no spoiler for the first 80% of this...I will warn you before a slight spoiler comes at the very end
The world of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul exceeds at creating believable characters...relatable characters. Characters you understand and care about. It is a world full of great characters.
But up until Lao Salamanca, they fell short of having a truly great villain.
If you've watched those shows you may be thinking "wtf are you talking about?! There are a ton of great villains!!!"
Not really...not "great". They were entertaining, fun to watch, scary maybe...but by "great" I'm talking about 3 dimensional, relatable, believable as human beings that could exist outside of the plot.
Let's back up, and I will explain my point.
As far as making a character that the audience understands and cares about, there are a couple of ways of doing that. One or the other is fine...but doing both is "great". The first way is to show the audience what they go through, their trials and tribulations. Show the audience them working towards something, overcoming something or even trying and failing. You bring the audience along on what they are doing/trying to do. Much like how you get to know anyone in real life...you spend time with them.
The second is more complicated and requires constancy and an understanding of human nature. It is showing the audience who that character is as a personality. There are 16 basic personality types. Feel like someone you know is very similar to someone else you know, or someone you knew? That is why. As a basic personality template there ain't that much about each other that is different, I hate to break your heart, but it's psychology 101. There are of course subtle differences...but basically there are 16 types of personalities out there. So, you must decide what personality a character is...and you display that.
That part is where these shows are so good...in most cases, they do it better than everyone. Let's take some second string characters. Walt's DEA brother in law Hank. We may not know any DEA agents...but we all know a Hank.
Loud boisterous, grown up frat boy...gym bro...wants everyone to know he's the big swinging dick in the room. Off color jokes, aggressive posture, a bit of a bully but not too much. We all know that guy.
Now, let's take Howard.
shielded by one affectation after the next to the point you wonder if he even knows who he is. Dresses like the magazines tell him to dress, buys a car that he knows is appropriate for his station in life. An mp3 player full of music everyone else knows. He likes the things he's supposed to like. Doesn't rock the boat. Successful but not overly ambitious. He's a guy who just does not want to stand out, or perhaps simply does not know how to be different. We all know a Howard.
Jessie Pinkman's friend "Badger" we ALL know this guy.
Not smart, not really capable of being serious for more than 5 minutes. A fuck up who can't really even grasp that he's a problem. Everything is "no big deal...relax" to that person. He is the human embodiment of ADD with a solid dose of 5year old level of selfishness. You've known someone like this...exactly like this
See what I'm getting at here? We feel like know these people in the show because we've met them in real life. and that makes the show seem all the more real.
But...the villains. They have all been cookie cutter, typical fictional villains. Caricatures of personalities, not real personalities.
Tuco, the bikers, even Hector...were just 2 dimensional cartoon personalities. They look scary, they have weird quirks or scary visual accessories (tattoos, gangster attire), they act over the top intimidating even at times when there is no need.
You may be about to say "but... Gus Fring!!!"
Fring might be the WORST attempt at a villain in these shows.
...I'll explain exactly what I mean by using. He's smart, stoic, cold, calculating...and...that's it. What, exactly...is he like? Talking calmly is not personality trait. You don't know this guy, I don't know this guy, he not just 2 dimensional...he's barely a human being.
Sure we understand his motivation and how he behaves, but who the fuck is this guy? What does he do for fun? What makes him laugh? Have we ever seen him laugh? no. those things, believe it or not are VERY important if you want an audience to understand a character. Even the most psychopathic villainous human's in real life had things that interested them beyond their evil ambitions. Charles Manson, liked music...there is plenty of footage of him smiling, laughing, enjoying himself. Even Hitler and Stalin can been seen laughing about things in old footage. Vlaimire Putin...you can find him making jokes or laughing about things.
No human being, even a sociopath, goes through days and weeks without their expression changing. and I mean involuntarily...him putting on a fake smile does not count.
This stereotypical stoic joyless villain...this personality does not exist. And for the purpose of writing something believable, that personality does not exist as an extremely successful individual at whatever path they choose. Any level of success that requires dealing with other people and/or getting other people to assist you requires a level of charm. Rich...aggressively violent...intimidating...these elements are not uncommon. A criminal has many such people to choose from to be part of whatever crime they are good at. They are going to tend to be drawn to rich/violent/intimidating people who are also somewhat charming. Just like in any other walk of life. If you have a choice between a boss who never smiles...
or a boss who is fun...you're going to work for the boss that is fun.
Unless the villain was just born in charge of things, they need to build something...some charm is required to get help from his./her fellow man to do that.
Back to who Fring is for a moment, Gus Fring has nothing at all going on in his life, no hobbies, nothing to talk about with anyone other than work. He exists in the scenes he is in, and that is all. We know nothing of him at all that does not directly relate to the plot. He plots his criminal enterprise, and when he is not doing that...apparently...he just stares at the wall.
Compare that to Lalo.
He has an actual life. Actual interests and things to do...like an actual human being. A scene never starts with him in a dark room staring at nothing. That guys is always keeping busy. He has hobbies. In this specific case, Lalo likes cars, he repairs his own cars, he likes talking about cars.
We understand who he is quickly, because we've met him in real life.
Smart, ambitious, very confident but always enjoying himself. He does what he can to make whatever he's working on fun in some way. If he's stuck at a restaurant collecting cash...he's gonna make some food. Cook for himself, cook for other people. He's not an idiot like Badger but he's not interested in being bored. Lalo is charming, and fun.
He's large and in charge and very capable, and makes sure people know it, but he always seems to be at ease and relaxed and happy. I know that guy...we all know that guy. That guy is tedious to be around when you're not in the mood, but given the choice you'll always be on his team because he just always seems to come out on top and with a smile on his face.
I've known some Lalo's. We all have...it's a rare personality, but one that does in fact exist. and the Lalo on the show, is always acting like Lalo. It is a specific personality and he stays consistent as such.
He likes people, he's interested in people, he pays attention to them. Pays attention to who they are. Every time we see him meet someone new...we see him assess what kind of person they are. He told Nacho that he was smart, told Jimmy he's got a way with words, mentioned what a temper Tuco has. That type personality talks about that type of thing. He's interested in people, he talks about people.
He gave Hector the bell to ring yes or no. That's something that type personality would do. He's a problem solver, he likes fixing things, and he has no interest in sitting there with someone who can not communicate. He wants everything to be as enjoyable as possible for himself and the people around him. He accomplishes what he accomplishes, in large part, for the sake of enjoying life.
There is an episode where he and Nacho and some others are watching one of their meth houses get raided by the cops. He wasn't angry and shitty at everyone in the car, he watched and commented. and when Nacho snuck onto the roof of that house to try to get past the cops, Lalo was laughing and enjoying the drama. We know people like that, who are perfectly comfortable no matter what's going on.
Gus Fring...by comparison...isn't a personality at all. Just a joyless, focused plot device.
We are lead to believe he is smart...because we watch him do smart things when the story needs him too, but...we do not see him figure anything out. Not really. We watch him stare into space, or obsesively clean things until an idea just comes to him out of the blue. As opposed to Lao, who we watch track down leads, and ideas, and even sometimes come up with nothing. But besides just moving the plot along, all of the reinforces who Lao is as a personality. He likes keeping busy, likes figuring things out. So him figuring something out not only moves the plot along...it makes the audience more involved in Lao as a character.
We do not see that from Fring. We get no insight into how his mind works. For that matter, we do not see him do anything smart unless it is to move the plot along. We don't see him figure out why an oven is not working, or what happened to a shipment of chicken...we do not see him act like a human being or dealing with regular human being things at all. We know Lalo is smart, because we watched him do smart things often...not just in the cause of some grand scheme. We saw him fix his carburetor, figure out that his meth was being cut.
That little stuff wasn't very important to the plot but was important for building the character? Smart people do smart things all day long...they use their brains all the time. They don't just walk through life like a zombie, emotionless and uncaring about anything at all until it is time to put forth a master plan of some kind. That is not how ambitious personalities behave. Not how any personality behaves. People are who they are, and to a great extent they are who they are no matter what they are doing. Lalo is smart and fun...smart and fun in a restaurant, smart and fun on a stakeout, smart and fun committing a crime, smart and fun while committing a murder.
SPOILER ALERT in a few more paragraphs FOR SEASON6 EP.8 aired july 11th 2022
Gus is a 2dimensional cartoon villain who's personality does not exist in real life...and if through some aberration of mental psychosis it did, he would not accomplish much of anything...because no one would want to be around him. Not other criminals, not regular employees, not neighbors, not relatives. You can not accomplish anything of merit if no one is interested in being around you, money or no money. There is always someone else to work for or with...at best he would only ever get help from people who are at the bottom of the barrel level of competence. To succeed to an impressive degree, one needs to build relationships. Even if that thing is some evil horrific scheme. It is a bizarre reality but reality no the less. Charles Manson, Hitler, Stalin, Putin...they all built working relationships, they all had friends. Who are Gus's friends? Does he have ANY friends? Who does he talk to on a daily basis about anything besides business?
Gus Fring does not exist in the real world. He is a good villain. He is compelling and entertaining...but he is not a "great" villain. We don't know him, we've never met him...we wouldn't want to be around him. If you did not see him for three seasons and he reappeared in the exact same clothes, with his life in the exact same position, you would not question it, it would not seem odd, you would not be curious.
If Lalo was gone that long and reappeared...you would wonder wtf he was up to.
You would assume much has gone on and much had changed in his life. and if it hadn't, that would seem like a writing flaw. and you would be disappointed to not have gotten to see what went on with him that three years.
SPOILER ALERT FOR SEASON6 EP.8 aired july 11th 2022
All the more reason Lalo was a great villain. He was just as ruthless, violent, calculating as the other villains in that world, BUT Lalo felt like a real person AND it was fun to watch Lalo. You rooted for Lalo as long as he wasn't going to harm anyone you cared about more. You were invested in Lalo winning... up to a point. Great villains leave you a little conflicted, in some cases because you understand their motivation and agree with them to a certain extent. That is most of the villains on that show. BUT with Lalo we were conflicted because...it's just hard to not like the fucking guy.
In most crime stories...in the end it boils down to does the bad guy win or the good guy win, and it's real easy for that to be boring or anti-climactic or something we've all seen a hundred times. A great villain helps a show overcome that. A villain like Lalo, because you don't want him to win...but you don't really want to have to see him lose.
Anyways...that's all for today.
I'll have sneak previews of new comics soon, you can always find those and convention updates at the A.L. homepage
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Here are the other places to find me...my use of them is fluid, inconstant, susceptible to the whims and shifts of the paradigm