Breaking Better: Six Seasons, and I Didn’t See it Coming. Why?
Like many of you, I watched every episode of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, as well as El Camino and all of the web-and-DVD extras associated with the shows. A lot has been written about this universe, so in the hope of saying something you haven’t yet heard, I’m going to focus on the one moment I’d been awaiting throughout Better Call Saul ever since its first season. Kim Wexler was the only major character who played no role in Breaking Bad, so from the get-go, we knew to expect the reveal: What happened to Kim?
Spoilers galore follow, so if you haven’t seen the last series of Better Call Saul, you might not want to read any further.
Knowing what Jimmy/Saul becomes, I foresaw one of two endings: 1) Jimmy causes Kim to get killed, and loss of Kim made him so bitter and disillusioned that he morphed into the “criminal lawyer”; or 2) Kim makes a permanent turn to the dark side and gets herself killed.
I didn’t foresee Kim choosing to leave Jimmy. After watching the finale, I asked myself why I hadn’t predicted correctly, and it led me to examine what Vince Gilligan did with character motivation. I have come up with the following set of guidelines to help me understand the series. I’ll call them Vince’s Rules.
Vince’s Rule #1: No character will be motivated by what Vince finds boring. With the immense number of characters in the series, some common motivations are conspicuously absent. Religious faith, for example. Not a single major character is driven by religion.
More importantly, money. In a world of criminal activity, you’d think money would be the primary motivation for at least someone. Not really. Nacho falls in with the Salamanca clan for money, and he deals with the crooked veterinarian behind their backs, also for money. Still, his truly consequential actions—when he betrays Hector and, later, Lalo Salamanca, putting his livelihood at risk, it’s because they threatened his father, whom he loves dearly. Family, not money, drives Nacho.
Certainly, all the drug-dealing characters pursue money at some point, but, as with Nacho, it is never the primary motivation. Walter White? Reputation and power motivate him, as does, to some extent, creative expression. (“You must respect the chemistry.”) Jesse Pinkman? Another character motivated by love. As such, his role in getting his romantic interests (Jane and Andrea) killed is all the more tragic. He also shows loyalty to his friends, and at points, Jesse’s addiction governs his actions. Reputation is not irrelevant for him either—the Chili P on his vanity license plate, for example. Lallo? Another character driven by reputation and power, not money, per se. Gus? His entire arc represents a quest for revenge against Hector for killing Max, the love of his life. His reputation is also quite important to him, as evidenced both in his philanthropic activities and his pride in the quality of the food he serves. Money is, again, not the primary motivation.
Vince’s Rule #2: Any character with only one unwavering primary motivation will be killed for it. Nacho is undoubtedly a case in point, but also Gale. We first (chronologically) see Gale in school, singing Tom Lehrer’s elements song to himself, happy to accept scholarship money and later a job from a gangster (Gus) because it allows him to revel in the beauty of organic chemistry. He bonds with Walter over this form of creative expression, as Walter shares it and respects it. But he is oblivious to the threat he becomes when Walter realizes Gus will try to replace him with Gale as soon as Gale learns all of the tricks behind Walter’s meth production.
Chuck’s primary motivation is a narrow-minded ideal: the law as the chief good. Because he doesn’t see Jimmy as lawyer material, he betrays him and doesn’t see Jimmy’s attempts at revenge coming. Chuck’s insanity and paranoia seem suppressed at points where he is in lawyer mode, and they progress to a tragic end when Jimmy undermines Chuck’s work on behalf of a key client while leaving Chuck thinking himself responsible. Sure, there is a side plot about how their mother always loved Jimmy more, leading to jealousy, which contributes to Chuck working against Jimmy’s interests, but Chuck sublimates these feelings, convincing himself he actually strives to preserve the integrity of the legal profession. He spirals out of control and dies.
Vince’s Rule #3: Characters with conflicting motivations are the most interesting. Jimmy/Saul/Gene, certainly. He’s a grifter, and enjoying the con motivates him throughout the show. However, at times, his deep love for Kim, his need for respect from Kim and Chuck, his enjoyment of his reputation, and his need to stick up for the exploited (the Sandpiper residents, Huell, and others) direct his actions.
Nonetheless, Kim is the most complicated character with the most extreme shifts in motivation. In the show’s last season, her desire for revenge against Howard Hamlin consumed her (until she and Jimmy inadvertently got him killed). Throughout the show, she enjoyed and reveled in the plots she pursued with Jimmy; as Howard surmised in his last moments, the fun of a successful grift drove both of them. Kim felt love and loyalty toward Jimmy, not flinching at standing by his side despite his self-destructive actions and criminality. As with Howard and Chuck, deep respect for the legal profession and a desire to stay within the law’s bounds also recurred.
Yet, this was a character motivated primarily by social justice. She worked her way up from poverty and refocused a lucrative law practice around public defender work. She separated from her much-loved husband when she realized that, when together, they caused more bad than good in the world. When she escaped to a mind-numbing existence as a secretary in Florida, she endured for many years. Ultimately, it wasn’t the lack of intellectual challenge, the fall in status, or the abandonment of material wealth that got to her; it was that she could no longer make a difference. In one of her final actions in the series, she decides to volunteer at a pro bono legal clinic, willing to do even menial work as long as it gets her back to using her legal knowledge to help people.
When Kim’s motivation drifts from social justice and doing what’s right, her character runs into trouble. She always course corrects, regardless of personal consequence. Yes, this fundamentally good character’s willingness to accept a low-status, low-reward life as self-punishment for the harm she’s caused as long as she can in some way make the world a better place constitutes a logical, albeit tragic, end for this character.
And Jimmy? Kim leaves him, and in the next scene, he’s become Saul, with his lavish office, cavorting with prostitutes, serving criminals. Without her to prod him back toward doing good in the world, he drifts toward his fallback persona as the grifter. Later, as Gene, it’s the boredom that leads him back to criminality. And then he sacrifices his plea deal when he realizes he’s morphed beyond the limits where Kim could respect and love him. Her respect was worth more to him than his freedom.
To give his character resolution, at heart a good person but driven toward criminality, there had to be the break with Kim that pushed him into full-blown Saul and, later, the need to redeem himself. Had Kim either died or gone entirely to the dark side, my two alternative predictions, there couldn’t have been redemption for Jimmy.
My surmisal: Jimmy’s need for respect from those he loved and Kim’s to pursue social justice were honorable motivations. These two thus deserved non-tragic ends. The characters primarily driven by reputation and power and willing to do anything to achieve it—Walter and Lallo—needed to die. A character consumed with revenge—Gus—also meets a tragic end.
Gilligan’s universe has a moral code. It may take a while, but in the end, good prevails, and evil is punished.
Characters with only one primary motivation in life won’t achieve it (Nacho and Gale) or will gain it and then lose it (Chuck) because that’s a dull story if they simply get what they want. And not being dull was perhaps the only goal more critical to the show’s vision than upholding its code of morality.