Every time a Better Call Saul season ends, I’m left with a Vince Gilligan shaped hole in my TV-heart. Ever since watching the first episode of Breaking Bad, I’ve been hooked, enamoured with the universe he crafted, and most importantly, the characters he’d written — ones that I feel are still some of the most “real” of the TV bunch.
TV Storytelling, or really, any kind of storytelling has accustomed us to certain tropes that we’re almost trained to follow. This guy is a good guy, this other guy is a bad guy, this guy is an asshole, but deep inside, he’s good, and this other guy is just an asshole. There’s the villain with understandable motives, and then there’s the good guy who crosses the line. It’s easy to know who to root for, and who to boo. Wrestling has always done an amazing job of boiling those tendencies down to a basic, sort of animalistic stew, and while stories have often played around with it, I feel that Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are the first truly great stories to use that conditioning to build their characters.
In the midst of these tropes, we also have a tendency to “Jekyll and Hyde” our protagonists, after all, in both series the protagonists have alter-egos — Heisenberg for Walter and Saul for Jimmy. Our nature makes us separate these alternative personalities from the originals. “Oh look, Walter’s turned into Heisenberg again.” “Hey, there’s the Saul we know and love, sad to see how Jimmy’s disappearing.” are things you might’ve read or heard after an episode of one of the shows. It’s natural. We want to keep rooting for Walter and Jimmy, the good people we met at the start of the show, but we also can’t quite stomach what they’re doing, which is why we separate them. After all, once we’re all out of excuses, we’re left with either rooting for completely immoral asshats or rooting against people, who by all technical means are protagonists. I feel like this creates a dissonance of sorts, which is why a lot of people decide to treat the two “aspects” or “persons” or “alter-egos” as completely separate people.
The magic of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is the fact that they don’t ever let you escape by going that route. Whenever you think Walt has finally turned into Heisenberg and you can simply let go, he does that loyal family man shtick that makes you forget about his “kill-some-kids” spree. Whenever you think Jimmy is finally Saul, he goes back and does the right thing after all. And whenever you think that these are just masks, or characters, they are revealed to be one person. Somewhere in-between. Walter admits that he did what he did because he liked it, and when you think about it, he never was any different. His family man schtick came out of necessity, rather than honesty. Does Jimmy transform into Saul (like he did towards the end of the 4th season premiere), or is he revealed to always have been Saul, only less direct and honest with himself? While the second question still remains to be answered, everything seems to point towards a simple answer — they’re the same goddamn person. There isn’t a magical switch or spell guiding these changes.
These characters aren’t the only ones to bear that distinction, either. Basically everyone in the show, except for the comically over-the-top evil Nazis (I mean, in the end, they just had to give the audience a chance to root for Walt) has a lot of nuance. Jessie, Mike, Hank, Marie, Skyler, Kim, Chuck and even Gus all share that dissonance. Jessie’s heart of gold is hidden beneath a cynical, gangster shell. Mike is a murderer who also seems like the most morally sound person in the entire universe, Hank’s tough exterior hides his inner insecurities, Chuck’s love for the law is contrasted with his manipulation of his brother and Gus’ pragmatic evil seems to be a survival instinct, more than anything. We could view all of these characters as two separate entities. Good Jessie and Gangsta Jessie. Killer Mike and Grandpa Mike. Tough Hank and Rock-lover Hank. Stealing Marie and Nurse Marie. Mom Skyler and Cheating Skyler. Evil Gus and Survivalist Gus. That’d be the easy way out though.
Both shows challenge us to go past our normal definitions of character and into the in-between that drives our everyday lives. After all, we’re just as inconsistent and full of opposites as they are. That hyperbolised reality is what drives the characters in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and what makes them so fascinating. After all, with some exceptions, there are no straightforward answers. The good guys are bad, and the bad guys are good. Is murdering-homebrew-drug-dealer Walt any better than philanthropist-corporate-drug-dealer Gus? Is cynical-machiavellan-good-hearted Jimmy any better than lawful-and-mean Chuck? The perspective we’re given answers these questions for us, but if we were to tell these stories from the other side, would they be any different? Would we ever pretend there’s a difference between Heisenberg and Walt, or Saul and Jimmy? Or would we simply and completely judge them on that elusive in-between?
Unfortunately, that’s something we’ll probably never find out.