Better Call Saul: On the High Art of Centering Whiteness

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in Better Call Saul (2015)
Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in Better Call Saul (2015)

Among the pantheon of white-man art, including the Coen brothers and David Lynch for me, the creators of Better Call Saul offer a finely crafted and deeply flawed series that is really hard not to look at and enjoy.

This prequel to Breaking Bad shares many of the strengths (beautifully and finely filmed, nuanced and morally ambiguous characters) and most of the flaws (centering whiteness, ignoring or running roughshod over brown and black characters) with its source. As I am nearing the end of the series on Netflix (with the newest season on AMC), I often find Saul better than the original, in part because I think it unpacks extremely well being a lawyer against the moral ambiguity of many compelling characters (even as I have no real expertise in whether or not the series captures the law in any sort of valid way).

Saul fits into my fascination with moral ambiguity, notably Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue as one example. But I have to admit that I am primarily drawn to how well made the series is; as TV, it is just damned compelling to look at. (I often find myself seeing comic book panels, still camera shots that do as much as the acting or dialogue.)

As I noted above, I have this affection for Lynch and the Coen brothers, although I would put the creators of Saul closer to the latter.

Well into my 20s and my young teaching and writing career, I was an uncritical (and self-contradictory) devotee of a sort of John Gardner “craft idealism” that had too much grounding in modernism and white-man art arguments that posed craft over (for example) diversity of characters and voices in the name of “universal”—a humanities/fine art veneer like “objectivity” to protect the status of white men.

In those formative years, I wasn’t paying very close attention to the tension among my love and admiration for Ernest Hemingway, Alice Walker, John Gardner, Ralph Ellison, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich (just to offer a brief array).

I recognized some of that tension directly, then, in Season 3, Episode 10, Lantern, of Saul, when Kim Wexler, hyper-ambitious romantic partner of Jimmy/Saul, is left injured after a car accident.

Wexler, distracted by her newest client’s case while driving on a dangerous highway, crosses three lanes of traffic and crashes into rocks on an embankment. After returning home battered and with a broken right arm, the law office assistant, Francesca, brings Wexler her law files and has rearranged her schedule so that Wexler can salvage a deadline with the new client and maintain her commitment to her main client.

We watch as Wexler immediately drops into her Type A self-sacrificing persona. But Wexler pauses, freezes in fact, before telling Francesca to cancel the new client rescheduling and push forward her commitments with her main client.

The next time we see them together, Francesca is on her cell talking to the new client, and recommending a different law firm, while Wexler grabs a couple handfuls of DVDs.

Later when Jimmy/Saul returns to the newly relaxed Wexler on her couch, Kim asks Jimmy what he wants to watch next, handing him Monty Python before musing about watching To Kill a Mockingbird, “again.”

Jimmy and Kim then have what I imagine to be a conversation with a much different meaning than intended.

In the popular consciousness, the film Mockingbird is an iconic moment for the actor Gregory Peck but also a window (like the novel it is based on) into the white savior narrative that few in the U.S. are willing or able to confront.

There is much to unpack in Wexler saying she was motivated as a child to be Atticus Finch, but to the show’s credit, Kim does make fun of her idealism when she responds to Jimmy’s dig about becoming a lawyer to change the world; she acknowledges she is working herself almost literally to death to make a successful local bank into a successful regional bank.

Again, where I think Saul excels is in the many types of lawyers the show explores, knocking the sort of idealistic and hokey shine off the Finch iconic lawyer myth.

Yet, Saul for all the craft and care isn’t much different than Mockingbird for its inability to avoid possibly the most common flaw in pop culture in the U.S., centering whiteness.

While Walter White in Break Bad can be seen as something of a twisted Finch white savior, Jimmy/Saul is certainly not that, but remains the center of a morally ambiguous and morally corrupt world where lawyers, police, and the Mexican cartel all intersect in ways that do not leave anyone in the best of light—even Jimmy/Saul’s Finch-like brother, Chuck.

Michael Mando in Better Call Saul (2015)
Michael Mando in Better Call Saul (2015)

By comparison, Saul is far more aware of and attentive to black and brown characters; on balance, characterization, along with camera work, is an admirable craft in both series, I think.

The Salamanca/Fring dichotomy is fascinating and tense even as those who watched Break Bad know where these men’s lives are leading.

Saul is rich with allusion and references as yet another hallmark of craft-focused art; yet, even as we may enjoy and value this craft, I think we must remain vigilant to set that aside and recognize that while care is taken in many of the elements of making a series, there is enough carelessness to take the series to task.

Mike and Nacho are fascinating ancillary characters (although many of these types of characters often feel as important as Jimmy/Saul)—the former yet another centered white man and the latter, a powerful example of the type of diversity that deserves more than it receives.

With Saul, I am torn, but I think it unintentionally makes a case against itself (the use of Mockingbird, for example) that suggests centering whiteness is a feature and a flaw of this sort of film-making craft, but to acknowledge that doesn’t mean this flaw has to be fatal.