other key series that comprised the quality era. In all of these series, the idea of family is taken to a criminal or mercenary extreme, forcing the patriarch in question – whether it be Tony Soprano or Walter White – to envisage their agency in ever more flamboyant and baroque ways in order to maintain the family as a driving institution in American civic life, and as the bedrock of American values.
Given that television has always been the most domestic and family-oriented of American mass media, quality television was therefore faced with a schism from its very outset. On the one hand, quality television envisaged a “quality” demographic that was distinct from the regular domestic or suburban demographics of traditional television. Quality television was quite emphatically not family viewing. Yet that very gesture robbed television of much of its medial dominance as well, with the result that quality television was essentially a self-defeating gesture, a “reclamation” of television in the name of aesthetic values that in fact signalled the dissolution of television into a broader medial plane. For all their auteurist vision – and because of it – the protagonists of quality television were inherently self-destructive, just as the auteurs who created them were self-destructive, since both figures promulgated a form of masculine agency that was so extreme that it ended up testifying to the dissolution of the symbiotic relationship between the American family and American television, rather than propping it up or affirming it in any kind of viable or long-term form.
Among other things, that meant that quality television series became harder and harder to conclude – or that the conclusions of quality television series became less and less convincingly commensurate to the ambition of the series itself. After all, The Sopranos effectively ended with a non-ending – a cut so abrupt many viewers assumed their television had short-circuited – leaving The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, in particular, to fashion “endings” that somehow felt inadequate to the ambitions of the series as a whole. At the end of all these series, you sensed that their emphasis on quality television, masculine agency and the hegemony of the American nuclear family had instead somehow been revealed as consolatory fantasies, and that these series had in fact testified to a very different kind of televisual and media environment – one that was perhaps there all along, but had simply been obscured by the hyperbole and histrionics of the quality television look.
In a sense, that different televisual environment is the subject of Better Call Saul, which also on an entirely different kind of masculinity and sociability from Breaking Bad. Whereas Walter White was a family man intent on defending hearth and home, Jimmy McGill is dissociated from any stable or orienting sense of the nuclear family, the institution of marriage, or the normalities of American suburbia. Yet where Walt’s sense of his duties as a father and husband also allowed him to aspire to a splendid and burnished isolation – an isolation that eventually destroyed his relation with his family, and destroyed some members of his family – Jimmy never has the emotional luxury of that isolation either. Instead, Jimmy’s relations are provisional, messy and heartfelt – alternately too weak or too strong to ever quite be regulated in the way that allowed Walt to build a drug empire – imbuing the series as a whole with a drifting, downbeat, modest quality that never aspires to the sublime pathos of Breaking Bad, but discovers a different and more profound melancholy in the process, a sadness that percolates through even its most upbeat scenes.
Throughout Better Call Saul, that produces a pervasive sense that the last of the great white men – or the last fantasy of the great white man – has passed, and that the most Saul, Mike, Chuck or anyone can do is to subsist in the shadows and come to terms with the legacy of the white patriarch on American social life. One of the hardest things to do in contemporary television is to represent white malehood as just one existence amongst others, and to eschew any sense of heroism or pathos in doing so. No series achieves that quite like Better Call Saul, just as no character personifies it quite like Jimmy himself, who is never self-pityign, but continually aware of a representative horizon for white masculinity that has receded, leaving him in a state where subsistence is the key imperative, and self-pity is simply a waste of time. Whereas Breaking Bad is about self-destruction, and the spectacle of sublime self-destruction as a white privilege – culminating with Walt’s collaborative relationship with the supremacist skinheads in the final season – Better Call Saul is about survival, in the most modest way possible. You could almost say that the anticlimax of Breaking Bad was that Walt’s self-destruction could never rival the spectacle he had envisaged for it perhaps explaining why Jimmy never sees self-destruction as a spectacle, but simply something that he has to avoid, or at least forestall, whatever the cost might be.
In that respect, Better Call Saul is partly defined by one pervasive scenario – Jimmy coming face to face with archetypes of white masculinity that he can never quite live up to, and whose presence is strangely disproportionate to their actual, practical use as a guide to living. Of course, Chuck is the most dramatic of these figures, as Jimmy’s older brother, but he’s only one amongst many. Time and again, the long shadow of the Greatest Generation – one of Jimmy’s biggest clientele – falls across the series. While Jimmy meets many members of this generation, they stand more as a representative possibility for conceiving of American whiteness, American family, and indeed American television – the Greatest Generation were also the first televisual generation – that no longer seems to ring true, and perhaps never rang true to begin with. One of the odd byproducts of that situation is that Gilligan emphasises the cinematic framing and style of his world even more than in Breaking Bad, but for completely different reasons. Whereas the cinematicity of Breaking Bad was partly a bid for quality credibility, and a promise to converge cinema and television into a new quality media object, the cinematic tableaux of Better Call Saul are more free-floating and dissociated. Rather than promise to remediate cinema, they instead present cinema itself – and even mass media – as one of the horizons of patriarchal consensus that Jimmy is unable to avoid, but also unable to ever quite embrace or completely identify with himself.
The great paradox of Better Call Saul, then, is that while the events might ostensibly take place before those of Breaking Bad, the atmosphere of the series relegates Breaking Bad to a distant memory. In a very real sense, the subject matter of Better Call Saul is its performative inability to live up to Breaking Bad – not just in terms of spectacle, but in terms of the structures of feeling and modes of masculinity that Breaking Bad brokered and then exhausted. Rather than simply signaling a “transition” from quality to post-quality television, and from the American family to a more provisional social arrangement, Better Call Saul suggests that quality television was already in some sense post-quality, just as the American family was already in some sense a dislocated and atomized a social universe of precisely the kind that Jimmy and Kim seem to inhabit. Indeed, from the perspective of Better Call Saul, quality television and the American family were always consolatory fantasies at best, ways of forestalling and even repressing the dissolution of mass media into multiple platforms, and the dissolution of the American family into more provisional social arrangements, that form the subject matter and backdrop of Jimmy and Kim’s stories.
What made quality television untenable, from the vantage point of Better Call Saul, is that these consolatory fantasies – of quality television, and the American family as a televisual unit – were mutually contradictory, forcing Breaking Bad to reach for ever more hyperbolised spectacles in order to try and reconcile them. Yet Better Call Saul is a testament not only to their irreconcilability, but to the dispersion of medial and familial attachments that they were designed to suppress in the first place. Key to the drifting anomie of Better Call Saul, then, is a kind of medial indiscriminacy in which cinema, television and other media are stacked up against each other in awkward, picaresque and opportunistic ways, not just in terms of the way in which the series is constructed – the glary titles, the sudden shifts in tone, the weird combinations of music and images – but in the story itself. After all, most of Jimmy’s career revolves around unruly media, or a taste for the unruliness that can ensue when you embrace the broadness of what media can entail. In the fourth season, that sees him brokering burner cell phones, the postal service, and limited edition figurines to stay afloat, but this eccentric media universe is different each time around, just as it contours Jimmy and Kim’s relationship in a different way each season.
All of these tendencies feel particularly alive in the fourth season of Better Call Saul, although they will probably be even more enhanced in the fifth season, since part of the paradox of the series is that its world grows more remote from that of Breaking Bad as the action takes us closer to it. The further the series progresses towards the quality television era (or through the quality television era), the more it questions whether that era ever really existed, just as the moments that veer closest to Breaking Bad in this fourth series – such as the appearance of Gabe – feel more ethereal and formless than anything Gilligan has ever produced. In fact, the fourth season plays, for its first half, as several completely discrete series, and while the narratives may thread together in quite an ingenious and beautiful way by the time we arrive at the final episodes, you can’t help but feel that the series can only dissociate and drift further as Breaking Bad looms more emphatically and urgently as a representative horizon. By the time that Jimmy and Kim part in that traumatic final scene, it’s hard to believe that this world ever felt as focused or as unified as it did in Breaking Bad, just as it’s fascinating to imagine how Gilligan will continue to both strengthen and disperse that link over the next season, which may well be the greatest challenge – aesthetically, logistically, ethically – he has faced in the whole shared franchise.