Watching a Man in the Process of Ruining Himself

A friend tweeted that she’s having a hard time getting through Breaking Bad. I understand. It took me five years to get through it all, even though the whole thing was available on Netflix — I am the anti-binge-watcher. One reason I dragged my feet is that I had a hard time getting used to the pace. It was fast when it should’ve been slow and slow when it should’ve been fast. I’ve since changed my opinion (more on that later), but at the time, I often felt lost, unsure of what I was supposed to think or feel. I rarely thought about the show when it wasn’t playing in front of me.

But the biggest reason is took me so long to get through Breaking Bad is that I despised Walter White. I guess there are people out there who see Walt as some kind of hero, standing against The System, or who identify with his mid-life hissy fit crisis. To me, he was just gross, a trodden-on slug of a man spewing excuses while actively ruining his life. (I should say, ruining it further than he already had.) Every episode, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to connect with this guy?” His phony ethical dilemmas bored me. If Walt had been shot in the chest by a random drug mule in the middle of Season 2, I would have sighed with relief and closed my laptop.

I remember the moment when my opinion of the show started to change. I don’t remember the episode or even the season (Netflix: it all bleeds together), but there’s a point when Walt has a chance to quit the drug business, to wash his hands of it all and start over, and he chooses not to. At that point, he went from a man pretending to be a victim to a man deciding to be a villain and I thought, “This show has a moral center after all.” His exploits immediately got more interesting. Plus, it’s around that moment that we get to meet Gus Fring for the first time, and that guy… He can’t help but make things interesting.

T finished watching Breaking Bad recently (it took her about 2% of the time it took me), and after re-watching part of it with her, I have a lot more respect for the quality of the show. For example, it’s one of the few TV shows I know of that uses silence liberally and with great effect. Breaking Bad would rather imply than show, which is a mark of great cinematic storytelling. You can tell that the creators of the show have a lot of respect for their audience. And, though I still don’t have much patience for Walt, I admire the awe-inspiring stuff Bryan Cranston pulled off with that character.

My friend who doesn’t like Breaking Bad said she’s tempted to switch to Better Call Saul. Do it, I told her. Switch. Follow Saul Goodman into his own world. Better Call Saul is a fantastic show — dareisay, more fantastic than Breaking Bad. The writing? Excellent. (Though the Mike-and-granddaughter scenes are so saccharine they make my teeth wince.) More importantly, the flawed protagonist actually tries to be good and doesn’t make excuses for his sins, which is more than anyone could say of Walter White. On top of that, the show is funny, even pleasant in places.

If you can’t stomach Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul provides a nice intro to the pace, style, and world of that particular TV universe. It gives you a chance to respect the quality of what you’re watching without that icky feeling that you get from trying to root for Walt. If you like BCS and want more, tap into BB with a new appreciation for its artistry. True, by starting out with Better Call Saul you’ll miss some of the winks and foreshadowing, but in my opinion, it won’t lessen your enjoyment of the show. Most of those insider moments appear in the various B-stories anyway. The central story — the Jimmy-Chuck relationship — will be completely intact, and that’s where the best writing is.

And, c’mon, it’s got shots like this one. Doesn’t get any better than that.

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