Readers Write In #399: The Good vs Good fight in Vince Gilligan’s works

Posted on August 22, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

“It is not that every battle in the world must occur between the good and the bad. Sometimes battles occur even between the good and the good. And those battles can be glorious and in fact even more brutal than the ones between the good and the bad”

I read the above lines in Parisukku Po by Jeyakanthan sometime back. 

***

A chemistry genius is somehow thrown out of a corporate company he founded, by destiny. He is forced to work as a teacher in a school for a pittance as a result of which he finds himself an additional menial job at a nearby car wash. His son has cerebral palsy and his wife seems to have taken over the family pushing him to the margins when it comes to ‘decision-making’. His work as a teacher is seldom appreciated, his brother-in-law subtly sometimes mocks his inability to have some ‘fun’ that unwittingly hits at the heart of his ‘moribund’ masculinity. To add to the monotony of this ‘cursed’ life, he soon is diagnosed with cancer. What will you do if you are given the opportunity to live ‘this’ life? Will you take everything in your stride and continue to live out this troubled existence for as long as you are allowed to? Will you keep sticking to all your morals and honesty and live for the sake of your family with a calm resignation? Or for a change, will you just decide to have some fun, by shoving all your values and discipline aside, without giving a damn about what it means to people around you? 

The above paragraph as many might have noticed is a very simple summary of what happens to the protagonist in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. But as episodes progress, Walter’s clash with his cruel destiny soon transforms into nothing but a fight with his own idea of ‘masculinity’. Similar to many men of our ilk, one can notice that White has entrusted his treasured ‘masculinity’ into the hands of his well-meaning wife Skyler White and it is nothing but only her ways and means of handling it that determines his cumulative ‘masculinity’ score. If his wife’s actions show that she values him and respects him, Walter feels good about himself as a man and if she does something that doesn’t feed his ego or self-esteem, he immediately begins worrying about himself and his own self-image. And into the third season if I am not wrong, only when Skyler confesses that she has slept with her well-to-do boss Ted, a confused Walter White who has hitherto been time and again tempted and troubled by Gus Fring’s invitation to re-enter the ‘cooking’ business, that he decides wholeheartedly to take the plunge. 

Soon as days pass, Walter White turns into the man he himself had least expected to become, transforming into a ruthless druglord, a crooked genius who doesn’t give a damn about how cruelly he could defile and devour the society he lives in, as long as his ego and masculinity are having a ball. And White it is to be noted, derives the maximum pleasure out of his new-found masculinity only when it has its effects on his ‘treasurer’, his wife Skyler. He loves showing her that he makes literally barrels and barrels of money out of the drug business, he loves acting out in front of her what a ‘danger’ he has actually become and he loves scaring her out of her wits by demonstrating his skills at manipulation and corruption. Soon as I mentioned earlier, White’s conflict with his ruthless destiny in the last three seasons, only turns into a dirty slugfest  between him and his wife and one must remember that every bad guy in the story including the Salamancas and the dangerous Gus Fring are all if anything, only peripheral characters in what is primarily a husband-wife conflict.

The very first episode where Walter is unable to achieve an erection despite his wife’s best efforts in ‘gifting’ him one, the way the episode ends, when he returns and ‘ravages’ her sexually like a man-monster after having a brush with his new-found illegal ‘trade’, and numerous similar moments in the subsequent seasons only keep hinting at White’s troubled relationship with his wife and how this marital fracture keeps pushing him towards further moral and spiritual depravity. In fact in my opinion, despite the numerous hurdles that fate kept throwing at him, had White been more of an ‘assured’ male, someone who didn’t have to evaluate himself based on his wife’s attitude towards him, he would have remained much more harmless and docile as he had always been and much of what happened to him in the later seasons of Breaking Bad could have been gracefully averted.

The reason why I keep highlighting the importance of White’s relationship with his wife is only to illustrate the nature of conflicts that happen between a majority of individuals. Contrary to what forms the core of a large amount of mainstream cinema where good-natured individuals get locked in a perpetual tussle with evil-minded people, reality is in fact, more nuanced and largely non-binary. Conflicts in our real lives more often than not happen only between individuals all of whom bear nothing but noble intentions toward each other and that is precisely why mainstream film-makers usually try to avoid such subjects. Milking drama out of good vs good fights is hard and that is why a rare film like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) which tells a thrilling tale about two innocent but determined families had the potential to become an instant, yet unforgettable classic.

In Breaking Bad too, White as illustrated is a very good man who is extremely committed to his family and his wife Skyler too is a model wife in all respects. She becomes a pillar to the family as soon as White is diagnosed with cancer, she works hard to pay for his treatment, takes good care of her son and the child she bears in her womb and not even once in the whole series, does she utter consciously even one word that might hit out at White’s imagined deficiencies as a man. One of the reasons why I am writing about this already well-regarded series is only because its spin-off too, the highly under-rated Better Call Saul which I finished seeing recently turned about to be another masterpiece of what its predecessor already was-  a glorious and brutal ‘good vs good’ fight.

***

Jimmy is a slacker, in fact a crook who has a thing for pulling off con jobs and living at the wrong side of the law. His elder brother, Chuck is a complete contrast to Jimmy, a model student who soon becomes successful at the other end of the law- an eminent lawyer. But Jimmy soon reforms at his caring brother Chuck’s insistence, secretly completes a correspondence course in law and becomes a lawyer. This surprises Chuck greatly but soon his surprise turns into embarrassment when Jimmy requests for a job at Chuck’s own, reputed law firm. Chuck who for all these years had wanted only good things to happen for his brother Jimmy dismisses his application and calls him ‘unfit’ to become a lawyer. Why?

Chuck despite being a worthy son of a hard-working parent had right from his childhood felt himself slightly isolated from his family on account of his parents’ inexplicably greater love for his younger brother Jimmy. On quite a few occasions, Chuck is annoyed at how smoothly Jimmy dissolves into a friend-circle or a family and how easily he is accepted by people despite his well-known spurious character and background. Every time Jimmy gains a step, Chuck is unable to get out of his mind the dubious idea that he has in fact, lost one. 

But is Chuck all hate and no love? Certainly not. Chuck on numerous occasions goes out of his way to help his brother and in the tussle that happens between the brothers in the first three seasons, it is very difficult to find who is good and who is not. It is to be noted that Chuck is in fact a very honorable person but not certainly flawless. He must have recognized and resigned himself to the fact that his brother has a more affable air around him and people more often than not, fall easy for appearances remaining blind to real intentions. Had he somehow found a way to fix this ‘insecurity’ or what you might call a minor ‘flaw’ in his character, he might not certainly have gone on to hurt his brother.

The same way, even if Jimmy is portrayed as a crook and a man who loves to have fun at any cost, his love for his brother becomes manifest when he decides to discipline himself and pursue a course in law. He even admits openly on a few occasions that he became a lawyer only because he respected his brother’s genuine concern for his well-being. But when he discovers that his brother himself is not willing to accept him into his fold, he is outraged and decides to return to his spurious ways. He indulges in ‘ungentlemanly’ activities to pay his brother back and this only serves as a validation to what Chuck had always thought about him- ‘Jimmy, you can never be a lawyer’. This leads to Chuck’s reprisal where he forces the bar council to forfeit his brother’s license. This act of Chuck which Jimmy considers as much below the belt, forces him to punch back even further below- Jimmy visits the insurance office and hints at Chuck’s ‘insanity’ that could potentially mean a lot of trouble for the insurance company. What follows in the subsequent episodes of Better Call Saul is a very tragic story of how two good souls who care so much about each other can still do enormous harm, owing to a lot of controllable and uncontrollable factors.

***

Right from my childhood, my father loved complaining to me about his sister’s husband, my uncle. He has in fact, narrated so many incidents where my uncle had insulted my father for no fault of his. All of this led to me growing cold to him which I continued to be almost till my adulthood. Later on, during numerous occasions I had the chance to witness and recognize the fact that my uncle was not after all, a very bad man. Soon, some few years ago, my uncle had in fact, mustered the courage to talk to me about his relationship with my father. What he told me, honestly made a lot of sense much to my surprise and none of the ‘insults’ which my father had referred to, were actually intentional or genuine. Only after a few months, I discovered that my father had a few insecurities about marrying his sister to a person like my uncle and it was only on account of them, that he had continued to develop a dislike for him.

I am not trying to convey that what happened in my father-uncle story is wholly unusual or excitingly strange but something that is totally to the contrary- this is how most relationships around the world are and none of the actors can be as bad as they initially appear to be. Most of us in my humble opinion are in fact blessed with people who actually care so much about us and the moment we appreciate this fact and stick to this belief, it will become extremely easy for us to deal with relationships. But sticking to ‘that’ belief can happen only if we are conscious of our own flaws and willing to accept and engage with them. 

What Better Call Saul taught me was how dangerous pre-conceived notions about people who matter to us, can really be. There might have been good reasons to consider that a person is of a dubious type initially, but one also needs to remember that nothing changes man as much as time and destiny does. There are in fact people who might be willing to change themselves for the better and when the slightest change for the better becomes perceptible, it is our duty to recognize and appreciate that immediately. Our inability or unwillingness to spot and acknowledge ‘good’ change might in fact destroy all their intentions to change ruining both their lives and our own relationships with them.