Above left, a still from Better Call Saul; above right, Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail), 1602.
The eldest character in Better Call Saul isn’t Mike Ehrmantraut, Tuco’s unsuspecting abuelita, or any of the nursing-home residents shakily spooning gelatin from attorney-branded dessert cups. It’s the show’s sixteenth-century lighting scheme, which has better lines than even Bob Odenkirk himself—they’re just in the form of shadows rather than wry legalese.
In fact, while Saul’s setting derives from the blue crystal “artwork” of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, much of its symbolism draws from the black brushstrokes of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Saul’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have already confessed a soft spot for symbolism; they used a hot-and-cold color palette to divide the wardrobes of criminals and law-abiding citizens, with Jimmy bridging both worlds as he fights the temptation to break bad. These biblical undertones extend far past the fiery brimstone of Tuco’s shirt and the heavenly hues of “Hamlin Blue”—they go all the way back to the Baroque era of painting.
Caravaggio, born in Milan in 1571, is arguably the father of the movement, which challenged the idealized divinity of the Renaissance with distressing darkness and realism. For him, the critical moment to capture on canvas was not the sugarcoated theology of halos and resurrections, but the bitter prelude to this: Christ’s flagellation rather than his return.
Famously, Caravaggio pulled his models from the streets and preserved their natural flaws as the eyes saw them. It was not uncommon for his religious commissions to meet with complaint for their portrayal of, say, dirtied legs, or horses that appeared as ordinary, flesh-and-blood animals rather than groomed and churchly centerpieces. His goal was not to mock the church, but to bring it down from the heavens by demonstrating that divine light touched everyone, not just saints.
And so, too, did darkness.
With painters of the period widely devout to chiaroscuro (literally “light-dark,” from the Italian) as a means of capturing dimensional depth, Caravaggio pushed his shading further, reaching beyond the verisimilitude of soft gradation to place a dramatic new emphasis on emotional depth. Characterized by violent shadows and enveloping darkness, his aesthetic became known as tenebrism—and more of a mood and statement than technique of the brush. Whereas chiaroscuro used volume and realism to humanize, tenebrism used division and obstruction to personify human suffering; one used light to breathe life into paintings—the other, darkness to choke and trample it.
From Better Call Saul’s first episode, “Uno.”
The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail), 1600.
Nearly half a millennium later, this style has become the clear inspiration behind the visual aesthetic of Better Call Saul. Pedantically, of course, all cinematic darkness is not equal—and nor does it share equal purpose. Film noir, for example, is known for its heavy use of shadows, but they exist for two very different reasons: to create a veil of mystery and to hide the flaws of early Hollywood film sets. Saul has need for none of that.
But its creators did need a way to externalize the moral divisions within its characters. Breaking Bad was about the battle between light and darkness; every other episode left audiences wondering if Walt would turn things around, if he would delude his family, if he would earn their forgiveness, if he would overcome cancer or drug cartels or the allure of one final cook. Until the very end, there was always room to repent.
In Saul, that battle is already lost; we’ve already seen Jimmy’s future as “the kind of lawyer guilty people hire,” and so the plot and drama are in his division: not if he will break bad, but why. Faustus personifies this through the voices of good and evil angels. Saturday morning cartoons, by flanking Pluto with angels and devils to personify the dog’s superego and id. Gilligan and Gould called on Caravaggio—and put their faith in an aesthetic designed to be as divisive as it is divine. As a result, it is easier to count the scenes where characters are not half cast in shadow than are.
Saint Jerome Writing, 1607.
Boy Bitten by Lizard (detail), 1595–1600.
Painting a biblical allegory of light versus darkness directly onto the faces of its characters, Saul captures life not as a gray marriage of black and white, but as a constant juxtaposition of the two at their purest. There’s no middle-of-the-road Tuco; there’s the man who scrubs his grandmother’s carpets and the man who stains them with blood.
“Some rocks, you don’t turn over,” Mike tells the elder of Philadelphian detectives.
Should you, you’re bound to find some dirtied legs: brothers who uphold the sanctity of law but not of family, parents who sing camp songs but also embezzle, and criminal lawyers who go on to become criminal lawyers.
“Better Call Caravaggio” was first published on the The Paris Review Daily.