Dramatic Poles of “Better Call Saul”

In a world where it’s impossible to watch enough great TV shows to declare any of them the greatest TV show now in production, I’m still gonna call “Better Call Saul” one of the best shows going. (And I still haven’t made it all the way through “Breaking Bad”, which might suggest some kind of ambivalence about the original this one is sequelizing.)

However you rate it, BCS provides an especially tight example of the Dramatic Pole at work. As players of Hillfolk know, the dramatic poles provide as the central opposition around which a lead character’s inner and outer struggles revolve.

Jimmy McGill’s dramatic poles hew to about the very first words said about him in his later guise as Saul Goodman in his original “Breaking Bad” appearance: “You don’t want a criminal lawyer… you want a criminal lawyer.” Yep, they’re criminal vs. lawyer. We see Jimmy (the brilliant Bob Odenkirk) pulled between the respectability that he vainly hopes will win him the respect of his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and the con man instincts of his Slippin’ Jimmy persona.

In parallel we see the second series lead, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) pulled along similar lines, with the poles ex-cop vs. criminal. In season two his effort to provide for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, his involvement with cartel smugglers deepens.

Jimmy’s girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) mirrors his dramatic poles, but with the balance reversed. She starts on the straight-laced lawyer side but her association with Jimmy starts to awaken, then inexorably pull her toward, the criminal pole. In a DramaSystem game you might be reluctant to pick the exact same poles as another player but here we see how effective that can be as long as each character is moving along the continuum in a contrasting way or at different rates.

Poles for the other key figure, Chuck, can be defined according to his tortured relationship to Jimmy: is he dependent or dominant? His environmental sensitivity puts him in the first position. He remains in that state until it becomes apparent that Jimmy is once more threatening to achieve the veneer of respectability that Chuck can’t let him have. Then he summons the strength to assert his dominant side, again becoming Jimmy’s chief antagonist.

Remaining cast members are foils—clearly GMCs if this were a DramaSystem game. As such each embodies a single pole for one of the leads. Slick lawyer Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) incarnates the respectable lawyer side for both Jimmy and Kim. Mike’s daughter-in-law represents his need to stick to his ex-cop side (and motivation to go dark), where his gangland ally Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) serves as his contrasting foil for the criminal pole.

Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in the Pelgrane Shop.

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