Philosophy through ‘Better Call Saul’

Philosophy through Better Call Saul. Video essay critical review
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In the world of television, few series manage to combine entertainment and thought-provoking content as seamlessly as “Better Call Saul”. With its rich characters and complex narratives, the show offers fertile ground for philosophical exploration. Through this critically acclaimed series, we’ll examine fundamental philosophical themes, making abstract concepts accessible and engaging. Our guide in this exploration will be the characters themselves, from the charismatic Jimmy McGill to the stoic Mike Ehrmantraut. Let’s turn on the television, tune in to “Better Call Saul”, and tune into philosophy. This is Philosophy through Better Call Saul.

**Spoiler Alert:** The following discussion will include key plot points and character developments from “Better Call Saul”. If you’re not up-to-date, you may wish to proceed with caution. We’ll be here when you’re ready to dive deeper into this captivating series.

Part 1: The Birth of Saul and the Shadow of Heisenberg: An Exploration of Identity

Identity is a fascinating and intricate concept, deeply embedded in the human experience. It is a self-constructed amalgamation of our experiences, aspirations, affiliations, and perspectives. We are continuously moulding and reshaping it, just as clay is kneaded and shaped by a potter. In the world of television, this process is brought to life through the dynamic evolution of characters, providing viewers with a lens to scrutinize and reflect upon their own identities.

“Better Call Saul,” the noteworthy companion piece to “Breaking Bad,” serves as a remarkable canvas to examine the concept of identity. The show chronicles the transformation of Jimmy McGill, a struggling yet optimistic lawyer, into Saul Goodman, the cunning and morally ambiguous attorney we meet in “Breaking Bad.” This metamorphosis is not sudden but gradual and deeply rooted in Jimmy’s experiences and choices. The sixth season of “Better Call Saul” showcases the further development of Jimmy into the eponymous character Saul Goodman as he and his wife Kim Wexler execute a plan to ruin Howard Hamlin’s career to force a resolution of the Sandpiper case.

At this juncture, it’s pertinent to introduce the philosophical perspective of identity. An influential perspective is that of British empiricist philosopher John Locke, who proposed a theory of personal identity based on continuity of consciousness. According to Locke, a person’s identity at one time is the same as at another time if and only if there are overlapping chains of direct psychological connections, such as memories. Applying Locke’s theory, we can discern that Saul Goodman is essentially a continuity of Jimmy’s consciousness, shaped by his personal experiences and memories.

Juxtaposed against Jimmy’s transformation is the character arc of Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” Walter, a meek high school chemistry teacher, transforms into the ruthless methamphetamine producer and dealer Heisenberg. Both transformations are prompted by an existential crisis and a desire to assert agency in their lives, yet they manifest differently. The subtlety and nuance with which these transformations are depicted is a testament to the show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s storytelling prowess.

As we trace the trajectories of these characters, it’s worth considering philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “will to power” – the main driving force in humans: achievement, ambition, the striving to reach the highest possible position in life. Both Jimmy and Walter, dissatisfied with their current circumstances, yearn for more. This yearning, this “will to power,” compels them to make choices that set them on a path of transformation.

The identities of Saul Goodman and Heisenberg are not mere disguises or facades. They are living, evolving identities that are shaped by their interactions with the world around them and their internal emotional landscapes. These characters serve as a potent reminder that identity is not static but dynamic, continuously in flux, and subject to the ebb and flow of our experiences.

Simultaneously, the series also explores the tension between personal and social identity, a concept brought to prominence by social psychologist Henri Tajfel. According to Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, individuals strive to maintain a positive social identity by enhancing the status of their group. In the case of Jimmy, his transformation into Saul can be viewed as an attempt to enhance his status within the legal fraternity, albeit via a morally ambiguous route.

In conclusion, “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad” offer viewers a complex and nuanced exploration of identity, underpinned by philosophical and psychological theories. As we follow the metamorphosis of Jimmy into Saul and Walter into Heisenberg, we are invited to reflect on our own identities, and the myriad factors that shape and influence them.

Part 2: The Web of Deception: The Moral Landscape and the Choreography of Co-dependency

Engulfed in the intricate web of deception, the characters in “Better Call Saul” navigate a complex moral landscape. Ethical standards are constantly shifting and boundaries blurred. Their actions and decisions are, more often than not, informed by a choreography of co-dependency, underpinned by a distinctive psychological dynamic.

While coining the term “moral landscape”, philosopher Sam Harris argued that moral issues have objectively right or wrong answers, which can be discerned through scientific understanding of human well-being.

In other words, moral questions aren’t merely subjective or reliant on cultural or personal perspectives, but rather, they possess objectively correct answers, akin to scientific queries. Akin to Epicurus’s Pleasure-Seeking Principle, Harris argues that actions and attitudes that lead to suffering are considered ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’, while those that promote well-being and happiness are ‘good’ or ‘moral’.

This perspective, though, seems to falter in the realm of “Better Call Saul”, where characters’ actions frequently subvert traditional moral norms, reflecting Friedrich Nietzsche’s view that morality is fluid, relative, and constructed by human interpretation.

In this tumultuous moral terrain, Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman can be seen as a plunge into moral relativism, a concept championed by ethicist Gilbert Harman. Relativism holds that moral truths are not universal, but rather depend on the context or culture. As Saul Goodman, Jimmy discards the formal ethics of the legal profession, replacing them with his own rules, dictated by expediency and personal gain.

The co-dependency between Jimmy and his wife, Kim Wexler, is crucial to this transformation. Co-dependency, a concept originated in the field of addiction studies, refers to a relationship where one person enables another’s harmful habits or behaviour. While Jimmy descends into his Saul persona, Kim, rather than serving as a moral compass, becomes complicit in his actions.

This co-dependency takes an unexpected turn. Kim, who has been the stable, moral counterpart to Jimmy, proposes a plan to sabotage the career of Howard Hamlin, a fellow lawyer. This action contradicts Kim’s previously demonstrated moral integrity and reveals the hidden facets of her character, providing a vivid example of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious: that our overt behaviour is often driven by unseen desires or fears.

Moreover, Kim’s decision to join Jimmy in his moral descent mirrors the ideas of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that we are condemned to be free, responsible for our own actions, and capable of defining our own moral codes. Kim, like Jimmy, is constructing her own morality, shaped by personal circumstances and desires.

The relationship between Jimmy and Kim shows the potent interplay of morality and psychology, where individual decisions are driven by not just personal values but also unconscious motivations and relational dynamics. As we navigate the moral landscape of “Better Call Saul”, we are reminded of the intricate choreography of human behaviour, where every action, decision, and relationship is an echo of deeper, often hidden, psychological and moral realities.

In the end, it is not just the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman that is the central focus of the show. It is also the exploration of how morality is shaped, challenged, and redefined in the face of shifting personal relationships and psychological dynamics​.

Part 3: Nacho and the Chains of Duty: The Philosophy of Freedom

In the rich narrative fabric of “Better Call Saul”, one character often overlooked, yet deeply intriguing, is Ignacio “Nacho” Varga. Nacho, a member of the notorious Salamanca drug organisation, is a well-drawn study of a man grappling with the question of freedom, choice, and agency. His life is intricately entwined with the constraints of duty and the incessant pursuit of personal liberation.

Nacho’s character arc navigates the crossroads of determinism and free will, best understood in the light of classical and contemporary philosophical theories. Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Daniel Dennett provide us with the tools to decipher Nacho’s actions and motivations. 

Kant, for instance, posited that freedom and moral responsibility are intimately linked. According to him, a moral agent is free because they can act according to reason, not just in response to desire or external factors. This notion of freedom as self-governance seems to align with Nacho’s modus operandi. He operates within the Salamanca organisation, yet often attempts to manipulate outcomes according to his own moral compass, a compass which importantly, is guided by a love for his father and a longing for a life unshackled from the demands of the cartel.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, on the other hand, posits that humans are “condemned to be free”. For Sartre, freedom is a burden, as every action we take is a choice that defines us. Nacho’s predicament encapsulates Sartre’s view. His attempts to protect his father, Manuel, from the Salamancas, are choices that put him at odds with the cartel, leading him to live in constant fear and anxiety. Even as he tries to exert his free will, the repercussions of his actions trap him in a cycle of reactivity, suggesting a deterministic underpinning to his life’s trajectory.

This tension between free will and determinism is further explored in the works of philosopher Daniel Dennett. He postulates that while our actions are indeed influenced by deterministic processes, we also possess a kind of freedom in the form of ‘evitability’. That is, the ability to foresee possible consequences and avoid undesirable outcomes. This is exhibited when Nacho, foreseeing the danger Hector Salamanca poses to his father, decides to switch Hector’s medication in an attempt to induce a fatal heart attack, thereby hoping to preempt a future he desperately wants to avoid.

Looking at Nacho’s actions and choices through these philosophical lenses, we begin to appreciate the depth of his struggle for freedom. It’s a struggle that transcends the immediate narrative context and delves into universal human concerns about agency, choice, and the nature of our existence. It’s a struggle that prompts us to reflect on our own lives, our own choices, and the chains of duty that bind us. 

Nacho’s journey is a testament to the complexity of freedom. It’s a cautionary tale about the limits of free will and the tragic paradox of choice.

Nacho’s violent death seems to fly in the face of what we would like freedom to mean: agency over our own lives. Yet, in his last living moments and facing the certainty of death, Nacho still grasps at the straws of freedom, taking control over his own way of dying. His story serves as a potent exploration of the philosophy of freedom, a reminder that our choices define us, and that the pursuit of freedom often comes with a hefty price.

Part 4: Gus Fring and the Aesthetics of Power: A Study in Control

Gus Fring, masterfully portrayed in the hit series ‘Breaking Bad’ and its prequel ‘Better Call Saul’, paints a riveting portrait of power, control, and the art of maintaining the two in a world riddled with chaos and uncertainty. Fring’s unique blend of uncompromising brutality and business-like coolness offers a refreshing perspective on the philosophy of power, control, and leadership, drawing parallels to ideas propagated by eminent philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Hobbes.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, postulated the idea of the “will to power”, a fundamental element in human nature that urges us towards dominance and control. This concept resonates strongly in Fring’s character, who carefully crafts an outward image of a respectable businessman while clandestinely operating a massive drug empire. His mastery over control and the subjugation of his circumstances reflect Nietzsche’s “overman” or “Ubermensch” concept, a being who rises above the herd morality to create his own values.

On the other hand, Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, wrote extensively on the social contract and the state of nature. In his work ‘Leviathan’, Hobbes argues for a single, absolute sovereign to maintain order in society. Gus Fring embodies a similar role in his drug empire, dictating the law and ensuring peace among his subordinates. Like Hobbes’s sovereign, Fring maintains control not just through fear, but also through a calculated display of power and authority.

Gus Fring’s character also offers an intertextual comparison with another iconic figure of power and control – Francis Underwood from ‘House of Cards’. Like Fring, Underwood is a master manipulator who uses power and control as instruments to achieve his ambitions. However, where Underwood is flamboyant and public, Fring is discreet and prefers to operate from the shadows, showcasing different modalities of power and control.

In studying the character of Gus Fring, we see a fascinating exploration of the aesthetics of power. Power, in Fring’s world, is not just about dominance but also control – control over one’s image, over one’s actions, and over the consequences of those actions. His character serves as a compelling illustration of Nietzsche’s will to power and Hobbes’s philosophy of the sovereign, drawing rich comparisons and contrasts with other characters and philosophical ideologies.

Wrapping up our exploration of Gus Fring and the aesthetics of power, it’s clear that his character offers a profound examination of the philosophy of power and control. Fring’s character serves as a rich testament to the adage that true power lies not in dominance, but in control – a concept that resonates strongly with the philosophical theories of Nietzsche and Hobbes. As we continue our exploration of power and control in the ensuing sections, the character of Gus Fring will serve as a touchstone, a vivid illustration of the art of wielding power with control, and the intriguing aesthetics it engenders.

Part 5: The Stoicism of Mike Ehrmantraut: A Silent Struggle

In the richly complex world of “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”, the stoic character of Mike Ehrmantraut stands as a compelling study. Stoicism, an ancient philosophy born in the Hellenistic period of Greece, values acceptance of the present moment and the detachment from passionate reactions to external events.

Stoicism, founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC, advocated for the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic learns to detach himself from desire, leading a virtuous life in harmony with nature and accepting the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Epictetus, a prominent Stoic philosopher, proposed that we are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of those events.

Mike Ehrmantraut embodies this stoic philosophy throughout his arc. Unflinchingly, he faces each challenge with a quiet resolve, mirroring the Stoics’ teachings of accepting reality as it unfolds. An exemplary instance of this is when he is charged by Gus Fring with the execution of Werner Ziegler, a German engineer hired by Gus to construct an underground meth lab. Despite his competence, Ziegler breaches his employer’s trust by escaping the job site to meet his wife, whom he misses. Stoic to the core, Mike accepts the assignment and carries it out, despite his personal feelings of sympathy for Werner.

One key element of Stoicism is living by a personal code, and Mike is no exception. His past haunts him, and his guilt over pressuring his son Matt into accepting bribes, and Matt’s subsequent murder, drives him to uphold his own code. This code, despite leading him to some morally grey areas, is his anchor, his attempt to bring order to the chaotic world around him.

A Stoic accepts the world as it is, and Mike does this in his own way. His quote in Season 5, “We all make our choices…And those choices, they put us on a road,” encapsulates his understanding of the cause-and-effect nature of life. He acknowledges his past actions and their consequences, choosing to carry his burdens silently, rather than seek absolution or escape.

Mike’s quiet resignation contrasts sharply with Nacho’s desperate struggle. Unlike Nacho, who is constantly seeking ways to change his situation, he seems to accept his fate. This acceptance, though it could be seen as resignation, is in fact a Stoic practice known as “amor fati” – a love of one’s fate. Despite his hardships, Mike never plays the victim. Instead, he does what needs to be done, upholding his personal code even when it forces him to make tough decisions.

Comparisons can be made to other characters across literature and film, such as Clint Eastwood’s iconic character ‘The Man with No Name’. Both men are stoic, principled, and faced with moral complexities, dealing with them in their own distinct ways. However, Mike’s character is imbued with a depth and nuance that sets him apart. He is not a simple archetype, but a profoundly human character. Mike’s silent struggle reveals a man trying to find order in a world of chaos, living by a code, and accepting the repercussions of his actions. He’s a testament to the durability of the human spirit and a reminder that even in the face of adversity, one can choose how to respond. Stoicism, as embodied by Mike, is not about detachment or indifference but about acceptance, resilience, and the courage to face reality head-on.

 Part 6: Lalo Salamanca and the Philosophy of Violence

The character of Lalo Salamanca, a cunning and ruthless member of the Salamanca drug cartel, introduces an interesting exploration into the philosophy of violence. An essential figure within the television series “Better Call Saul,” Lalo’s violent actions and strategies serve as a lens through which we can examine theories of violence, power, and morality.

In order to fully understand Lalo’s character, we need to briefly touch on the philosophy of violence. The term “violence” is typically used to refer to physical harm or force exerted with the intention to hurt or kill. However, philosophers like Hanna Arendt and Frantz Fanon have offered broader interpretations. Arendt, a 20th-century political theorist, argues that violence is not synonymous with power, but instead, it is a tool used when power is lost. On the other hand, Fanon, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, considers violence as a necessary and justified response to colonial oppression.

Lalo Salamanca’s character can be seen as a blend of these philosophies. His violent tendencies are not just a show of brute force, but also a strategic tool used to establish and maintain control within the drug trade. The assassination attempt on Lalo, orchestrated by Gus Fring, signifies a threat to Lalo’s power, inciting a violent response from the Salamancas. This aligns with Arendt’s view of violence as a tool employed in the face of power loss.

Simultaneously, considering Fanon’s perspective, the Salamancas’ violent tactics could be seen as a response to the oppressive forces of rival gangs and law enforcement, acting as a form of resistance. Although the context differs from Fanon’s colonial setting, parallels can be drawn regarding the dynamics of power and resistance.

When we compare Lalo Salamanca to characters from other shows, say, Tony Soprano from “The Sopranos”, we can see a similar utilization of violence as a means to maintain power and control. Both characters operate within illegal activities, where violence often becomes a necessary tool for survival.

Understanding the philosophy of violence through Lalo Salamanca’s actions provides a unique perspective into the dynamics of power, control, and morality within a violent context. It’s a vivid demonstration of how philosophies of violence can be woven into narrative structures, giving depth to characters and providing viewers with a more profound understanding of the complexities of their actions and decisions.

Lalo Salamanca serves as an embodiment of the philosophy of violence within the narrative of “Better Call Saul.” His actions, influenced by the power dynamics of his environment, reflect the theoretical perspectives of philosophers like Arendt and Fanon. His character also encourages viewers to question their own perceptions of violence, power, and morality in a society where these concepts are often intricately intertwined.

Part 7: The Endgame

In closing, the philosophical richness of Better Call Saul invites contemplation on themes of power, control, choice, and consequence. The interplay of these themes, as seen through the actions and dilemmas of its characters, affords us a window into the profound complexities of human nature and the societal structures we inhabit. As we delve into these narratives, we spectate, but are also invited to participate internally in a dialogue about our shared human experience.

Thank you for accompanying me on this exploration. If you’ve enjoyed this discussion, I invite you to like and subscribe to PhilosophyMTs YouTube channel, follow the podcast, and for more thought-provoking content, keep browsing through

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