My Favorite Villain

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Book/film List / Legal Fictions

Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) has a lot of qualities I admire. Jimmy is smart, funny, and irreverent, both a friend to the underdog, and a plague on the pompous. What’s not to like?

Still I’m starting to have my doubts about Jimmy. Somehow I feel that he is headed for a bad end. Actually, it’s more than a feeling. Since, like many of us, I have watched Breaking Bad, I know that Jimmy later morphs in Saul Goodman, Walter’s White’s outlaw lawyer who uses his creativity and charm to help Walt spread deadly metamfetamines all around the Southwest, violating both ethical canons and criminal laws in the process. It’s evidence of showrunner Vince Gilligan’s genius that Better Call Saul shows Jimmy as more than an apprentice felon.

Instead Gilligan portrays Jimmy as a tragic hero– a good man eventually done in by the very gifts that make him special. In Season 2 of the series the self-destructive side of Jimmy’s personality starts to appear. Take the “bonus” incident from Episode 7. Earlier Jimmy’s legal career had been revived by a generous offer of employment from a law firm whose senior partner Cliff Main (Ed Begley, Jr.) admired Jimmy’s creativity.

But even though the firm gives Jimmy a generous signing bonus, a fancy car, and an expensive apartment, things quickly go awry. Unhappy with a television advertisement Jimmy airs without notice to the partners, the firm puts Jimmy on probation and assigns a junior associate to “babysit” him. Incensed by this disrespect Jimmy decides to resign, but then realizes that if he quits, he must pay back the bonus.

Jimmy nimbly changes course; he campaigns to be fired. He starts by wearing outlandish outfits to work, attire he knows will offend the partners’ sense of propriety. Then he stops flushing the community toilets as part of an alleged campaign to save water, knowing full well that a public discussion about restroom etiquette will embarrass his uptight colleagues. Finally, he buys a second hand bagpipe and starts using the firm’s offices as a rehearsal hall during working hours. This ploy is especially clever since it allows him not only to disrupt business, but also to parody senior partner Main’s own inexpert attempts to play the guitar.

Jimmy wins. Main fires him and Jimmy keeps the bonus. But since he doesn’t really care about money, Jimmy’s only victory is proving that he is indeed smarter and hipper than his conventional colleagues. But even this is a hollow victory because the intended targets of his ridicule don’t even get the joke. They just think he’s a jerk.

Of course, the “bonus” incident is small potatoes, but soon Jimmy goes further, actually doctoring a legal document in order to give his friend/lover/ partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) a leg up in a competition for a client. This is clearly unethical and maybe criminal as well. Jimmy claims he only wants to help Kim secure a client she deserves. While Jimmy was protective of Kim, he also had other scores to settle. The firm competing with Kim happens to be one Jimmy feels had mistreated him in the past. And the victim of Jimmy’s ruse was Jimmy’s older brother, a partner in the firm who failed to support Jimmy in his dispute with the firm. It was about more than an injustice to Kim, it was also payback for past wrongs and an opportunity for Jimmy to prove (to himself) he’s the smartest guy in the room. We start to see Saul Goodman appear on the horizon.

In many ways, Jimmy is a good example of what I call in the book Guile is Good a “trickster lawyer.” The idea is that many talented lawyers resemble the Trickster of myth and fable who uses creativity and guile to best adversaries. I intend the trickster as a positive image for lawyers. The Trickster Brer Rabbit uses wit to escape becoming Brer Fox’s dinner. A trickster lawyer like Gerry Spence showed a similar creativity in crafting his masterful final argument in the Karen Silkwood case.

But sometimes Tricksters are too smart for their own good. They become so obsessed with showing their cleverness that they take self-destructive actions. One example might be doctoring a document that could easily end with the loss of your license to practice law. The legal imagination is a wondrous thing, but you have to know when and toward what ends you want to use it. Our final sighting of Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad finds him working behind the counter at a fast food outlet in Omaha, Nebraska wondering if the next customer will be a DEA agent or a mafia hit man. This is where his cleverness has led Walter White’s brilliant consigliere. And that’s also where Jimmy will end up.

Well-crafted fictions like Beter Call Saul inform as they entertain. There is no scarcity of lawyers in real life who are so delighted with their own deft moves that they have no awareness of how their behavior affects others, or even themselves. And most of them don‘t even have Jimmy McGill’s sense of humor.

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