Moving Away From the Anti-Hero: What It Means to Be a Man in ‘Better Call Saul’

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This guest post by Becky Kukla appears as part of our theme week on Masculinity.


I think I should start by saying that I’m not a huge fan of Breaking Bad. In a discussion about Better Call Saul, this question always seems to crop up and I have to be honest–I found the series tedious and repetitive. I also found it to be a really dissatisfying critique of masculinity when it had so many opportunities to explore it. Walter White relied notoriously on masculine techniques and tropes in order to succeed in his work. Walt refuses help, is intent on remaining the breadwinner of the White family, lies and manipulates others to prove his worth and ultimately becomes the epitome of what it means to be “macho.” In itself, this is not problematic, but Breaking Bad’s refusal to acknowledge Walt as being any less than ‘God-like’ meant that criticism of his masculinity was unable to be explored in any kind of depth.

This is not meant to be a debate about the ins and outs of Breaking Bad’s hyper-masculine problems, however. I’m sure an entire thesis could be written, or has been written, on the depiction of masculinity in Breaking Bad, but it feels like a topic that doesn’t need much more discussion. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, feels like it has a lot to offer viewers in terms of examining masculinity. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have been and will continue to be compared in almost every aspect of their design. It makes sense – they are both created by Vince Gilligan, share many of the same actors and follow a narrative based around a lone-wolf type protagonist. A man trying to make his own way in the world: a portrait of masculinity. Saul Goodman is supposedly the new “anti-hero,” following in the footsteps of Don Draper, Tony Soprano and of course our very own Walt. Emphasis on the supposedly, because although Breaking Bad might be more universally loved, the first season of Better Call Saul alone sparks the debate that the spin-off series might be more adept at handling the complicated issue of masculinity on screen.

James McGill/Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) begins the series working as a retail assistant in Cinnabon, after falling from the highest heights as Walt’s lawyer. He’s living in an empty apartment, he has stopped practicing law and his life has been destroyed from getting involved with Walt. Flash back to six years before Saul meets Walt. Saul (at this point we should really be calling him James) is a struggling lawyer. It feels similar to the beginning of Breaking Bad. James is down on his luck, has struggled for years through college to get a law degree only to have ended up writing wills for the elderly living in a nearby care home. Oh and he lives in the nail spa that he tried to convince Walt to launder money through. It’s a nice touch and it tells us exactly where James McGill is at in his life.

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A common theme in T.V. and films is the idea that, in order to qualify as masculine, one must have success and status. Better Call Saul plays with this concept in terms of Jimmy’s status in society and in comparison to his peers. We know, because we watched Breaking Bad, that Jimmy ends up as the infamous Saul Goodman: lawyer to the sleazy hardened criminals. He is going to be successful, if only for a short time. Currently however, Jimmy is not successful. Jimmy’s closest friends, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and his brother Chuck (Michael Mckean) are both smarter than him, more skilled than him and by the end of the series, are both accomplished lawyers at a reputable firm. If success and status are masculine attributes then it seems like the only character missing out is Jimmy himself. Backtrack a few years though, and we learn that James Mcgill used to be Slippin’ Jimmy – expert con artist. He was skilled, immoral, and his alter-ego Slippin’ Jimmy successfully made a living out of conning various rich (and stupid) individuals at bars. Slippin’ Jimmy was to James McGill what Heisenberg was to Walter White–a hyper-masculine alter-ego. OK, Slippin’ Jimmy was only conning a few business men out of their Rolexes, but essentially both men created an alternative, more masculine version of themselves in order to survive and gain success.

Only Slippin’ Jimmy became James McGill when he decided to shape up and work hard to gain a law qualification. Due to the sudden and heartbreaking death of his fellow con-man Marco, James realizes he can’t go back to that life even though it made him more money than his current work within elder law (unglamorous and very moral). Breaking the law or using immoral means to gain money is seen as a sign of masculinity; think about Goodfellas or The Godfather. James’ conscious decision to straighten his life out, get a degree, and make an honest living could be construed as going against masculine ideals – especially in the shady world in which James resides. Throughout the series, James struggles when pulled into cases which are on the wrong side of the law – the Kettleman case is a great example. If success and money are attributes which make one a “real man,” James McGill has neither, but Slippin’ Jimmy/Saul Goodman have both. Clearly James is still a real man despite having neither success nor money, so what does this say about the fluidity of masculinity?

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One of the most unconventional aspects of James’ life is his brother Chuck. Likewise Walt is the provider for his family in Breaking Bad, James is the primary carer and provider for Chuck. Chuck suffers from a “rare condition” (it’s not really established whether this is predominantly a mental or physical condition) in that he is allergic to electricity. James assists Chuck with meals, money and is his general carer around the house. While Walt uses his role as the provider (a typically masculine characteristic), James’ character seems to take on both maternal and paternal attributes – negotiating a balance between masculinity and femininity. James provides for Chuck, but he doesn’t use this power to manipulate Chuck or coerce Chuck into helping him.

Chuck is actually far more closely aligned with prior representations of masculinity on T.V. Like Walt, Don, or Tony, Chuck is reserved and unemotional. He keeps to himself, doesn’t make any friends and has one major flaw. In Chuck’s case, it’s being allergic to electricity. Unlike the Walter Whites of this world, however, we are not invited to share in Chuck’s successes or to even view him as a sympathetic character. At best, he’s completely insane and at worst, he is a nasty piece of work – denying James the right to work at HMM. There is no room to love a character like Chuck in Better Call Saul. There is no room for the anti-hero or to explain the qualities that come with it. Chuck isn’t a nice person because he’s out for himself. In Breaking Bad we would be invited to try and understand this, but in Better Call Saul we have already met James – a character who negotiates his own needs and wants without neglecting others in his life. James still strives for success, but he doesn’t behave like our traditional male heroes (or anti-heroes depending on which way you see it). James shares his problems with the people in his life – Mike, Chuck, Kim, and Marco – and isn’t afraid to ask for help. This subversion doesn’t make him any less of a man, just adds more depth to his character.

For a character, and indeed a series, that I think we all expected to be Walter White 2.0, James McGill is pretty interesting and unconventional character. The show itself could do a lot more with its female characters and diversity in general (it’s about as white-washed as Breaking Bad), but James’ characterisation is a start at least.

 


Becky Kukla (twitter – @kuklamoo) resides in London, watches a lot of Netflix and is trying to live off a career in the T.V. industry. She blogs a lot in her spare time (Femphile.co.uk), and wrote her BA thesis on Femininity in Sci-Fi TV with a special focus on The X-Files. Spooky.

 

 

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