— By Carly Twehous —
Over the course of its five seasons Breaking Bad was able to accomplish something rather unique: it captivated the audience so much that, by the series finale, the show presented absolutely no characters with any semblance of a moral backbone. Breaking Bad became a series of choices between far lesser evils and roads paved with good intentions leading directly to the gates of Hell. Any characters that may have offered our leads, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, any form of redemption were purged from the scripts, often in rather violent manners.
Psychologically, Breaking Bad was so intriguing because the audience connected and sympathized with Walter, way back in the first episode of season one, when he received the cancer diagnosis. We watched him spiral out of control and justified his fall from grace because we, like Walter, needed to believe that he was doing right by his family. Unlike pretty much any other TV show on air, the audience found itself hoping that, by the end of this whole manufacturing and selling meth snafu, the ends justified the means
By the last episode of Breaking Bad, no one is under any illusions, but secretly, everyone (including the man himself) prayed that Walter White could get a nice retirement and hang up the aprons and goggles for good.
Except there was no redemption for Walter White or Jesse Pinkman. I guess that’s why Breaking Bad became the tragedy to end all tragedies: it had us convinced from the get-go that, by the end, at least someone would have a Happily Ever After.
When Better Call Saul premiered, two years after the final episode of Breaking Bad, it pitched its audience the same sliver of hope and we fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.
Better Call Saul is the Breaking Bad prequel, following the trials and tribulations of Jimmy McGill, a criminal lawyer who will one day be known as Saul Goodman, Walter White’s morally constipated Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card.
Sitting down to watch this show is like starting a thriller novel after reading the last chapter: you know the horrible ending, but there’s some, strange voice in the back of your head that compels you to uncover the circumstances that led to the titular character’s demise.
Unlike Breaking Bad, that ever-important sliver of hope through-line doesn’t necessarily revolve around audience sympathy with the tragic circumstances; we know who this man is and even back in his glory days, his practices and choices weren’t exactly by the book. At the start, we know precisely who this man is: a slippery lawyer we love to hate, but for whom there is absolutely no possibility of redemption.
Better Call Saul is bizarre. It’s the road to Damascus in reverse, culminating in the ending we all know is coming. Unlike other shows that offer morally ambiguous characters—The Walking Dead, Sherlock, Game of Thrones, to name a few—there’s always someone to counterbalance the scale. Rick Grimes vs. Negan, Sherlock Holmes vs. James Moriarty, the Starks vs. the Lannisters. In those shows, we understand the lead’s sojourn into the dark and scary because at least he’s not the most notorious mad-man on screen.
Except here, we know exactly who Jimmy McGill is going to become and there’s no one else to balance the scale. He’s on a dangerous path—to which we already know the ending—and perhaps we’re along for the ride just because we need to know how a person can go that dark.
Maybe that sliver of hope isn’t for the redemption of Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman.
Maybe that sliver of hope is that we are never faced with the same choices and the same tragic ending.