One of the most successful television shows to have aired during the past decade has certainly been Breaking Bad. After all, by the end of the television series, the show received dozens of awards and eventually joined the Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed TV series of all time. Years later, the show’s renowned writers, directors, and producers, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, delivered us the first episode of the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul. Set six years before the events narrated in Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul tells us the story of James McGill.
The two broken brothers are trying to get essentially the same thing through very different ways: immorality and moralism.The only thing that we knew from the beginning of the TV show was that this minor-league attorney would eventually transform into the criminal attorney Saul Goodman who we came to know in Breaking Bad. However, as we started watching the show, if we paid attention to all the small details, we would come to understand that this story was not exclusively about the origins of Saul Goodman, but about a younger brother and an elder brother, James and Charles McGill.
The Parable of the Prodigal Saul?
What would you say if I told you that Gilligan and Gould drew inspiration from a biblical narrative to create the basic outline of Better Call Saul? As far as I know, Gilligan and Gould have not explicitly confirmed or denied this idea, but in a 2016 Entertainment Weekly interview, Gilligan casually suggested that the relationship of the brothers does indeed mirror the relationship of the two brothers from the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son, recorded in Luke 15:11-32.
Contrary to popular belief, as Timothy Keller has observed, this parable is not solely about the prodigal son, but about a younger brother and an elder brother, and their relationship to their father. Within the biblical story line, it is patently obvious that the younger brother has had a fractured relationship with his father. He wants the possessions of the father, but not the father himself. He achieves his goal by breaking the societal norms of the day and by exploiting his privileges, eventually succumbing to an obscene lifestyle and driving himself into poverty in the process. Now, in the second part of the story arc, we come to discover that the elder brother is, in fact, just like the younger brother, despite all outward appearances. Although he has been very close to his father, his closeness to the father is pragmatic, not authentic. To put it simply, he has been trying to use his father just as the younger had done, but in a subtler, less obvious way. Outwardly, the elder brother was doing all the right things, but the story arc makes it clear he had been doing it with the intention of getting something out the father. Ironically, both brothers were seeking the same thing through very different methods.
This is why Jimmy and Chuck McGill fit the basic archetypes of the unnamed biblical characters in the parable. From the very beginning, we come to discover that there is no one Jimmy admires more than his elder brother, Chuck. Chuck, after all, is a borderline genius, a superstar in the legal field, virtually an attorney’s attorney. This is why Jimmy decided to become an attorney in the first place. He wanted to be just like his elder brother and finally earn that ultimate sense of approval he yearned to get from his brother. But as we know, he never gets it. Chuck could never approve of Jimmy because of Jimmy’s rampant immorality, his tendency to tamper with the law, and his con artist antics. Naturally, this realization that he would never get the sense of approval from his brother that he yearned so dearly to have is devastating to Jimmy. It severely fractures him. However, later on in the story we discover that Chuck is just as broken and fractured as Jimmy. In the same way Jimmy yearns to be approved by his brother, Chuck yearns for his parents’ approval—which he never gets.
Despite the fact that he is a seemingly perfect son, his parents never really approve of him. Even though Chuck manages to pursue a very respectable career and become very successful at it—unlike Jimmy, who has been setting his pace to become a career criminal since his adolescence—his parents virtually ignore him. All of this leads Chuck to be just as broken and envious of Jimmy as Jimmy is of him.
Perhaps this reality is best grasped in the opening scene of the second season finale. Struck by a terminal illness, their mother lies on a hospital bed, unable to move or speak. Jimmy, starting to get hungry, leaves the hospital room in a nonchalant way looking for something to eat, while Chuck stays, because he understands the magnitude of the situation. While Jimmy is gone, all of a sudden, their mother wakes up. Chuck tries to talk to her, but in return she starts asking for Jimmy, ignoring Chuck’s replies—and then she dies. Chuck is left in silent anger, and when Jimmy comes back and asks him if she said something before passing away, Chuck lies and says she didn’t.
An Unmeasurable Approval That Can’t Be Earned or Lost
Both Chuck and Jimmy are looking for the same thing through very different methods. Jimmy tries to get his brother’s approval by becoming an attorney and doing morally questionable things in order to get the job done. Chuck tries to earn his parents’ approval by being morally righteous and amassing honor and respect in the legal world. And yet, both men are badly broken. That is the basic outline of Jesus’ parable. The two broken brothers are trying to get essentially the same thing through very different ways: immorality and moralism.
The Gospel tells us that in the same way both brothers in the parable were alienated from the love of the father, we’re also alienated from the love of God, whether we choose to reject Him through immorality and irreligion or to bribe Him through moralism and religiosity. However, the Christian hope is that, even though all of us are alienated from God, even though all of us are broken and end up pursuing happiness and meaning in the ultimate approval of other broken people, in Christ we can be made whole again. In Christ we can be received and approved despite our moral failures (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15) and independently from our moral performance (cf. Eph. 2:8-9) because Christ literally lived the perfect life we could not live and paid the penalty of our sins in our place (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 2:13-24). In Christ, God can truly take pleasure in us and satisfy our universal human ache for approval. In Christ and in Christ alone, we can be cosmically approved and embraced forever by the only One who ultimately matters.