Television

Reality TV

Better Call Saul’s obsession with the mundane is a tonic for these times.

In a scene from Better Call Saul, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) sit across from each other at a table.
Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul.
Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

I’ve been known to prescribe shows for specific crises. These days, as I scour my phone for worrying developments and legal forums for restraints that don’t seem to exist against executive corruption, I find myself turning more and more to Better Call Saul—a show that’s ostensibly about a crooked lawyer—for comfort. This is objectively a little weird, but the show’s cinematic obsession with process happens to ease a couple of major contemporary anxieties. Here’s one: While America flounders in angry but abstract uncertainty, waiting for the massive and untenable contradictions plaguing this administration to resolve, Better Call Saul is almost maniacally concrete. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are masters at making the mundane seem marvelous, and their fascination with process is absolute. Remember that old Sesame Street video of how a crayon is made? Better Call Saul offers a similar video flow chart for drug trafficking, and it leaves you almost admiring the traffickers for their industry. Nor does the show restrict itself to glamorizing crime: Scenes set in the show’s distant future show Bob Odenkirk’s character working at Cinnabon. The scenes should be drab, but the work is so lovingly filmed that you come away convinced that making a Classic Roll would feel like a consummate human achievement.

Better Call Saul doesn’t just feature people in a refreshingly analog world. It shows characters like Chuck (Michael McKean) struggling, as we do, with intangible and unprovable problems, while others, like Mike (Jonathan Banks) are able to manipulate physical objects to achieve spectacularly concrete results. The intellectual and psychic payoff of the latter is huge. If the former replicates the maddening abstractions we live with now (the unknowable damage done by Russian hackers, say, or the indeterminate security of our elections), the latter offers the welcome possibility of a world whose problems and solutions are verifiable and concrete.

The fourth season premiere of Better Call Saul, airing Monday, has Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) rushing to his brother Chuck’s house, which the latter despairingly lit on fire in the Season 3 finale. Chuck is a controversial figure among BCS fans—some truly despise him—but his angst in the finale feels immensely relatable. A legal expert whose ability to reason went haywire, Chuck represents a status quo thinker, the kind of person who trusts in the system and plays by the rules. Many Americans will sympathize, believing as they do that the law will save us, that Mueller’s investigation will be apolitical and conclusive, and that the courts will work in placing a check on the president. This is largely Chuck’s line of thinking: He honors the law and identifies as its ultrarational servant. But by the end of last season, Chuck had effectively been hacked: The legal system he trusted backfired on him, and so—in a more horrifying revelation—did his own mind. It is proven to him, via evidentiary standards he respects, that his crippling “allergy” to electricity is not real and, worse, is actually proof of his own irrationality.

Chuck—who always made people “ground” themselves electrically before they came into his home—suddenly has to ground himself in a reality his body doesn’t quite accept. Part of his cognitive therapy requires a return to first principles: He’s tasked with observing and naming concrete objects as he gets used to exposing himself to electric radiation: “black mat,” “gray floor,” etc. But what progress he makes (and it’s considerable) is derailed by a confrontation with his brother, Jimmy. Responding to pain he associates with electric radiation (rather than, say, heartbreak), Chuck turns off every appliance in his house and even the main breaker, but nothing helps. The electric meter outside keeps spinning, testifying to the presence of electric poison he can’t locate, and he stares at it in complete, uncomprehending despair. Until he sees that meter stop, his pain, which he knows isn’t “real,” won’t abate. His suffering conflicts with objective measures of reality until finally—in a terrible moment that marks a true cognitive surrender—he destroys the electric meter.

It’s a terrible and wholly believable moment. Who isn’t sometimes tempted to smash the instruments (i.e., social media) that testify to our national dysfunction? There’s a reason certain parties like to attack polls and the free press: America is afflicted with a national sickness we can’t seem to even grasp, let alone fix. Chuck’s desperate search for answers leads him to destroy his meter, and then his house, and then (apparently) himself.

Contrast this hapless struggle with unseen energies in Mike’s plot. Season 3 opens with Mike Ehrmantraut, a grizzled ex-cop determined to figure out how someone got wind of his plot to take out cartel boss Hector Salamanca. The problem is deliciously tangible: Despite Mike’s caution, someone followed him and left not one but two pieces of physical evidence that they knew what he was up to—a tree branch pressing on his car horn and a note on his windshield reading “DON’T.” Mike’s approach to finding out how is no less concrete: Gilligan films Mike’s long, frustrating, fascinating search for a tracker. It happens with no dialogue to speak of and results in the absolute destruction of his car.

The reasons this satisfies aren’t exactly subtle. Mike racks his brain until he finally finds the tracker. He determines how he was found out with diligence and labor and a helping of mechanical know-how. It’s a pleasure to watch him a) be completely stumped, b) think hard, and c) get the idea that solves the mystery from an object that happens to catch his eye. Rarely is this thinking directly represented in film; you can practically see the gears turning in his brain.

Better Call Saul excels at filming object-based epiphanies like these, whether it’s Jimmy realizing how to get himself fired and keep his bonus (by basing his wardrobe on an inflatable skydancer) or his love interest, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), coming up with a way for them to work together by tearing a business card in two. Season 4 goes much further down this introspective road—an impressively tight black-and-white sequence perfectly communicates Jimmy’s state of mind without a word of exposition, helped by an object hanging from a rearview mirror. As for Kim, who nearly died in a car accident from lack of sleep, she’s re-evaluating her life since overwork nearly killed her. If you had any reason to doubt Better Call Saul’s talent for finding material expressions of inchoate angst, pay attention in the new season’s third episode as she stares at a series of architectural models.

So why is this show such a relief to watch right now? It’s partly, I think, that Chuck’s quandary doesn’t feel as alien as an imaginary electricity allergy should. It is hard to know what to do when the founding principles you rely on—and built your world around—turn out to lack any rational basis. The quest to figure out exactly what happened to America in 2016 isn’t exactly going well, and that’s largely because we lack the equivalent of Mike’s comprehensive know-how and because we once possessed a Chuck-like faith in the legitimacy of our own systems. But so many of our problems aren’t concrete. On any given day, in trying to comprehend the news, I might research any number of frightening abstractions that seem quite serious, but whose material effects on American life are tough for the amateur to gauge. Cybersecurity, for example, is a serious concern for which the associated risks are impossible for me to fully grasp—societal collapse? blackouts? blocked votes? more memes? Even experts have a hard time specifying how much damage was done in 2016, a quantification that would require not just a deep technological understanding but an ability to measure the persuasive power of the internet. Result: We know the country is malfunctioning, but any causes and solutions remain maddeningly obscure.

American modernity has challenged our understanding of cause and effect. Tech companies expand for years without making profits. “Privacy” ostensibly matters, but even giant hacks that theoretically affect millions don’t seem to have visible consequences. Even for car mechanics, computerized automobiles have forced a similar kind of evacuation; the mechanical basis of their knowledge has worn away and been replaced by a digital black box on which they unhappily depend (note that Mike’s car is a comfortingly uncomputerized 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Estate). Result: When things go wrong and the system itself can’t see the problem, let alone fix it, there is no reliable expert left to depend on.

There is no clear way to navigate the digital reality in which most Americans move—or how to measure America’s problems from the inside. In Better Call Saul, Chuck and Mike are both paranoid. They both dissect and destroy their own property in an effort to diagnose an invisible, intangible problem that only they can sense. One turns out to be correct; the other doesn’t. Chuck is armed with the abstract reasoning made possible by a finely tuned legal mind, and Mike is armed with concrete experience. In this information environment, given the level of abstraction at which most of us are operating, it’s tempting to wonder whether we’re Chucks or Mikes—and to wonder what we’re destroying as we figure it out.