Let us now pay attention to serious themes. Let us celebrate the glorious gravity of two shows that are as entertaining as they are sober-minded.
A recent episode of Better Call Saul (AMC, 10 p.m.), which reaches its season finale tonight, had a delicious scene. (Look away now if you haven't seen it.) Mike (Jonathan Banks), the former big city cop now down on his luck and scraping by in Albuquerque, N.M., took a job as security detail for a drug deal. The guy selling the drugs – top-dollar pills lifted from somewhere – was named Pryce. A middle-class, amateur thief, he hired three guys to protect him, Mike and two heavyweight dudes.
The confrontation between Mike and the other two was priceless. A beautiful bit of comic business. Then came the tense unfolding of the drugs handover in the desert. Another gorgeously wrought scene. It ended with Pryce taking umbrage when he thinks Mike is calling him "a bad guy." Mike says, "I didn't say you were a bad guy. I said you were a criminal." And a mystified Pryce asks, "What's the difference?" Mike then explains.
There is resonance to that scene. And it's not because it had vague echoes of Breaking Bad. Apart from the fact that it is one of those elements that puts Better Call Saul in the pantheon of truly great American TV, it reverberated with echoes. What Mike explained was what Bob Dylan expressed as, "To live outside the law, you must be honest."
Another stunning scene in the same episode had Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk, playing what is soon to be the Saul of Breaking Bad, one knows) being brutally curtailed in his ambitions by his brother Chuck. Jimmy has worked fiercely hard to elevate himself from slacker con artist to competent lawyer.
He may have achieved it in an unconventional way, by taking correspondence courses from the University of American Samoa, but he's emerged as a good lawyer.
Chuck undermines him, utterly. He's dismissive, explaining with brutal frankness that Jimmy cannot change from the con artist he once was. Jimmy as a serious man of the law is, Chuck says, "like a chimp with a machine gun!"
In this our hero is being stymied in a key ambition – to reinvent himself. And this links the central character – and Mad Men's Don Draper – to one of the overriding themes in American literature and cultural experience. That theme, a central myth of the American culture, is that every American is entitled to the near-religious experience of rebirth and transcendence of the shackles of the past. All of it is rooted in the origins of the United States – the European dream of redemption in the virgin land of America.
The crushing of Jimmy's belief in reinventing himself is a shocking moment, one that has a trace of a kind of cruelty that is blistering in an American cultural context. It is, one can only feel, what leads Jimmy on the strange journey to becoming the crooked character he is in Breaking Bad.
Meanwhile on Mad Men, which has now aired and can be discussed more freely, Don Draper struggles in some agony about his ceaseless need to reinvent himself. He is, after all, not really "Don Draper" at all. His real name is Richard "Dick" Whitman and he stole the identity of a dead officer during the Korean War. This allowed him rebirth. It allowed him to transcend "Dick" Whitman, the illegitimate child of a prostitute who died during childbirth.
Throughout his life and career then, Don Draper has attempted one rebirth after another – one wife and marriage following another. And yet, as the first new episode, Severance, showed us, he cannot escape his past. He cannot be rid of guilt, he cannot be rid of the stigma of past sins. He remains, in many ways, what his stepmother told him he was – "a whore's child." In Severance, which suggested that there can be no severance from the past, Don is haunted terribly by Rachel Menken, a woman he wronged terribly. And he learns there is no redemption.
And so in Better Call Saul and Mad Men, we have probing, gnawing explorations of a central theme in American writing, from James Fenimore Cooper to Saul Bellow and beyond. That is, the belief in the right to reinvention and transcendence of the past and all its limitations, and then the terrible tension that surrounds the crushing of that right.
We live in glorious times when American TV can tackle such issues and entertain, too.