Monday, July 8, 2013

Clueless-ly Breaking Bad

            After plowing through the first 5½ seasons of Breaking Bad (the greatest TV show of all time), I’ve made a startling discovery: It has a prequel.  Most fans of the show do not know this, but in 1995, a motion picture was released that profiled the lives of Walt, Jesse, and everyone else roughly one decade before their forays into the treacherous world of crystal meth, RVs, ATM machines, and zesty slow-cooked chicken
            That motion picture from 1995? You guessed it: Clueless (the greatest movie of all time).  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Clueless is the prequel to Breaking Bad.
         Was there a secret fraternization between Amy Heckerling and Vince Gilligan that foreshadowed the way their characters would develop?  Did they disagree about what was a more valuable commodity in life – crystal meth or an Alaïa? (For those who do not know, that is a “totally important designer.”)  Did they have confrontations about which vehicle was more rad, a Jeep or a Pontiac Aztec?  They clearly had different opinions about what constitutes great literature (Walt Whitman vs. Mel Gibson), commercials (Los Pollos Hermanos vs. Mentos), and popular colloquialisms (“Yo!” vs. “As if!”). 
            Do you still not believe me?  Let’s consider the central characters in both:

Mr. Walter White and Mr. Wendall Hall

Both are middle-aged, unhappy, bald high school teachers.  Both of them fail to motivate their students, in spite of their enthusiasm about the subjects they teach (chemistry and speech, respectively).  Neither of them earn significant sums of money (Mr. White has to work a second job at a car wash and Mr. Hall “earns minor ducats at a thankless job.”)  In spite of their middle-aged angst and decided lack of masculinity, both are fundamentally low-key, family-oriented men (this doesn’t change the fact that they both need “a good healthy boinkfest.”) 
                   Now, the real question: What could drive these ordinary, friendly, slightly nerdy and square teachers to a life of crime and running from the law?  The answer lies in unexpected relationships with their former pupils.

Jesse Pinkman and Travis Birkenstock


During high school, Jesse Pinkman and Travis Birkenstock did not exactly light the world on fire.  Jesse failed the chemistry class he took with Mr. White, while Travis had 38 tardies in Mr. Hall’s speech class.  Jesse’s parents threw him out of the house multiple times, while Travis’ parents forced him to take the bus to school.  
                   But their biggest similarity is their use of recreational drugs.  Jesse is seen using drugs of all varieties, while Travis a “roadie” who offerspot to Cher and Tai when they come to the val party.  Of course, we eventually discover that Jesse is a meth dealer, while Travis . . . well, it’s not incomprehensible to believe that at some point he has been a seller of illegal substances.  Both join AA to try to curb their habits, but it doesn’t ever reallytake.  Both are capable of causing tremendous harm, as when Jesse singlehandedly causes a major plane crash, while Travis ruins Cher’s shoes at the val party.
                   The desperation of Mr. White and Mr. Hall leads them to team up with Jesse and Travis to endeavor on building a drug empire in the American southwest.  Their unlikely partnerships somehow bring out the best in each of them.

                   They each strive to be drug lords to support the women they love:

Skyler White and Ms. Geist

Both Skyler and Ms. Geist help solve disasters: For Skyler, it’s the accounting disaster at Beneke Fabricators, and for Ms. Geist, it’s the Pismo Beach disaster.

Jane Margolis and Tai Frasier

Jane and Tai both love the “bad boy” (hence, their affinity for “Rollin’ with the Homies”) so naturally they are both powerfully attracted to Jesse and Travis.  And for a little while, it appears that they improve the ever-tortured lives of their boyfriends.  But the sad reality is that this happiness is ephemeral, as lethal drug overdoses tragically cut their relationships short (although Tai did not OD, Brittany Murphy did). 

Saul Goodman and Mel Horowitz


Mr. White and Jesse/Mr. Hall and Travis need solid legal expertise to get their drug operations out of sticky situations with authorities.  Enter Saul (“Better call Saul!”) Goodman and Mel (“Get out of my chair!”) Horowitz.  Both are lawyers who have no hesitation in going all out for their clients, whether that means hiding drug money behind the walls of their office or pulling an all-nighter at the house (with a quick Subway break).  There are minor differences – Saul advises clients to avoid IRS scrutiny by investing in paintball arenas and nail salons, while Mel indulges his own money in his luxurious home (dating back to 1972) and ClaesOldenburg sculptures
                   So who precisely are the federal authorities that Saul and Mel assist our heroes in getting away from? 

Hank Schrader and Rude DMV Guy

 Hank Schrader is the Assistant Special Agent with the Albuquerque branch of the Drug Enforcement Administration.  By all accounts, he is the biggest badass at the DEA due to his relentless quest for the legendary meth cook Heisenberg.  Of course, unbeknownst to Hank, Heisenberg is none other than his own brother-in-law, meek Walter White.
                   Rude DMV Guy claims that he is the “messiah of the DMV.”  When Cher takes her driving test, he refuses to take her to practice lefthand turns.  He has a relentless quest to prevent automobile accidents and bad driving, but unbeknownst to him, Cher is a “virgin who can’t drive.” 
                   Walt and Jesse confide in Saul Goodman to elude the tight grasp of the DEA.  Cher confides in her father to pay her parking tickets.  In each case, the authorities prove incompetent in making the streets of the city any safer – from both Heisenberg’s blue crystal as well as from reckless teenage drivers

Gale Boetticher and Josh

Gale and Josh are both environmentally-conscious self-described “nerds” who would rather curl up with a book by Walt Whitman or Nietzsche than indulge in the lavish lifestyles of crystal meth dealing or corporate law.  Both love coffee (Josh is told by his ex-stepsister, “You don’t want to be the only one at the coffee house without chin pubes”) and both are eager to learn from their beloved protégés – Walter White and Mel Horowitz.  But their most important similarity: Their less-than-stellar dancing skills.  Josh dances with Tai so she won’t feel so bad after doing this, while Gale’s dancing skills have already been immortalized forever.  Gale gives me a toothache.

Skinny Pete and Badger, and Murray and Lawrence

Skinny Pete and Badger are ambiguously close BFFs who also work as drug dealers and part-time friends to Jesse Pinkman.  Murray and Lawrence are ambiguously close BFFs who shave each other’s heads and cause Murray’s relationship with Dionne to be like “that Ike and Tina Turner movie.”

Wendy, the crack whore at the motel, and Amber

Wendy and Amber are both girls who come from the wrong side of the tracks (definitely not Betties) and end up as powerfully visceral illustrations of what happens when you abuse drugs (you end up turning tricks) and when you abuse clothing (you end up being “fashion victim.” Or is it “ensembly challenged?”)  Wendy is shown having an insatiable appetite for root beer, Amber has an appetite for copying Cher’s wardrobe.  And both see no end to jokes about balls flying in their faces.  But hey, whatever!
Tuco Salamanca and Elton

Tuco and Elton are both bad-tempered members of the elite class who have no qualms in demonstrating their wealth and superiority to those with less power.   Tuco is the nephew of Hector Salamanca (AKA “Tio”) and has really only attained his status as the meth kingpin of Albuquerque as a result of his familial ties to the Mexican drug cartel.  Elton, “a snob and a half,” is the son of some rich guy everybody should automatically know without asking who can apparently get tickets to everything.  Both yield their power in reckless ways leading, in one case, to a spectacular demise, and in the other, a sexual rejection (I’ll let you guess which is which).  Now, if they could only find their Cranberries album.

Bogdan, the car wash owner, and the Guy Who Robs Cher

In season four, when Walt and Skyler attempt to buy the car wash from Bogdan, he refuses to accept their offer of $800,000 and demands an absurdly high selling price of $20 million.  Both of these robberies are abhorrent. 

The Honduran women at the meth lab who get deported because of Walt, and Lucy, the El Salvadoran Maid

Ted Beneke and the Rude Lawyer in Suspenders

Whether it’s refusing to pay the IRS in back taxes or refusing to celebrate the semi-incestuous love between two teenagers, neither of these losers comes close to being a Baldwin.

Los Pollos Hermanos and The Mall

When you feel impotent and out of control (which you really hate), you need to find sanctuary in a place where you can gather your thoughts and regain your strength.  In Los Angeles, that place is the mall; in Albuquerque, that place is Los Pollos Hermanos. 

                   Obviously, there are some glaring omissions from both (Where are Cher and Dionne in Breaking Bad?  Who are the Clueless equivalents of Gustavo, Mike Ehrmantraut, and, of course, Tio Salamanca?)  But if these comparisons were any closer, Breaking Bad and Clueless would literally be the same thing, and as Cher and Josh’s romantic liaison demonstrates, being part of the same thing is sometimes definitely not a good thing. 
                   So, in conclusion, Vince Gilligan must be a big fan of Clueless.  But are there other movies or TV shows that he must have watched and loved to find inspiration for the characters and events in Breaking Bad?  Thoughts or disagreements about this potentially unexpectedly compelling comparison?  Let me know below before I start feeling like totally buggin’.  

The beginning of a beautiful friendship.


  1. I have only seen Clueless once, so I would have never thought of this, but you twisted the characters nicely. I would say there is a tad of American Beauty within some of the character archs, but Breaking Bad seems to be as original as they come.

    BB best show ever? Not quite. Top 5 TV drama for sure, though.

    And you really do need a fact checker. It is a laser tag joint, not paintball. But close enough I guess. Fun article, though.

  2. Paintball, laser tag . . . it's all the same thing! Especially considering that Walt (and Jesse) declined purchasing it.

    Yeah, this was a very indulgent article because I grew up watching "Clueless" (I can recite the entire movie) so it was really a chance to allude to obscure passages and characters in that movie. I can see "American Beauty" (Walt + Jesse = Lester + Ricky) and a little "Departed." Not bad comparisons.

    I stand behind the claim that "BB" is the best show of all-time (not that I've watched a great deal of fictional TV). It's probably as good or better than any movie I've seen in the last few years.

    1. Not sure what happened to this yesterday when I posted it, but I was pretty proud of it. I don't know if this gives my American Beauty comparison some more validity, but AHHH HERE IT GOES!(yes, that was an attempt to quote Kel from "Keenan and Kel"):

      Ok, here is a quick rundown of my American Beauty comparison:

      Lester Burnham / Walter White: They are having mid-life crises. They lost the jobs they have had for a long time, which leads them to get involved with illegal substances.

      Ricky Fitts / Jesse Pinkman: They have drug-centered business going on with Lester/Walter. They dabble in drugs frequently, trying to keep it from their disowning parents. They deal on the side for some extra cash, Jesse using it to party and Ricky using it to upgrade his entertainment systems.

      Carolyn Burnham / Skylar White: They are cheating on their husband Lester/Walt with a colleague. They hate their boring, loveless suburban life. They freak out when they find out about the secrets that their husbands has been keeping.

      Jane Burnham / Walter Jr.: They are the forgotten teenage childred desperate for attention. They spend more time away from home then they do with their fighting parents.
      ---OR, Jane could be Jane. They fall in love with Ricky/Jesse. They are looking to make some money to run away together with Ricky/Jesse, Burnham by babysitting (originally for a boob job) and Margolis by blackmailing Walt. They are the key to their lover finally standing up for himself against his father [figure].

      Col. Frank Fitts / Agent Hank Schrader: They are trying to uphold a brute justice. They hate that Ricky/Jesse are stoned and dealing drugs, getting away with it, and they cannot catch them. Their marriages are very one-sided, with the husband prone to blowing up and belittling the wife.
      ---OR Frank could be Gale. They develop relationships with Lester/Walt, which gets complicated quickly and ends in fatality.

      Buddy Kane / Saul Goodman: They are the sneaky businessmen who gets thrust into the lives of the main characters. There is never a dull moment with the fast-talking real estate agent/lawyer.
      ---OR Buddy could be Ted. They are sleeping with the wife, who is a colleague. They tear apart the marriage, yada yada yada...

      -Perhaps the only difference between AB and BB is that Ricky is legitimately Lester's pot dealer, when in BB that is just Walt and Jesse's cover story. Oh, and Lester uses a remote controlled car to get his point across, when Walt uses a Roomba.

  3. Breaking Bad DVD is an amzing show,adventure,crime,black comedy... Bryan Cranston won three consecutive emmy awards for his role as Walt. Aaron Paul (Jesse) has also won an emmy for his performance...You'd better start to watch it from begining and you will find out how Walt got started how he met jesse how they got involved with gus.