What is an Original Character?
It’s a character that sticks with you even when they’re long gone from your screens. It’s a character that serves as a reference point in casual conversation or a character that sums up a behavior or generation.
“not the same as anything or anyone else and therefore special and interesting…”
— from The Cambridge English Dictionary
Most importantly, in screenplay terms, an original character is a character that shines through in spite of any other weaknesses within that screenplay.
For a Screenplay Reader or Development Executive, an original character is an element of a script that stands out. No matter how busy they are or no matter how much work other elements of the script need, the original characters steal the show.
Great characters are at the very heart of great screenwriting and original characters can help elevate great to superlative.
Whether plucked from real life, an amalgamation of real people or just simply a genius stroke of creativity, these are original characters…
The thirteenth in our original characters series will look at Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
*The following article contains spoilers for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul*
Who is Saul Goodman?
Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, is a secondary character in Breaking Bad, and the protagonist of Better Call Saul, a spin-off from the original show.
We are first introduced to Jimmy as Saul Goodman, a well-known criminal lawyer, in Breaking Bad. He’s a very self-confident, outlandishly dressed man that understands the ropes of organized crime. He knows how to get criminals out of trouble by twisting the law and crafting creative schemes. His reputation precedes him and his eccentric billboards spread his name far and wide.
Later on though, primarily in Better Call Saul, we get to know Jimmy who, as opposed to Saul, is a more grounded, relatable man. He started off in a law firm mailroom and hustled his way into being a lawyer. This is the background to the transition into his alter ego and new self.
The journey to becoming a lawyer follows in the steps of his older brother, Chuck, valedictorian, magna cum laude, and, in general, big shot lawyer. After years of floundering, Jimmy finally gets his act together, something his brother is initially proud of.
Although Jimmy is essentially a good man, he feels he’s not reaching his full potential. And eventually, he searches for it outside of typical morals, when he feels the mainstream world has rejected him. This is how he becomes Saul Goodman, by leaning into his innate skills rather than the more learned ones he has picked up as a legitimate lawyer.
Jimmy Becomes Saul
Jimmy lives under the shadow of his brother, always seeking his approval and trying hard to be more like him. He is an outsider. No matter how much he tries, people will never see him the way he wants them to. Instead, they see him as a trickster – “Charlie hustle” as Howard Hamlin nicknames him.
Once he realizes this, he decides to lean in. Whilst keeping some good intentions, Jimmy ends up becoming what everybody said he was. He becomes an opportunist, catering to the shadiest characters in New Mexico.
When Jimmy understands that cutting corners and cheating helps him get his way, he embraces it. He starts by flexing the law until breaking it completely to get what he wants, shifting his ideals as he grows. This is how he becomes Saul Goodman, gradually and subtly.
With an uncalibrated moral compass, he is a performer, a showman that uses all available resources to get his way. And these resources become increasingly illegal and immoral.
Jimmy is a survivor. He doesn’t mind changing his name and identity, paying for his mistakes, and trying again. He is willing to do what it takes to live through the day and do it all one more time.
Better Call Saul is preoccupied with Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman. It’s almost a Jekyll and Hyde story – a man at first seeking to suppress the bad side of his character, but struggling. This is what makes the series so fascinating. We’re watching a man wrestle with himself as much as with those around him.
Complex, Three-Dimensional Characters
Complex characters are interesting characters. They allow the audience to connect and empathize with them. Character complexity happens when characters have multiple dimensions much as people do in real life.
Saul Goodman is no exception. Contradiction lives in him and he struggles to find balance.
- Saul initially gets involved with criminals as a way to better himself. Whether it is to overcome losing his license, save up money for his new office, or to get more legit clients.
- He is constantly trying to leave the wrong path and return to honest legal work.
- However, his need and desire to be better keeps dragging him back to these bad decisions.
- Ultimately the path of being bad gives him more reward than that path of good. So he sticks with it.
On the exterior, he is a tough, flamboyant criminal apologist. But on the interior, he is caring, loyal, and full of doubts about who he is and wants to be. We know these two sides throughout the show. And the piercing of this exterior shell is what makes Saul such a rewarding character.
This internal conflict moves his development and determines the actions he takes whilst he struggles to build strong meaningful relationships with those around him. There’s plenty for the series to tuck into in this regard.
Jimmy and Chuck McGill
Jimmy has a number of key relationships throughout Better Call Saul in particular. These relationships define his journey. And they also serve as an explanation for how he got to where he is when we meet him in Breaking Bad.
Jimmy’s brother is probably his most important, defining relationship.
- Chuck, always disapproving, is a constant reminder of his failures.
- He is the one that went to the better law school, the one with a fancy suit-wearing job, an authority in law, and a recognized member of his community.
- Opportunities that Jimmy has to chase come easy for Chuck.
Although Jimmy is a good brother and wants to protect him, he is constantly let down by Chuck’s lack of support. Chuck is embarrassed by Jimmy and is always pushing him away.
Chuck also has an imperative influence on everyone else at the law firm they work at. He makes other characters, such as his associate, Howard Hamlin, think ill of Jimmy. Even when people praise Jimmy for his attributes, Chuck seems to have a hard time agreeing with a straight face.
The dynamics of this relationship usually come as obstacles for Jimmy, making Chuck one of the main antagonists of the show. Moreover, important turning points in Chuck and Jimmy’s relationship serve as the main lubricants in Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman. Chuck hangs over the series and Jimmy, both when he’s present and when he’s not.
Jimmy and Kim Wexler
Jimmy’s best friend/girlfriend is his moral anchor and support system. Kim loves Jimmy and sees the good in him. However, he consistently lets her down when he takes shortcuts. As a lawyer herself, driven by justice and fairness, Kim struggles to get through to Jimmy. Yet, overall, they remain loyal to each other.
To Kim, Jimmy shows his true self, the person he really is and wants to be. Disappointing her hurts him more than with anyone else, even Chuck. And as much as he visualizes a happy life with her, he knows she deserves more. But still, Jimmy with Kim seems to be Jimmy’s true self and certainly his most likeable.
Kim’s unconditional love for Jimmy also works as a deep internal motivation for him to do the right thing and question his decisions. Even if we don’t see him express it, we know that whenever faced with a morally tricky decision, he has Kim in the back of his mind.
But at the same time, Kim can also encourage Jimmy’s tricky side. She herself shares some of Jimmy’s dislike of authority. And there are times when she indulges in this, knowing Jimmy will be along for the ride.
Their relationship is a fascinating study in two people trying to resist their dark side. They both act as each other’s best friend and worst enemy in this sense. Whilst they stop each other from truly indulging fully in their bad side, they also encourage that side in each other just enough for it to be damaging.
The Name Behind
Two different dimensions, two different names, two different people.
Jimmy McGill is the person that tries to please the people that matter, Chuck, Kim, the “good guys”. Yet Saul Goodman is the opposite. He is the one that goes around (or against) the law. He’s the one that understands that being good leads to nothing and is willing to bet on the winning stakes.
Jimmy is constantly fighting to keep Saul locked up, to be good and truthful. Saul is not necessarily a good person, but Jimmy is, or at least can be.
This struggle has existed since he was a kid. He was time and time again exposed to things that made him question the line between right and wrong.
Ultimately, Jimmy doesn’t want to be a sheep, he wants to be a wolf. Watching Better Call Saul is watching Jimmy wrestle with this. In the world of mainstream law, he tries to be a wolf. But when he feels he might be a sheep more than a wolf, he resists.
In short, he never wants to feel that he is being taken advantage of. So when the opportunity to become the wolf arises, Jimmy takes it, bending the law and taking advantage of situations himself.
Saul Goodman’s Development
Saul’s arc is gradual and absorbing, as his continuous attempts to be good bring him back to Jimmy. Before fully transitioning into a “criminal” lawyer, he breaks the law for the greater good. He maintains the “end justifies the means” mantra.
However, as he gets the taste of achievement and realizes that he will never win while being good, he loses his sense of morality. He, therefore, slowly morphs into a criminal himself.
In Breaking Bad, we already know him as a scheming, shady lawyer that helps bad guys and is respected enough in the underworld to become Walter White’s consigliere. When looking at his development in Better Call Saul though, we get to see his different layers and understand him from the perspective of change. He wasn’t like this before and he once had a conscience, just like Walter did.
Moreover, Saul is less egotistical than Walter. Therefore, we always get the slight sense that he is being led by a force outside of his control, whether that’s feelings over his brother, Kim or his career. This makes his arc appealingly humanistic.
Jimmy’s transformation is interesting because it makes us wonder what we would have done in his place. We see the mechanics of why he went down the path he did. Moreover, we get to know Jimmy’s intrinsic personality – one that in a sense always had him destined to become Saul Goodman.
However, this sense of destiny is lessened by a series of bad things that happen to Jimmy which aren’t his fault. We can, therefore, see the tragedy in his situation – a man shaped by a series of unfortunate events that ultimately encouraged his dark side. Jimmy tried and failed to be good. It wasn’t to be.
Why is Saul Goodman an Original Character?
From his flashy, colorful suits, to his crazy criminal anecdotes to his textbook explanation of money laundering, Saul serves as a comedic relief through the dark story of Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad.
It is when we deep dive into his transformation from Jimmy to Saul, we realize that he is much more than that. Jimmy was once an honest, fighting soul, struggling to be respected and loved, not only by his brother but by the community.
During his early life, he was constantly pushed and undermined. He gets away with things, a skill that a lot of people wish they had. Whether he uses it for good or bad is beyond the fact that he is smart, resourceful, and appealing. People trust him and depend on him. And this lies in stark contrast to his brother Chuck, for example. Chuck is forever frustrated by the attribute of Jimmy’s he can’t emulate – the fact that he is great with people.
In becoming Saul Goodman though, Jimmy reaches a point where he no longer questions morality. He loses the good angel on his shoulder stopping him from leaning into his skills as a charming schemer, liar and cheat. However, although he accepts the criminals he helps with no questions asked, he seems to keep a code that holds him back ever so often. This is especially true when it comes to children and unnecessary violence.
For example, when Walter White reveals that he tried to poison Broc to manipulate Jesse, Saul struggles to empathize. Even in the criminal world, he knows that certain things are off-limits. And this is perhaps Jimmy shining through Saul, even if it’s a little unconvincing when he’s already crossed the moral line so much.
Saul Goodman: Good or Bad?
The idea of a Saul Goodman spin-off was an ongoing joke in the Breaking Bad writers’ room. Whenever writers came up with ideas that were good but didn’t match the current plot, they would agree to save them for the spin-off. But nobody really anticipated the series becoming what it did – one that stands right next to Breaking Bad in terms of its quality.
Ultimately, the show’s creators found success by creating an endearing, tragic and memorable character. Saul is a character that grows and changes through time. He goes through the motions of a person that wants to be something that he simply is not. Yet, what really makes him distinctive is that he is an anti-hero we can relate to.
- Saul has found success despite multiple obstacles and a lack of support from the people he looks up to.
- Helping the unfortunate is not just a slogan, but something he lives by and is willing to go the distance for. And even as Saul Goodman, he still helps people that more conventional lawyers might not.
- But throughout the course of Better Call Saul, we learn that it’s Saul’s self that lies at the heart of his actions. Continually trampled on, Saul Goodman is Jimmy McGill’s attempt at taking control.
Finally, Saul likes to win and he is very good at it. With his multiple skills, his ability to talk his way out of everything, his mastery of disguise and his capacity to adapt, Saul Goodman always finds a way. This adds a key ingredient to an already complex and intriguing character – a charisma that makes us want to keep watching.
When we first meet Saul Goodman in the Breaking Bad series, we automatically like him. He is a necessary ally for Walter and Jesse and vital comedic relief. He is an original character from the start, standing out in a supporting role.
However, during Better Call Saul, he becomes more complex. He quickly becomes someone the audience can relate to and see the journey of. We see him grow and change, slowly but surely. It’s also worth noting that his change is similar to Walter’s in Breaking Bad, making both series a smooth and purposeful part of the same universe. This is what makes the spin-off feel so organic.
Saul is a great character because…
- His arc is worthy of the most exhaustive studies. He was a “good guy” and wanted to help people. But he is pushed by the people he loves into blurring these lines for his own good.
- Better Call Saul gives us the opportunity to get to know the man before Saul Goodman and truly understand why he became the person we initially meet.
- He has charisma and innate skills that make him good at his job.
All this turns Saul Goodman into a character we feel for and can’t look away from. He’s the outcast who eventually finds himself by subverting the law. Saul is the perfect anti-hero companion to probably the greatest TV hero anti-hero of all time.
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This article was written by Regine Clemenceau and edited by IS staff.
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