2020s

‘Better Call Saul’ and Mechanisms of Obsessional Neurosis

Better Call Saul Essay - Obsessional Neurosis

Warning: This Better Call Saul essay includes spoilers.

In April 2013, four months before the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad had even begun airing, showrunner Vince Gilligan announced that a spin-off prequel series was officially in development. It was later revealed that Gilligan and collaborator Peter Gould had been planning Better Call Saul since as early as 2009. The series would centralize Breaking Bad character Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) and depict his life as criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill in the events leading up to the iconic AMC series about Walter White’s fall from grace. Since beginning in 2015, Better Call Saul has been increasingly easier to define in terms of its relationship to Breaking Bad. What was initially a somewhat different beast — tonally and narratively, due to a prioritized interest in the comical, often absurdist law offices Jimmy makes a name for himself in — has become more and more interchangeable with the original series. The trajectory of the new series, therefore, leaves viewers wondering exactly why Better Call Saul is necessary — questions that were also asked of the Breaking Bad sequel/coda, El Camino, when it released in 2019.

Better Call Saul is joined at the hip to Breaking Bad, which can be applied to a broader issue within contemporary film and television, generally around the inessential storytelling expansions that can come with prequels, sequels, spin-offs, remakes and reboots. Leaving the simple argument of business-oriented TV’s supply and demand aside, and if the issue is philosophized, it might link to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of culture’s interconnected language games of “family resemblance.” Or it might be applied to Jacques Lacan’s conception of the “mirror stage,” which gestures towards the tendency to find comfort in recognition and reduplication — as Lacan puts it, these are “the mechanisms of obsessional neurosis.” In an age of prequel and sequel obsession (and exhaustion), Better Call Saul  was nonetheless made and offers six seasons that have ultimately resembled the mannerisms and mechanics of that original series. These resemblances include internal power struggles amongst warring factions within the Mexican Cartel, tense situations in which ordinary people are swept up in this criminal underworld and stories of the people employed to keep the peace as the lives of dangerous criminals and normal people collide.

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Better Call Saul Essay - Obsessional Neurosis

As for Jimmy/Saul, a character caught between these crosshairs, his scenes in the first half of Better Call Saul season 6 will sound familiar considering his performative deception and impulsive lies throughout Breaking Bad. In episode 1, Jimmy bullshits to another lawyer in a court hallway by saying that his clients need him, so he can get out of the conversation, but he goes to sit in an empty courtroom alone. In episode two, Jimmy rehearses a fake sob story to Kim as she eats cereal. In episode 3, Jimmy preaches to Breaking Bad character Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford) from the back of a car, telling him that “we’re making a real difference. We’re doing the lord’s work here” after confessing to what must look like “another scam.” In episode 4, Jimmy dons a disguise for an elaborate scam; at another point, he waltzes past security at work, wisecracking platitudes at everyone while simultaneously running his “speedy justice” hotline from his Bluetooth earpiece.

Alongside these similarities in narrative atmosphere, storytelling beats and specific situations Jimmy’s character finds himself in, Better Call Saul season 6 now devotes a significant portion of its screentime to Breaking Bad characters Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) and the cousins (twins) Marco and Leonel Salamanca (Luis and Daniel Moncada). Out of the series’ 63-episode total (which includes its upcoming final six), Mike is credited as appearing in all 63 and Gus is said to be in 42. Again, many of the scenes these characters have been involved in are similar to Breaking Bad. In episode 1, the Salamanca cousins walk up to and then around a crime scene silently but menacingly; elsewhere, Mike plays marbles with the granddaughter he is earning all his money for during Breaking Bad. In episode 2, the turf war between Gus and Hector escalates via a series of strategic chess moves by the men who work for both parties. In episode three, Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) — albeit a character who is absent in the original Gilligan series — hides in a sewage underpass and narrowly escapes capture by the patrolling Salamanca cousins, only to then die horrifically (by suicide) at the end of the episode. In episode 5, Gus’ nice guy demeanor looks like it is about to flip to dangerous while he is on shift at Los Pollos Hermanos, the fast-food chicken restaurant lending a front for his complex drug operations.

While these five Better Call Saul characters are inexorably positioned within the story building up to Breaking Bad, they arguably do not need to have such a pivotal role in the prequel series, particularly when the central pull does not immediately relate to them. This pull, which if its “mechanisms of obsessional neurosis” are given a pass is the strongest justification the series has for existing and entirely determines its status as a prequel, can be summarized by a question: exactly what happened to Jimmy/Saul’s wife Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), and why is she nowhere to be seen in Breaking Bad? This question has been asked since the prequel series began, but it is being asked with more urgency with Better Call Saul’s final six episodes now imminent. The answer, when the series inevitably gives it to us in its final ever episodes this month, might help solve the transition between the two series and make a more intriguing case for why audiences have spent seven years watching Jimmy McGill evolve into Saul Goodman.

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Better Call Saul Essay - Obsessional Neurosis

Some of Kim’s scenes in Better Call Saul season six have been the highlights of the entire series. In episode 1, she and Jimmy have a conversation at a diner about their plans for “Saul.” The way they refer to Jimmy’s alter ego in the third person intelligently reminds the viewer how the series has self-consciously built its prequelism into its DNA, into its whole fabric. In episode 4, Kim and Jimmy share a moment in bed where they debate their own morality, discussing the possibility that they may be “wicked.” As Breaking Bad viewers will remember, this anxiety has all but dissolved in Saul’s psyche during the original AMC series. In this scene, Jimmy rallies Kim by saying “Are we on a roll, or are we on a roll?” and reassuring her that “No one knows what we’re doing except for us,” and the pillow talk is one of many sentimental, moving instances emphasizing that Jimmy is, in fact, a human being with someone worth living for. This cannot be said for Saul in Breaking Bad. Kim’s entanglements in Jimmy’s increasingly perilous “professional” life continue to tease a terrible fate for her, because audiences know for certain that Jimmy will survive Better Call Saul. The scenes that edge the pieces closer to something happening to Kim are also standout moments in the first part of season six: Kim meeting Mike during episode 4, and Kim and Jimmy’s horror as their ex-colleague Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) is brutally shot dead by Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) after his surprise visit to their apartment (after meeting them both during Better Call Saul  season 5).

Leaving Kim aside for a moment, Better Call Saul does almost feel like two different series before and after the death of Jimmy’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean) at the end of season 3. Before, in the first three seasons, it seemed to have a better handle on balancing Jimmy’s absurdist, almost Kafkaesque experiences in the Albuquerque law offices/courtrooms and the beginnings of his thread through the Hector-Gus tensions (that spill over into Breaking Bad). Since the end of season 3, it must be said that this balance feels a little off. The relationships between Jimmy and Chuck and Jimmy and Kim have always been what justify Better Call Saul as different and therefore necessary. They are ultimately what shine through the tangle of developments regarding Hector and Lalo and Gus and Mike, so they are fundamentally more important in the series’ attempts to move its viewer, its attempts to make them feel. After being caught in the middle of Jimmy and Kim’s (il)legal escapades, Howard’s shock death at the hands of Lalo (who is the source of tensions between Gus and the Salamanca family) is the mid-season mic-drop moment comparable to DEA agent Hank Schrader finding out about brother-in-law Walter White’s true identity as the mythical meth cook “Heisenberg” that he has been chasing for so long in Breaking Bad. Lalo’s intrusion on the somewhat stable equilibrium Jimmy and Kim have worked towards is now set to be the anchor of Better Call Saul’s final six episodes. As mentioned, what happens to Kim is likely to be one of the entire series’ big emotional payoffs, for better or worse (for Kim).

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Better Call Saul Essay - Obsessional Neurosis

The essential Kim Wexler functions in opposition to the exaggerated presence of Mike, Gus and the Salamancas in Better Call Saul and particularly in the first seven episodes of its final season. Ultimately, do the interchangeable Breaking Bad mechanics orbiting this central question about the fate of Kim justify six whole seasons? Probably not, but considering these mechanics as Lacan’s mechanisms of obsessional neurosis, or as products of Wittgenstein’s theory of a structured, interdependent culture at large, offers an interesting expansion of the discourse surrounding the current state of the film/television industry and its reliance on prequels et al. Better Call Saul’s balance of newness (in terms of genre, tone, narrative, and new characters) and inevitable dependence (on Breaking Bad) seems to be a useful template to approaching the making of a prequel series in general. The existence of this specific prequel is certainly not worth nothing, even if it may well be the side effect of a wider predictability within contemporary television regarding a safe, marketable, easy route towards introducing a “new” series — which has produced Bates Motel (2013-2017), Gotham (2014-2019), Fear the Walking Dead (2015-), Smallville (2001-2011) and multiple Star Trek prequels, to name a few. Carrying this split priority of newness and dependence through its six seasons and letting the balance shift and fluctuate, Better Call Saul has become a series both about journey and destination. No matter how perfectly executed or unanimously satisfying its ending proves to be, if it maintains this balance, it is likely to be a success. (The final six episodes unnecessarily include Walt and Jesse cameos (as has been confirmed), but also something devastating or at least cathartic for Kim.)

The notion of meticulously crafting and self-mythologizing an ending and that ending almost superseding the mathematical majority of the rest of the series — in terms of what viewers value and prioritize in their collective response — is always important, as has been covered within the specific context of Better Call Saul. From day one, audiences have been fixated on how it is going to end, but the way audience response sometimes prioritizes this over everything that has come before (see: the debatably unfair treatment of Dexter [2006-2013], Game of Thrones [2011-2019] and more — in part for their divergence from the viewer’s preconceived, idealized final episode) will likely not come into effect with Better Call Saul, no matter what happens in the final six episodes. Gilligan and Gould’s series is a productive exercise in balancing newness and dependence, and it has enough of each to keep enough people happy, so it will likely reach a natural conclusion where this fundamentally safe balance is upheld.

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Better Call Saul Essay - Obsessional Neurosis

The prequel series is predicated on the viewer’s knowledge of where it is going, but Better Call Saul is ultimately an interesting case study of adjacency that points to a more sustainable prequel model that television in general might wish to use in future. It will be easier to rationally value the series as a whole no matter how it ends, which is the way it should be. There will continue to be a more productive “and” relationship between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad — and, by extension, between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman –– rather than an “either/or” situation. This is perhaps where Lacan’s “obsessional neurosis” becomes a positive cultural trait. This is perhaps where patterning everything with repetition and reduplication by adopting a structured, grand narrative worldview (recalling Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance”) can be less reductive than it sounds. Like culture generally, contemporary television will always carve a path for the new even when it seems as if nostalgia is an inescapable governing principle.

George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a PhD candidate/graduate teaching assistant at King’s College London, a short fiction writer and a freelance culture writer. He is also an assistant editor at Coastal Shelf. George’s recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press and Offscreen. In 2020, he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.