Better Call Saul’s Liberal Guilt Trip

Still image, Better Call Saul, courtesy AMC.

Spoiler alerts for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul to follow. I am going to critique the ending of Better Call Saul and praise the ending of Breaking Bad. That does not mean that the ending of Better Call Saul was “bad” or the ending of Breaking Bad was “good”. If anything an enormously frustrating ending to an art piece is probably better than a very satisfying one.

Walter White is the protagonist in Breaking Bad. This show starts with a critique of the for-profit American health care system when Walt has cancer and will die because he cannot pay for treatment. By far the biggest villains of the show are his old friends Gretchen and Elliot who stole Walt’s genius chemistry ideas to make a giant corporation. Walt is a high school teacher.

The fact that the genius cannot get health care while the hacks who stole his ideas can do anything they want exposes the supposed meritocracy of capitalism. Any student of the founding of large corporations knows that the ones who get rich are the ones who are good at breaking the law, not the ones who come up with clever ideas. Gretchen and Elliot still want to be friends with Walt and his wife Skyler but only so they can humiliate Walt at every turn.

When they find out Walt has cancer they want to pay for his treatment. Walt heroically refuses their offer. His loving wife Skyler wants Walt alive so he must lie to her and say his insurance really can pay for his health care. Walt finds another way of paying for his treatment by cooking meth with his old student Jessie.

Walter shows he is a genius again and becomes the best meth dealer around. His racist brother-in-law Hank works for the DEA and is considered by society to be a good guy. In reality, Hank is completely incompetent and fails to see Walt as the main meth dealer right beneath his nose until the end of the show. Hank brutally beats up Jessie in a pathetic act of toxic masculinity that fails to solve anything.

Walt comes to see Jessie as his real son as Jessie is the only person who doesn’t judge him. Walt’s son Walt Jr. is naive as he sees Uncle Hank as a hero who catches bad guys, even changing his name to Flynn to distance himself from his father who is too intellectual for his taste.

Walt Jr. foolishly thinks there are moral ways to reproduce surplus value and immoral ways to. He doesn’t recognize that capitalism as a system that follows its own logic is far more destructive than any bad person could be to the planet. He doesn’t see that Walt’s meth dealing rises out of a crisis of reproduction of surplus value rather than a moral failing by his father.

Walt Jr. always saw Walt as inferior to his uncle Hank. Uvalde Hank never went after the bad guys like Gretchen and Elliot. He ignored them, and became obsessed with a macho wrestling match with the drug dealers themselves, showing that his perversion mirrored Walt’s.

Walt Jr. thinks Hank makes him safe. Silly Walt Jr. In reality Walt Jr. is living in the most destructive time in human history as the entire planet is sacrificed in order to reproduce a life so mediocre that anyone with a brain like Walt would just get bored and start dealing meth.

Walt Jr. is living through a silent genocide of the planet where unprecedented destruction is done with a smiling face. Those who protect this system are rewarded not just because they keep the machine going but also because they make us feel better.

In this way Breaking Bad and its hero Walt may be more of an ideological danger than the subtlety jarring Better Call Saul which I will get to in a moment.

Walt stays loyal to his family throughout the show even as they turn on him. Walt piles up bodies but it is clear that the bodies originated from the ultra-rich Gretchen and Elliot and not our hero Walt because of the poverty of life they cause by accumulating surplus value.

In the season finale, Walt dies on his own terms. He manages to intimidate Gretchen and Elliot into leaving money aside for his family and he dies saving Jessie from a group of white supremacists who he kills in a Cowboy gunfight.

Better Call Saul takes place before Breaking Bad and ends after it. The protection of this show is entirely after Breaking Bad ends. The main character is Walt’s lawyer Saul. Old characters make cameos in the show including the cop Hank who now makes jokes that are politically correct towards his Latinx partner. Hank is no longer just the guy seen as a good guy by the characters in the show. Now the viewer is supposed to believe it too.

In the season finale, Saul tells us he is motivated by money. We are disappointed, thinking he was in the game for the fun of it as his character seemed to be. If he was in it for the money he would have been a regular lawyer rather than a conman. However, this is just a setup for the pivot later in the episode.

The season finale is frustrating because after Saul survives years with a fake identity he is caught. However, he is a slick conman who can win over a jury so the Feds agree to take his life sentence down to seven years.

Saul has outsmarted the law again but his ex-wife and former partner in crime is ridden with guilt over the man that was killed by a third party when they took a prank too far. Saul decides to confess to a range of crimes under oath to get a life sentence. The only thing he gets for this is one shared cigarette with his ex Kim.

We learn that Saul cares about something more than money or games. He cares about this woman. But what kind of person can only love you if you are in prison for your entire life? In Saul’s original deal he was going to go to a white-collar prison full of perks. But after his confession, he goes into a regular prison with human rights abuses, rape, slave labor, and the like. This is all painted as romantic.

The lesson of Better Call Saul is that it is the right thing to confess all your sins and rot to your death in a cell. Saul, like Walt, and like almost all heroes in television, displayed a certain kind of toxic masculinity. Walt was the proud cowboy who stuck it to the elites and his quest is admirable. Saul meanwhile is the cuckold who gains victory by being locked up forever and never accessing his masculinity again.

The problem for liberals who gain pleasure from such a conclusion is that people do exist and people are flawed. Most of those who preach law and order have a family member addicted to drugs or dangerously depressed because this is how the cookie crumbles in this country.

Lock away the problematic person and throwing away the key is the answer for these people. Many white liberals may saw their hero cop Hank turning politically correct to be a sign of progress for the show when this move only made the show more boring. In reality, such a politically correct ending of divine punishment is much more chilling than even the old Western Walter White nodded to on his way out.

Unlike Walter White, Saul Goodman never had a class critique. He, supposedly, was just in it for the money according to the misleading season finale. It seemed more like he was in it for the fun for the rest of the series. Until the last episode when he was there to make us feel better about our transgressions. We gain pleasure from seeing people behind bars and this is more perverted than any criminality. Shame on us for this until we abolish shame along with prisons.

Better Call Saul, made not long after Breaking Bad, shows how quickly television changed and why it is even harder to watch anything than it once was. This might be a good thing in the long run but for now, it’s just another thing that sucks. Old American myths may well be more controversial but the only thing replacing them are new ones. Rather than the settler cowboy we now have the police state. Both are white supremacists in form and the only difference may be between an expanding genocidal state and one that is in deep decline; eating itself from within.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at