What “Better Call Saul” Teaches Us About Friendship
On the fascinating co-dependent relationship at the heart of AMC's hit series
Noted 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas once said, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” While he might not have had the psychological science to back him up at the time, Ol’ Tommy was onto something.
Humans need food, water, air and shelter to survive on a physiological level. But it’s friendship that has helped the race thrive. Our ancestors from 52 million years ago, it’s believed, banded together because they saw strength in numbers. As more social beings, we became less susceptible to the violent whims of predators and taught each other survival skills, like how to hunt and make clothing. That’s why, today, people who maintain friendships are not only happier and healthier, but less daunted by challenges. Human brains also operate better when people work together, which helps explain why when you stand in front of a hill alone it will appear steeper and more difficult to climb than if you approach it with a friend by your side.
There are no friends in Better Call Saul. There are friendly coworkers, perhaps, as well as family, and a romantic partnership that leads to marriage. But no true friends exist on the program. For a prequel series where many of its major characters are likely doomed, that makes a lot of sense. Friends could have helped them better deal with the potentially violent whims of the drug lord predators on the show and live a happier — if not more extended — life.
Friends may become more important to us than family and even spouses as we age. They are vetted over time and can be more easily discarded when they fail to fulfill their duties. So the friends who are still around when we’re well into adulthood — like the characters in Saul — are authentically good and valued. However, we do not choose our family; we’re stuck with them, for better and worse. While we decide who our spouses are like we do our friends, the pressure to maintain spousal relationships is much higher, given the associated binding legal agreement. Like with family, this can lead to unsavory dynamics.
But friends are not quite as emotionally invested in each other as family members and spouses are. Thus, they are more impartial. As such, besides just outright performing favors to get them out of trouble, friends could have helped the characters in Better Call Saul make better choices and avoid conflicts with relatively neutral advice. Instead, these friendless characters constantly engage in high-wire balancing acts with no net, measuring ways to best leverage workplace colleagues for their own gain, while compromising their integrity in the eyes of loved ones, solidifying their path to ruin.
Jimmy McGill, our protagonist, can’t shed his huckster past as he embarks on his mission to win the favor of his successful older brother, lawyer Chuck, by becoming an attorney himself. The closest thing to a pure friend we ever see in Jimmy’s orbit is Marco Pasternak, who deeper into the past runs scams with Jimmy. We see them tag team marks for money, enabling each other’s criminal behavior, which is hardly friendship in its purest form. They’re technically more coworkers than friends; the foundation of their relationship is transactional, with each performing a role in their scams to their mutual benefit. When Marco pretends to be passed out in an alley, Jimmy convinces their unwitting victim to give him cash for the fake Rolex he lifted off Marco’s carcass. The money is, of course, later split between Jimmy and Marco. After Marco’s literal passing during a later try of that same scam, Jimmy is gifted Marco’s pinky ring and wears it as a symbol of his enduring corruption — the character flaw Chuck can’t ever abide by, the driver of much of their conflict.
Like a friend, Chuck gives Jimmy advice, but from an older brother it rings more like guidance, and Jimmy’s going to do life on his own terms. Even Chuck and Jimmy’s family ties are susceptible to shredding under the strain of transactional expectations and enabling behaviors, which ultimately are not a very far departure from what we’ve witnessed between Jimmy and Marco. In caring for Chuck while his older brother “recovers” from a clearly psychosomatic illness — an allergy to electromagnetic waves — Jimmy gives Chuck greater license to continue the charade and not face what’s really bothering him: among other issues, loneliness and regret after the end of his marriage and a blown chance at reconciliation. In spite of his emotional troubles, with Jimmy entrenched as a servant, Chuck can enjoy his place atop the high ground in their interpersonal dynamic. On the other side of the coin, Jimmy takes pride in his subservience. It’s a show of love, something that feels honorable to Jimmy and flies in the face of his otherwise underhanded dealings with the rest of the world. So they’re both getting something out of Chuck’s imagined illness, which in a sense he’s used to scam himself and, by proxy, Jimmy into an insidious codependent relationship.
Nacho Varga, the double agent working for divided factions of a drug cartel, also disregards the counsel of a family member, his father, who appears more loving and with less of an agenda than Chuck in the Jimmy situation. Nacho thinks Dad doesn’t understand the complete picture of his son’s troubles or the potential consequences of Nacho’s actions. While that may be true to some degree, Nacho’s father is certainly perceptive enough to know his son needs help. Still, Nacho rejects him out of an unwillingness to believe in his father’s wisdom and, perhaps more profoundly, out of pride. We see a similar call and response between Mike Ehrmantraut and his daughter-in-law, Stacey. Like Nacho’s dad, Stacey can sense when Mike is in distress. Like Nacho, Mike constantly reassures her that everything’s kosher and that he’ll continue to provide for her in his murdered son’s stead, while doing bad things she would undoubtedly disapprove of.
With all the baggage that comes with familial relations, Saul producers seem to say, even the best advice from family is buffeted away by the receiver, who feels a need to overcompensate for a perceived weakness, shortcoming, or flaw. (Family members are great at cutting down each other, aren’t they?) The legacy of their familial union, powered by the ups and particularly the downs of any family history, clouds their judgment. On the other hand, a friend — residing one step outside anyone’s messy family zone, while still offering a form of love — is in the perfect position to provide more mindfully delivered directives that can usher those they care about to safety.
In season four, Mike seems to be developing a friendship with Werner Ziegler, the structural engineer eventually tasked with managing the band of German workers who will build out Gustavo Fring’s underground mega meth lab. But Mike and Werner could never be friends. Not only are they coworkers, and therefore by default engaging in a transactional relationship, Mike is Werner’s superior. There are predetermined conditions unto which they can function as a friend unit, which strips away any purity their relationship might have had. Werner’s disobedience of Mike — he escapes a worker compound to rendezvous with his wife after a bout of homesickness — leads to his execution at the hand of his budding friend. Mike’s own demise arrives late in Breaking Bad, after he fails to follow his own instincts to stay away from Walter White. A friend, like Werner could have been under different circumstances, might’ve convinced Mike to behave in ways more aligned with his individual values.
In Saul’s blue-tinged flashbacks — within the flashback that is the entire series — we see the genesis of Jimmy’s relationship with Kim Wexler, which begins at the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. They work together on the lowest rung of the staff, processing and delivering mail among other tasks. Jimmy and Kim’s work-friend relationship slowly develops into love, though they never say the word outright. (The only time their bond is actually defined that way, incredibly, comes from drug dealer general Lalo Salamanca, when Kim questions him in jail about Jimmy’s disappearance late in season five.) Their romance is arguably the most interesting and nuanced “will they/won’t they” pairing in the history of television drama. Somehow, while they are, for much of the series they don’t. Kim keeps holding the morally uncouth Jimmy at arm’s length, and sometimes Jimmy pulls back independently, out of fear his dirty dealings will harm her.
But Jimmy and Kim always manage to meet each other where they are. They give and take as the moment seems to dictate, satisfying the loyal, sympathetic viewer with the growing strength of their couplehood, as businesslike as it may seem at times. As we head into the final season, the premiere airing this evening on AMC, we have a better understanding of why their relationship has played out this way than at any other point. Outside of her isolated, playful scamming alongside “Slippin’ Jimmy,” where she adopted the persona of “Giselle Saint Claire,” Kim’s been the voice of reason for Jimmy, particularly after the death of his brother, Chuck. For so long she seemed so good that one had to wonder why she was hanging around with a troublemaker like Jimmy in the first place. But that all changed with Kim’s firing of two finger pistols at Jimmy in the season five finale. She doubled down on the plan to take out Howard Hamlin, their former colleague, even as Jimmy tried to talk her out of it. Completing the role reversal, Kim mimics Jimmy’s double point from the season four finale, when he insisted “S’all good, man,” after faking a story about how Chuck inspired him to become a lawyer in a plea for reinstatement to a New Mexico State Bar committee.
Like with Nacho, Kim’s absence from Breaking Bad means one way or another she won’t be in Jimmy’s — or Saul’s — life much longer. Now, it appears as though she’s sealing her own fate by giving in to the devil on her shoulder, which has apparently always been there, even as she did her best to engage with an angel above the other arm for such a long time. She’ll have to pay for her sins, and given the lengths the writers went to make Kim such a likable character, it’s probably going to be with a gut-wrenchingly pretty penny. We know Saul lives on, but in the black-and-white, post-Breaking Bad flash forwards, there’s a question of exactly how long with him, too.
What would a friend have done for Kim and Jimmy? We’ll never know. They have work and each other. They eventually get married, but not totally out of love, and co-mingle work with their relationship on a frequent basis. With that approach, they are devoid of friends — pure, non-judgmental figures who could have steered them out of harm’s way more effectively than family and, as it turns out, each other. For their Better Call Saul characters and all the others facing an inevitable downfall, in what is a workplace legal drama at its core, they should have perhaps minded a second Thomas Aquinas quote about friendship: “Moral science is better occupied when treating of friendship than of justice.”
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