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Breaking Bad as Literature
The Other Guys, Part 1
The lead characters on Breaking Bad are almost enough to carry the show on their own.
But if we didn't have Saul Goodman, Badger and Skinny Pete, Gustavo Fring, Jesse's girlfriend Jane, Gale Boetticher, or Tuco and Tio "Ding-Ding!" Salamanca, the world would be a much sadder place… though probably a less meth-y one, too.
In this lesson, we'll go on a brief little tour of some of the second-string characters, and think about the ways they function to make Breaking Bad a sprawling, fully-realized gangsta's paradise.
Lies and Dolls
One thing that most of the Breaking Bad characters have in common is that they're world-class liars, and in a way, amazing storytellers.
Walt certainly racks up the most fibs throughout the series, as well as the most outrageous—his "fugue state," his "gambling addiction," the "pump malfunction" that covers his house in gasoline—but Breaking Bad is a massive cobweb of lies.
So let's take a minute to talk about how deception and honesty—not guns and drugs—are the fabric of the series.
Gus Fring is the big boss, the calculating, Freon-blooded, dead-eyed kingpin of a meth empire—and we hear he makes a pretty mean fried chicken. There's not a lot we know about Fring's past, and that's just the way he wants it. We know he was involved in some gnarly stuff when he lived in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but that's about it. And not even Mike can uncover more than that.
Gus is probably the only guy in the series whose web of lies is even bigger than Walt's. His preferred method is to "hide in public" and get as cozy as possible with his biggest enemies (the cartel and the DEA). He has no absolute loyalties; even if you're one of the guy's closest confidants, you'll never know if he's about to slit your throat with a box cutter or poison you with fancy tequila. He does seem to trust Mike with his business, but Mike knows that Gus can turn at any time—why do you think Mike draws his gun on Gus while Gus is killing Victor?
An underappreciated lie comes in "Full Measure" (Season 3, Finale): he tells Gale that Walt is dying of cancer and that Gale may need to take over the lab for him once Walt can no longer work. It's a lie worthy of Heisenberg: it's totally based on half-truths that are massaged ever-so-slightly into deadly lies.
The only loyalties Gus has are to his own goals; if he needs you to achieve them, then you can stick around. Walt knows that about him, which is why he has Jesse kill Gale. But the moment you become both useless and inconvenient, away you go.
But what are those goals? Obviously, he wants to crush his enemies and get revenge on Don Eladio's cartel and the Salamancas, but then what? Is it sheer power? Murderous cynicism? Maybe he's a little more like Walt than he'd like to admit: cautious, educated, extremely dangerous when he needs to be, prone to poisoning people and killing them with trauma to the neck, and more than anything else, corrupted by power.
Okay, we all know that the whole "lawyers are liars" thing is just a stereotype, but in Saul's case, it happens to be true to the utmost. He's a caricature, and he provides a little comic relief to the series (which is probably why they got the influential comic Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame to play him), but there's actually a lot behind this guy.
The main thing you have to know about Saul is that he's a magician. As Bob Odenkirk says, "He's always trying to manipulate people with words. It's a little bit like magic, he moves his hands a lot. It's sleight of hand—don't look here, look here, don't watch my lips" (source).
And like a magician, he can make things appear (phones, fall guys, money laundering businesses) and disappear (dirty money, ricin cigarettes, people). His magician skills are all about misdirection—doing one thing while another is secretly happening. Oh, you want a mind-blowing example? Think about his name—"S'all good, man." Even with his name, he's sneakily reassuring you that whatever you're doing is okay, no matter how bad it is… as long as he gets his cut.
But even though lies spray out of him like a broken lawn sprinkler, that doesn't necessarily mean he's disloyal. He's actually a consummate professional when it comes to his clients, and far less mercenary than you'd think. In fact, even when his life is in danger, he rarely betrays Jesse and Walt to other people: in "Full Measure" (Season 3, Finale), when Mike forces him to give him Jesse's whereabouts, he refuses until Mike physically threatens him. And even then cleverly makes a show of giving Mike the address on the sly by writing down the address and leaving the room—only the address is fake. So, by lying to Mike about betraying Jesse, he ends up staying loyal to Jesse.
That's Saul Goodman for you: he's dishonest, but he's no hypocrite.
Ultimately, though, he does end up betraying Walt and Jesse to each other: he confesses to stealing the ricin cigarette from Jesse in "Confessions" (Season 5, Episode 11) and urges Walt to kill Jesse in "Rabid Dog." Though with Walt and Jesse at each other's throats, it's not like he has much of a choice.
At least he's equally disloyal to both of them?
Badger and Skinny Pete
These guys are mostly just the comic relief of the show, lightening the mood when things get a little too dark. They talk and talk and talk, they're slackers, they have no problem getting ordered around so long as they get to be in Jesse's entourage, and for all intents and purposes, they're one character—although Skinny Pete proves to be a way more talented musician than Badger in "Hazard Pay" (Season 5, Episode 3).
(If you want to get your world rocked a little, check out the
This corn-fed good ol' boy is a little too eager to please—so eager, in fact, that he takes the initiative to shoot a kid dead after the kid sees Walt's train heist in "Dead Freight" (Season 5, Episode 5).
But his eagerness to please leads him down some twisted paths when his loyalties start to conflict; at the beginning of "Rabid Dog" (Season 5, Episode 12), he ends up trying to impress his white supremacist uncle by telling him all about the train heist, even though Walt explicitly told him not to in "Dead Freight."
And that, of course, gets Uncle Jack and his crew involved, which ends up costing Hank his life, Jesse his freedom, and Walt a cool $70 million.
In a way, Todd's relationship to Walt is sort of like Victor's relationship to Gus Fring—as Walt points out, Victor flew a little close to sun, and got his throat slit.
There's not much to say about Tio that his little finger-bell doesn't say for itself. But it's fitting that Tio goes down in one of the most psychologically elaborate plots in the series: Walt, his enemy, convinces him to rig his wheelchair with explosives to take out their bigger shared enemy, Gus Fring. He lures Gus to his nursing home by making a visit to the DEA, which Gus thinks is a confession that will implicate him (though actually he just spells out some profanities). Gus goes to assassinate Tio at the nursing home, and Tio uses the opportunity to blow him up.
So he traps Gus with a lie about confessing, and the confession itself was a lie—and he did it all without speaking a single word.
Not too shabby, Tio.
(Unrelated but pretty sweet fact: Mark Margolis also played a supporting role in the central drug kingpin narrative of the last century, Scarface.)Go to Lesson: The Other Guys, Part 2