To tell the story of how Jimmy McGill became the crooked lawyer Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad,” Vince Gilligan created “Better Call Saul.” At the emotional center of this spinoff series, now nearly at the end of its third season, is the relationship between Jimmy and his brother Chuck. They share a tumultuous dynamic that is sometimes tender, sometimes bitter, and always conflicted. Both are hardworking and passionate, but their differences create a considerable blockade between them, made further impenetrable by envy, vanity, and self-doubt.
No matter the circumstances, tensions between brothers and sisters can be very overwhelming. We have not chosen them, but they are there as both burdens and support. At the same time, their unchallenged presence can make us take them for granted. Hubris and resentment are poisonous for all relationships but particularly destructive for the sensitive bond among siblings. Their nearness makes us vulnerable to the truths they force us to see about ourselves. This can bring us closer and dearer to each other, or challenge our egos to an unmanageable degree.
Serious and disciplined but alienating, Chuck has always been at odds with his brother’s relaxed wit and daring attitude that have made him likable but also put him behind bars for petty crimes. While outwardly critical of Jimmy, Chuck has nevertheless repeatedly been there to rescue him.
While overwrought, their relationship once possessed a certain order: the self-controlled, restrained Chuck held a high-paying, reputable job as a corporate lawyer and bailed out reckless conman Jimmy every once in a while, with a scold and disappointed glare.
But then something happened, and this balance was disturbed, bringing revelations and transformations that define much of “Better Call Saul.” Jimmy decided to abandon the role of conman – to work a fulltime job, to study to become a lawyer, and to pursue a career in law. While having pushed for him to straighten himself out and given him a job working in the mailroom of his law firm, Chuck was displeased with these new ambitions. He refused to believe that Jimmy was a good lawyer and deserved a life resembling his own. Meanwhile he developed a mental illness that made him believe he was fatally allergic to electricity.
Chuck’s imagined ailment emerged out of the same vulnerability that made him stubbornly cling to a demonized image of his brother. They secured fantasies that protected his need to feel important and in control. Jimmy waited on the “sick” Chuck, and back at the office everyone adhered to Chuck’s specific rules. Stepping outside his door was a struggle because it means entering where he does not have control over every aspect of what happens.
Chuck repeatedly betrayed Jimmy in order to undermine him professionally. Gilligan is particularly great at exploring how men of privilege justify violent, selfish behavior that damages those around them; and Chuck has joined the villains of his universe, as he lied and schemed while self-righteously maintaining that he was acting justly, for the good of all.
Jimmy exposed him, but in doing so also shattered the contorted balance that allowed their fraternal bond to survive. Chuck’s need for self-imposed order and control drove him to a madness that was poisonous for Jimmy, who could not forgive his brother because he realized that his need to be superior will always impede the equality and self-worth Jimmy seeks. His ultimate inability to sacrifice for Chuck—to nurture their relationship, to let go of his resentment and start fresh—set the groundwork for the criminal life he would soon lead in “Breaking Bad,” employing his conman tricks to defend criminals in court.
“Better Call Saul” painfully but accurately depicts how we are, in either subtle or overt ways, actively safeguarding precious but precarious relationships with our siblings. Its tragedy lies in the consequences of failing to set aside self-interest for the love of a brother or sister.
Losing his brother to jealousy, resentment, and betrayal leaves Jimmy without family, paving the way for an unlawful life of entitlement to what is there for the taking. Chuck was right that his brother had loose scruples; but he was not brave, kind, or loving enough to fight for him. He was too preoccupied with his self-aggrandizing need for control and authority. Jimmy, not unlike Heisenberg, refused to yield. The absence of judgment seduced both Gilligan’s protagonists to a life they thought granted them freedom, particularly from the demands and struggles of family. Instead, they were deceived; they became free to be alone and die alone, beholden to no one.
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