On the morality, politics, and sociology of the Breaking Bad universe
I’ve been doing TV and movie reviews with Rob Henderson for almost a year. I really wanted to do something on Better Call Saul, but he told me that despite being a fan of Breaking Bad, he couldn’t get into the show. I couldn’t disagree more on its appeal and wanted somebody to talk about Saul with, so I reached out to my old friend Chris Nicholson. You can find him on Twitter, where I am currently one of his two followers. We met back when we were law students working as interns at the Center for Individual Rights in summer 2011, which involved doing things like thinking about ways to sue universities for affirmative action programs and how to fight Eric Holder’s race shakedowns of banks. It’s where I learned much of what I know about civil rights law. We recently reconnected after a decade and, discovering that we both were big fans of Saul, decided to do a weekly discussion for each episode up until the end of the series.
Our first conversation focuses on our big ideas about the Breaking Bad universe. Future shows will be weekly wrap-ups of each episode.
We start by explaining why Breaking Bad fans should not make the same mistake as Rob and actually watch Saul. After that point, be forewarned, there are spoilers, though if your memory is like mine you can probably listen to the episode and then forget what you heard by the time you get to the scenes and events that come up in our discussion. I argue that one of the main lessons of the shows is that there is a weak correlation between likability and morality. In the Breaking Bad universe, there are two main types of characters – we can call them “likable and immoral” and “unlikable and moral” – and we despite ourselves naturally sympathize with the former. We also have a discussion about the traits of individuals and whether they can change. What is it that separates the characters who are completely irredeemable from those that are more nuanced? Are there different types of “good” characters, and what is the relationship between rule following and morality?
I see the shows as having a right-wing perspective on race, sex, crime, and American institutions. Chris sort of disagrees, and listeners can decide for themselves who is right. Even though we are both mostly on the same page regarding the outlook of the Breaking Bad universe on hot button issues, our dispute centers around whether “conservative” or “apolitical” is the better way to think about that perspective.
Finally, as both of us went to law school, we naturally consider what Saul is trying to tell us about the American legal system, and how good individuals can co-exist with maladaptive institutions. Chris is a graduate of Yale Law School and a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Michigan, so he of course brings a great deal of brainpower to the discussion, and I enjoyed getting into the weeds with him on two shows I cannot recommend highly enough. Our discussion here took me back to the conversations we used to have while working together in Washington, and I look forward to the ones we will be having in the coming weeks.
You can watch the video below, or listen to the podcast here.
In other news, I have a new show on the Callin app. The first episode is tonight at 8ET with Darel Paul, a professor of political science at Williams College. We’ll talk about his new article on populism and economics. The format will be a half hour to one hour discussion, followed by a Q&A. You can listen live and will be able to get all episodes of the podcast on Apple or Spotify once the first one is out. Nothing will change with regards to the Narrative Control and CSPI podcasts.
The scene Richard is remembering is when Walt went to Gus' house and Gus made some food that he claimed his kids dislike. I don't think he mentioned a wife.
In Breaking Bad Walt was the protagonist (even if he was bad), so Gus became an antagonist. But Mike (who insists you can be a good criminal or a bad cop), is very angry at Walt for getting rid of Gus, because he regarded Gus as providing order while Walt causes chaos. The main evil thing Walt had to point to is that the little brother of Jesse's girlfriend was made to shoot Jesse's friend. But in this show he blackmails Nacho and treats him quite badly, which makes Gus look worse.
It's odd to talk about how corrupt law enforcement is uncommon in the US while HBO is showing "We Own This City", adapted from a recent true story about the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force.
I looked up Vince Gilligan on Open Secrets, and his only donation was to the Writers Guild.
My recollection is that when Saul was first introduced, he suggested just killing Badger so he couldn't testify against Walt & Jesse.
> In the Breaking Bad universe, there are two main types of characters – we can call them “likable and immoral” and “unlikable and moral” – and we despite ourselves naturally sympathize with the former.
I think this is making a very important mistake. I learned from tvtropes about someone's claim that the audience has no morals, although there no longer appears to be a page with that text. The quote is apparently from Hitchcock, and the idea is that the film can cause the audience to sympathize with people they shouldn't, such as murderers (!). It is key to this argument that murderers are immoral.
But I would say reality is very different. The audience has very strong morals, and will not sympathize with characters that violate those morals. What Hitchcock should have realized is that the audience's morals do not match the official moral positions of church or state - most people simply don't see killing someone as an inherently immoral act, and that's why it's easy to get an audience to sympathize with murderers.
And that's also what's happening in Breaking Bad; it's not that the "immoral" characters are likeable and the "moral" characters are unlikeable. It's that the likeable characters display morality that the audience believes in, and the unlikeable characters display morality the audience doesn't believe in.