La Familia es Todo: The ties that bind in Better Call Saul

In Season Three of Breaking Bad, Hector Salamanca brutally demonstrates to his young nephews that “family is everything.” The sentiment is reciprocated later by his nephew Lalo in Season Five of Better Call Saul when he vows revenge against Gus Fring.

Better Call Saul is not a traditional family show, but at its core it is a show about family, specifically the disintegration of the toxic McGill/Wexler family that leads to emergence of Saul Goodman. But there is also the corporate family represented by Howard Hamlin, the Cartel, and tying everyone together is ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, a man so fiercely protective of his family that he will go to any lengths to keep them safe.

Jimmy’s journey towards Saul Goodman is grounded in his relationship with his elder brother Chuck. In the first series, Jimmy wants nothing more than to earn his brother’s respect. After years of grifting as Slippin’ Jimmy, he knuckles down to work in the mailroom at HHM, and eventually passes the bar exam. Chuck offers platitudes but is privately horrified. “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.” Chuck blocks him from a seat at HHM even though Howard was willing to give him a chance, and then sets about getting Jimmy disbarred for life “for his own good.”

When Jimmy retaliates, it sets off a chain of events that leaves Chuck broken, humiliated and suicidal, and Jimmy emotionally scarred by his brother’s death. Jimmy is disbarred for 12 months but this allows him to develop his business selling cell phones to criminals under the brand name Saul Goodman.

Kim at first seems to have a more positive influence on Jimmy. She is a straight A student who plays by the rules, she is a good corporate citizen, and is rewarded for her diligence, but she feels restricted. She gets a vicarious thrill out of Jimmy’s rule breaking, and later on, she not only joins Jimmy in his plot against Howard but pushes him to even more extreme lengths. For example, while Jimmy offers the Kettlemans money to play a role in their scheme, Kim simply threatens them with jail. Kim is fearless in the face of extreme danger, standing up to Lalo and her corporate bosses, while Jimmy is at heart a coward. As Mike notes in Season Six, Kim is “made of sterner stuff.”

But Kim’s relentless drive to bring Howard down ends in tragedy. And after being forced to lie to Howard’s widow about his “addiction,” she realises she has to get as far away from Jimmy as possible, and the law, for both their sakes.

“We are bad for each other… Jimmy, I have had the time of my life with you but we are bad for everyone around us, other people suffer because of us. Apart, we are okay but together, we are just poison.”

The moment that Jimmy finally signs the divorce papers and Kim disappears to Florida, is the moment Saul Goodman emerges fully formed.

Another key to the development of Saul Goodman is Jimmy’s antagonistic relationship with HHM, and the corporate world in general. Jimmy is always the outsider. He tries to adapt to the corporate culture at Davis & Main but can’t or won’t play by the rules. The corporation demands conformity and obedience, hard work and unquestioning dedication to the cause. In a symbolic gesture before getting himself fired, Jimmy breaks the cup holder in his company car because it can’t hold the “second best lawyer” coffee cup Kim gave him. In the finale to Season Four, Jimmy tells a bemused scholarship applicant at HHM that they will never accept her and then launches into a self-referencing rant:

“You don’t need them. They’re not going to give it to you? So what? You’re going to take it, and you are going to do whatever it takes… You are not going to play by the rules, you are going your own way, you are going to do what they won’t do, you’re going to be smart, you’re going to cut corners, and you are going to win.”

Jimmy’s corporate nemesis is Howard Hamlin, the immaculately dressed, charming and courteous public face of HHM. But behind the façade there is ruthless intent. For Howard, “the firm is everything,” He punishes Kim because she vouched for Jimmy at Davis & Main, and even turns against Chuck when he becomes a liability rather than an asset:

“You’ve let personal vendettas turn your focus away from what’s best for HHM. You’ve put your needs first to our detriment.”

Howard simply cannot understand why Jimmy is persecuting him, and in the end, it is his desire to confront Jimmy that leads him into a deadly encounter with Lalo.

While he is repelled by the corporate world, Jimmy seems much more comfortable with the Cartel, and the Salamanca family in particular. In some ways, they are kindred spirits; they are both rule breakers who do things on their own terms for monetary gain, and both they hate the corporation. The Salamanca family understands that it is the corporate might of Gus Fring that is the real threat to the Cartel not the Feds. Los Pollos Hermanos is part of the huge German industrial conglomerate (and drug dealer) Madrigal Electromotive GmbH that has more resources than the Cartel can dream of. Gus is the dark mirror of Howard, both are obsessed with their appearance, order and cleanliness, they are both polite and courteous but deadly.

Jimmy is drawn into the cartel by Nacho, the one person who really doesn’t want to be there. From the start of the first series, Nacho is always framed as being apart from Tuco and the other family members. He tells Don Eladio that he wants to go his own way. Eladio laughs and tells him he is in the wrong business. Nacho is trapped and ends up being a sacrificial pawn in the war between Fring and the Salamancas. But before he dies, Nacho curses both houses and gets a guarantee from Mike that his father will not be touched.

Mike understands Nacho because for him too, family is everything. Like Michael Corleone, Mike’s drive to protect and provide for his family draws him deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld but unlike Corelone, he always maintains a moral centre and a code of honour. As he tells the dilettante drug dealer Pryce, “you can be a good criminal or a bad criminal but you need to accept that you are a criminal.” Mike starts working for Madrigal in Season Four, primarily as a way to clean the money he got from ripping off the Salamanca’s truck. However, Mike’s work ethic means he cannot just sit at home and collect the cash and he ends up doing security audit on the firm.

Having to kill Werner Ziegler was a step too far for Mike and he briefly goes off the rails but he is eventually drawn back by Gus’s promise of steady work and the opportunity to destroy the Salamancas. Hector had earlier threatened Mike’s granddaughter, and that is something he can never forgive.

There is one more element of the family worth noting, the older generation. Jimmy gets his big break as a lawyer by representing the elderly in assisted living facilities who are being ripped off by greedy corporations. Jimmy is in it for the money of course but he does have a real connection with his clients; “old people love me,” he explains.

It is nice touch therefore at the end of the show that “Gene Takovitch,” is unmasked by Marion, a feisty old lady played by American icon and fan of the show, Carol Burnett. Like everyone, she is at first charmed by Gene but her suspicions about his real intentions grow. One slip by Jimmy, mentioning Albuquerque on the phone, is all it takes for Marion to uncover the truth.

In the final episode, Saul Gone, James McGill seeks to make amends with his dead brother and ex-wife, and accepts an 86-year sentence from the court that Saul Goodman had earlier negotiated down to just seven years in a minimum-security prison.

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