By now, everyone has heard of "Breaking Bad" if they haven't yet watched it. The story of Walter White has become one of the most critically-acclaimed television shows of all time and will likely become a classic in the coming years. The intricate story has inspired fan works of all sorts, including a book discussing the philosophy behind Breaking Bad. But what isn't as often talked about is some of the inspirations and similarities that Breaking Bad shares with the stylings of Shakespeare. Specifically, the idea I would like to present is this one: "Breaking Bad" and its subsequent prequel of Better Call Saul take on the identities of Shakespearean tragedies and comedies respectively.
Let's break down just what I mean by that. The key to figuring all of this out is focusing on the main characters and their transformations throughout their shows. "Breaking Bad" focuses on Walter White, a mild-mannered teacher who goes into drug manufacturing in order to save his family but is corrupted by the power he wields and ultimately loses his family. "Better Call Saul" features Jimmy McGill before he meets Walt in his other identity, Saul Goodman. While both stories focus on the corruption of good men, they do so in vastly different ways.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
All the world's a stage.
One of the most important aspects of this thought process is the location. Vince Gilligan has stated that he considers Albuquerque to be a character within the series, and for good reason. One of the most fascinating parts of the series is to watch how the influence of these characters grow. This is shown most notably in the plane crash at the end of season two. Walter's actions indirectly caused a citywide tragedy that would leave countless lives damaged.
Consider the fair city of Verona as it is depicted in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The city is filled with chaos and there are crimes and fights in the streets. The city has been overtaken by two warring families, the Capulets and the Montagues. This can easily be compared with the gangs who battle over street corners and profits from drug sales. And just as with the Capulets and Montagues, we get to see various levels of the criminal element throughout the story, ranging from low-level thugs to the heads of various families.
The common aspect of these two stories is that the actions of few powerful individuals has a deep effect on the town that they inhabit. While the two families in Romeo and Juliet bring about the tragedies of the tale through their feud, it is the desperate grasping for power by Walt which is the undoing of many characters in the saga. But this is not the end of the similarities that are shared.
All bad things must come to an end.
In the climactic series finale, Walter's machinations bring about the end of all of the events that transpired throughout the series. He eliminates every threat to the city, including himself. It is a bloody mess that some might liken to the series of deaths in the final act of Hamlet. The impending doom of Fortinbras' invasion of Denmark is overshadowed by the backstabbing and conspiracy that is plotted by the members of the royal family. Ultimately, this is all ended when Hamlet and all of the others who were involved are killed and left neatly for Fortinbras to uncover when he arrives.
One might imagine that a similar scenario occurred after the final scenes of the series. The police arrive and discover the corpses of many major criminals, including that of the mastermind behind the whole operation. This effectively brings an end to the heinous crimes perpetrated in the name of the greatest meth business to ever grace the city of Albuquerque.
As mentioned previously, the actions of few had a ghastly effect on the city they inhabited. Ending a story neatly and cleanly is an important part of Shakespeare plays. There are few (if any) Shakespeare plays which end on an untidy note. We are certain of what has happened and what will likely happen after the end of the play. It is important to note that this is exactly where we end on with the finale of Breaking Bad. Walter's family will be taken care of, ABQ will recover, and all of the major players are gone. The only uncertainty is the outcome of Jesse Pinkman, something that Vince Gilligan said likely wasn't favorable.
Albuquerque's empire business.
Let's jump back in time a few years and talk about what Albuquerque once was and where Jimmy McGill found himself in all the mess. The story of Jimmy is far from the only relevant plotline that we follow. We also watch Mike Ehrmantraut find his way into the contract killer life, we see Tuco and his grandfather making some nasty choices as they establish their footholds, we even get to witness Krazy 8 in his humble beginnings as a drug dealer.
Walter White may have been the king of Albuquerque, but it's a long climb up and he definitely wasn't the first. Breaking Bad is not only the beginning of an empire, but the fall of one. By the end of the series, the cartels have lost their place and are no longer the top dogs of the meth industry. One of the primary themes of the Breaking Bad universe is just what it means to "break bad" or to turn to evil. Albuquerque is not a corrupt city, it is one that has been corrupted by men like Walter. In this show, what corrupts many of the characters is money and greed.
In Julius Caesar, Brutus is confronted with the thought that Caesar must be killed for the good of Rome. It is not something that he revels in but something that must be done. It is not until after the deed is done that Brutus comes to the realization that his co-conspirators had only committed the assassination because they had been bribed. So easily, men forgot about their own morals when they were given the opportunity to earn themselves some extra money. This is a fact that stands true in Albuquerque; the only difference between the sacrifices that Walter and Brutus made is that Brutus was able to stay true to his morals.
Comedy in tragedy: the role of Saul Goodman.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Walter's transition from family man to meth lord is easily defined as a tragedy in the most Shakespearean way. A quiet and good man, after being looked down on for most of his life, is told he doesn't have very much longer to live. In an effort to save his family, he goes into an unsavory business but is ultimately corrupted by the money and eventually admits that he was no longer doing this for the good of his family but because he enjoyed it. But what of Saul? What about Jimmy?
The focus of "Better Call Saul" may be varied, but the show's namesake is the main focus of the series. It is the story of Jimmy McGill, a bright young man who wants to impress his brother by becoming a successful lawyer. The premise of the show is that we know the fates of many of these characters. When we see Tuco and his grandfather, we know that they play a large part in the story of Walter White. We know that they will die due to his machinations. The attraction of a prequel is to see how things became the way they are.
Saul Goodman is a comic relief character. Played by Bob Odenkirk, famous for his irreverent comedy and his time spent on various programs such as Mr. Show and Saturday Night Live. We are introduced to a man who Jesse refers to as a criminal lawyer, a man who doesn't care about bending the law if it means a quick buck or two. His quick wit and severe moral ambiguity leads to some hilarious encounters and makes him an extremely memorable character.
So it's a surprise when we find out that this is not Saul Goodman's first identity. It's rather shocking to think that an upstanding lawyer like Jimmy McGill could become a despicable lowlife like Saul Goodman in a matter of only a few years. The unfortunate truth of Jimmy McGill is that he has a good heart, but he's known to cut corners and find the easy way to take care of things. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's not looked lightly upon in the world of law and he frequently gets himself into trouble by bending the rules.
Once again, we see him in some hilarious moments. In one instance, he dresses up a man as a WWII veteran in order to sneak onto an Air Force base and get some shots of the man in front of an old bomber plane. In another, he blatantly lies to school administrators and tells them he's shooting a documentary on Rupert Holmes (aka the creator of the Piña Colada song). In both examples, he trespasses and illegally shoots video on private property to make a commercial.
Shakespearean comedy comes from a place of irony. In a "Midsummer Night's Dream," two men and two women are manipulated by fairies so that they fall in love with each other. However, the fairies have them fall in love with the wrong people, leading to all sorts of confusion. The irony comes from the fact that those involved would spurn those they normally loved and chase after people they expressed no interest in.
So, too, do we find ourselves in a place of irony. Jimmy merely wants to become a lawyer so that he can impress his older brother. But instead of the happy ending that Jimmy deserves, he is greeted with indignation and anger from his brother. This starts him off onto a downward spiral that we as viewers know will ultimately corrupt and break him. While the show is filled with some pretty funny moments, the underlying themes have a much darker and ultimately very "Breaking Bad" type moments.
"Breaking Bad" has some funny moments and "Better Call Saul" has its share of serious moments. There isn't an exact 1:1 ratio in any of these examples, but the motivations remain similar. The inspiration of Shakespeare can be found in a number of stories, including that of "The Lion King." So before you start tweeting at Vince Gilligan that he's been plagiarizing the Bard, just remember that so has everyone else.