Spoiler Warning: this post contains spoilers for season one of the AMC television show Better Call Saul. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want it to be spoiled, you can watch it on Netflix. You can also purchase the entire season for $16.99 on Amazon Video, or $2.99 per episode by clicking this affiliate link. Even if you don’t buy the series, clicking the link helps us pay to run The Writersaurus. Thanks!
One problem common to television shows is having either an unclear theme, or several themes that seem to actively fight with each other. This is understandable, as television tends to be written by several writers, each of whom may have their own vision and special understanding of the narrative’s underlying issues. Another problem television faces is that, unlike novel-writing, the production is often under time-constraints, usually having to finish about an episode a week.
Under these constraints, it’s understandable that less attention is paid to theme in favor of consistency, character, and plot – and rightly so. On the long list of things that every story needs, theme is down at the bottom.
Better Call Saul does not suffer from this lack of clarity. In fact, each episode of the first season resonates with the theme that traditionally “good” guys can do bad things, and “bad” guys can do good things. This theme can be stated more eloquently in the form of a question: What makes a person good or bad – what they are, or what they do? Can a bad person become good?
In Better Call Saul, we constantly see our protagonist, Jimmy McGill, trying to shed his scam artist history by doing the morally right thing, often to his detriment. Here are just a few examples:
Episode 2 (Mijo): Instead of insuring his own well-being by walking away and letting his two brainless skateboarding cohorts be brutally tortured to death, he risks aggravating Tuco by arguing on their behalf for a less severe punishment.
Episode 7 (Bingo): In order to save Kim’s career, Jimmy scams the Kettlemans into admitting their guilt and return to HHM, rather than take them on as clients. He also does ‘the right thing’ and sends the embezzled money to the D.A. – including the bribe they gave him in an earlier episode.
Episode 10 (Marco): It’s interesting to note that while Jimmy and Marco engage in criminal scams, all the scams they’re shown to run only work if the victim acts in a morally reprehensible way, such as stealing from a drunk man.
Besides the above examples of theme ‘done right’ in Better Call Saul’s main plot, there are three other ways the show’ theme is done justice: it reflects its theme in its sub-plots, it has the theme stated by a secondary character, and the theme is subtle.
Theme should be reflected in sub-plots
When writing, your theme should not only be present in the main storyline, but is also reflected in the sub-plots. This ensures that the entire story works as a unified whole, and does not fight with itself or send mixed messages.
Here are a few instances of Better Call Saul’s theme in sub-plots:
Episode 2 (Mijo) – Nacho, a gangster involved in the trade of illegal drugs, talks Tuco into letting Jimmy go because he is innocent.
Episodes 3 (Nacho) & 7 (Bingo): The Kettlemans, who embody the traditional stereotype of ‘decent’ people (I.e., white, affluent, involved in politics), embezzle money and refuse to admit their guilt.
Episode 9 (Pimento): Jimmy learns that Chuck – who is always presented as morally superior – has been sabotaging his chances of being hired at HHM for years because he is jealous, and forcing others to take the blame for these lies. We also find out that Howard, Jimmy’s ‘nemesis’, is actually a relatively decent guy who is just trying to keep his law firm from going under.
Have a secondary character state the theme
In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide Save the Cat, he explains that one of the fifteen essential beats for a story is that the theme must be stated by a secondary character. In episode 9 of Better Call Saul (Pimento), Mike says:
“I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other, but if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.”
Now if that doesn’t summarize the theme of Better Call Saul, I don’t know what does. In fact, before Mike said this, it was unclear whether this whole good bad guys / bad good guys thing was a deliberate choice on the part of the writers, or just a happy accident.
But now we can definitively state that this was the writers’ intention.
Theme should be present, but subtle
In the writing process, theme should ideally be one of the last things you think about, coming after character, plot, and your story as a whole. Once the major arcs of the piece are in place, then you can comb through and see what themes generally jump out at you, and embellish them if you wish (possibly by having a secondary character state them). It’s amazing the sort of larger ideas that you will see resonate in your work again and again.
If you work the opposite way, you run the risk of overshadowing or even safricing essential story elements in order to have a more pronounced theme. This is a bad idea for two reasons:
- If your story is boring or doesn’t make sense because you were so concerned about theme, you won’t have an audience for those themes anyway.
- Having a very strong theme can annoy readers so much that they stop reading. It will pull your audience out of the story.
Better Call Saul is a great example of a story that got it right – if you’re the type of person who likes searching for themes, great! If not, it’s still a highly engaging and enjoyable story.
For those of us who enjoy thinking about fiction beyond simple entertainment value, we’re able to extrapolate past the theme and to the possible messages beyond. Is the role of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ based on what we are, or what we do? If criminals will always be treated as criminals, even when their actions are objectively ‘good’, what benefit is there to them for behaving morally in the first place?
What benefit is there to us?
If the end of season one is any indication, it seems they will be exploring this idea more in seasons to come. And I, for one, am looking forward to it.
If you liked this article, please check out The Writersaurus’ other Better Call Saul post about the importance of sympathy and how to create it!