Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul offers the same luminous insights into society’s chinks as its predecessor.By Helen Razer.
AMC’s ‘Better Call Saul’
For every endurable TV spinoff, there are dozens of agonising failures. Decent parents have given the screen so many second-generation stinkers that there ought to be a law. The very good M*A*S*H delivered the very bad After MASH. The quite tolerable Hill Street Blues produced the fairly intolerable Beverly Hills Buntz. Baywatch managed the improbable and bore issue even more abhorrent than itself in the form of Baywatch Nights.
If we don’t count The Colbert Report, Boston Legal and, of course, Laverne & Shirley – the best, if the only, sitcom ever made to describe the nature of an advanced lesbian relationship – then spinoffs seem doomed to affront the conditions of their birth. This is a fact Vince Gilligan, showrunner for Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, knew firsthand.
As a New York University film school graduate, Gilligan joined the writing team for the ’90s show The X-Files. He quickly developed a reputation as one of the best and most meticulous thinkers in the business, and misplaced part of it again when that hit spun off into the single season embarrassment The Lone Gunmen, for which he was executive producer.
Then, in 2008, memory of this misstep was expunged for all time as Gilligan offered television what arguably remains its greatest anglophone drama, Breaking Bad.
Perhaps you have not seen the program whose elevator pitch is this: mild-mannered middle-class Walter White contracts lung cancer; he pays for his treatment and the care of his family by recourse to the sale of methamphetamine, produced by him in unusual volume and quality thanks to his academic training as a chemist; barbarity ensues.
Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve certainly spotted the devotion its seasons inspired.
In 2014, the University of Melbourne’s chemistry outreach program connected with high school students by offering a Walter White-themed science session. In 2013, an enterprising company assembled and successfully sold unauthorised Lego kits for $250 that recreated the Breaking Bad drug lab. The same year, Anthony Hopkins binge-watched the show and immediately wrote to Bryan Cranston to declare, “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen – ever.” Tony had a point.
Dedication is not the sole province of the comfortable and the elite. Gilligan reports that certain real-life producers of meth now dye their product blue to mimic Walter’s crystal. This troubled him ethically, but appealed to his vanity. “I guess it means they’re watching the show,” he told an interviewer.
When my friend’s teenage kid renamed the household wi-fi network “Rolling_Meth_Lab” and threatened to start cooking crystal if his parents dared to change it back, I figured I should start watching, too.
I watched so intently, I fell into the habit of quoting Heisenberg, White’s nom-de-meth. I once told someone in the Bunnings car park, “Stay out of my territory.” I watched the series again and couldn’t shut up about it to the point that last birthday a friend gave me a T-shirt for the program’s money-laundering business, the A1A Car Wash. “Let your T-shirt do the talking,” she wrote to me, hopefully, on the card. It didn’t work. I kept talking about the show, and wearing its merchandise, even though fandom has never been my custom.
Such ample devotion has, of course, given rise to the ample critique of its source. There are many critics who have advanced the not-entirely-unreasonable view that what some of us love about the unloveable Walter White is his extreme individualism and his Randian victory over others.
There is a popular and unfavourable parallel made between Breaking Bad and The Wire, the latter upheld as a program that truly depicts the power of the system rather than the power of the single man. Personally, I think this criticism is misguided. Although, I should own here that I find The Wire so unbearably worthy I am yet to remain conscious for an entire episode.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, kept me awake for days. It played out like all the most terrifying parts of Lear and it looked like the kind of graphic novel available for exclusive sale in hell. A season produced just as much collateral damage as a Michael Bay film and a far deeper anxiety in its fans. I doubt I was the only viewer who sought prescription sedatives in advance of the series finale. We needed something to calm us down after a five-year amphetamine binge.
All of which is to say that Breaking Bad, which took out the 2014 Guinness World Record for highest critically rated TV series, is very, very good. Therefore, hopes for its prequel spinoff , Better Call Saul, currently available on streaming service Stan, were, understandably, very, very low. There was, surely, no trick of artistic chemistry that could reproduce the rush of this show.
Well, there was, and much of it can be traced to the extraordinary abilities of its star, Bob Odenkirk. Hard comedy nerds will remember his credit as a writer on Saturday Night Live and slightly softer ones will recall his virtuosic turn in The Larry Sanders Show as super-agent Stevie Grant. Here, Odenkirk played the take-no-prisoners, hold-no-compunction Hollywood bloodsucker that would be later hyperbolised by Jeremy Piven in Entourage. Odenkirk learnt to cross the tragicomic tightrope from one of comedy’s finest transgressors, the late Gary Shandling.
Odenkirk also received special mention in Hopkins’ fan letter and is, as are nearly all the actors in Breaking Bad, a curiously formidable talent. As the attorney torn between a sense of justice and a revulsion for the institution of justice he is sworn to uphold, he inhabits a space that very few writers, and even fewer actors, can imagine.
This space is almost identical to that explored in Breaking Bad, which is to say the cracks that appear in contemporary life. While themes such as the divided self – both Saul and Walter have two names – and existence divided between appearance and reality are as old as amphitheatres, what is new here, for television at least, is an unflinching look at liberalism and its discontents.
There are, as aforementioned, many critics who believe in the ardent conservatism of Gilligan. They see him as the author of a profanely exhumed American dream. They say that Saul, who also goes by the name Jimmy, exists only as testament to the power of the individual and that Walter is just some unpleasant guy putting Hispanic drug dealers out of work.
Suffering from just the same sort of TV-induced inertia that produces inappropriately political critique of the type, I have to say that I find Better Call Saul, as I did Breaking Bad, a document not just of unusual men and their individual problems. It’s true that Saul Goodman is a quirky guy with issues, but it’s also true that the most arresting thing about him is the space that he inhabits.
This is the space between the cracks earlier described. Just as Walter White finds himself falling into the abyss that separates legitimacy from criminality and paternalism from fascism, Saul Goodman is giving us an account of his particular hole. And it’s not one that is dug by his own tragic flaw: it’s one provided by the America of the present and one to which many of us Westerners can imagine ourselves being lost.
This show, it should be said, is very funny. In an early episode, we see Goodman, who has decided momentarily to specialise in law for the elderly, promoting his services at a retirement home bingo game. Having just been ousted from an opportunity by his more respectable brother, he calls the letter B. As the bingo balls tumble, he says, “B is for brother” and “B is for betrayal”.
But this show is also a look at those societal cracks. Perhaps it offers us a look that is even more uncompromising than Breaking Bad. While Walter has, at least, some pivotal rationale for turning to crime, Saul is someone who is subject to many social inducements. He goes from bad to good and back to bad, sometimes in the course of a single episode. And this is not something we see only as an individual bargaining with his conscience, but as a man who is built by the world.
The dramedy does not simply suggest that a lawyer can also be a criminal, and leave us with an arc that is no more satisfying than that of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. It says that the licit produces the illicit. It says that society produces people, people don’t produce society. Goodman is a product manufactured by the early 21st century, whose liberal iteration is producing cracks that are wider and wider. They’re so wide, they can consume a midlife chemistry teacher and they’re unsteady enough to show us that the systems we have built to contain our human chaos, such as the law, have been so ravaged by capital that the centre cannot hold.
Saul Goodman, whose name is derived from the platitude “it’s all good, man”, is not the centre. His is not, despite critique, another turn with another mildly interesting white middle-class man. Saul is an identity whose creative forces are diminishing quickly. Somehow, Gilligan has managed to capture this disappearing act on two notable occasions.
For those to whom Breaking Bad offered insufficient reward for all its risks of high blood pressure, Better Call Saul is a slightly less dangerous prospect. There’s not quite so much bloodshed and there’s a fair deal more comic relief – often icily provided by Grace Kelly’s natural successor, Rhea Seehorn.
But there is also a bit more that is likely to trouble you over time. For a look at a society that is so scored over with fault lines there’s barely any stable earth, Better Call Saul.
COMEDY Sydney Comedy Festival
Various venues, Sydney, April 17-May 15
THEATRE Machu Picchu
Adelaide Festival Centre, until May 1
VISUAL ART With Secrecy and Despatch
Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW, until June 12
VISUAL ART Making History: The Angry Penguins
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until November 6
INSTALLATION Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, April 22-July 10
VISUAL ART Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei
NGV International, Melbourne, until April 25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "That's Saul, folks". Subscribe here.