Better Call Saul and the Indictment of Pride

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If there were ever a movement to have pride stricken from the list of deadly sins, the season three finale of Better Call Saul would provide a resounding and convincing argument in favor of its preservation. Not only did the episode close off several story arcs and lay the groundwork for story lines familiar to fans of Breaking Bad, but it revealed that the worst character in this show has been with us since day one and will, eventually, be the downfall of every person in the series.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this underlying theme is that pride manifests itself in a different way for each character. While some pride, such as that of Mike Ehrmantraut, is arguably noble it will always result in chaos and self-destruction.

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. ~ Proverbs 16:18

Pride in Self

Chuck McGill exhibits the most common and superficial type of pride – pride in oneself. Every action, whether it be his attempts to disbar his brother or his ultimate suicide attempt, are fueled by his belief that he is justified in any action simply by virtue of being a smarter and better man. With Chuck, even moments of perceived weakness can be seen as remnants of his own pride. In the season three finale he tells his brother that he never really mattered, tears up his home looking for an electrical charge, and attempts (since we still don’t know for sure) suicide. These all appear to be the lasts gasps of a drowning man but take a closer look and a deep, disturbed pride is informing all of these decisions.

When Jimmy comes to his home to apologize, Chuck returns the sentiment with disdain and disconnect. He will not allow Jimmy to be the bigger man in this situation and says the only thing that he knows will truly break Jimmy’s spirit, “You never really mattered that much to me.” At this point, though, Chuck is seemingly cured of his “allergy” to electricity but upon Jimmy’s exit, the allergy returns.

Not only does his allergy return but it drives Chuck mad as he takes an axe to his walls and a bat to his electrical meter. How is this prideful behavior? Because it was Jimmy who confirmed that Chuck’s illness was psychosomatic and he did it in a public and embarrassing manner. To live like a normal man now would be a confirmation of all the things everyone said about Chuck behind his back, things he was spending a lifetime denying. This culminated in his suicide attempt which, done by repeatedly kicking a desk until a gas lantern fell on a pile of papers, he managed to detach himself from because the proud Chuck would never take his own life. By letting the lantern fall, Chuck leaves the explanation open that his death was all a horrible accident.

A disturbed man takes his own life by hanging or a gun shot while a proud man takes his own life by an act of God. Not only does he keep his hands clean of committing the final act, he destroys all the evidence of his recent relapse in the process and leaves Jimmy with the final memory of superiority. Chuck may possess the worst type of pride because nothing can ever cure him. Pride in ones accomplishments can be stricken when those accomplishments are stripped away. Pride in power can be stricken when the power shifts to another. Pride in self can never be cured until the self is destroyed.

Pride in Accomplishment

Howard Hamlin, Chuck’s partner, may seem like a slimy stereotype of a litigator but, deep down, he is driven by his pride in accomplishment. Listen to the words he uses when confronting Chuck, Jimmy, or even Kim. It is never, “how can you do this to me,” it is always, “how can you do this to the firm.” His suggestion that Chuck retire was to preserve the law firm. His support of Jimmy working for another firm was to preserve his firm. His using millions of dollars of his own money to settle things with Chuck was to preserve his firm. His interests aren’t in people or himself, his interests are in a legacy. He likes having his name on buildings and in newspapers. He like respect and recognition and every decision he makes is born out of self-preservation and expansion of accomplishment.

Through three seasons, Howard’s pride has not led to a downfall yet but he has seemingly been treading water between his ultimate accomplishment and rock bottom so his downfall may be forthcoming.

Pride in Power

Everyone who watched Breaking Bad knew what would eventually come of Hector Salamanca so it was no surprise to see the catalyst of his downfall play out over the third season. Hector’s pride lies in power, similar to Howard’s, and he wants to maintain the power and respect he enjoyed as a younger man even while his business and the world change around him. Hector will behave against his own self-interests if he feels like his power is being usurped and all of his decisions are influenced by the power he can gain or lose with no regard for long term costs or benefits.

Pride in Cunning

There would be no Better Call Saul if not for Saul Goodman and there would be no Saul Goodman if not for pride in cunning. Jimmy McGill does not operate out of a place of pride in work or self, he is proud of deceit. He has a self-perceived gift and the same ends by more noble means would not satisfy Jimmy in the same way. What makes a cunning individual so dangerous is that, to be good at it, they must be smart. This plays into the conflict between Jimmy and Chuck because Jimmy’s superior natural intellect is an affront to Chuck’s superior learned intellect.

Throughout all three seasons of Better Call Saul, Chuck has repeatedly referenced Jimmy’s days as a grifter and seems obsessed with exposing Jimmy’s lies as if he were watching a card trick by an expert magician. This back and forth can only escalate to the point that one or both of these characters self-destruct. Of course, the ultimate ending to Jimmy’s story is already known and the ultimate ending to Chuck’s may have been revealed in the season three finale but both men succumb to their pride in one way or another. Jimmy, as Saul Goodman, will hatch one cunning scheme after another until the lies become too tangled and the schemes become too dangerous that he needs to drop out and start over.

He has exhibited that it is all the thrill of the hunt and that personal gains are a secondary reward for him. The pride isn’t in the result, it is in the means of success and until the success turns to failure, Jimmy will always be driven by his pride in cunning.

Pride in Tradition

Mike Ehrmantraut, whose story is also chronicled to the end, is bound by old fashioned ideals. As far as pride goes, Mike may be the noblest of all the Better Call Saul characters as he is motivated by the need to provide for his granddaughter but this is exactly the pride that we are warned about in Bible versus and proverbs over centuries. His pride is in tradition. Traditions that the man must provide for family and that a real man provides without asking for help and by any means necessary. Coupled with his background in law enforcement, this pride leads Mike into dangerous situations that he seems to be reluctant to participate in even up to his demise in Breaking Bad.

Free of Pride

Kim Wexler may be the only character in Better Call Saul who is free of pride. She is driven, motivated, smart, and capable but she lives within her means and when taking a second client caused her to becomeo so exhausted that she fell asleep at the wheel, she dropped out completely. Kim has an understanding that what she does for work is just work and that there are more important things in life. She is ethical beyond reproach and when she is forced to bend her ethics even slightly it haunts her. This is what makes Kim the saddest character on the program, though, because her downfall will eventually come at the hands of somebody else’s pride.

It is safe to assume, since there is zero mention of Kim in Breaking Bad, that her and Jimmy do not end up living happily ever after. We have yet to learn if she leaves Jimmy, leaves town, or leaves this mortal coil but it is fairly certain that, at some point, Kim will be the collateral damage of someone’s selfish, prideful decision and this, essentially, is what Better Call Saul has been all about.

For three seasons, Better Call Saul has been an indictment of pride in all of its forms. Whether well-intentioned, noble, selfish, or manipulative, pride always loses in the world surrounding Saul Goodman. There may be temporary gains and riches but the ultimate conclusion is always tragedy. Where Breaking Bad addressed themes of power and errant justifications, Better Call Saul is laying out a condemnation of all things prideful and they’re doing it through masterful storytelling and compelling drama. For that, the writers should be very proud.

Featured Image: AMC Promotional Photograph