Warning: Spoilers don’t about; they lurk)
As the unofficial Assistant to the Manager of the Vince Gilligan Fan Club, I have been watching Better Call Saul religiously — and by extension, reruns of my two favorite shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
And it has reawakened an inner-torment, one that perhaps other rabid fans of BB/MM suffer: Which of the dark odysseys is the better drama? Matthew Wiener’s tale of Wall Street executives in the 1960’s, or Gilligan’s tale of a high school meth teacher gone horribly astray?
And in confession, I wax and wane. Some days, the nod to goes to Don Draper, the suave, womanizing alcoholic of Man Men. On others, Walter White reigns as ultimate anti-hero, the cancer-stricken anchor of Breaking Bad. One thing remains clear: For all the brilliance of Saul (and there is much), BCS is a shadow of both.
That’s not a criticism of Saul; even a shadow of Gilligan’s breakthrough show eclipses all other TV. But its shadow remains looming, given the intellect of both predecessors.
But recently, I came to a realization: Saul is actually an homage of both shows, which are fraternal twins.
Consider the core of Mad Men and Breaking Bad:
- Both shows are about middle-aged men, both hesitant to reveal their real ages and inner fears.
- Both center on addiction: Draper to alcohol, White to power.
- Both characters use the trust of women and youth to enable their respective demises.
- Both aired on AMC, once a source of original TV.
- Most importantly, both shows are paeans to the art forms that preceded their own.
It’s that final point in which the shows chose particularly different (yet equally eloquent) paths to reach their finales.
Let’s start with Mad Men, which launched on AMC from 2007-20015 and tells the story of high-powered Wall Street executives through the 1960’s. Breaking Bad, meanwhile, aired from 2008-13 and tells of a high school teacher who employed a former student to cook and sell meth.
Purists will argue that Mad Men deserves more credit because it arrived first. But, in truth, abstract art must always follow representational art, lest it lack source material.
And that is the defining difference — and link — between the shows: Mad Men is representational art, Breaking Bad abstract art.
Consider: Mad Men is time-specific. It revels in an exact era, and is a veritable Hollywood version of history. From the moon landing to the hippie generation to the assassinations of MLK and the Kennedys, Mad Men is intrinsically tied to America’s emergence into the 70’s. And it relies on specific Hollywood influences, from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment to The Planet of the Apes to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey (there’s even an episode entitled The Monolith).
Breaking Bad, meanwhile, is more abstract, centering on the timeless theme that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It also relies on an era in Hollywood: the Western (Gilligan is an admittedly proud wannabe gunslinger). Gilligan peppers the series with showdowns informed by The Good The Bad and the Ugly, John Ford and Once Upon a Time in the West. Gilligan also names an episode after a classic story, Ozymandias, the Shelley poem about how how all kingdoms must eventually fall.
Even the shows feature parallel-if-opposite finales: Mad Men ends with the feel-good endings of the 60’s shows it honored: Peggy and Stan find love; Roger settles on a woman; Joan launches her own business; Peter and Trudy reunite. Even Don finds a heroic farewell: coming up with the ad campaign to Coca Cola’s iconic commercial rendition of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.
Breaking Bad, meanwhile, in classic identical-yet-opposite twin brother fashion, says goodbye in abstract gray: Walter White dies in a pool of his own blood. Jesse Pinkman busts through the chain link prison of his captors, simultaneously laughing and crying at his freedom.
There’s no arguing the artistic brilliance of both, just as there’s no denying Saul‘s cleverness in serving as a cousin to both, toying with prequel and flashback tropes in honor of its ancestors. And, like in most families, cousins are great. But they lack the fire of true siblings.
Still, it raises yet a new inner-torment.
Are Mad Men and Breaking Bad rival twins, or the other sides of the same face?
Pity poor James McGill.
He’s got a brilliant, condescending older brother who undermines his career dreams. He’s got such a penchant for scoundrels he becomes known as ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’ in the neighborhood for his staged injuries. He has the Albuquerque branch of the Mexican drug cartel miffed.
And now he has to carry on the legacy of one of the greatest television shows of all-time, Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul, which launched its second season this month, stands as a marked improvement over its smart-but-sporadic freshman year. Two episodes in, the series already has recovered some of the dark humor and violent tension that defined Vince Gilligan’s landmark preceding show.
Saul Goodman (Jimmy changed his name to match his motto: ‘S’all good, man.’) now has a love interest. A company car and his own digs. He’s even smoothing out the relationship with soon-to-be hired gun Mike Ehrmantraut.
Of course, that puts Saul — and creators Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould — in something of a pickle. As the chronological predecessor to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul must, eventually, return its hero to the place we first saw him: In Breaking Bad climes, as a pretty sleazy Yellow Pages injury attorney.
Consider how Saul was first described by Jesse Pinkman in Season 2, Episode 8 of Breaking Bad: When you’re up against the wall, “you don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”
And while he was great comic relief, Saul also was, in truth, a racist and chauvinist. He openly propositioned his secretary Francesca (“You’re killing me with that booty”) and confided in Walter the reason he changed his name: “My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”
The Breaking Bad Saul even sassed the feds. In the same episode, he trades barbs with DEA macho man Hank Schrader, who offered an unsolicited review of Saul’s daytime TV commercials. “I’ve seen better acting in an epileptic whorehouse,” Hank taunted.
“Is that the one your mom works at?” Saul snapped back. “She still offering the two-for-one discount?” Saul is decidedly gentler in his own series, and Gilligan and Gould would appear to have wedged themselves into a creative corner.
But Gilligan takes to pickles like a kosher dill. He is the first to admit he likes to write his characters into near-inescapable peril — then have them pull Houdini-esque escapes. Gilligan said he knew, for instance, that he wanted to end Season 2 of Breaking Bad with a plane crash, even though the series had been as landlocked as a dehydrated scorpion. So he wrote the season finale first, then retrofitted the story arc to include an airline disaster.
Shades of those darker grays are surfacing in Saul. Just as Walt slowly circled the drain into villainy in Breaking Bad, Saul appears headed for a fate that will change his law-office nickname from Charlie Hustle to Charlie Hustler. Just how dark a fate? In Gilligan’s hands, you’re almost scared to ask.
Still, Saul deserves credit for understatedly fixing what Hollywood movie studios still can’t: creating tension in a prequel. There’s a certain lack of suspense in an opening chapter: After all, your hero has to survive an origins story if chapter two is already written (and a hit). Gilligan and Gould circumvented that by making Better Caul Saul both flashback and prequel, leaving us to fret over his ultimate fate.
Of course, Saul the man still has a ways to go before he becomes a lovable lowlife, just as Saul the show faces its own challenges turning sinister: Mike continues to look older than he did in the “sequel” show, and capturing any of Breaking Bad‘s bleak lightning in a bottle would seem an impossible appeal.
But in the courtroom of television drama, even a shadow of Breaking Bad is a convincing argument. And in Gilligan’s and Gould’s hands, s’all good.