Saturday, May 27, 2017

Round Saul, Flat Goodman

Left to right: Jimmy McGill, ca. 2003; Saul Goodman, ca. 2009; Gene, ca. ?
As a reader, I love fictional constructs; as a nonfiction writer, I'm deeply skeptical of them. I'm more interested in the actual plots that life offers—unpredictable and formless, though stubborn with, and bemused at, those who think they can shape them. "A to B to...H? OK."

I'm on record as being a Vince Gilligan/Peter Gould obsessive. I loved Breaking Bad immoderately, and have been watching its prequel Better Call Saul with great interest. I'm especially curious about the meeting point of Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman, particularly the Saul Goodman who appears in Breaking Bad. By the time that character pops up, Goodman's already a great deal sleazier, shadier, and more morally dubious than the Goodman who's materializing before our eyes weekly on Better Call Saul. I trust that Gilligan, Gould, and company will finesse McGill's evolving toward Goodman expertly, and, probably, surprisingly. One thing they can't finesse, however, is the Goodman who's already appeared on Breaking Bad, who, despite the performance by Bob Odenkirk and the character's crucial role on the show, was far less dimensional a character than Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, than even Hank Schraeder. Saul's interior life remains closed off to us, and he often goes for broad laughs.

However, the McGill/Goodman we're getting on Better Call Saul—made complicated by the drama/tragedy with his brother Chuck, the cautious, likely doomed romantic relationship with Kim Wexler, and his various, half-hearted attempts to stay straight—is a pretty rich and dimensional character. Will the round Saul and the flat Saul meet awkwardly? Will they glue together, or is the complexity we're getting with McGill/Goodman going to overpower the Goodman in Better Call Saul as to render the latter character oddly less than what arrives via Better Call Saul? And what about Gene? I'm not a fiction writer, let alone a prequel writer, so I wouldn't know what to do here. Hope that the tracks laid by Better Call Saul's McGill and Breaking Bad's Saul join up, and aren't laid a fraction of an inch—or a few yards—off.

Time will tell. This recent exchange between Gilligan and Gould about the developing character of Chuck McGill underscores the surprises and maybe the unavoidable pitfalls of prequel territory:
Vince: If you go back and watch the very first episode of Better Call Saul, there’s no indication at all that Chuck McGill is anything but a loving brother who is damaged mentally or emotionally at some level.

He’s got this allergy to electricity that may or may not be a real thing. That’s the big issue for him but the two brothers seem to love each other. Maybe Chuck is a little condescending. Maybe he takes him a little bit for granted. But there’s no indication that he’s going to be the villain of the whole piece.

That’s for a good reason. Because we had no idea.

Peter: That’s right.

Vince: When we started we thought Chuck was going to be like Mycroft Holmes. The guy who helped his brother come up with various scams. In our early mind’s-eye version of this Jimmy would be this rascal who would say to his brother: “How can I stick it to this guy.”

And Chuck would have a pained expression and say “That’s reprehensible. That’s not the way the law is supposed to work. However, having said this… hypothetically speaking…”

There’s an alternate universe in which that happens and it would have been fun.

But something happened along the way. You describe how it came to you.

Peter: To me, the moment was watching Michael and Bob do the very first scene between Jimmy and Chuck. A scene in the pilot episode that Vince and I wrote together. Just as Vince said, Chuck was there to be a burden to Jimmy. He humanized Jimmy by having someone to take care of. I don’t think our thinking was much more sophisticated than that.

But we both saw something in Michael McKean’s performance. A tremendous pride. Michael brought to this character not just vulnerability. He wasn’t just a big baby who needed to be taken care of. He was someone who had towering pride.

When we went back to the writer’s room, we said “We invented this character to tell us something about Jimmy. But what is it like from Chuck’s point of view?” The more we thought about it, the more we thought about how hard it is to be Jimmy’s older brother. There’s a jealousy there. That pride was a shield that Chuck was living behind. That fascinated us. The best thing about doing a series like this is that the characters get to talk back to you. You get to observe the performances of the actors and take that knowledge back to the writer’s room and use it to shape the story.

We started off the season Chuck was going to be more or less a hapless burden. Maybe even Hamlin’s victim. By the end of the season, Hamlin was Chucks’ reluctant minion. There was nothing we had to change, it was observing how Michael played the character.

UPDATE: This, from Better Call Saul reddit user ArmsmasterFestil, suggests how the writers might link Round Saul and Flat Goodman:
There are actually more than a few times [in Breaking Bad] where Saul shows compassion and decency, glimmers of Jimmy I guess. In the podcast the writers have even talked about it. One of the season 2 podcasts I believe. Saul gets pissed at Walt for poisoning Brock, and only stays in his employ because Walt threatens him. He's even overly nice to Brock and Andrea earlier in the season, he stays and talks to Brock for a little bit, when all he really has to do is drop off a check. He tries to convince Jesse to talk to Andrea and not leave her in the dark. So every once and awhile we see flickers of the old Jimmy, which makes his character that much more interesting in my opinion.

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