Pernicious Propaganda in Better Call Saul

Better Call SaulI finally got around to watching Better Call Saul. It’s a mixed bag. Vince Gilligan is now officially the most overrated man in Hollywood. But I’m a big Bob Odenkirk fan. And I assume the show will be fine. But I doubt I’ll watch it. It’s already filled with many of the same comic book fiction problems that Breaking Bad had. But it does have the advantage of being like the early seasons of Breaking Bad in having a main character that is actually likable. Turning Walt into a monster in the fifth season of the show ruined it for me. So I assume that Better Call Saul will be pretty good for a while at least.

There was something in the first episode that totally offended me. Saul has a hugely successful lawyer brother who has not been able to work for the last year because of what seems to be a mental problem — he calls it “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” But poor old Saul is working as a public defender because he can’t get any better work. I don’t mind fantasy. When Daredevil has a secret high tech lair that he could never have afforded, I have no problem. But Saul’s situation is something different — unbelievable in the context of the world that we know. And pernicious in the meritocratic lie that it pushes on the American worker who really doesn’t deserve to be so deceived.

Saul would not need to be out setting up skateboarding accidents to make money — much less defending three punks who cut off the head of a cadaver and had sex with it. Certainly his brother would get him a reasonable job at the big name law firm — maybe even a partnership. Maybe in episode five, we will learn some important information about how the law film could never hire Saul. But what we got in the first episode was a lecture from the brother about how much Saul will learn from taking public defender cases.

This is just not the way that corporate America works. Sure, there are some parents who might make their children work in the mail room for their summers. And after they get out of law school, those parents might make the kid work as a low level lawyer. But there is never any question that such “indignities” will be short lived and that the child will rise quickly in the company. But no. Vince Gilligan wants us all to believe that Americans make it to the top through their own grit and determination. And they do! But not when they have highly successful older brothers to help them out. The prototype is Arthur Kirkland, not Saul Goodman.

And the show itself has a perfect example of how the real world works. You see, before Bob Odenkirk became a minor star, he was known as one of the best comedy writers around. He is, after all, the brilliance behind Mr Show. Well, Bob has a younger brother, Bill Odenkirk. Now don’t misunderstand me. I think the younger Odenkirk is a brilliant comedy writer — I’ve enjoyed his work on The Simpsons and Futurama. But his first writing job was Mr Show. In fact, his first job on anything was Mr Show. Because he had a very successful older brother, Bill Odenkirk wasn’t living in his parents’ basement sending out short stories to The New Yorker. No, Bill Odenkirk got to start much higher and learn his craft from the best.

Now I don’t really think there is anything wrong with this. Or at least, I don’t think there is any way to stop this from happening. But the fact that Better Call Saul pushes a pernicious lie to a nation of people who can no long expect to live a life even as nice as their parents, is just despicable. I suppose such lies are better than keeping the masses in line by showing convicts eaten alive by lions. But it is the same thing: entertainment designed to blind the people from the unjustness of the society they live in.

15 thoughts on “Pernicious Propaganda in Better Call Saul

  1. I’m watching it again; I kinda eyeballed it a little when it was on TV, using a terrible VCR at work to record the episodes, so it was basically audio with dark impenetrable visuals. Now I can get it on my ‘puter, and that’s much better. (A good old VCR still works — mine does — but the ones at work are thrashed. And work has cable, and I don’t.)

    Your main point is quite right, per usual. The show’s flaws are different than you suspected, though. It’s not that Saul’s brother couldn’t help him, but that the brother won’t . . . and when the brother slips into insanity, it’s Saul who helps him instead, basically out of love.

    What’s wrong with the show is more that damned Vince Gilligan morality. Saul really is a far better person than his brother (who gets his sanity back and sells Saul out by the end of the season.) In the real world, this is the sort of experience which makes us complex people. The show could have taken a route of depicting how Saul needed clients like Walter White to pay his bills, and wrestled with the right/wrong of this while using his talents to do things he honestly believed in. You know; what every good lawyer does.

    Instead, it’s Vince Gilligan world, where Saul is a sympathetic character who makes one choice after another slowly leading him down the path to Slimy Evil. Gilligan probably thinks this stuff is quality drama because, after all, he gives us a backstory of how the character got started on that slippery slope. But it’s still an author feeling superior to his major character. And, I’m sorry, nobody in Hollywood gets to feel morally superior to a sellout.

    I’ll rewatch a few more episodes, though, as Odenkirk is really fine in the part. He’s not a bad actor at all. And it’s nice to be able to see his work in this, which I couldn’t on those awful recordings I got from thrashed VCRs.

    • Well, I did say that something might turn up later in the season. And I do know that brothers can be horrible to each other. But it still doesn’t make sense, because Saul would have been in a higher milieu, and thus would have known people who would have given him a better job. People notice when one brother is being a dick to another. They will often help out just from the embarrassment.

      But that’s an interesting set-up, because it kind of mirrors Walt in Breaking Bad where his old business partners had screwed him over. That was actually what worked in that first season. The scene where Walt is at a party and has to admit that he is a high school teacher shows a great deal. This is a guy with 20 years of bitterness built up.

      I don’t mind the slimy evil by inches. I tend to think that is the way it works. Of course, I never saw Saul as evil. He is exactly what a defense attorney should be — well, with a few related services.

      • I love defense attorneys. It’s about the law, not the right & wrong. I’ve used a defense attorney once, I was clearly in the wrong, and I got off scot-free, because the law was vague and no blame could be applied. (But I was wrong.)

        You might, then, if you like Odenkirk, check out the rest of the series from the library. One thing I noted re-watching it, with video this time, and minus commercials/waiting to tape the next week’s episodes: it moves quickly. It’s basically one story stretched out over a whole season, and doesn’t feel dull.

        You’re probably right that somebody in the brother’s law firm (where Saul worked, passed the bar, and was shunted off as a loser) would have noticed he is good at what he does, and broken off from the snotty firm (if they’re snobs to Saul, they’re probably snobs to other talented attorneys), bringing Saul with them. That would be the end of the series.

        I thought about recommending the second-to-last episode of “Breaking Bad,” where we see Saul for the last time, and he gives some solid advice to Walt; Saul may have sleazy ads, he’s not a bad guy. And Odenkirk’s fine in it. But I rewatched it, and it’s unnecessarily grim. I can’t suggest it.

        So, since the end of “Breaking Bad” is pretty unwatchable, here’s the best thing from it.

        Walt has all this money meant for his family, but he can’t send it. He’s on the lam, and the law watches his family. Plus, his family hates him. He finally comes up, sputtering sputum from his resurgent cancer, with a good idea.

        He breaks into the house of those jerky folks who stole the company. He tells them “here’s my money, and you will help my kids.” They have to tell the kids all the help comes out of guilt from stealing the company, not Walt’s drug earnings. And, even though Walt’s dying, he’s paid assassins well to make sure the jerky folks fulfill his wishes.

        Then, bam! Laser sights from rifles come through the windows and target the jerky folks. They are suitably scared. They agree to launder the money and help Walt’s kids.

        The nice touch is, those lasers weren’t from rifle sights. They were the two stoner dealers Walt used way back when, using laser pointers.

        And the rest of the finale descends into shoot-em-up dumbness, saving Jesse from torture porn, really over-the-top stuff.

        I did enjoy the laser-pointer bit. Sorta brought Walt back into “sympathetically clever, not hugely evil” mode from “psycho drug lord” mode. Thought you might like knowing that fun, spooky scene exists. And, now I’ve described it, you don’t have to wade through stuff you don’t enjoy to watch it.

        On occasion, I share violent material I’ve seen and enjoyed with the SO. And the SO’s rule is, when it gets gruesome, we skip that material, and I describe what happens. It works well.

        • I really liked that subplot. I was sad that it went away, so I’m glad they brought it back.

          Will made me watch most of a Saul episode that was pretty much all about Mike. It seemed solid — as good as the best of BB. I’d still rather watch reruns of Mr Show. This is one of my favorite things ever:

            • I know those skits well. (I have all four seasons on DVD.) The first one just freaks me out so much. The second is brilliant, but it annoys me because it does do such a good job of parodying Webber. What’s the show on Netflix? I’ll check it out. As far as I’m concerned, Mr Show didn’t reach true brilliance under the third season. So it could take time. One of my favorite skits is the lie detector one, “Have you stopped a speeding train with your penis?” “Yes… But it was for charity!” Those guys are insane.

              • The new one is called “Bob & David.” It’s alright, and as you’d expect, better than most anything on TV. I didn’t love it. I’m glad they brought back most of the old cast, though. Particularly Brian Posehn. Everything he does cracks me up.

                The first episode has some good bits in it. Especially the end, where Odenkirk plays a kindly slave owner. He does some great acting there, and the skit is terrifyingly outrageous. Well worth watching if you already have a Netflix account. If you don’t have a Netflix account, get stuff from the library like all sensible people do.

  2. It is interesting to me since my best friend is a lawyer, the son of a lawyer turned judge, the grandson of a lawyer and the nephew of another lawyer.
    Despite the fact he has all of the advantages to become a higher power attorney, he became a PD because honestly he has the worst personality to be a private sector attorney. He is a great technical attorney but he has no idea how to connect to anyone.

    • There is that. But my experience in the corporate world is that most people are bad at their jobs. If it weren’t for about 10% of the people in a company (usually stuck in the middle — good enough not to stay at the bottom — but not enough of a “player” to rise above) who keep things running. I doubt it is any different in big law firms. But I don’t know. I don’t think much of American business. Most of the people I’ve had good working relationships have been people from other countries who are focused on results rather than “people skills” and “networking.”

      • “Keep things running.”

        After 15 years at the same job, I’m terrified of applying to new ones. I have to. I can’t keep working there.

        But I don’t know how to describe my skills on a resume or to an interviewer besides “I find out what’s so broken nothing else can function, I learn how to fix it, and I keep things running.” It’s really my only skill.

        We need to come up with a new term to describe this skill. “Glue guys” is a nice one they use in sports blogs, for players who aren’t the most gifted, but know how to maximize the talents of their teammates. I’m one hell of a “glue guy.” And if I work hard on applying to new jobs, I’ll meet some interviewer who knows what a “glue guy” is and wants one. It is scary, though. Personal rants over and out!

        • This is the kind of thing there you just need to write and write and write until something emerges. Also: your SO can probably help, because it’s always hard to write this kind of stuff about yourself.

          But I think it would be great for you to get a new job. You are clearly working too hard and not getting paid enough.

            • Doesn’t it bite ass? The whole thing about being a “glue guy” (or gal) is nobody knows you do it. If they did, they’d resent you, and make an issue of proving they were more important (which will screw things up worse.)

              You have to be under the radar. Fix problems without anyone knowing you fixed the problem. It’s great, in a way, but it also starts to get hugely frustrating. I don’t mind people ignoring my work; I put effort into making sure they ignore it.

              What I mind is people getting so used to my work that they berate me when things go wrong. Jesus blistering Christ, isn’t there anyone else on the job who has responsibility for anything? Nope. It’s my fault.

              And that is exhausting and depressing.

    • Wouldn’t that be the worst thing for a PD, though? Wouldn’t you need to connect with your clients?

      Maybe not, maybe a good PD says “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, here’s how the case is playing out, and here’s the choices you need to make.” I dunno.

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