Thursday, August 18, 2022

Unbecoming Saul: Reflections on the Last Season of Better Call Saul (Part Two)


How it Started/How it is going

The final episode of Better Call Saul is not just a finale to the series but to the entire Breaking Bad multiverse (to use the parlance of our times). While the first half of the season dealt with Better Call Saul as a separate show from Breaking Bad, dealing with the fates of characters such as Ignacio and Lalo who are named but never appear in the latter, the second half returns to its status as prequel and sequel. This is not just because of the appearances by Walt, Jesse, and Marie Schrader, but because it returns to the fundamental question of both shows and that is personal change and transformation. Was Jimmy always Saul dovetails with the question was Walt always Heisenberg. Or, as Chuck put it, can people really change?

Breaking Bad famously ended with a negative answer to that question, with Walt's confession to Skyler that he enjoyed every minute of being Heisenberg, that the power was always his dream. It initially seems very much that Better Call Saul is going in the same direction. Twice during the episode Saul brings up the hypothetical situation of a time machine, once to Mike and once to Walt, to ask them what they would go back to and change. Mike uses the question to rewrite his entire life story, to never take a bribe as a cop and thus never become the drug enforcer out in the desert with a sniper rifle. Saul, however, seems free of regret in both conversations. When talking with Mike in the desert he does not want to go back and change the actions that caused the death of his brother, and when talking with Walt in a flashback to the basement of the vacuum cleaner supply he does not want to go back and change the actions that led to the death of Howard. He only wants more money and to save his bad knee from his life as Slippin' Jimmy. To the latter Walt replies, "So, you have always been like this," stressing, as Chuck did, the continuity of Slippin' Jimmy the conman and Saul Goodman the lawyer. 

Walt's answer to the time machine question returns the show to its subtext, the intersection of change, of personal change, and class transformation, with the idea that a person could change their class status, what Chantal Jaquet calls non-reproduction or transclass. Jaquet’s concept of non-reproduction cuts between two different discourses on class and class reproduction. On the one side there are the various theories of social reproduction, from Bourdieu to Althusser who focus on the mechanisms, social, political, and ideological that reproduce the relations of production, keeping people in their class position. The sons and daughters of bodega owners end up owning their own bodega while the sons and daughters of partners at law firms can one day make partner. On the other side there are the various ideals, or even ideologies, that claim that anyone can make it, can pull themselves by their bootstraps and transform their class position. These two discourses are divided as much by their respective anthropologies as their politics. Reproduction, the reproduction of the relations of production, is understood to be the effect of multiple causes, economic, ideological, familial, while non-reproduction is generally attributed to the univocal and ahistorical effect of the will, ambition, or some other such attribute. As much as the side of non-reproduction is undermined at the level of theory, offering little more than homilies to the undaunted human spirit, it does have a case for itself at the level of experience: people do transcend their class position. This is the challenge of Jaquet’s concept of tranclass, to think non-reproduction not as the effect of some individual agency or will, but as itself produced in and through the multiple determinations of reproduction. The multiplicity of causes that reproduce the social order, material, affective, imaginary, ideological, do not just reinforce it, but in their multiplicity there is also potential discord in their common score. The school, for example, can be as much a site of nonreproduction, of exposure to a different norms, habits, and ideas, as it is an institution of reproduction of the social order. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul can be understood to produce their own particular perspectives on non-reproduction, its conditions, possibility and limits. Class transformation or its failure, Walter’s failure to fit in amongst his upper class classmates and Chuck’s success at becoming partner, are generally alluded to more than presented, they are more backdrop than narrative. What we get in its place is a far more spectacular, and one could argue entertaining, transformation of a chemistry teacher into a drug kingpin as well as that of a former conman turned mail clerk into a corrupt lawyer.

Walt's answer to the time machine question, that he would go back and stay on as partner to Gray Matter make his money legitimately, reveals both the identity and non-identity of Walt and Heisenberg. It was always about money, and the power connected to money and thus Walt was always Heisenberg, but also that Heisenberg is a return of Walt's fantasies of class transformation, of becoming a member of the "upper class" of someone who drives something better than an Aztec and does not have to worry about such mundane things as water heater issues (also referenced in the final episode). Saul does not mention Chuck, or his own attempts to lift himself by the bootstraps in the mailroom of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill to become James McGill, Esquire in his conversation with Walt, but we do get a flashback to Chuck. In that flashback we are reminded that Chuck has successfully transformed himself from the son of a bodega owner from Cicero, Illinois to a law partner who reads the Financial Times. The flashback also shows us what Jimmy ultimately says about his relation with his brother, that his attempt to destroy him, to take away the one thing he loved, practicing the law, was in part a product of their failed relationship, of a failure to connect. We also see a different side of Chuck, one that we might have forgotten, not the Chuck that insists that "people don't change." that Jimmy will always be Slippin' Jimmy, but the Chuck that wanted a connection with his brother, a Chuck that in his own way appreciated his brother's efforts or at least was willing to discuss his cases with him. 

As befitting a show about a lawyer, Better Call Saul's closing arguments about change and transformation happen in a court room. We see Saul/Jimmy give two different version of the common narrative that connects Walt/Heisenberg and Jimmy/Saul, two different summations of the intertwined plots of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. The first, delivered before a federal prosecutor is a lie, a con, Saul tells the story of a man who was terrified of Walt, who did everything out of fear, a story that only he can tell because he knows about the bodies. The point of this story is not to convince the prosecutor, not to argue for leniency, but to demonstrate what he, Saul, is a capable of, that the same story could convince a jury to change their mind, and he only needs one juror. The scam works. Saul is offered an incredibly light sentence of seven years to be severed in the poshest prison in the Federal system, the one for the likes of Bernie Madoff. Saul too would successfully make the change to become a member of the upper class even if it is just as a white collar criminal.

Saul cannot leave it at that, and in his last push to prove that he has won, that he cannot be beaten (and to score some good ice cream) he learns that Kim has come clean, confessed her involvement in the destruction and death of Howard Hamlin. This leads to a second retelling of the narrative. In the courtroom Saul tells a different story of his involvement with Heisenberg, not the story of a man afraid of a vicious criminal enterprise, but of a man driven by desire, by greed. As with the earlier telling this story is said to the judge but she is not the intended audience. His confession is meant for Kim who is in the courtroom. The first audience, the judge, restores his sentence to eighty six years, while the latter, Kim, makes possible his forgiveness and his transformation back to Jimmy. In an odd Möbius like twist Saul is never more Saul when he claims to be Jimmy, when he tells the story of being frightened by Heisenberg it is all a con, but he finally becomes Jimmy when he narrates his life as Saul, when he claims to be the immoral monster of greed that everyone thinks he has been all along. He is Saul when he claims to be Jimmy and finally becomes Jimmy again when he tells his life story in the character of Saul with all of the bravado and ego one would expect. 

Jimmy/Saul lives out the last of his life in a federal prison, and not the one reserved for the likes of Madoff. He has not entirely shed the multicolor skin of Saul, and to some extent his Saul skin protects him. There are a lot of people in federal prison with fond memories of the "criminal lawyer." He is visited by Kim, and thus in some sense redeemed. The relation with Kim sets up one last parallel. We see a long montage of Kim's post Saul life in Florida, maintaining the website of a irrigation supply company, eating tuna salad, and discussing office gossip, it is the blandest life possible right down to the sex with a man who says "Yep" while climaxing as if he is discussing mayonnaise. These scenes, shot in the black and white that washout the color of Gene's life in Omaha remind us that there are other ways of being confined than a federal penitentiary. What is doing time in a prison compared to doing time in a cubicle. To quote J Church, "Prison guards are our daily banalities." Breaking Bad ended with two nightmare versions of life in contemporary capitalism, Walt's impoverished retirement into poverty and exile in New Hampshire and Jesse being forced to work, Better Call Saul also ends with two images of straight life, one in prison and one in Florida, but who is to say which is worse. This parallel undermines the moralism of the final episode. Kim was right, the real thing that one has to break bad from is a life spent in work. Breaking out of that world is something no confession, no con, can get you free from. 

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