The second golden age of TV is considered to have begun in the late ’90s with prestige dramas like The Sopranos, and continued with shows like The Shield, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and even Boardwalk Empire. These shows have certain things in common, including a morally ambiguous main character that the audience finds sympathetic despite their many acts of cruelty and evil. These antiheroes often hold relatively respectable positions–a teacher, a cop, a politician–but hide darker tendencies that come to the surface over the course of the show.
Now that these shows aren’t dominating the TV landscape, we’re seeing shows that challenge the idea of the TV antihero. And few do that as well as Better Call Saul, AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel series, which, currently in the middle of airing its fifth and final season, has now officially run as long as Breaking Bad did in the first place.
When we first met Saul Goodman in Season 2 of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman described him as “a criminal lawyer.” Throughout that show we saw Goodman act as a complete scumbag, a man willing to sell out his grandma if it meant getting a few seconds’ head start. That said, he was also a comic relief character who served as a funny counterpart to Walter White’s increasingly grim transformation into Heisenberg.
In 2015, AMC launched Better Call Saul, which focused on con-man turned small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill–who Breaking Bad viewers knew would somehow go on to become Saul Goodman. Like Breaking Bad before it, this show promised to document that transformation, but from the beginning, it was easy to see that Jimmy was pretty much the polar opposite of Walter White. Even though Jimmy still had some sleaziness in him–mostly from his time as a small-time grifter known as Slippin’ Jimmy–in the show’s present time he always strived to do good and showed remorse when he didn’t.
This stands in contrast to Breaking Bad, the show that Vince Gilligan famously sold as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” When we met Walter White, he seemed like a victim of circumstance, a once-brilliant chemist trapped in a dead-end job who got a cancer diagnosis he couldn’t fight in his current economic situation. Instead of accepting help from his former business partner, he turned to crime and began cooking meth to raise money that would go to his family after he dies. But Breaking Bad quickly exposed Walter for who he really was: a man who blamed the world for the life he chose, who found any excuse to “break bad” and do horrible things as he grew his crime empire. As the audience, we ate up his increasingly problematic actions because they were portrayed as “cool,” like taking down drug lords using “science, bitch.” But Breaking Bad repeatedly offered Walter exit after exit, only for him to keep going because, as he said in the end, “I liked it, I was good at it, and I was really–I was alive.”
Breaking Bad was all about Walter White embracing his newfound life and the thrills that came with it, even if it came at the cost of his family and his soul. On paper, Better Call Saul appears woefully similar, but what makes the prequel series special is how it flips the emotions associated with the antihero arc on their head. Jimmy McGill may seem like a typical antihero because we see him slowly embrace a life of crime, but when he finds himself in a conflict, Jimmy doesn’t invent a cool way to confront his adversaries–if anything, he goes to great lengths to avoid confrontation altogether. Jimmy so far hasn’t seemed capable of putting a bomb on a wheelchair or equipping a machine gun to the trunk of a car, but he is willing to charm the pants off those who mean him harm. Jimmy may never become a crime lord, or the boss of a powerful syndicate, but by totally dedicating himself to unglamorous bottom-feeding, Jimmy McGill survives long after the antiheroes are captured or killed.
At the heart of this is the moral struggle inside Jimmy McGill. Better Call Saul does show its protagonist committing awful acts. Jimmy McGill may not think of himself as a bad person, and he always tries to make things right, even at his own expense, but he does bad things. In many ways, he is like Bojack Horseman, another character who desperately wants to be thought of as a good person, but who constantly caves to bad habits he blames on his upbringing and circumstance, until he realizes he’s become the person others think he is. Jimmy isn’t breaking bad like Walter did; he won’t become a crime lord, but we’ve still seen him embrace his new life of aiding criminals and enjoying it, to the point of rejecting offers to become a more traditionally respected lawyer seemingly because he enjoys being Saul Goodman more.
Therein lies the tragedy of Better Call Saul, as Jimmy’s descent into becoming Saul Goodman has evidently lower stakes, but the moral downfall is more poignant and emotionally impactful. With Breaking Bad the audience slowly realized that Walter White was always a horrible person, whereas Better Call Saul shows how Jimmy was always holding Saul Goodman in check. Jimmy feels like a bad person deep down–he believes what others think about him. But the events of the show really have forced him to break bad. We wanted Walter to win no matter what, but we dread the moment Jimmy fully becomes Saul Goodman.
We still get antihero stories on TV, but recent shows have made an effort to comment on the genre and offer alternative takes on it. The recently finished The Good Place and even Bojack Horseman gave us flawed to outright terrible protagonists, and followed their arduous attempts at becoming better people. Even if it wasn’t easy, if they relapsed or didn’t fully become good by the end, the shows were all about making an effort. With Better Call Saul we know there is no redemption available for Jimmy. We know how his story ends: in metaphorical black and white, on the run from the law, and completely alone. The show takes advantage of its status as a prequel to make us feel what none of the Star Wars prequels did: a real sense of dread at knowing that no matter how much we root for Jimmy or how much he tries to stay good, eventually he will turn into the sleazy comic relief scumbag criminal lawyer we met all those years ago.