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.
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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.