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Hear Me Out

“Better Call Saul” is About Queer Sibling Rivalry

**Spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Seasons 1-4 below**

I didn’t initially want to watch “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff that began in 2015 and is still going strong with five seasons and counting. I didn’t like “Breaking Bad” that much, but the thing I liked most about it was Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman aka James “Jimmy” McGill, a sleazy lawyer with a heart of…bronze, I suppose.

The spinoff covers Saul’s origins, seeing him move from a small-time con artist to a “bootstrapping” lawyer working his way through law school to a disgraced, trapped, and temporarily-disbarred figure working at the edges of society, doing whatever he can to make a buck. It’s a transformation narrative, and a bildungsroman, and an appealing underdog story. It’s basically a 19th-century serialized novel with lots of drama, sadness, and completely incomprehensible sideplots involving Jonathan Banks finding and removing tracking devices from vehicles.

But the meat of the series centers around one thing only. No, not a thing: a relationship. What makes “Better Call Saul” so good is not its relationship to the “Breaking Bad”-verse, or its similarly bleak New Mexico setting, or even the moral shiftiness of its characters. It’s the age-old conflict between Jimmy McGill (whose con alias, and later professional name, is Saul Goodman) and his brother Charles “Chuck” McGill. That’s what the show is really about. It tries to break apart the concept of sibling rivalry and create something more complex out of it. Charles, the older, mentally ill brother, has always been the “non fuck-up” of the family compared to Jimmy. But Jimmy, flexible morality aside, has spent the better part of his life caring for his deeply dysfunctional brother as his mental illness intensifies (Charles is “allergic to electricity,” so he requires a lot of care.) Instead of feeling grateful and loved, Charles continually works against his brother, trying to get him disbarred, disgraced, and unable to fend for himself.

This relationship, though the subject of scores of classic texts from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to the Javert-Jean Valjean dynamic in “Les Miserables,” is less explored in the realm of TV than you might think. Sure, we don’t lack for “sins of the father” narratives in pop culture. There was the truly obnoxious “Prodigal Son” on Fox, which revolved around a series of face-offs between a non-psychopath son of a serial killer father with the father constantly just saying “see, you’re EVIL like me!” As for morally-flexible anti-heroes, we’ve got plenty of those on television. There’s “The Good Wife,”The Good Fight,” “The Good Doctor,” and probably a lot more “the good” shows that I don’t know about revolving around the premise of: hey, that person you think is so good? They’re not! And “Lucifer,” a show about the literal devil, has had more seasons than it has any right to.

This fraught dynamic, though the subject of scores of classic texts from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to the Javert-Jean Valjean dynamic in “Les Miserables,” is less explored in the realm of TV than you might think

But when we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of good vs. evil and sibling dynamics, “Better Call Saul” is the show that takes its subject the most seriously of all these offerings. Because it’s actually invested in trying to understand what evil actually is. While everyone keeps acting like Jimmy/Saul is the morally reprehensible one for “cutting corners” and playing with the truth, the show’s real villain—the true Livia Soprano of the piece—is Charles McGill: cold, withholding, and possessed of a Manichean rigidity when it comes to the United States legal system. It’s this obsession with the law that stops Charles, at every term, from having any empathy for his brother. He is the true evil here, and the show drops this revelation on us like a bomb at the end of the show’s first season, when we learn that it’s Charles who’s been cockblocking Jimmy’s ability to rise in the firm of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill. Charles, when asked to justify his actions, keeps saying “the law is too important” a profession to be messed up Jimmy. But what he’s really saying is: “the law is more important to me than you are.”

This is the point where I explain to you that I have a habit of reading into things and finding trans narratives wherever I go. Yes, guilty! And trust me, I’ve got a hell of a trans reading for Jimmy/Saul Goodman himself. I mean, he’s a guy who uses a chosen name, doesn’t fit into any stereotypically masculine boxes in a way that causes him consistent pain, and has never been accepted by his family. Need I go on? Probably, but I won’t. For now, I’m interested in looking at how the relationship between Charles and Jimmy shows a larger truth about the complications of queer and cis allyship within families. Charles has always made clear that the law is the most important thing on earth to him, even though his mental illness makes it nearly impossible for him to practice it. When Jimmy starts to become a credible lawyer in his own right, we’re not certain that Charles is upset at this because of his moral convictions or due to simple jealousy. Realistically, it’s a bit of both.

If you’re trans and have siblings, it’s quite likely that those siblings are cis. Something that doesn’t get talked about a lot (because it’s quite difficult and painful!) is how trans and cis siblings can sometimes be pitted against each other inside of the family unit, with the cis sibling getting caught in a difficult position: do I believe my parents, who are adults and who are telling me not to respect my sibling’s gender identity, or do I trust my sibling, who’s telling me that their assigned gender at birth doesn’t feel right for them?

At some point, Charles made a choice to see Jimmy as “bad”, and nothing Jimmy has done since has shifted Charles’ view.

It’s a hard position to be put in, especially as a child. So it’s not uncommon that a kid will side with their parents, and thus unwittingly become conscripted into the family-wide lie of queer and trans erasure. Hopefully, as the siblings grow older, they’re able to talk about things amongst themselves and allow some healing to happen. But sometimes, it’s more important to the cis sibling to side with the family unit at large, leaving the trans sibling out in the cold.

This is essentially what happens with Jimmy and Charles. At some point, Charles made a choice to see Jimmy as “bad”, and nothing Jimmy has done since then has shifted Charles’ view. Charles hasn’t allowed it to: it’s the same rigidity of mind that makes Charles so good at the law that actually stands in the way of him being an empathetic and caring brother. Charles is also representative of the way transphobes use legal definitions of gender to erase or take rights away from trans kids and adults. Because the law—an abstract concept—is always “more important” than real, flesh-and-blood individuals, trans folks will always be betrayed by those who seek to strictly uphold it.

There’s something else that makes Jimmy ripe for a trans reading: he sees morality differently. He doesn’t subscribe to the same black-and-white thinking that Charles does, and this paves the way for Jimmy to be a warm, empathetic person, despite his tendency to “cut corners” and bend the truth.

This is pretty perfect summary of what happens to trans kids—especially neuroatypical ones—trying to figure out “right” from “wrong” in a world that will always label them “wrong.” Because the law hates us, because adults don’t understand us, and because the rules either a) don’t apply to us or b) actively work against our well-being, we learn to disregard them in favor of a more empathetic, case-by-case basis when it comes to morality. At least, this has been my experience and a lot of other folks I know. Queer folks have always fostered a healthy distaste for police, the legal system, and any other institution that was built on intolerant foundations. So yes, we’re a bit more creative when it comes to figuring out what personal morality means to us. We don’t have the law or religion to tell us: because, again, those things seem to exist to keep us down.

When, at the end of Season 3, Jimmy tries to apologize to Charles for exposing his mental illness in court, Charles looks at him blankly and tells him that his tears are, essentially, crocodile tears. “You can’t change,” he tells Jimmy, a painful echo of what he’s been saying to his brother all along: you can’t change, and you can’t ever become good, because you are Bad.

All Jimmy can do is mumble “I can change” before being shut down again. As much as Jimmy cries, emotes, and apologizes, Charles will not believe he’s sincere. He’s made up his mind about his brother, and he made it up long ago. Before kicking Jimmy out of his house, Charles says to his brother: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’ve never really meant all that much to me.”

That’s the last time we see Charles alive. We learn, at the start of Season 4, that he took his own life by kicking a desk with a halogen lamp balanced on it until the lamp fell, causing Charles’ house, full of exposed wires, to burst into flames.

Jimmy never gets a resolution. He never gets to hear that his brother loves him. All he can do, from that point on, is try and justify the hatred his brother felt toward him by becoming exactly what Charles always said he was: a con artist and a trickster. That’s the point: when society keeps trying to make you into something you’re not, it eventually becomes harder not to end up becoming that thing you’ve striven so hard to avoid becoming. That’s famously what happens to Jean Valjean, too. Call someone a jerk enough times, and they’ll probably start being a real jerk. Tell trans kids they’re sick, crazy, or not to be believed, and they’ll start to think it’s true. 

That’s where your trans and queer family comes in, ideally. If this were a canon trans story, I’d hope that Saul would have a community in place to help him deal with his brother’s intolerance and convince him that it’s not his fault, nor within his power to change Charles’ mind. But this is a bleak story about cis people in New Mexico, ostensibly. So that doesn’t happen. Instead, Saul is left alone with his grief and his guilt, faced with the truly crappy task of justifying those feelings via a series of increasingly poor life choices. 

And yeah, sure, he’s supposed to be antihero. But I don’t blame him for “going bad.” He was never shown another way. ♦

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