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Novels in Television Form
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul feature some of the best writing and character work ever seen on television. These are novels created for a visual medium, and I absolutely loved both.
Antihero shows are generally a tougher sell for me, though, even if they’re done well. Mad Men is the prime example that springs to mind. That show also had great writing, acting, and production values … but I didn’t like it and gave up after two seasons.
The Mad Men characters were all terrible people. Maybe I gave up too soon, but I can’t recall a singlecharacter who seemed like a good person. Worse, I can’t recall any of them even trying to be better people. And without that, a story has no soul.
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul aren’t exactly about a bunch of saints either. Over the course of Breaking Bad, we learn how awful Walter White can be and how he was never really a good person—he just never previously had the opportunity to let his dark side run free.
But Walter White at least has some scruples. He encounters criminals who are even worse than he is. He requires a noble justification to proceed with his horrible deeds (everything he does, he does for this family). He’s not a born supervillain, but he finds his way into the role. And the result is a tragic waste of a brilliant mind.
Jesse Pinkman is another tragic figure. He had descended into self-destructive behavior in his youth, but he was never destined for a life of crime. Throughout the series, he always seems capable of pulling himself back onto the right track. He could make something of himself, if only he’d apply himself. There’s a good person in there struggling to get out, but then Walt interferes. And all that potential gets channeled toward cooking drugs. Another waste.
The Saul of Better Call Saul—or Jimmy McGill, rather—displays elements of both Walt and Jesse. Jimmy has the potential to recover from a misspent youth and build himself into a successful, upstanding lawyer, but he keeps finding excuses to misbehave. He both wants to improve and wants to give up and just have fun scamming people.
That tension fuels the series, and it’s reflected in the show’s other most important character, Kim Wexler. Kim has greater potential to be a good person and even better lawyer—an altruistic attorney whose passion is helping people who can’t afford expensive legal aid.
But Kim, too, enjoys Jimmy’s schemes. She has limits as to how far she’ll go with them, but those limits keep moving further and further out. Jimmy brings out the worst in her … or will he allow her to bring out the best in him? The dynamic is even richer than the Walt/Jesse one.
Both shows call to mind this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil.
“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are not tales of good people vs. evil people, nor are they merely tales of bad people doing bad things. They’re tales of the good vs. evil conflict that can occur inside all of us.
These stories don’t exist to convey any particular message or teach any particular lesson; they exist to convey particular characters and explore these complex, fatally flawed individuals. The events speak for themselves, and audiences can form their own conclusions.
Now that Better Call Saul has aired its finale, I’m tempted to rewatch the entire series and then rewatch Breaking Bad with the extra insight that the prequel series provides. But would I be able to resist binging those eleven seasons of television in an alarmingly short period of time?
Or do I first need to go back and give Mad Men another shot?
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