A LURKING DREAD AND DARKNESS
A Look at the First Season of BETTER CALL SAUL with Actress RHEA SEEHORN
By Anthony Volpe
For five seasons, Saul Goodman, Walter White’s colorful and shady consigliere, provided us with the comic relief needed to get through many of Breaking Bad’s tensest moments. When we last saw Saul, he was a fugitive (like his infamous client), and his career as a criminal lawyer was over. His future was uncertain, forever tainted by his association with White’s meth empire. You can’t say that he didn’t have a good run though. Saul made his riches going down the morally questionable path he forged for himself and accepted (albeit reluctantly) the consequences. End of story. This is why I was initially skeptical when I first learned that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were planning on making a spin-off show starring Saul. What more was there to know about Saul? I never really cared all that much about his origins. I just knew that he was a slick, smooth-talking ambulance chaser with an endless supply of burner phones. As a rule, I generally distrust prequels. They often tend to obscure the characters we have grown to know rather than shed any new light on their origins or motivations. Now that Better Call Saul has wrapped up its first season I can confidently say that I am happy to have been mistaken.
Better Call Saul retains the darkly comic elements found in Breaking Bad while mostly forgoing its apocalyptic terror and sublime violence. It’s a lighter show, certainly, but no less tragic. Breaking Bad was driven by Walter White’s consuming desire to be the best at something. If that best meant making the purest meth known to man and becoming a criminal kingpin in the process, then so be it. Saul, or Jimmy McGill, as he is still known as in the first season, is not all that different. He too is driven to be the best. In his case, it’s establishing a reputable law practice like that of his older brother Chuck. His questionable past as scam artist, “Slippin’ Jimmy,” is in the rear view mirror when he arrives to the “Land of Enchantment.” As the series progresses, however, we see that his hard work does not pay off. His attempts at walking the straight and narrow are rebuffed.
It was while re-watching certain episodes from Better Call Saul’s first season that I suddenly thought of Sherwood Anderson’s short story “The Egg.” Anderson, whose literary output (besides Winesburg, Ohio) has largely been overlooked these days in my opinion, was a master at documenting the tragic and grotesque lives of Americans at the turn of the 20th century. His stories melded a dark worldview alongside an equally dark sense of humor. “The Egg” recalls a young boy’s memories of his father’s genuine but pathetic attempts at becoming a successful entrepreneur by opening a bed and breakfast. Unable to overcome his social awkwardness, the boy’s father humiliates himself in front of a lodger one night while trying to perform a magic trick involving an egg. It’s both a funny and incredibly sad moment especially as the boy remembers how his father told him that he was happiest simply raising chickens. It’s only when he became ambitious and felt that he needed to become something more that his problems began in life.
The now familiar trope that is the dark side of the American Dream is ever present in Better Call Saul. In “Marco,” the show”s season finale, Jimmy returns to his roots in Cicero, Illinois, after experiencing betrayal and reconnects with an old scam artist friend. He is “Slippin’ Jimmy” again and what follows is an inspired montage of scams and tricks that lead to a tragic (yet comic) conclusion. In “Felina,” Breaking Bad’s series finale, Walt finally reaches self-realization and admits to his wife that his motivations behind his criminal enterprise were selfish. The violent phantasmagoria that makes up the final fifteen minutes of Breaking Bad is Walt accepting his damnation while taking some neo-Nazis, the corn-fed sociopath Todd, and the duplicitous Lydia to hell with him. “Marco” is nowhere near that dramatic or violent but it leads Jimmy to a similar moment of clarity. Like the father from Anderson’s “The Egg,” Jimmy’s attempts at reaching middle-class respectability, while sincere, end up just being smoke and mirrors, a magic trick done to fool himself and those around him. Now that he has accepted the huckster inside of himself we can get on with the fun stuff and start seeing Saul defend Albuquerque’s gallery of grotesques. Bring on season two.
In the meantime, while we wait for season two, I interviewed Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim, Saul’s close friend (and possible paramour), about her character specifically and the show in general.
Anthony Volpe: I’ve read Kim described as a Jimmy’s love interest, but that seems terribly reductionist as well as sexist. While there is perhaps a tension there, I see more of a complex relationship. How would you describe her relationship with him?
Rhea Seehorn: I agree with you that it is a very complex relationship: with love, history, and honesty. They are mutual confidantes, and there are complex moments of attraction and tension and, conversely, the beautiful simplicity of just enjoying each other’s company with their guards down. In Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s hands, and the hands of all of our wonderful writers and directors, there is nothing sexist or reductionist about it.
AV: What would you say the stakes of Better Call Saul are? With Breaking Bad, you had the themes of hubris and wounded masculinity driving the drama. Personally, I see Saul, so far, as a story of an amoral trickster trying to do the “right” thing but tempted by forbidden fruits of the underground criminal economy. What are the themes driving Better Call Saul in your opinion?
RS: I am fascinated by the almost involuntary desire for humans to want to have some feeling of making something worthwhile of themselves and finding their destinies. And I am riveted by the pain and anguish we have all felt when it feels like we are struggling against that destiny or insisting what others say is our course is not. The universal understanding of that journey, and the forced perspective shift that Vince and Peter provide to characters and audience alike who mistakenly try to take comfort in anything or anyone being just “good” or “bad,” hopefully is an origin story of an everyman that becomes as epic as a superhero’s.
AV: Kim seems like someone who is both rooting for Jimmy to succeed but also has to appease her boss, Howard Hamlin, and navigate the corporate world. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that there will be a showdown between Jimmy and Hamlin at some point. Do you think Kim will remain loyal to Saul as the series progresses?
RS: I wouldn’t give away spoilers, if I knew. I wouldn’t do that to fans.
AV: What can you tell us about the cast and crew of Better Call Saul? What’s it like working with Bob Odenkirk, Vince Gilligan, and Peter Gould as well as the rest of the supporting cast, writers, and crew?
RS: We have many of the same writers and crew members from Breaking Bad. And whether it’s them, or anyone new, it’s one of the greatest groups of people I have ever worked with in entertainment. Whatever you imagine must be the level of intelligence and talent and dedication of a group of people committed to this kind of story telling, it’s that, times 10. The only thing that might be surprising is that even under all that pressure, they are also some of the nicest, most generous people I have worked with.
AV: Albuquerque, as it was in Breaking Bad, is an important character in Better Call Saul. It’s presented as suburban and mundane, yet wild and unpredictable; a vast desert landscape that is heightened by a lurking dread and darkness. What are your actual impressions of the city?
RS: I would say your description is pretty spot on. The people, the locals, are consistently lovely and wonderful and welcoming. But the city, the landscape, is beautiful at turns, mournful at others, small in space, but grand in views, and has a weather that is its own mercurial character. I loved it.
AV: Tuco Salamanca and Mike Ehrmantraut are reoccurring characters from Breaking Bad brought back to life in Better Call Saul. Fans are wondering whether Walt and Jesse will make a cameo, but I”m more curious what other characters, big or small, from the original series would you like to see return?
RS: I was and am a huge Breaking Bad fan and a huge fan of the tremendously talented actors that inhabited that world. I have no idea what Vince and Peter imagine for the future of our series, but I can tell you that playing scenes opposite “Saul” and following his journey, and seeing and watching the “Mike” character’s story lines, is already an amazing thing to be a part of for me.
AV: You”ve done TV and movies, comedy and drama, projects big and small, so I”m curious whose acting career you would want if you could have anyone”s or whose career do you want to model yours after?
RS: I am inspired by so many great actors and have always been a huge TV and film buff. I”ll be the first in the ticket line for any marathons of Gena Rowlands, Julianne Moore, Amy Ryan, Patrica Clarkson, Anna Gunn, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Frances McDormand, Shailene Woodley, etc. There are far too many to name. But I can’t say that I spend much energy wishing I had anyone else’s career but my own. I don’t think it would be very productive; plus, I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve worked with, for anything. I’m tremendously proud of all the stories I have had the incredible pleasure to help tell.
AV: Besides Better Call Saul, what else is on your plate?
RS: I”m not at liberty to discuss any other current projects; however, I can tell you that I”m newly engaged, and have enjoyed working and writing in my new art studio.
Rhea Seehorn is an actress, currently playing the role of Kim on the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.
Written by Anthony Volpe
Photography by Magnus Hastings & Courtesy of Pinnacle PR
Design by Mina Darius