The Loveable Saul Goodman
Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman (Better Call Saul) is the exemplar of the shyster lawyer—a knavish pettifogger and con man who is happiest when he is scheming and outsmarting legal opponents, loud-mouth narcissistic boors and condescending big-money legal firms. Ironically, these are also the things that make him such a loveable character! Of course, there IS something rather appealing about the rogue and con-man (think of the Paul Newman character in The Sting). Who among us has not experienced a vicarious thrill when the bank robber gets away with it!
But there is something more interesting and complicated going on with Saul Goodman. His cavalier attitude toward legal ethics often disguises a person who is genuinely bothered when he sees a powerless person being taken advantage of by a powerful institution, or when he recognizes that his own con-man tactics have resulted in harm to someone he cares about. Saul unconditionally loves and respects his girlfriend/wife Kim Wexler in a way that begs comparison to his narcissistic brother Chuck who one intuits always treated his talented wife as a trophy or extension of himself.
Moreover, unlike Chuck, the stiff ‘lawyers’ lawyer’ who loves to immerse himself in the intricacies and finer points of legal argument and case law, and is somewhat of a misanthrope, Saul is the gregarious charmer that people love to be around. He can argue with the best of them, but he is also, as his brother perceptively concludes, a Svengali-like figure who has a mesmerizing influence on others. He knows what people want to hear and can masterfully bend them towards his way of thinking.
And here’s the thing: we like him because there is a little bit of larceny and con-artistry in all of us! We feign affinity with others, give out compliments we don’t really believe to be true, pretend we are interested in what others say, inflate our own accomplishments or moral superiority. We also con ourselves into believing all kinds of wonderful things about ourselves through the affirming stories we tell to others.
The shyster lawyer is often portrayed as someone who is an unscrupulous manipulator. But the reality is that many (not all!) lawyers are like this—indeed they kind of have to be if they are to be winning trial lawyers! They look for procedural outs, search for obscure precedents, work hard to gain the trust and elicit the sympathy of jurors and, in the end, use all the tricks in the rhetorician’s handbook to persuade the jury of the innocence or guilt of a client they may themselves not believe in at all! There is nothing particularly malevolent or grievously manipulative about all of this—hubristic and occasionally egoistic, yes, but not done out of hatred or a desire to inflict harm—with the exception of the malicious prosecutor!
Perhaps that is the difference between the innocuous and more malevolent con artist: the latter sizes up a victim, creates a trusting rapport in order to gain their confidence, intuits what they want, and then plays on this desire in order to exploit them and gain something. The con artist is out to exploit and fleece you—regardless of the harm that might ensue (rather like the capitalist!) Indeed, the grifter is very adept at exploiting human weakness and naivety: the more trusting and generous you are, the more likely you will be a victim. The truly malevolent con artists like Bernie Madoff never take responsibility for what they do, preferring to blame those they conclude are stupid and greedy, in order to rationalize their own bad behaviour.
There is, however, one thing to keep in mind here. The ‘slippin Jimmy’ of Better Call Saul is not the ‘Criminal’ Lawyer of Breaking Bad. In both manifestations, he is, of course, the fictional counterpart of the classic shyster lawyer. But the Saul Goodman of Better Call Saul is conflicted, whereas the Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad has unambiguously turned to the dark side. We can see this coming in the final episodes of the Better Call Saul series.
Importantly, however, I still think we can draw a distinction between Walter White’s and Saul Goodman’s ‘breaking bad’ characters’. Walter White makes a conscious choice to embrace evil because he has been frustrated his entire life about his relative poverty, lack of recognition, and sudden discovery he has cancer. As creator Vince Gilligan describes him Walter White goes very quickly from Mr. Chips to Scarface! By contrast, Saul Goodman initially tries his level best to be the sort of lawyer that would make his brother proud. His gradual fall is a much more complex and protracted one—one that is mediated through (good and bad) relationships with others, through the legal institution, and through his own childhood and life experiences. For that reason, he is much more real to us.
For all his failings, the Saul Goodman of Better Call Saul is wholly unlike the real-life Bernie Madoffs and malevolent Rudy Guiliani’s of the world. He is endlessly optimistic, charming, engaging, willing to learn, is loved by his parents and elders, notices when someone is being taken advantage of, and even though his motives are sometimes unclear he mostly wants to do the right thing. THAT is why he is easier to love.
However, something happens in the final season (Season 6) that I suspect may somewhat erode our sympathy for him—somewhere Saul loses Kim and becomes the ‘Criminal’ Lawyer of Breaking Bad. Whatever this series of events is, I will very probably continue to have rather more compassion for Saul Goodman than I ever had for Walter White.