Moving Away From the Anti-Hero: What It Means to be a Man in ‘Better Call Saul’

Cross posted at Bitch Flicks as part of Masculinity Theme week

I think I should start by saying that I’m not a huge fan of Breaking Bad. In a discussion about Better Call Saul, this question always seems to crop up and I have to be honest–I found the series tedious and repetitive. I also found it to be a really dissatisfying critique of masculinity when it had so many opportunities to explore it. Walter White relied notoriously on masculine techniques and tropes in order to succeed in his work. Walt refuses help, is intent on remaining the breadwinner of the White family, lies and manipulates others to prove his worth and ultimately becomes the epitome of what it means to be “macho.” In itself, this is not problematic, but Breaking Bad’s refusal to acknowledge Walt as being any less than ‘God-like’ meant that criticism of his masculinity was unable to be explored in any kind of depth.

 This is not meant to be a debate about the ins and outs of Breaking Bad’s hyper-masculine problems, however. I’m sure an entire thesis could be written, or has been written, on the depiction of masculinity in Breaking Bad, but it feels like a topic that doesn’t need much more discussion. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, feels like it has a lot to offer viewers in terms of examining masculinity. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have been and will continue to be compared in almost every aspect of their design. It makes sense – they are both created by Vince Gilligan, share many of the same actors and follow a narrative based around a lone-wolf type protagonist. A man trying to make his own way in the world: a portrait of masculinity. Saul Goodman is supposedly the new “anti-hero,” following in the footsteps of Don Draper, Tony Soprano and of course our very own Walt. Emphasis on the supposedly, because although Breaking Bad might be more universally loved, the first season of Better Call Saul alone sparks the debate that the spin-off series might be more adept at handling the complicated issue of masculinity on screen.

 James McGill/Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) begins the series working as a retail assistant in Cinnabon, after falling from the highest heights as Walt’s lawyer. He’s living in an empty apartment, he has stopped practicing law and his life has been destroyed from getting involved with Walt. Flash back to six years before Saul meets Walt. Saul (at this point we should really be calling him James) is a struggling lawyer. It feels similar to the beginning of Breaking Bad. James is down on his luck, has struggled for years through college to get a law degree only to have ended up writing wills for the elderly living in a nearby care home. Oh and he lives in the nail spa that he tried to convince Walt to launder money through. It’s a nice touch and it tells us exactly where James McGill is at in his life.

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