Vince Gilligan’s critique of rationalism

The following guest post is by Jon Bishop, who writes from Massachusetts. His essays, fiction, and reviews have appeared in such publications as Boston Literary Magazine, Ethika Politika, PJ Media, Millennial, FreightTrain Magazine, and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

I’m just going to come right out with it: Vince Gilligan is the most thoughtful person working in television today — and his two companion shows, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, demonstrate a willingness to challenge not only genre conventions but also the culture at large.

But let’s skip the quality of the storytelling and the acting and the directing for now, because many people have talked about them, and so there’s not too much to add to the discussion. And this is not a review.

What I want to focus on here is what Gilligan has to say on rationalism, which can, in this sense, be taken as a synonym for freethinking or even secularism. It is the rationalism that rejects everything but reason.

For the longest time I wondered why Gilligan chose Saul Goodman as the Breaking Bad character to get his own show. Sure, I thought, he’s appealing and funny, but he’s comic relief. Why not select instead the rugged Mike Ehrmantraut or the quiet but monstrous Gus Fring? Learning more about them would make for great television. Then I realized it: Saul is a lawyer, a profession that pairs nicely with the scientist. Why? Both are symbols of the rationalist.

Consider what many critics have said about Walter White, the high school teacher turned drug lord. He is someone who places chemistry above all things, including even the metaphysical. It’s all chemistry, he snidely tells one of his former colleagues when she wonders whether the unaccountable one percent of the human body could be the soul. And Walter, initially a frightened, benign man but one who is also consumed with bitterness and rage, very easily makes the descent into murderousness. After all, if people are nothing but bits of matter, then there is no reason to be concerned with offing one or two or two hundred of them.

And there is similar thinking at work in the minds of some of the people in Better Call Saul. A secondary character, Chuck, is one of those lawyers who believes that everyone in his profession is a demigod entrusted with the solemn duty of looking after things like real estate regulations. To him, the law is sacred. And there can be nothing else.

That’s why Chuck scoffs when Jimmy — his brother, and the main character — asks him why he couldn’t be made partner at his prestigious law firm. You went to the University of American Samoa, he says. You’re not a real lawyer. And you were a screw-up when you were younger. That’s who you are and always will be.

What makes this worse is that Chuck, who is sick, said this after Jimmy cared for him every single day.

Chuck, like Walter, is a rationalist. He can’t have someone like his brother — a fiend, a lowlife — practicing law. He’s just not serious. It wouldn’t make any sense.

But there is another character in Better Call Saul, the aforementioned Mike Ehrmantraut, who has a different take on the matter. He tells another character, a sort of oafish nerd who decides to illegally sell pharmaceuticals to some gangsters, that there are people who are good criminals, just as there are evil police. Ehrmantraut, a former policeman and hired gun and, well, criminal, has a nuanced way of looking at the human person. Chuck and Walter do not.

Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are thus perfect examples of what happens to us when we dismiss tradition, religious or otherwise, as backward, and instead place our faith in science or in the legal order. Chuck and Walter are deeply flawed characters — one of whom, Walter, turns evil; the jury is still out on Chuck — and this was no accident. And it does not escape me that both of them have aired within the past seven years. The shows have come during a time of great secularist aggression, where faithful people are dismissed as imbecilic, delusional, anti-science bigots. They have entered a culture where the latest trends are not goofy spinoffs of any number of Protestant churches; instead, a kind of dull atheism and new ageism are simultaneously ascendant.

Gilligan, though he is now lapsed, was raised Catholic. In an interview with the New York Times about Breaking Bad, he said:  “I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.”

So it wouldn’t be a leap to assume that Gilligan’s religious background has given him a sort of way of looking at the world — one that understands that human beings are fallible and can quite easily fall into the abyss. He knows, as demonstrated by Walter White’s ravenous desire for money and Jimmy’s need for accolades, that there are things of this world that whisper to us always. They are idols. And they have been with us since the beginning of human existence.

This is not how cold rationalism — there is only our reason — sees the world. This way of thinking, which only grows more powerful, views the human person as a kind of machine.

That Gilligan, who created two of the most critically-acclaimed and most popular television shows of the last decade, wants to challenge this is a good thing. That people are watching is even better.

Let us hope that Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad give our culture a necessary pause.

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5 comments

  1. I don’t know if it’s a related point or not, and it’s not a commentary on this article specifically, but I’ve noticed that more and more, people are turning to TV dramas as a source of philospohical/civic introspection. It’s across the board.

    Maybe I’m being pretentious, or maybe it’s because I don’t watch a lot of TV (check name), but maybe it’s because people, especially those like myself trained under technocratic rationalism, have literally no other common point of philosophical, ethical, or allegorical reference in their lives.

    When you read older commentaries, they constantly refer to what I would describe as a canonical set of parables, fables, and references. Religious texts like the bible come up here, but the spectrum was wider. Greek and roman legends, histories of antiquity and medieval Europe and their associated personages, common folk stories, classics of literature (incl. russian 19th centry texts), famous writers and thinkers, etc. In the anglosphere, you also get a probably relatively inflated set of British references from the empire days, e.g. Burke.

    This is unheard of in modern civic discourse. People talk about TV shows, Film, and comic book, imbuing them with meaning(not a comment on this piece). But not everyone watches these, and it’s all very contemporary. It’s rare to find someone calling themselves an “intellectual” or even wearing a fedora talk about Tolstoy or quote some Greek myth. I’m not sure the audience would even get the reference without a quick Google anyway.

    Basically, Comics, Films and TV shows, especially TV shows, seem to have become the only common point of “philosophical” civic discourse for the digital generation. Maybe I’m just objecting to society not settling on video games and anime instead.

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    1. “Maybe I’m being pretentious, or maybe it’s because I don’t watch a lot of TV (check name), but maybe it’s because people, especially those like myself trained under technocratic rationalism, have literally no other common point of philosophical, ethical, or allegorical reference in their lives.”

      I don’t think that’s pretentious at all. In fact that is one of the main purposes of drama. There is a saying that liturgy is theology in the form of drama.

      Nor is it pretentious to point out that drama follows the spirit of the times and reflects the culture it functions in. “…it’s because people, especially those like myself trained under technocratic rationalism, have literally no other common point of philosophical, ethical, or allegorical reference in their lives.” Exactly.

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    2. @Punished Gamer

      Of course modern civic discourse in the digital age is trending toward contemporary TV/movies/novels. All of these are much more available to a larger number of people (smartphones, internet, etc.). In the past, it was only the well known stories, plays, and “classics” that had that mass appeal. Vince Gilligan’s not being born in the 16th century does not lessen the meaning derived from his shows. If Shakespeare was born in the 21st century he’d probably be making a TV show.

      For me, the fact that people are drawing meaning from art is not cheapened by the fact that the art takes the form of a contemporary TV drama. It seems elitist to me to imply that you are only an “intellectual” if you can talk about Greek myths in social commentary. If it takes a popular TV drama to get meaningful discourse going these days, I don’t see an issue with it. Truth is, most people today are not going to read Tolstoy, but a lot of people are watching TV. And if this invokes philosophical/civic introspection, I welcome it.

      This is for my boys.

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  2. What do you think of The Wire, which is (a) a great show, (b) very moralistic, but (c) from a left-wing perspective. The enemy is not rationalism, but the social systems that trap people and thwart their efforts at goodness.

    I love Vince Gilligan’s work but think the The Wire is a grade above it artistically.

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  3. Perhaps Gilligan took a peek at the works of the eminent Joseph De Maistre. His central critique of the Modernist outlook brought by the French Revolution rested in its rationalism. He recognized that while rationalizations were useful in many applications, they cannot underlie the society at large for they are a toxic and degenerating influence. Rationality, as is proven by history, is a never-ending series of revolutions. Today’s ‘enlightened reason’ is scoffed at tomorrow when science disproves it… only to find itself disproved the following year.

    It is why De Maistre praised the central role of the Church in the axis of the state. It lay beyond criticism, beyond the veil, beyond question, in the shroud of mystery and mysticism. Alas, we are far from those golden days now.

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