Written and directed by Peter Gould
Albuquerque is a bright city. It’s full of hot colors and bright sunlight. It’s full of browns, yellows, oranges and reds. It’s a soulless, radioactive Georgia O’Keefe hellscape, but it’s one that’s full of bright-line clarity. Everyone and everything is clear and sharp in the constant sunlight. Chicago is a dark city. It’s full of deep, enveloping shadows. It’s full of cold blues and blacks. It’s a city where a sunroof is a receptacle for defecation, but it’s one where no one can see you well enough to know you’re to blame for their losses. No one is ever really clear in its ever-present night.
Back in the late 1950s, a Chicago graduate student named Lawrence Kohlberg began what would become a seminal theory in modern developmental psychology: his theory of moral development, something that every introductory psychology student learns. His stages of moral development essentially fit into three categories: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. In the pre-conventional stage, human beings have not yet adopted anything like what we traditionally call morality–they are pure ids in the psychoanalytic sense or pure hedonists in the ethical sense. In the conventional stage, humans adopt the morality of first their parents and then society–those who respond to Kohlberg’s famous Heinz dilemma by saying things like, “stealing is wrong” or “it’s illegal” are in the conventional stage. (Some of us may even say that religion fits into this stage by definition.) In the post-conventional stage, a person calculates morality based on individual principles and application of those principles to the world–they maintain that breaking society’s rules and laws can be allowed under certain conditions, based on the principles that are more important than the rules themselves. (My law school, incidentally, used the Heinz dilemma on us. Most students answered with “conventional” answers, because they were afraid to say anything else. I actually wrote, “I’m in the post-conventional stage and I know Kohlberg’s work. This is not a good exercise for psychology majors.” I have a feeling I got marked down somewhere as obnoxious and not to be trusted.)
The cities represent the moral development of Jimmy McGill, as we view it in this first season of Better Call Saul. Chicago is Jimmy’s pre-conventional stage: he does what makes him happy and gets him immediate gain, with no real consideration of larger principles or society’s rules and expectations. He runs scams with his buddy Marco, including an adaptation of the famous Spanish Prisoner, hopping from bar to bar and not caring as long as he makes it to the next bar before any cops show up. There are seemingly no bounds in the dark backgrounds, and a montage of his antics with Marco during a return trip even eventually fades into a completely black background: a blank canvass on which to paint his scams, with no moral lines to stop him.
Since coming to Albuquerque with his brother, Jimmy has been in the conventional stage. He’s been following the rules and expectations of his brother and society. He’s been carefully doing “the right thing,” even when he doesn’t think it’s really what’s best. He devotes himself to clients who have nowhere else to turn. He’s so willing to follow his brother that his immediate reaction to being told that there is an office with his name on it at Daviston-Maine (I’m guessing on that spelling completely.) is to say, “Nah, Chuck wouldn’t like it.”
And now, Jimmy has finally reached the post-conventional stage. He tells Mike, “I know what stopped me, and you know what, it’s never stopping me again.” He’s leaving the expectations of his brother and the legal community behind for a morality that he decides based on his own principles. Mike was already clearly in the post-conventional stage–a dirty cop who was willing to take the law into his own hands is undoubtedly someone who has already passed beyond the conventional stage. But Jimmy needed to realize that his brother was not some ultimate paragon of virtue. He needed to see that while his reckless past may not have been perfectly virtuous, there was something of a societal positive to robbing people who were trying to cheat him (notice that’s how his scams work–they play to people’s greed and desire to believe that they’ve gotten away with something over him) compared to his refusal to profit from the Kettelmans’ thievery.
While people often described Saul Goodman as “amoral,” “ambivalently moral,” or other such terms on Breaking Bad, I think they were always off base. He was quite moral–it’s just that his morality was post-conventional in the Kohlberg sense. He had principles that mattered to him and he made his decisions based on those principles, but he did not care about society’s strictures around him. And to me a big part of that character’s strength was that he was so comfortable with that. He didn’t need the ABA’s Model Rules for Ethical Conduct to validate him–he just did what he had decided was right.
We just witnessed the birth of Saul Goodman. The fun starts here.
- I got to use my psychology degree this week!
- “If you’re a lawyer and you’re not making bank, you’re doing it wrong. . . . I assure you, lawyers in Chicago make bank.” At least in my law school, the Illinois bar was universally said to be the hardest to join, and Chicago considered the most cutthroat, ruthless legal community in America. It’s not that simple to pick up and move out there, even compared to how difficult it usually is for lawyers. And I know lawyers who are far from wealthy, without even considering those of us who are lawyers in theory but don’t work in the field.
- “Smoke on the Water” is one of the most overused songs on earth, but somehow it really fits Marco.
- The first time we saw the watch scam, the mark just immediately looked like a total scum to me. This time, the guy actually looked very sweet and non-threatening. I don’t know if that was just me.
Love the analysis from the psychology perspective. I’ve learned about Kohlberg’s moral development stages, but I never thought to look at this show from that angle. Great write up.
Overall, I wasn’t as big a fan as many people were, but the show definitely exceeded my expectations. Odenkirk and Banks were amazing, as expected, and my favorite episode was “Pimento”.
The Kohlberg thought occurred to me during a second viewing of this episode and I thin realized how well it really encapsulated the entire season. The fact that Kohlberg was from Chicago also fit in so nicely.
I was afraid to expect too much of this show, and I tried to avoid hearing anything Gilligan, Gould, & Co. said going in so it didn’t influence me too much, but I found the show surprising in how well it really continued a lot of “Breaking Bad’s” feel without Walter White. I thought it was fantastic, but I’m also somebody who doesn’t watch a ton of television, which I think affects how I view it.
Incidentally, I just got the first disc of “Silicon Valley,” which I had been looking forward to forever. Did you watch that one?
Great reviews – and good news, Orphan Black is back!
Oh yes it is I saw it was coming and then forgot! Thanks for reminding me!