“This is America. Pick the job you want and become the person who does it.”

That’s not a line from Better Call Saul or even its predecessor, Breaking Bad. That’s Mad Men‘s Don Draper. But as it turns out, it couldn’t be a better mission statement for Saul. Like Draper, Saul Goodman was a different person before we met him, and the proto-Saul in the new series follows in the mold of Don “Dick Whitman” Draper.

We knew from Breaking Bad that Saul Goodman wasn’t really “Saul Goodman”. He admitted that he changed his name. (It came from the phrase “It’s all good, man”, which is endearingly dorky.) But the Jimmy McGill in the first episodes of Saul isn’t the guy we know at all. When we first met him, he was a slick mini-mall attorney. The kind of lawyer who represents slip-and-fall cases and forces out of court settlements, and knows enough about the shady side of the law to properly advise a burgeoning meth kingpin.

But that’s not Jimmy McGill. Jimmy lies about having an office and a secretary. (At one point, he takes a call pretending to be his own assistant, which gives Bob Odenkirk the chance to bring back his notoriously terrible British accent.) He’s taking public defender cases for $700 a shot and quibbling over three dollars in parking fees. Jimmy spends most of the first two episodes looking like he’s moments away from bursting into tears, vomiting, or both.

When meeting potential clients, Jimmy exudes the sort of sweaty desperation that makes anybody think twice before signing a contract. He’s so nervous in court that he has to hide in the bathroom to rehearse his closing statement. Jimmy’s on the losing side of just about every interaction and it isn’t until he has to talk his way out of an execution that we see even a flicker of Saul.

It’s a surprising way to go. As great as Saul was on Breaking Bad, he didn’t seem like a character who needed an origin story. They could just have easily started in his familiar office, years before he met Walter White, and gone from there. The show didn’t need to be about who he is and how he came to be. Though, after seeing the first episodes, it’s definitely the right call. We’ve already seen Saul’s most interesting client, so the show needs to be about him. It owes more to Mad Men than Breaking Bad in the way that it starts with a character rather than a premise. (Breaking Bad was certainly powered by the characters, but it also has a premise that’s easy to describe in one line.)

That’s not the only similarity – Saul Goodman and Don Draper both started out as different people and made a conscious attempt to start over. In fact, Jimmy McGill seems to be following Don’s advice and literally as possible. He found the job he wants, and if Saul Goodman is the person who does it, then he’s going to become Saul Goodman. And unlike Dick Whitman, who had the benefit of a death certificate, Jimmy doesn’t get that fresh start. Don got to hang out with the real Don Draper’s wife for a while he worked it out. Jimmy has to hustle every day just to stave off financial ruin. He doesn’t have the luxury of chilling out for a couple of years. In a way, Dick Whitman had so little that starting over was easier. Jimmy’s got a law degree and a sick brother and he can’t just walk away.

And the thing is, Saul Goodman is no Don Draper. He doesn’t walk into a room and dominate. People don’t talk about him after he walks past. He’s smart and slick and good at his job, but nobody wants to be Saul Goodman. Becoming Saul is less of an achievement than becoming Don, but it worked for him. (Until Walter White ruined his life, but that was scarcely Saul’s fault.) Similarly, Jimmy McGill starts from a better position than Dick Whitman. The guy managed to graduate law school and pass the bar. He didn’t grow up in a brothel or anything. Jimmy to Saul is a shorter, more modest journey but it’s still somebody completely reinventing himself.

That’s a theme that runs through AMC programming. Their shows are all about identity. There’s Don Draper and Saul Goodman as the obvious examples. But there’s Walter White, who created the Heisenberg persona to intimidate rivals but then got caught up in being Heisenberg and that’s where he fell apart. Walking Dead hammers home the idea that “who you were before doesn’t matter”, and in most cases has scrupulously avoided showing us any of the characters in the days before the zombies. (Rick and Michonne are the only ones we’ve seen in flashback.) It’s a whole cast of people who became the person who does their job, only in this case their job is “zombie fighter”. The show’s at its most interesting when we see flickers of their past lives bleed through into their day-to-day. After five seasons, we know as much about Glenn as Don Draper’s family and coworkers knew about him when Mad Men began.

Even the scrappy Halt and Catch Fire touches on that theme. Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan carefully crafted a persona to help him in business. He covered up his past and spent all his money on a nice car and expensive clothes to seem more successful and thus, qualified to do his job. He’s Dick Whitman hiding behind a Don Draper cardboard stand-up.

For the longest time, the focus in prestige TV was on flawed men. Tony Soprano kicked it off and Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Walter White and others followed. But Don and Walter might have been the first in a new wave of shows exploring identity and our ability to redefine it. We’re seeing it reach beyond AMC now – Amazon’s Transparent deals with a transgender woman discovering her identity late in life. In Hannibal, we often see Will Graham put himself in the place of a killer, losing his own identity to understand their motives. Heck, Bojack Horseman is about a talking horse who can’t separate himself from his sitcom persona.

It’s fertile ground and a welcome break from self-destructive antiheroes. Whether it’s taking hold now because everybody has an online persona that may or may not match up to their real life, or whether it’s because Mad Men and Breaking Bad inspired people, I can’t say. That’s a task for better minds than mine. I really just want to see how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman and what he has to leave behind along the way.

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One Response to Better Call Saul and TV’s Identity Issues

  1. Myndi says:

    Fantastic insight! It’s an interesting thematic thread to have running through a generation of drama programming.

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