meaning of life, screen, work

It’s All Good, Man

What’s On TV? Better Call Saul (Series Four). Also, the meaning of work, slow tales, and excellent craft. 

            It’s 2003. Downtown Albuquerque. In the snakepit of the city’s court house, Kim Wexler is looking for the meaning of life. The meaning of her life.

We’re on Episode Four of Series Four of the TV drama Better Call Saul. Having temporarily deserted her regular corporate nine to five, Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) searches chaotic courtrooms for low-end criminal cases, experiencing a pivotal moment. 

Better Call Saul, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn)

Better Call Saul (BCS) is the spin-off prequel to Breaking Bad. The side-bar show that was only supposed to be mini, BCS got bigger, and then deeper, and then longer, and grew so much narrative that it’s likely to last for as many episodes as its mighty parent

The central premise, the salient story arc or question running through BCS, is how does Wexler’s lover Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) turn into his criminal alias Saul Goodman? For some it’s a mystery. For others, a psychological puzzle seeking a solution. We might prefer however to view the challenge as a matter of good carpentry.

Jimmy is a small time smart-talking Albuquerque (ABQ) lawyer; a public defender with a good heart but hazy ethics. His future incarnation Saul Goodman is a morally bankrupt sleazeball; this ‘lime-and-orange sherbert-coloured doofus with a mullet haircut,’ according to Vince Gilligan (the show’s co-creator); a shameless, scheming attorney who helps clients to grow their drug enterprises and rinse their earnings; who cheats and lies, and shrugs in the face of murder.

‘We started off writing about Jimmy McGill, a guy we figured would very quickly turn into Saul Goodman,’ Gilligan observes in a 2017 interview. But as the episodes and series stacked up, Gilligan and showrunner Peter Gould found there was more story to Jimmy than they realised, ‘it dawned on us that we liked this guy better, and we started to put off the appearance of Saul Goodman.’

Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul

Viewers of Breaking Bad (BB) start out rooting for downtrodden Walter White, as he plots an unorthodox course out of cancer and penury. To then recoil in horror as the two time loser methamorphoses into a murderous monster. In BCS, viewers root for Jimmy knowing that this man will turn rotten. The switch from folksy Jimmy to Saul the dirtbag hangs over the show, gaining pressure by the season. BCS and BB must meet. Gilligan regrets this fact: ‘we have a bit of a tragedy on our hands with Jimmy: this man inevitably must become Saul Goodman, but we dread the day that it will happen. We dread the future as much as the fans do, but we have to pursue it nonetheless.’ 

Better Call Saul, Rhea Seehorn & Bob Odenkirk Kissing
Better Call Saul, Rhea Seehorn & Bob Odenkirk Go to Work
Better Call Saul, Rhea Seehorn & Bob Odenkirk Romantic

Wexler and Jimmy are not only lovers, but business partners and long time friends. Kim doesn’t feature in Breaking Bad, therefore McGill’s journey to the dark side, his final transformation into Saul, ‘may have a large hand in why we don’t see Kim Wexler,’ admits Gilligan. ‘Maybe she won’t like Saul Goodman that much, or maybe something terrible will happen to her.’ Or maybe she will find her meaning and ride off. 

Wexler’s law career started from the bottom up, in the mail room of a prestigious law firm. Having dodged and deflected the everyday sexism and demoralising elitism of an institutionally patriarchal dinosaur, over a protracted period of time Kim studied and scraped and bowed and deferred and hustled and worked – and worked, and worked; and redoubled her labours some more, doing insane hours night after night. And in this way Kim hauled herself up the greasy pole to a level of success where she now heads her own exclusive  firm. 

Better Call Saul, Rhea Seehorn & Bob Odenkirk Chilling

Wexler’s performed solus, spectacular miracles ‘helping a mid-sized local bank become a midsized regional bank.’ She is better than good at what she does – and in return is well paid, much admired and, by the middle of Season Four, bored out of her skull. Kim recently had a serious car crash, and having looked at life from both sides now, seen in depth and detail America’s rigged legal system, what she craves is fairness, satisfaction, and above all –  meaning. And she knows where to get it. 

How do we find meaning in work? How does satisfaction figure in the new flexible economy of turmoil, precarity and risk? The social historian Richard Sennett has written in depth on the question of work and personal satisfaction. In The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism – a long elegant essay with a clunky title – Sennett traces the word ‘career’ to its English origins: ‘it meant a road for carriages, and as eventually applied to labour meant a lifelong channel for one’s economic pursuits.’ 

The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett

Sennett distinguishes career from job, both in span and social significance. ‘The word ‘job’ in English of the fourteenth century meant a lump or piece of something which could be carted around.’ In a globalised economy of forced casualisation, where ‘Workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually, over the course of a lifetime people do lumps of labor, pieces of work.’

Kim Wexler got her career on track doing law. But having mislaid the meaning she retrieves it at the courthouse. She doesn’t want to simply help fat banks get fatter. She starts taking on additional cases, pro bono work defending broke people facing the sharp end of the criminal justice system. 

As Kim’s regains meaning, Jimmy has his own decisive moment. Banned from practising law for a year due to bad behaviour, scrabbling round for income to carry him over, Jimmy takes a job as a manager of a mobile phone store – where one bright afternoon he experiences an epiphany staring at a bunch of prepaid mobile phones. 

It’s a very Jimmy epiphany, an urgent revelation concerning the shady potential for preload telephony. This is 2003. Jimmy sees the angle: surely all kinds of folk would love an anonymous top-up device, something to help keep their business untracked and off-grid? As the penny descends, Jimmy buys up a stack of drop-phones. He hits the street selling stock out the trunk of his car, flogging burners to dealers, to bikers, to drop-outs, to all sorts living on the windy side of the law (‘The kind of people who one day will need lawyers.’).

Second night of selling, Jimmy rents a pair of Potemkin ‘tough guys’ to help ringfence his sales territory. He trades as Saul Goodman. He even gets a Saul business card printed.

Better Call Saul, Series Four Promotional Image
Would you buy a second-hand life from this guy?

To underscore these clear sight-lines of Jimmy mutating to Saul, the drop-phone episode opens with a flash forward to several years ahead, to the frantic end days of Breaking Bad. The camera falls in on Saul’s styrofoam office, into the thick of the last hours of Goodman. As the greasy lawyer’s bent outift collapses, Saul’s hectically shredding documents, stuffing his exit case with cash, calling his ‘disappearer’ and booking an escape pod straight out of Albuquerque. 

At the conclusion of Breaking Bad, Jimmy/Saul vanishes. He ditches New Mexico and heads north for Nebraska, where he becomes Gene, the boss of a Cinnabon bakery franchise situated in a grey shopping mall so hollowed-out and devoid of normal, that it could be the afterlife. 

Through the four seasons of BCS, several episodes feature short scenes depicting a silent Gene (Jimmy/Saul ) shuffling through this cheerless mall. Suspended in this monochrome purgatory, Jimmy’s run out of comebacks, he’s God’s lonely man, a devastated lifeless wreck of a character.

Richard Sennett smokes his pipe
the academic smokes a pipe

What is character? Tracking back through western culture all the way to antiquity, braiding the philosophers, Sennett summarises character as ‘the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others.’

Exploring the disorienting effects of the new capitalism, Sennett suggests ‘the most confusing aspect of flexibility is its impact on personal character… eroding the sense of sustained purpose, integrity of self, and trust in others that an earlier generation understood as essential.’ 

Did Gilligan read Sennett and decide to make an Albuquerque crime drama? From the LSE to BCS? It would be nice to think so. More plausibly, Gilligan came to the same simple conclusion – that what makes a person is partly determined by how they earn.  

Through the forty episodes of BCS so far, Jimmy is a man in conflict – doing his best to survive the capitalist blender, plotting assorted outlandish entrepreneurial capers, but also seeking inner satisfaction, meaning, and an integrity of self. That’s a lot to get right with plenty that could go wrong.

Rewinding all the way back to the beginning, Series One of BCS finds an eager, fresh faced Jimmy starting over in Albuquerque following his misspent years as a petty fraudster back East. Jimmy is determined to build a career as a straight-up lawyer (well, mostly straight-up), to become a good man, fashioning a plausible role in the shadow of his high-minded brother, Chuck. 

At this point, Jimmy not only has a working conscience, he follows where it leads him: he hands in the million dollars stolen by two white-collar clients, when he might easily have bagged the loot for himself. He sniffs out a corporate scam in care homes for the elderly, initiating a class action lawsuit. He provides for his frail brother’s daily health needs with scrupulous care. 

But corporate law is stultifying. Its hierarchies feel rigged and stifle Jimmy’s free spirit. Chuck proclaims ‘You’re not a real lawyer!’ He doubts that his little brother will ever possess the rectitude.  The system grinds Jimmy down – he gets no satisfaction boxed in behind a desk. He’s a leashed hound pining at the call of the wild. 

Jimmy’s creative urge to play outside the rules, the temptation to fiddle and finagle, needs an outlet. He starts freelancing for extra pay using a skateboard and a camera to fake traffic collisions, tricking drivers into shelling out injury money. As Freud once said – admittedly not with Saul Goodman in mind – ‘one can resist one’s fate in the full knowledge that one cannot overcome it.’

Better Call Saul, Series Two Promotional ImageOver time, Jimmy introduces Kim to the pleasures of the hustle. He shows how easy it is parting people from their money – tricking a couple of suits into buying dinner and splurging thousands on luxury tequila, dangling crazy unreal investment schemes, and seeing not sense but dollar signs light up in their eyes. Jimmy’s got skills, he’s an artisan, a crafty fellow. Wexler gawps with contained awe at Jimmy the virtuoso swindler. We love it when the person we love showcase their special talent – unless it’s farting. 

All the lead characters in BCS – Jimmy, Kim, Gus, Mike, Nacho, Chuck – are different kinds of craftsy people, each of them deeply in thrall to their vocation. The same is true of the show’s creators and writers. At heart, BCS is a TV series about craft – where the show’s structure, visuals and core themes dovetail with the narrative content.

Better Call Saul, Giancarlo Esposito, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks

Since the turn of the century, a large proportion of  TV’s standout dramas have been produced by subscription services – including HBO, Netflix, AMC or Hulu. Long form dramas like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men require a command of a specific type of creative vision, discipline and, say it, craft. 

Long form drama hinges upon a continuous storyline joined together over multiple seasons. Long form also depends on individual self-contained episodes, often featuring small-scale cliffhangers which entice viewers to tune in for more. These discrete episodes are nested within season narrative arcs, also featuring (larger) cliffhangers, such as fires, the end of an affair, or the departure or death of a leading character (could be murder). Ultimately, all these episode and series strands connect within an overarching narrative lasting the duration of the show’s life, comprising one story lasting maybe forty, fifty hours, or perhaps as long as eighty hours, or longer still. 

Hannah Arendt once wrote that ‘people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing.’ She obviously hadn’t watched Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. A conscious considered love of craft is the ligature that binds these two shows together as much as their overlaps in story and character. 

Better Call Saul, Giancarlo Esposito, Gus Fring
eat some chicken

Both series are not only structurally complex but the plot-lines are laced with meaningful details – cute foreshadowings, ingenious backfill, ‘easter eggs’ carrying hidden content for the extreme viewer to hunt and unwrap. The episode titles of Season Two of Breaking Bad feature a secret code revealing the mystery about the burned teddy bear in Walter White’s swimming pool: ‘737 Down Over ABQ.’  For Season Two of BCS, the first letter of each title spells out ‘Fring’s Back’ referring to the imminent return to the story of drug lord Gus Fring. ‘The truth is that there’s a lot going on with this show, and hopefully, hopefully it all lined up,’ admits Gilligan. ‘I think the thing I was most proud of on Breaking Bad is that everyone thought we had this master plan for every little moment, every little detail.’

Parking Lot, Aerial Shot, Better Call Saul, Series 4 Episode 9

When every detail counts, the viewer perceives meaning all over. The visual design for BCS adheres to a geometric aesthetic of grids and patterns to support a narrative framework of angles and interlocking plot-lines. Through Wiedersehen, the penultimate episode of Series Four, the flat exteriors of Albuquerque are broken into verticals and horizontals. High-rise parking lots and rectilinear warehouses are cropped for symmetry or calculated thirds. The lens follows angular descending car ramps to boxy low rise booths past oblong signs via straight lanes with square skylights. The camera stops to gaze through mesh windows and diamond chain fencing; takes a walk along diagonal paths to dark external ladders climbing to bright, flat cement roofs. The composition is all about planes and perpendiculars. No circles, no bends, nor meanders, nor curves; and never a loop or a wave. This is a craftperson’s look book, joinery in pictures.  

Kim Wexler, Parking Lot, Better Call Saul, Series 4 Episode 9

At the same time Jimmy gets busy flogging prepaid phones, a third new story arc begins to rise, as ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) goes full time as a facilitator for drug boss Gus Fring. 

Mike’s starter project is to recruit an engineer to build a meth lab underground – the deluxe facility that one day will be Walter White’s workshop in Breaking Bad. The first applicant engineer arrives toting high tech tools to make a swift assessment of the excavation. The guy is brisk and perfunctory. He isn’t slow, like craft; he isn’t methodical, like woodwork. Mike and Gus are underwhelmed. The slick applicant assumes he’ll be hired, but he’s mistaken. 

The next candidate is the opposite of polished. He’s Werner, he’s scruffy, an unprepossessing German engineer who uses a tape measure and pencil, while taking an age surveying the task. Five minutes of the episode, which is a lot of screen time, finds the showrunners’ fetish for handiwork freely indulged. Werner lists the  technical challenges of the build. His speech is dense with terminology – piling rigs, casts and retaining dividers, schematics of area utilities, and I-beams for secant walls. ‘The final structure has strict requirements,’ Werner declares. He’s talking about the underground lab, but equally he could be adumbrating the philosophy of the show. Werner gets the job.

We only have so many hours on this earth, we spend a lot of them at work. The characters in BCS put in long shifts – extended, often lonely stints characterised by a scrupulous focus on quality of effort. Jimmy constructs a convoluted contrivance to fix a bingo game at a retirement community. The whole of Series Two hangs on a complex swindle where the reversal of two digits buried in a contract causes mayhem. Mike decamps to the dessert for an extended workday, painstakingly plotting his gambit to take a rival drug gang out of the game – there’s spike chains, a long distance sniper rifle, sneakers dangling from a telegraph wire, and the slow hours spent waiting.

Nacho (Michael Mando) Better Call Saul
best haircut

Series Four features a cross-country bus ride as Jimmy recruits complete strangers to contribute to a letter writing scam. And then there’s Nacho and the heart pills – possibly the best ruse of the bunch. Nacho, the young, aspiring drug dealer who needs shot of his psycho gangster boss, who decides that a batch of fake heart pills ought to do it. So he teaches himself to silently drop the dodgy pills into his boss’s jacket pocket. We watch him late into the night, practising and practising this insanely risky manoeuvre, that with repetition starts to look like a solid idea. 

BCS is filled out with scenes of people making or doing things with patience and care. Kim burrows deep inside obscure case law, looking for a zoning loophole for a carbon entrepreneur. Mike slowly trails a lethal cartel boss, plotting to kill him; only to realise that he is in turn being tracked by an unknown actor in a larger game the ex-cop didn’t realise he’d wandered into. Later, Mike turns a spare length of garden hose into a mini crop irrigator. He pours a concrete play area at his grand-daughter’s school, using stakes and forms, string-lines and aggregate, bull-floats and skim. 

Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) Better Call Saul

Mostly these moments of craft play out in long, slow scenes –  largely without comment. The action explains and reveals at its own pace. ‘Not yet,’  Gus Fring warns an assistant eager to apply the killer move on a rival, ‘Only when it’s time.’ 

It’s criminal caution, but also the precept of an old-school artisan. In Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman – another meticulous essay on work and post-industrial capitalism – the social theorist explores the meaning of craft as ‘a basic human impulse: the desire to do a job well for its own sake.’ 

Richard Sennett The Craftsman

Sennett tracks concert-hall musicians to Moroccan leatherworkers. From the glassworker, the tray maker, to the carpenter; from the flautist and the ballet dancer, to the writer and the chemist; as well as the cook, the candlemaker, the teacher and the parent, Sennett observes the perfectionist traits he claims live inside us all. (Alright, maybe I made up the candlemaker.)

In Sennett’s words: ‘The visiting conductor of the local orchestra rehearses the string section, going over and over the same passage obsessively. Rehearsal time ticks by, the manager is getting restless. The conductor takes no notice, the orchestra plays on, caught up in the exhilaration of the enterprise, the painstaking process of improvement of performance.’

Craft requires attentive work, using the right materials, well-chosen methods, and time. Some tasks just do. You’d prefer that book shelf to stay up, right? You want your sourdough to come out tasting nice? Then give over to your task the hours it needs.

Time isn’t scarce in long form TV, but a valued asset disbursed generously. Long scenes using extended takes roll past slowly with hardly a word spoken. ‘We love it when we can make a point visually without dialogue,’ admits Gilligan. ‘It’s so much fun. And I think people talk about the change in television, I think that’s one of the big changes, I think that we’re allowed to do that.’

Mindhunter, Netflix TV Series
I see a paleface singer with huge hair

In these hushed, open spaces, meanings start to accumulate. In this way, almost un-noticed, long form TV drama becomes an experimental form, within which there is a hierarchy of velocities: there is Slow TV and then there is Slow Slow TV. Godless, The Wire, The Night Of,  BCS – they’re Slow. (Legion, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, that’s Fast TV, in case you hadn’t been keeping up.) Meanwhile Slow, Slow TV, the kind that tests the patience until some viewers crack, is Twin Peaks, Mindhunter, or the recent dribblings from the back end of the sadly broken Walking Dead. 

Michelle Dockery, Godless, Netflix Original TV Series (2017)
got yourself a gun

‘Are things slowed down enough to be even more interesting, because people are used to the opposite?’ Gilligan wonders. ‘Or at a certain point, is it too slow, so it suddenly becomes dull?’

It’s a question to keep a showrunner awake at night. For some viewers, Slow TV is just a headache. For others it is the agreeably calm space we hadn’t realised we were missing. A cathode balm – just what our high-speed digital lifestyle needed tonight.

But digital is not the opposite of craft, or craft’s foe. Sennett disputes the notion of artisanship as something quaint or pre-industrial, as a thing largely left behind us now. He argues, and it’s not so hard to agree, that craft exists beyond old forms of ‘manual labour’ – not just the stonemason but the fashion designer working in Illustrator. Craft runs through so many emerging careers, from the computer programmer and the software developer, to the database manager, the API backend architect, the vlogger, the podcast maker, the graphic illustrator crafting in Adobe. There’s also the pre-teen builder of worlds in Minecraft, focusing real hard to get their digital bricks arranged just right. The volunteer writer for Wikipedia. The many, many producers of How To videos on YouTube – from the ten best knots for neck scarfs to clearing your blocked lavatory. From doing the best exercise plank to extracting the upmost out of a David Fincher film. 

But also the teacher, the doctor, the parent, the citizen – we all of us, Sennet asserts, must ‘learn the values of good craftsmanship… leading to alternative, viable proposals about how to conduct life with skill… Doing our own work well enables us to imagine larger categories of ‘good’ in general.’ 

Sennett contrasts the realm of craftsmanship with its inevitable opposite – jobs in high-risk, no-loyalty workplaces tossed by the rapid turnovers of post-Fordist neoliberalism. But he also follows the increasingly hollowed out career paths devalued due to over-mechanisation, or the needless marketisation of endeavour. Here we find years of flare and learning and practice and expertise slowly withering. Consider the thwarted researcher in the lab; the curiosity of the teacher dulled by a constricting curriculum; or the medic who finds the hospital management has tied her up in measurement regimes, assessment strategies and targets that are quantitive, not qualitative. 

As teachers mark all evening and weekend largely for the accumulation of data of questionable value or implementation, not only are vital skills being neglected and eroded, but engagement is diminished. And then for many, engagement is discontinued, as teachers and doctors and nurses, often trained at public cost, find they just can’t do it any longer and quit. Or they take their skills elsewhere – overseas.

The damage done when our urge for craft is denied is of profound concern for Sennett.* This denial is half the reason Jimmy turns to Saul. 

Better Call Saul, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) & Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk)

As the climax to Season Four approaches, Kim tells Jimmy that although the line of good ethics gets a little blurry now and then, ‘We will know good when we see it.’ But Jimmy looks dubious. 

Shortly after, he attends a legal hearing, seeking reinstatement as a lawyer, where he makes a brilliant, heartfelt speech about wanting to ‘be the best man I can be.’ The judging panel are moved. Kim is moved. Even Jimmy appears gripped. But he’s lying. It’s a total sham. By now, he doesn’t want to be best man he can be, he just wants his job back. Jimmy believes he has no choice but to dissemble. That whatever he does, he will never be taken for a proper lawyer. 

And does he care anyway? He’s a walking conundrum of craft and cynicism, a man ready to submit to capitalist realism and do what it takes… 

Jimmy’s on the slide, no question. The transition is painful to watch and impossible to look away from, as the narrative slots into place. BCS brings forth many pleasures, arguably the joy of fine-grain storywork being the greatest. The best carpentry currently on TV.

Royal Chatham Dockyard (1790) painting by Nicholas Pocock

*What happens if craft is denied? Or when craftsmen get laid off? Chatham Dockyard opened in the middle of the sixteenth century and closed in 1984. For more than four hundred years, Chatham made ships for the Royal Navy. And then the dockyard died. Years later, academics went back to see what the workers did next? And their children too? What were the fathers and sons now doing for work? The academics assumed white van deliveries; stacking shelves at the local supermarket; or home husband. But not so. Many ex shipbuilders had started up small firms, making things. Or they had taken early retirement and opened community craft shops. Secondary schools across Chatham and Medway, at parents’ evening, mums and dads form a long queue out the door, and down the corridor, waiting to speak to the head of Design and Technology, or director of Resistant Materials – metalwork, woodwork etc. The English department, however, the History room, you find no trace of a queue.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman