Better Call Saul
“Creators Gilligan and Gould have left entire swathes of people—specifically, those who don’t look like them—in the dustbin of tropes and stereotypes.”
Title: Better Call Saul
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-3
Creator: Vince Gilligan 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Peter Gould 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Vince Gilligan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (40 eps), Peter Gould 👨🏼🇺🇸 (40 eps), Gordon Smith 👨🏼🇺🇸 (22 eps), Ann Cherkis 👩🏼🇺🇸 (11 eps), and various ( 3 ♂, 2 ♀, all white)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Better Call Saul is a meditative exploration of two lightly linked story arcs—one that follows criminals involved in the Albuquerque drug trade and the other, a story of a man’s inner struggle between good and evil and how that affects his relationship with his older brother.
The former storyline I find bland and—besides the novelty factor that will appeal to fans of Breaking Bad—wholly superfluous. Instead, the personal journey and exploration of moral ambiguities that make up the latter arc is more developed and intriguing than the show’s tired cliches about Mexican drug cartels.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
...but only twice during all of Season 1 and twice again in Season 2. One of the instances: “How’s lunch?” “Fine.” “What’d you have?” “Turkey wrap.” Guys, the Bechdel Test is not that hard to pass.
As for characterization, the only female with any substantial role is Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. Her depiction in Season 1 is awful; she is a lawyer and the sometimes-colleague, sometimes-lover of main character Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) but her small amounts of screen time see her cleaning up after men (literally, putting back a trash can Jimmy once knocks over during a tantrum) and always playing a subordinate, hesitant, and follow-the-rules foil to Jimmy’s harebrained but more creative and exciting schemes. This feeds straight into the stereotype that men are more creative, and I have no patience for shows that reinforce damaging views that have been revealed over and over again to be false yet continue to have lingering repercussions in real life, particularly in diminished career opportunities for women.
Luckily, Season 2 begins to explore Kim’s depth as a capable lawyer and Season 3 is positive enough a portrayal that it bumps this score up a notch. In the third season, Kim lands a major client and although the client had to be gift-wrapped and hand-delivered by Jimmy, it nonetheless gifts us with multiple Bechdel Test-passing scenes where Kim discusses work with Paige (Cara Pifko), half of the husband-wife team behind client Mesa Verde.
Beyond Kim, representation of women is minimal. In Season 1, nearly all portrayals are sexualized and/or flawed, while Seasons 2 and 3 see more tempered depictions through minor characters like Rebecca (Ann Cusack), the wife of Jimmy’s brother, or Francesca (Tina Parker), the secretary of Kim and Jimmy. Still, even these women are one-dimensional and tangential to the main plots, unlike the bevy of male support characters who dominate the cast of Better Call Saul.
The depictions of people of color (POC) are awful. Unlike their white counterparts, we never get to see them portrayed both positively and with dimension, despite the fact that Hispanics make up the largest ethnic group in Albuquerque (46.7% Hispanic vs 42.1% non-Hispanic white in 2010*).
The Mexicans who make up Better Call Saul are all criminals, their only variation the degrees to which they are vilified. You either have well-meaning criminals like Nacho (Michael Mando), cerebral criminals like Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, who was actually born in Denmark to an Italian father and African American mother), fedora-wearing druglord criminals like Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), or outright caricatures like the coked-up, murderous brute Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz).
As if trying to offset a robust cast of brown bad guys, Better Call Saul sprinkles golden-hearted angels into minor roles, such as Ernesto (Brandon K. Hampton, who is black), a personal assistant who has a soft spot for the main character Jimmy, or Nacho’s father, a hardworking small business owner who winds up getting dragged into the drug trade regardless. Neither display any dimensionality, however, rendering them moot to the point of this category which aims for the humanization of non-white individuals.
The only reason I’m giving this above a 1/5 is due to the decent number of roles afforded to Hispanic actors. It’s simply unfortunate that said roles are so actively damaging, especially glaring in today’s political climate that scapegoats Mexicans as criminals.
No depictions across thirty episodes and 700 listed IMDB characters. At about 45 minutes an episode, that’s roughly 22.5 hours of material without a single LGBTQ depiction or offhand mention. Keep in mind that in 2015, 3.8% of adults self-reported as LGBTQ. By that conservative estimate, which doesn't take into account those under 18 years of age, 27 of those listed roles on Better Call Saul should be LGBTQ characters.
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
The thorough exploration of the electromagnetic hypersensitivity suffered by Jimmy’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a fascinating look at the inexact science of so many afflictions that exist today. Chuck experiences the erosion of healthy relationships as loved ones struggle with the ambiguity of a non-diagnosable illness. Chuck doubly experiences the mental anguish of self doubt as he finds himself wondering if this physical pain is entirely made up in his own head. These difficulties feel imminently applicable to anyone suffering from an illness that has yet to be fully understood by modern medicine.
Deduction for Age: -0.50
Seniors make up the bulk of Jimmy’s clients across all three seasons as he specializes in elder law. Yet they are depicted as complete stereotypes, shown as jello-eating, ceramic statuette-loving, mall-walking bingo-playing easily-manipulable senile old women. And they are primarily women, for some reason. (Life expectancy, I guess?) The show relishes painting Jimmy as the pied piper who leads the elderly into whatever plan he has hatched. The elderly have no sense of agency whatsoever in Better Call Saul, and it’s demeaning to watch them blithely written into child-like roles or punchlines when seniors are actually people who have lead long and textured lives.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.06/5
Better Call Saul fits into the genre of “prestige television,” boldly slowing its pace and looking inwards for its best scenes and most effective story arcs. However, in its single-minded pursuit of developing this strong interior world, creators Gilligan and Gould have left entire swathes of people—specifically, those who don’t look like them—in the dustbin of tropes and stereotypes.