Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The year is 2012: the movie 2012 just came out, Obama got elected to his second term in office, the concept of President Trump was a lazy improv suggestion, and Netflix’s advertising strategy in the UK was quite literally “we’re the only place in the UK where you can watch Breaking Bad, the best show on television, and probably one of the best shows ever made.”
Breaking Bad is among one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, but in retrospect, it’s a relic of the age of the awesome white male antihero; the privileged badass who does terrible things with no comeuppance. It’s still a fantastic show, but in 2018, if we’re watching a Straight White Male ruin his life, it needs to be framed differently. Bojack Horseman is basically Mad Men with a cartoon horse, but by making it a half-hour sitcom starring anthropomorphic animals, we forget that the lead character has all the privilege in the world and there’s really no reason to sympathise with him.
While Breaking Bad presented Walter White’s turn into Heisenberg as evil, but also kind of cool, Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spin-off, has presented its white male antihero story as an inevitable tragedy, without any of the glory of its predecessor.
Better Call Saul is set in the early 2000’s, and centres around Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the man who would soon become Saul Goodman “Criminal lawyer.” Jimmy is a down on his luck lawyer who’s struggling to get the big clients or get hired by any big partnerships Given that he’s ex-conman (Slippin’ Jimmy) his brother is reluctant to give him a real chance despite Jimmy’s multiple attempts at redemption. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; the world sees this man as a bad person, but that’s eventually what he becomes.
Not to put all the blame on society though; in season 2, Jimmy got a top quality high paying job at a high-end law firm and eventually threw it in his employers’ face. Plus, the show has a conscience in Kim Wexler (Rhea Seahorn), a fellow lawyer, Jimmy’s romantic interest and the best character on the show. She enjoys the cons and the grafts, and even partakes in them occasionally, but for the most part, she’s pushing Jimmy to be a better person.
It’s like the creators saw the shit that happened to poor Skylar White and made it a point to avoid it; the (male) audience hated Skylar – she was too shrill, too much of a nag and was just being ungrateful of everything that Walter White was doing. The things that he was doing included: lying, emotional manipulation, making and selling crystal meth, involvement with the cartel, poisoning a child, train heists and literal murder. But yeah, she was being a nag.
Throughout the run of Breaking Bad, while we obviously knew that everything Walter White was doing was terrible and he was a terrible human being, it was also pretty badass. The audience wanted him to succeed, even if that meant succeeding at being a terrible person. It was cool; he walked away from explosions, he literally masterminded a train heist; at times the show tried to have its cake and eat it too – it attempted to vilify him whilst framing everything he did as amazing. In the season finale, he essentially won. The neo-nazis were defeated, he managed to get money to his wife and family and he died before the law caught up with him.
There’s no glory in any of the villainous acts of Jimmy McGill. At the start of every season, we’re reminded of how sad his life ends up; following the explosive events of Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman goes into hiding and lives a new life as Gene, a Cinnabon manager living in Nebraska. This life is bleak. It’s shot in black and white with dreary music playing in the background, Gene never smiles, he rarely looks up or makes eye contact with anyone, and spends his life paranoid that his past crimes will catch up with him. At the end of Breaking Bad, Walter White had a heroic death trying to save Jesse Pinkman, who left the show whooping in a car that he was finally free. In Better Call Saul we’re reminded that villainous antics don’t pay off. While Walter White died in a blaze of glory, Saul Goodman lives a sad, pathetic shell of a life in a prison of his own making.
In Breaking Bad, Heisenberg was more captivating to watch than Walter White; in Better Call Saul, however, Jimmy McGill is a much, much better character than Saul Goodman, making it worse when we see the inevitable coming. The show creators liked Jimmy so much that they delayed him turning into Saul Goodman for as long as they could. We like Jimmy, we see that he’s inherently a good person; that’s why it’s so frustrating to see him turn bad. We never really liked Walter White, so it was less heartbreaking to see him turn evil.
Unlike in Breaking Bad, nothing that Saul Goodman or Slippin’ Jimmy does is particularly badass; at times it’s funny, at times it’s pathetic and in the season 5 finale it’s a real gut punch. After a whole season of ignoring his brother’s death, Jimmy eventually breaks down in front of the judges at his bar hearing and shows a moment of true vulnerability. The judges are stirred, Kim, after months of encouraging Jimmy to be in touch with his emotions, is proud, and even the audience is a little misty. This broken man who thinks that the world is against him has finally embraced his vulnerability and is vowing to be a better man. Except we’ve all seen Breaking Bad and we know that it’s all bullshit. He gets his law licence and immediately changes his name, and after bragging to Kim about having fooled those “assholes,” we’re left with Kim, dumbfounded and shook that she was conned in such a manner. In making Kim the final shot of the audience instead of Jimmy, the audience sympathies lie with her. We’re not impressed that he pulled this off (as we were, so many times in Breaking Bad), we’re disappointed.
Both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are about broken men turning bad, but in a post-Breaking Bad world where bad men appear to be winning in real life, not just on TV, the creators have framed its Bad Man completely differently. Instead of a pathetic man turning badass (and killing many, many people in the progress), it’s a cautionary tale of a good man rejecting vulnerability, taking shortcuts and eventually suffering because of it.