AFT is celebrating the end of Breaking Bad by exploring our favorite characters from the show. Earlier this week, Mike discussed Hank Schrader and Joel profiled Jesse Pinkman. Today, Mike steps into the office of “criminal” attorney Saul Goodman.
Does every town have a Saul Goodman? That question runs through my mind every time I drive by one of David Komie’s billboards. My fellow Austinites know what I’m talking about; if you live in our part of Texas, you’ve probably seen one of Komie’s signs that feature the tagline “The Attorney that Rocks” printed in grungy font, advertising his legal services and perhaps a sweet guitar solo after every deposition. Komie proudly displays his graying dreads and goatee in the ads, and his detached grin and sloppy style seem to say, “It’s cool, man,” or “Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here.”
Komie looks like he works hard to present a cool slacker-meets-counterculture vibe and attitude, probably in the hopes of attracting a certain type of clientele. I’m not saying the guy is a criminal lawyer, like the shady strip mall attorney Bob Odenkirk plays on Breaking Bad, but his cheesy billboards do call to mind Saul’s gaudy park bench ads and ridiculous TV commercials.
But unlike Komie, Saul Goodman doesn’t present himself as a hippie holdover looking to bail out the neighborhood pot dealer. Saul’s image is just as cheesy as Komie’s, but he rocks a different brand of tacky – bad suits, loud ties, and a Bluetooth headset stapled to his ear. Saul’s image is important because, well, for one it’s hilarious — and a little levity is always a welcome thing on Breaking Bad — and, of course, it tells us a lot about who Saul is as a character.
He’s a sleazy, greedy, fast-talking corrupt lawyer who, like Komie, seems to go out of his way to make himself accessible to a certain type of client. As Jessie informed Walt in “Better Call Saul,” the Season 2 episode that introduced us to Odenkirk’s crooked counselor, Saul is Albuquerque’s go-to guy for springing low-level thugs out of the pen. He’s also the guy who’ll go to bat for any disreputable party in a bogus personal injury case, as long as the client can pay. His bench ads should read, “If you’re intimidated by those classy downtown attorneys who play by the rules and use fancy phrases like ‘moral probity,’ then ya better Call Saul!”
But Saul is much more than a two-bit hustler with a law degree. The brilliant thing about Saul is that he’s actually a highly competent attorney. He’s also a master problem solver, and he’s one of the most charismatic and connected guys in town – everyone is pals with Saul, from judges and cops to hit men and international drug dealers. The other brilliant thing about Saul is that he’s got his feet deeper into the criminal underworld than anyone, including the cops, would ever suspect.
When Walt first met Saul, he wrote him off as a seedy and harmless means to an end, a fast way to get one of his meth peddlers, Badger, out of lockup. But by the end of that episode, Saul proved to be a sharp, resourceful, and ambitious criminal mind. And it’s important to note that Saul was the first guy to see Walt’s potential to become a big time player in the drug trade. He encouraged Walt to think big, and he’s the one who hooked Walt up with Gus Fring … and we all know what happened to Walt after that.
Saul is much more competent and connected than he looks, and it sometimes makes you wonder whether his loud image and those cheap commercials and bench ads are designed to throw the fuzz off his scent. There’s no way the DEA would ever suspect a guy like Saul – who plasters his face all over town — is laundering money for a fledgling drug empire. The cops suspect Saul is corrupt, but they clearly have no idea.
Walt, Jesse and even Mike Ehrmantraut and Skyler have relied on Saul’s unique criminal expertise to help pull off some of their more grisly crimes, and while Saul will break every rule in the book to help accomplish his client’s goals, the fun twist is that he actually has something of a moral code. Saul values the attorney-client privilege more than most lawyers, and he’s not the kind of guy who would ever want to get blood on his hands. And when Walt asks him to do something particularly cruel or appalling, like tricking Hank into thinking Marie was in a car accident or stealing the ricin cigarette from Jesse, Saul does so under protest and expresses his regret and concern about being involved in such dirty work.
One of the most interesting scenes between Saul and Walt happened in the Season 5 premiere. The scene came after Walt had manipulated Jesse into murdering Gale, poisoned little Brock, and killed Fring. Saul was visibly terrified of Walt at that point, and who could blame him – by that time Walt had fully embraced the dark side, and he showed no sign of turning back. Spurred by his sense of self-preservation, Saul attempted to part ways with Walt for good, but Walt backed him into a corner of his law office and said, “We’re done when I say we’re done.”
The power of that scene, and how it signals a major shift in Walt and Saul’s relationship, is clear to anyone who has been following these characters since the beginning. It calls to mind the final scene of Saul’s first episode in Season 2, in which Saul was the one intimidating Walt and schooling him in the art of criminal behavior. How things have changed.
Thankfully, despite all the darkness the show constantly serves up, we can usually count on Saul to lighten things up. He gets all the best clever snarky one-liners, and it feels like the writers take a particular delight in crafting his crude but hilarious turns of phrase. I could list my favorite Sal Goodman quotes here, but why not let the man himself do the talking:
Odenkirk — who comedy nerds know and love from Mr. Show with Bob and David, The Larry Sanders Show and The Ben Stiller Show – was an inspired choice to play Saul. His comedic timing is perfect, and he excels at selling Saul’s moments of panic, doubt and regret. It comes as no surprise that show creator Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the writer credited with creating the character, are reportedly working on a Breaking Bad spinoff that would center on Saul.
We still don’t know if the proposed spinoff would be a prequel or a follow-up to Breaking Bad. I suppose it all depends on whether or not Saul survives the final episodes, which premiere this Sunday on AMC. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Saul ended up being one of the only characters who emerged unscathed after all is said and done. The man has been known to work some magic, and the strip mall and those park benches just wouldn’t be the same without the tagline “Better call Saul.”