How the unlikely figure of Howard Hamlin stands in judgment of us all.
Our modern media ecosystem is one in which the denigration of virtue has become common practice. In the name of “subverting” and “deconstructing” supposedly tired old tropes, storytellers – across literature, television, and film – present us with tales in which heroes fail and villains succeed. Ironically, many of these stories end up being far more boring and formulaic than their purveyors accuse the traditional hero’s journey of being.
Chief among these subversions is the antihero narrative. And while there have been some truly genius antihero stories in film and television over recent decades, it is a dangerous art, one of edging along a moral cliff, seeing just how far the viewer can be pushed to root for a villain.
That is why the final season of Better Call Saul is so fascinating: while ostensibly an antihero story, it actually provides the viewer with a double-subversion, upending the antihero narrative itself.
For those few not in the know, Better Call Saul is the prequel to Breaking Bad, perhaps the ultimate antihero story, which tells the tale of Walter White, a high school teacher who falls (or rises) to become a drug kingpin. As anyone who has watched Breaking Bad can attest, it is brilliantly done, particularly in how effectively it makes the viewer identify with a monster.
We sympathize with Walter White because he is a product of an amoral world. In the first episode of Breaking Bad, he is performing all the duties expected of a traditional man – working hard every day to provide for his family, including taking a humiliating job at a car wash – without receiving any of the respect that a traditional man would have received. Then he is diagnosed with lung cancer, despite having never smoked.
In other words, Walter lives in an unfair and anti-karmic universe, one in which good behavior does not lead to positive outcomes, and, once he catches onto this fact, he acts accordingly. It is a far cry from the era when displays of moral behavior and upright citizenship were rewarded in fiction, while villains got their just desserts.
Better Call Saul, at first glance, seems to mirror the Breaking Bad storyline, depicting the descent of flawed but lovable trickster Jimmy McGill into ruthless cartel lawyer Saul Goodman. However, there is more to the story than that.
Jimmy’s foil in the show is Howard Hamlin, a polished, stuffy, and somewhat pompous head of a major law firm. Howard is not necessarily the most interesting of characters, but the role he plays in the story is fascinating. When we first meet him in Season One, he is set up as a strait-laced antagonist to the semi-reformed con artist Jimmy.
In a typical antihero story, we would expect Howard to be a sanctimonious hypocrite hiding some dark skeletons in his closet. This would serve as the justification for Jimmy’s descent into villainy: he might be crooked, but he would at least – unlike Howard – be a crook unafraid to face the truth about himself, paradoxically honest in his dishonesty.
But then the show throws us for a loop. Over the course of the next few seasons, it is revealed that Howard’s clean-cut public persona is more or less accurate, that he is basically the model citizen he appears to be. There really are no skeletons there. In effect, Howard is an anti-antihero, a character who simply refuses to play by antihero tropes.
Naturally, Jimmy – and his even smarter and more diabolical wife, Kim – set about ruining his life.
In the current sixth (and final) season of the show, the two embarked on an elaborate plot to publicly frame Howard as an unstable cocaine addict. They did this, ostensibly, to force a settlement in a case that would be in everyone’s best interest. Of course, as with Raskolnikov killing the pawnbroker, this was not their true aim.
No, Jimmy and Kim aimed to destroy Howard for his refusal to conform to their antihero story. He simply would not be the corrupt corporate lawyer they wanted him to be, so they contrived to make him one, dressing him up with the skeletons that they desperately wanted to find. They hated him not for his vices, but for his virtues, because by being a basically good man – even to the point of extending Jimmy a job offer after he had every reason not to – he stood in silent judgment of their own moral failings.
Few viewers were rooting against Howard. But many of us share the tendency to want there to be a dark and depraved side to everything, particularly when it comes to rich white men of Howard’s genus, and to be a little disappointed when no such depravity can be found. To that end, we have all come to inhabit the amoral universe of Walter White, in which nothing is ever noble or beautiful all the way through.
Breaking Bad, which first aired in 2008, was perhaps a harbinger of the hopelessness of the past decade, of the impulse to destroy all ideals and subvert all virtues. Better Call Saul may – if we let it – provide a bookend to that era, by deconstructing the subversion itself. It is as though showrunner Vince Gilligan is trying to subtly provide the counterpoint to his own earlier work, as though he now acknowledges that the antihero story is not enough.
Jason Garshfield is a freelance writer.