In depth and wide ranging examination of the Breaking Bad hit TV series.






Season 5 will premiere a month after this is being written.  Better Call Saul has been acclaimed as a worthy successor to Breaking Bad.   But there are also people out there that argue the latest Martin Scorsese movie The Irishman is a masterpiece.  That movie is well-made but rehashed and over-familiar gangster material.  A dash of distilled Proust is added courtesy of Once Upon A Time In America from Sergio Leone.  Watch The Irishman, though, collect the Oscars.  The accomplished but safe has always been popular.



Better Call Saul is good to look at and sounds great.  There are a few false calls but the dialogue is sharp, and the photography and music, as they were in Breaking Bad, are highlights.   Vince Gilligan and his team remain accomplished.   In the credits there are some fresh names but the usual suspects dominate.  The elements that made Breaking Bad stylish and a success are repeated without shame in Better Call Saul.  This creates a problem.  What was fresh can soon become hackneyed.  Repeated long distance shots interrupting important conversation undermine the contributions of the actors.  Point of view shots from the inside of machines or equipment are also irritating.  Because their use in Breaking Bad heralded something different, they could be tolerated.  There is, though, a reason why the rest of the film industry avoids arbitrary POV shots.  Divorced from characters they lack meaning and represent empty headed style.  Making the right calls depends on knowing how to quit when you are ahead.   Like the not really relevant POV shots, the teasers in Better Call Saul offer echoes rather than promises.   A couple have real merit and could qualify as independent and worthwhile short films but they are the exceptions.   This is not the fault of Vince Gilligan.  Second time around we understand the process and expect more.  As Gilligan once said about writing Breaking Bad, ‘God, this is hard work.’


Up until season four Better Call Saul was shaped by two main narratives.  Scenes alternated between a Cain and Abel type struggle of two brothers and the story of an ex-cop being drawn into the world of gangsters.  Other characters connected to these people also had narratives but they occupied less running time.   So far the two main stories have been tangential rather than connected.   Whatever we thought about Walter White and his irritability Breaking Bad would not have been the same without him.  His progress or decline was the unifying core that linked everything that happened.  When people were not creating difficulties for Walt they were either responding to him or having their lives shaped by his decisions.  This does not happen in Better Caul Saul.  One minute TV viewers are watching a tale about ambitious lawyers, and the next they are back inside a crime drama.  The frequent switches may mitigate boredom but they reduce emotional impact.  Set pieces and interesting detail have an addictive hold on viewers but neither of these stories generate compulsive curiosity.   There is much that is ponderous.  Attempts are made to incorporate corresponding themes into the two narratives but these operate at a subliminal level, as they must.  A subtext is no substitute for focussed drama.


It does not help that the two main narratives are loaded with absurdities.  The Cain and Abel tale relies on successful older brother Chuck being hostile to chaotic younger brother Jimmy McGill, previously known as Saul Goodman. Breaking Bad earned praise for being organic, plot followed characters.   In Better Call Saul the character of Chuck McGill is a contrived creation that came from the keyboard of an admittedly talented writer.   Allergies to electricity have been claimed but instances are rare.  It is not a recognised condition.  Combined with the devotion of roguish but complicated brother Jimmy it all makes a dubious mix.  In the final demise of Chuck there are at least two unbelievable incidents in the plot.  To win a court case Jimmy plants  a battery in the jacket pocket of Chuck.  This ploy succeeds but it depends on Jimmy knowing the impossible, how unpredictable Chuck will react.  We can appreciate well-made drama but no one should accept being kidded.   Later, Chuck commits suicide.  Odd and a bad loser Chuck is an insecure man affected by a psychosomatic illness.  Such men do not set fire to themselves and wait to be burned alive.  Before that, Jimmy has not just waded one evening through a mountain of paper but used a local cheap photocopying service to alter original legal documents.   The idea is well executed but daft.  Better Call Saul improves in the third season when Jimmy McGill loses his legal licence and says goodbye to the courtroom.  The previous legal drama felt second-hand which may be why the well-groomed and photogenic lawyers looked as if they had stepped out of 70s American television fodder .


If the exploits of Jimmy McGill became more interesting towards the end of the third season, so did the scenes with Mike Ehrmantraut.   His actions to undermine criminal Hector Salamanca delivered sequences of real suspense.  Gilligan and his crew stayed patient with the material and in these scenes they created work worthy of an unhurried Hitchcock.  But overall the tale of the ex-cop moving towards gangsterdom has serious weaknesses.  The actor Jonathan Banks is not  a young man and he is obliged adopt the posture of a young cool Clint Eastwood.  How senior citizen Banks felt having to act this way through a macho movie fantasy only he will know.   There are marvellous moments but few occur before season three arrives.  The improvement in quality that occurs during season three, as if the writers and participants had either resolved certain issues or acquired a confident step, may be welcome but this cannot be regarded as praise.  Too much before then was inconsequential, unbelievable or just dull.

Apart from a too cute granddaughter all the characters in Better Call Saul leave a legacy of damage.   This theme could have had resonance but the trajectory of the character of Jimmy McGill is too similar to that of Walter White.  The moment when Jimmy acquires the will to inwardly celebrate the destruction of his awkward brother compares to when Walter White lets Jane die.  This similarity reduces the potential for independent life in Better Call Saul and weakens what was original and interesting.


Vince Gilligan has a compulsion to build TV series around characters that in other shows would be no more than cameos.  He gambled with three nerds in The Lone GunmenBreaking Bad was built around a middle-aged schoolteacher, and Better Call Saul has a grubby and unsuccessful hustler. Apart from the CV of Gilligan there is precedent elsewhere for Jimmy McGill.  In The Sweet Smell Of Success the repellent Sydney Falco is so desperate to succeed he betrays everyone.   The actor in that movie was the young and glamorous Tony Curtis.  Women thought Curtis attractive, and Elvis Presley was curious about the hairstyle.  It is to the credit of Gilligan that actor Bob Odenkirk is not as handsome as Curtis but without the critical polemic of American society that exists in The Sweet Smell Of Success we are justified in asking what is the point of a story about Jimmy McGill and his ambition to be a successful lawyer.  At his best McGill works hard and at his worst he betrays people and, because of Breaking Bad, we also know what will happen to him. There are surprises.  In one episode hustler Jimmy makes a substantial sacrifice to ensure a retired pensioner does not lose the affection of her friends.  Even told like this and without the details it sounds like moonshine.  The most interesting element in the legal story has been the mental stress endured by lawyer Kim Wexler.  She is the girlfriend of Jimmy McGill but so far her main problem has been overwork.  For once a development in the plot felt organic, something inspired by the character rather than invention.



Laws of the land or legal machines rest on precedent which, as a concept, is perilously close to exalting cliché.   There are great legal movies such as 12 Angry Men, Anatomy Of A Murder, and To Kill A Mockingbird.  All those movies required exceptional heroes.  James Stewart played jazz alongside Duke Ellington, Henry Fonda was Wyatt Earp in a jury room and Gregory Peck was the most noble of them all.   The lawyers in Better Call Saul are predictable dullards that power dress and make a lot of money.  Without any hint of irony Gilligan and his writers permit them to claim they have high ethical standards.


All this, though, is detail.  Better Call Saul suffers because it is dragged down by nostalgia.  Rather than be fired by an original idea it is an attempt to exploit what was achieved in Breaking Bad.   Characters who were previously killed are given fresh life and then introduced to an audience who can celebrate what they remember or do not want to forget.  These introductions usually follow a pause, extended facial expressions have proved useful.   The characters from Breaking Bad that reappear are heralded like actors walking on stage in a Star Trek convention or ageing rock bands reforming and making nationwide tours.   Some forgiveness is required.  Gilligan had to shape his story around what and who are available.   This is how a 60 episode TV show is made, and what may be seen by some as compromises can be transformed into opportunities.  But added to nostalgia and deliberate repetition the formulaic becomes unavoidable.  Gilligan needs to take his considerable talent outside his comfort zone and create something different.  If we are right in discerning his yearnings, perhaps an unashamed Western rooted in history and territory beyond the Albuquerque desert would suit him.  Gilligan deserves support which is why the appalling opening credits of Better Call Saul are best ignored.

 Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.   His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.














The people who have seen both Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad are in a minority, and few will have been tempted to compare70 years separate the black and white Hollywood glamour of Mildred Pierce from the post-Tarantino modernisms of Breaking Bad.  Times have changed, and attitudes are different.  The moral compass that steers the complicated tale of Breaking Bad exists within irresponsible drug dealer Jesse Pinkman.  In the Hollywood movie we realise that the business success of Mildred has led to her moral decline when we see her drink neat whisky in the daytime and smoke a cigarette.

Both the movie and TV show plot the rise and fall of a person whose excessive zeal and ambition are precipitated by an unexpected disaster.   Mildred is a housewife with two children who is abandoned by her husband, and Walt is a schoolteacher that discovers he has cancer.  Without a husband to support the family Mildred needs to become economically self-sufficient.  Walt is seriously ill and has to pay for excessive medical bills.  Mildred responds by finding a job as a waitress and making enough progress to own a chain of successful restaurants.  Walt makes crystal meth in a battered recreational vehicle and, despite indignant objections from rivals, he becomes a millionaire gangster.  The two tales are wildly improbable, and initial reaction from the critics to Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad was unenthusiastic.  But thanks to an awful lot of skill in the two creative processes both audiences and critics soon suspended disbelief.  Mildred Pierce is in the American Film Institute list of the top 100 USA movies.  Breaking Bad has had similar critical acclaim and sufficient popularity for creator Vince Gilligan and star Bryan Cranston to become rich men.



In both instances individual elements were important.  Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan recruited fine talents.   What could have been mundane scenes were redeemed by impressive photography, slick editing, an original soundtrack and memorable acting performances.  The great Michael Curtiz was hired to direct Mildred Pierce.   Warner Brothers also hired a capable cast and collected gifted technicians.  Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad look and sound marvellous.  Some of it is to do with money and some of it is about finding the right people at the right time.

The rest is about two characters that leave us curious and interested.  Mildred and Walt believe they are dedicated to their families but it is complicated.  Mildred says she is desperate for the approval of her daughter, the attractive but venal snob called Veda.  Even the name sounds like a snake ready to leave poison.  No mother deserves a daughter like Veda but Mildred also has her dark desires.  The determination of Veda to have upper class privilege reflects the guilt laden and trophy hunting attempts of Mildred to create a perfect daughter.  Walt Junior, the son of Walter White, is also unusual.  He is not beautiful like Veda but disabled.  Walt worries about the economic future of his son and wife and talks much about the importance of family.   Apart from breakfast, though, there appears to be little Walt wants to share with them.  Within his family the educated Walt is the remote intellectual.  Both Walt and Mildred will fight for their financial success yet the amount of money they have is not important.  Once he dominates the crystal meth market Walt has no idea how much he owns.  With little concern about the amounts involved Mildred writes cheques for her sponging second husband and the woman with whom he commits adultery, the venal snob and traitorous Veda.  Mildred is not as evil as Walter White but like him she wants vengeance.  It is this desire that defeats them both.


Walt dies knowing he has proved something to himself.  Mildred survives but she has to return to the underachieving ex-husband and very different economic expectations.  In the final shot of the movie Mildred and her ex-husband pass two cleaners scrubbing the floor.  Mildred has been given the chance to return to humanity.  But the successful Mildred, the alternative identity that was created after the unexpected disaster, is finished.   Well before that, Mildred had talked about her second husband, recently purchased to share her empty and economically successful life.  ‘We understand each other,’ she says,  Even before the poignant ending we knew the remark was ironical.

When they first appeared, both Breaking Bad and Mildred Pierce were revelatory.  Breaking Bad combined a drama of a suburban family with an epic crime saga.  Mildred Pierce added a dash of film noir to what was viewed in the 40s as a ‘woman’s picture’.   Walt kills a lot of people because he needs to be eminent as a drug dealer.   Mildred pretends that she has murdered her second husband.  The real killer is the monster Veda.  Crime is not just important to the formats of Breaking Bad and Mildred Pierce it facilitated in both the movie and TV show dual and distinctive styles.   Domestic drama dominates Mildred Pierce and is filmed in shadow free and bright black and white.  The murder of Monty Berrigan and the response from the police are loaded with noir shadows and atmosphere.  The Kafkaesque scenes in the police station are the highlight of Mildred Pierce.  Something similar happens in Breaking Bad.  The cinematic style is reserved for criminal activity, a lot of which takes place outside suburbia.  The domestic dramas of the White and Schrader families are filmed in a plain and uncomplicated manner. Both films utilise iconic locations.  Breaking Bad has the desert outside Albuquerque, and Mildred Pierce includes the Californian coastline.


Dean Martin once said everybody loves somebody.  If he had been less sentimental, he might have said everyone needs someone.  Mildred and Walt may dominate their dramas but other characters are important.  Despite the criminal executions ordered by Walt the death that affects him the most is that of Jane.  She is the girl that he could have saved but let die because she was a threat to Jesse his business partner.  Kay is the younger daughter of Mildred.  The decline in the health of Kay is not noticed by ambitious Mildred, and the condition of Kay becomes serious while Mildred is being seduced by the worthless Monty Berrigan.  Kay dies from pneumonia.  Walt and Mildred are ruthless but they also feel guilt.


Neither Mildred nor Walt are as self-sufficient as they would like to be.  Mildred needs the help of smart operator Wally Fay, and Walt White has to utilise the legal and criminal expertise of Saul Goodman.   Both Wally and Saul are useful.  They have technical expertise and experience.  Fast talking, they always have an answer and know how to deceive people.  Neither man, though, is what he seems.  Wally Fay is a strong masculine force but he is also one of the girls.  Although lecherous he refers to himself as Uncle Wally.  He has no male friends and in one scene he is put in an apron as if he rather than Mildred should have been the waitress.  The name Fay signals his feminine contradictions.   Saul Goodman has a Jewish name but is of Irish descent.  The name is false.  The people who think Saul is a crook underestimate his legal skills, and those who rate him as a lawyer fail to recognise his criminality.

Bruce Bennett is the actor who appears as the first husband of Mildred.  He has accusatory eyes that are perfect for the part of the fiercest critic of Mildred.  The same eyes must have secured him the part of the suspicious prospector in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.  In that film he accuses the other prospectors of lying.  The equivalent of Bennett in Breaking Bad is actor Jonathan Banks.  His cold fish eyes are used to express contempt for Walter White.  The goading of brother-in-law Hank at a birthday party tempts Walt to believing illegal drugs might have economic possibilities.  Other decisive action from Hank also shapes the fate of Walt.  The relentless demands of venal snob Veda drive mother Mildred to be successful but also help bankrupt the chain of restaurants.



Neither Mildred Pierce nor Breaking Bad will earn approval for being racially sensitive.  Both the movie and the TV show use members of a non-white race for comedy and exotica.  In Mildred Pierce the Afro-American waitress has a silly high voice to emphasise her supposed naivety.  The Mexicans in Breaking Bad are mainly degenerate and criminal.  In certain teasers they evoke an alien underworld outside society.

The teasers that begin each episode of Breaking Bad also add interesting time shifts to the narrative of the exploits of Walt and others.  They make us curious about what will follow and are sometimes used to mislead the viewer.  In Mildred Pierce good old-fashioned flashbacks not only distort and interrupt chronological narrative but emphasise the power of fate.  On a more schematic level the flashbacks divert attention away from the real murderer and help us to be surprised by the future behaviour of key characters.



Both Mildred Pierce and Breaking Bad prevailed because of their roots.  Gilligan began with a great idea.  A schoolteacher becomes a Scarface equivalent.  Mildred Pierce was based on a novel by the great James M Cain.   The novel was hardboiled soap opera.  The film was not as blue collar or as edgy as the book but the noir elements were adequate compensation.  And Mildred Pierce had the input of the technically accomplished.  Like a great football team, every position was occupied by the skilled.  Breaking Bad had the same strengths, and in 70 years we might look at Walt and his era with the same feelings and belief as when today we watch Mildred struggle in 40s California.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.   His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.