'Saul' And The Limits Of Hustle
The second season of Better Call Saul begins Monday night. The first, which concluded last spring, came down to one word: hustle. And, more specifically, that season came down to the story of hustle that isn't quite enough.
Throughout that season, Jimmy McGill, the well-meaning, hard-working striver we know is destined for an unscrupulous future as Breaking Bad's criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, hustles constantly. While his early days involved straight-up scamming (pretending to fall and hurt himself in order to con unsuspecting bystanders into a settlement), most of his adult life is spent doing ordinary things lots of working-class folks do every day – things it takes to survive. He pretends he has a secretary. He begs for the worst-of-the-worst public defender cases because it's the only business he can drum up.
But he's trying. In an effort to put an unsavory adolescence behind him, Jimmy consistently chooses the difficult but honest path. He thinks and rethinks the moral consequences of his actions, and when faced with two choices, he almost always ends up choosing the one that is harder to do but easier to live with having done.
Part of what makes Jimmy's uphill battle — the one we know is uphill because of the distinctive structure of the show as a prequel to Breaking Bad —so hard to watch is exactly how familiar that hustle is. Anyone who is scraping by who wants any chance at changing his station in life has to work every channel and create every opportunity, hoping for a better outcome than Jimmy is going to get.
And for a lot of people, at least something about Jimmy's story resonates. While Jimmy worked to build his career, he lived in the back of a nail salon. While I worked an unpaid internship to build mine, I was a live-in housekeeper or rented a room in a boarding house. Jimmy develops a persona to cater to elderly female clients; I developed a persona to make some extra tips while working as a cocktail waitress. Most folks have, at some point, forced themselves to smile through one rejection after the other and keep on moving.
Anyone who has undertaken that hustle wants it to work, wants it to be enough. So it's the familiarity with the aspiration to goodness that makes it sadder when, in the season finale, we see the ambitious, charming and principled Jimmy just beginning to turn into the skeezy lawyer for crooks we've always known he'll become. It's sadder when you see yourself in him and you know where it's going.
Jimmy tries really, really hard, after all, to make an honest living. He wants desperately to pull himself up by his bootstraps the way he thinks he should, but each time he does what he's supposed to, the thing that is difficult and arduous and moral, he gets the short end of the stick. He goes home to an office in a broom closet that smells like acetone, and to a phone that never blinks with messages from clients. Jimmy never sees good karma catching up with him. So when he reflects as he did last season on giving up somewhere around $800,000 in the name of justice and acknowledges that the only thing that stopped him was a sense of moral obligation, he says with complete defeat, "It's never stopping me again."
There's likely a queasy feeling of recognition in anyone who has felt dangerously close to this point, let alone anyone who has ever reached it. What if we had been rejected just one more time? What if one amazing opportunity presented itself and all we had to do was not worry about the ethics? What if there was just one more setback and we truly needed the money to get by?
In our first glimpse of Jimmy in the season two trailer, we hear him say, "I've been doing the right thing for all these years now. And where has it gotten me? Nowhere."
If you've been just one or two bad days away from slipping into the position where Jimmy finds himself, Jimmy is you without your support system, without anything to fall back on, and without any reason left to believe that doing the right thing is valuable or valued. The pain of watching Jimmy become Saul is unlikely to get less familiar or less painful in season two.
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