In Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan created one of the best shows in television history.
He has followed it with a prequel, Better Call Saul!, which traces how the ethically-challenged lawyer featured in the earlier show — Saul Goodman — developed out of a perennial loser named Jimmy McGill. Breaking Bad fans are overjoyed that Gilligan has struck gold twice, and Better Call Saul! looks to become another television classic. And, although the show is not overtly libertarian, libertarians can learn from it.
With only its first season completed, I’m sure the show has many surprises in store. But one thing is already clear: Gilligan continues to be the champion of the little guy against the establishment, and the poet of the shabbiness of ordinary existence in twenty-first-century America. He captures all the frustration, humiliation, and despair of living in the administered world of the modern state.
Jimmy McGill is a bottom feeder in the swamp of government regulation that now covers the American landscape. As a rookie lawyer, Jimmy becomes a creature of the court system, trying to exploit it even as it exploits him. As the series opens, Jimmy is working as a public defender. In a heavily credentialed society, he is at a huge disadvantage — his law degree is from the University of American Samoa.
Forced to beg for cases from an officious clerk, Jimmy is a parasite on society. If it weren’t for a myriad of government rules and regulations and a multitude of misfits who violate them, Jimmy would be out of work. Scratch beneath the surface of his world, and it’s government regulation all the way down.
In only ten episodes, Jimmy has already run the whole gamut of modern bureaucracy. While struggling with the court system, he is also constantly interacting — and fighting — with a large, high-powered law firm that epitomizes the impersonality and coldness of modern office life. Jimmy has also run up against an uncaring hospital bureaucracy, which tries to commit his brother against his will to psychiatric treatment.
As a named partner in the big law firm, Jimmy’s older brother Chuck might seem to represent the establishment himself. But he has developed a psychosomatic ailment, and thus joins the ranks of all the loners in Better Call Saul! who do not fit into society’s categories and thus incur its bureaucratic wrath.
Another loner who runs afoul of the law in Better Call Saul! is Mike Ehrmantraut, Saul Goodman’s fixer and cleaner in Breaking Bad. When we learn his backstory in episode 6, we discover that he is a basically good man, who has turned to crime only because of his involvement with a corrupt police precinct in Philadelphia.
In the final plot arc of the season, Jimmy develops a specialty in elder law, which takes him into the figurative bowels (and the literal dumpster) of an assisted living facility. In his efforts to help the old folks, Jimmy runs up against a new pack of lawyers, who swamp him with demands for paper work. The mounting cartons of case files Jimmy is continually dragging around symbolize the insane demands for documentation that bureaucracy imposes.
Jimmy is fighting back against these bureaucratic forces, but only by turning his class action lawsuit into a RICO case, which will triple the damage award. Legal eagle Jimmy would have no talons without a federal statute originally intended to combat organized crime, but now routinely applied to white collar crime. In the end, the paperwork demands of the case force Jimmy to turn it over to the large law firm he despises. With all its complex rules, the state makes it impossible for a little guy like Jimmy to do business on his own.
Libertarians tend to concentrate on the classic forms of government intervention: taxation, the monetary system, economic regulations. Better Call Saul! reminds us that government tyranny is actually more insidious and pervasive than might at first appear. When he was working on The X-Files, Gilligan had already explored the modern state’s panoptical regime, as analyzed by French philosopher Michel Foucault — a world rife with institutions, like schools, clinics, and prisons, that are not, strictly speaking, part of the government but nevertheless keep tabs on us and monitor our lives for the government’s purposes.
A theme that unites Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul! (inherited from The X- Files) is that we live in a surveillance state and our government records can mark us for life. Jimmy is haunted by a single trumped-up sex crime charge.
In order to regulate every aspect of our lives, the government cannot go it alone — it works through a web of intermediaries. Many of these institutions purport to take care of us, but in the process they chip away at our freedom. Better Call Saul! brilliantly portrays the interlocking directorate of modern government, quasi-governmental institutions, and all their satellites. The courts, the law firms, the police, the corporations, the hospitals, the assisted living facilities — they all work together to constrain our freedom — and they all operate within the state’s regulatory apparatus.
Jimmy McGill is a contemporary Everyman, crushed by the soft tyranny Alexis de Tocqueville predicted for the United States in his Democracy in America. No wonder Jimmy is already embracing his dark, con-man side, and we can see him morphing into Saul Goodman.