If you asked a writer what their favourite wet-dream was, they would almost invariably tell you that they would like their characters to be remembered long after they were dead. What they probably would not tell you is that writing a character isn’t something that they do willy-nilly on a spasmodic night regurgitating their ideas onto a notepad, maybe with a stash of mediocre weed by their bedside to keep them company. If you held your patience a tad more, they’d tell you that it was far easier for Victor Frankenstein to bring his experimental corpse back to life than it was for them to breathe life into a character.
Breaking Bad’s phenomenal success made Vince Gilligan an A-list show-writer in the ditzy and frustratingly fickle world of primetime television. Walter White aka Heisenberg’s meteoric rise as a pop culture icon became a renaissance of sorts for Bryan Cranston who played the character. Rather, who became the character. Despite an inherently negative character arc, Cranston made us root for a man who had transformed himself into a feared drug-lord who was “the one who knocked” on doors, from a meek, high-school teacher who was dying of cancer. We watched White’s self-pity gradually evolve into this visceral and obsessed persona whose multi-million dollar underground meth economy decimates his relationship with his family. If you think of this seemingly dramatic premise, Breaking Bad would seem almost like a run-of-the-mill mafia “scarface” shootout where everyone dies in the end but Gilligan doesn’t like to tell his stories that way. His style is excruciatingly slow, just like you would expect life to be; it comes with all its humdrum mundaneness. The narrative would be interspersed with unmoving montages where almost nothing would happen within the frame, showing a naked, uncompromising New Mexico landscape. Watch a few episodes and these montages would seep into the storyline, constantly projecting a dying, debilitating world which was a reflection of Walter White himself.
If you think of this seemingly dramatic premise, Breaking Bad would seem almost like a run-of-the-mill mafia “scarface” shootout where everyone dies in the end but Gilligan doesn’t like to tell his stories that way.
Gilligan’s characters constitute worlds within a world. Each individual – from the persuasive plot-drivers to the diminutive fillers – would have a defined blueprint which would be detailed enough to make you invested in each of their back-stories. The unique attributes of every one of those secondary characters would behoove you to think about their past and what made them who they were. Why is Gus Fring so good with people despite being a meth distributor (attribute – exceedingly suave manner) ? How did Hector Salamanca become incapacitated (attribute – communicates through a bell on his wheelchair) ? How did Saul Goodman establish his practice (attribute – lawyer with questionable methods and subprime clientele) ? Where did Mike Ehrmantraut get his training from (attribute – security specialist/clean-up guy) ?
The attributes, if you may appreciate, are sufficient as a premise to give each character his own show, establishing a universe of sorts where they would evolve within their own arcs while occupying the same universe in which Walter White existed but not really crossing paths with him until much later. This brings us to Gilligan’s Better Call Saul which I hate to call a mere spinoff because it is so much more. The story of James McGill to the infamous Saul Goodman is almost the stuff of John Grisham’s underdog books wherein a struggling law-practitioner grinds balls with the high and the mighty law establishments. Except that, James McGill as played by the exceptional Bob Odenkirk is not a new roost. He is a cantankerous middle-aged man who wants to be a lawyer just so that his own brother Charles, played by Michael McKean, could have some respect for him. Despite the fact that Jim McGill overcomes his gambling addiction to get through the bar exam becoming a legitimate lawyer, his brother’s deep-rooted superiority complex prevents him from accepting that his brother can ever amount to anything. This animosity drives an increasingly dissociative wedge between them throughout the arc.
Now, if you go back to the Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and try to backtrack it to Jim McGill from a writer’s point of view, you’d find a wealth of material which you may possibly use to build his story from the ground up. Starting with the subject that is – Lawyer with questionable methods and subprime clientele, you can see how this point in the timeline can act as the culmination of Jim McGill’s life. He struggles to overcome his past and through, hard-work and determination, he becomes a lawyer only to be demeaned by his own brother and his colleagues, all of whom work for a respectable law firm named Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill. It is only natural that his rebellious nature would become even more pronounced in his practice wherein at some point he would start representing the “scum of the society” whom those “respectable law firms” would never represent.
However, Gilligan makes sure that he doesn’t become the clichéd Robin Hood. There are certain unmistakable quirks that are intentionally ingrained into Jim McGill’s personality. He is a man who has always been wanting of money, especially after his con-scrounging days. Despite the fact that he has to pinch money to get things done, he doesn’t really have what you and I would call “class”. His ideas are almost laughably unconventional at the risk of humiliating himself and his amateur, self-shot ads are cheesy, to say the least. But this is what makes this character unique. He is not the protagonist that you’d necessarily love but he is the closest anti-hero that we can get.
There are certain visual devices too that Gilligan uses to provide substance to his characters. In the scenes where we see a character interact with his surroundings, doing nothing essentially, the frame is kept at a wide-angle with the character placed at a far corner. The asymmetry of the perspective projects different ideas at the same time – one that the character is in no way different than the other non-characters on screen and two, that he is still trying to find his way towards symmetry in his own story-arc.
Then, there are close-profile shots where the camera is kept so close to a character’s face that you can make out the ridges and wrinkles on their skin. You can make out the slightest crinkles beside their eyes which speak volumes about what the character is supposed to be thinking and what he is actually saying out loud. There are shots that are drawn out longer between successive cuts where the frame remains focussed on the person who is not speaking at the moment; just quietly capturing the changing reactions of the listener as the speaker proceeds with his/her dialogue.
As you go through the episodes, you’d be hard-pressed to tangibly define what is keeping you hooked. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, you’d even find the pace slow without much happening on-screen. But sit back patiently and absorb each element for what it is, and you’d marvel at the rich tapestry that Gilligan opens up in front of you. Writing a character, after all, is not just about a function he/she has to fulfill before they die out but it’s more about occupying a certain space and growing into it. When you watch them transform in front of your eyes, you have known them enough to have a certain idea associated with them, just like you have associated the face of your mother with the word “mother” itself. It is this association that makes characters immortal and Vince Gilligan is a master of this.
Do check out this amazingly insightful interview with Adam Savage, as he talks about the process he follows as a writer and a director:
“It’s always hard to make anything…” – Vince Gilligan
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