I have been watching the latest series of Better Call Saul, the best thing on TV just now, despite some considerable competition. The series is a prequel to Breaking Bad, the 2008-2013 series about a high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who takes to a life of crime by manufacturing methamphetamine. The crooked lawyer Saul Goodman was one of the particular joys of that series, and there was much delight among the fans when a prequel was announced, which would trace the life of Goodman before he met Walter White, when he was known as Jimmy McGill. This required the actor Bob Odenkirk to play the same character six years before the start of the start of Breaking Bad, so effectively playing someone eight years younger than he had been by the end of Breaking Bad, in televisual terms (the series embraced two fictional years), or eleven years younger in physical terms.
Make-up, hair dye, and the fresh face of the fifty-four year old Odenkirk have achieved the illusion, while his co-star Jonathan Banks, playing the enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut, has the ageless look of someone was never young in the first place. But for other actors brought in to play their younger selves, often in cameos, the passing of time has not been so easy to disguise. Raymond Cruz, who played the villainous Tuco Salamanca, was patently older when playing younger than he had been when older. And leading character Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito, bears all the marks of hard experience earned through the passing of time that one might expect in sequel, but which looks all out of place in a prequel. In no way is this a younger Gus.
But yet that is what we have to accept. We overlook credibility out of gratefulness for the extension of the narrative. Gus is like a robust Brunnhilde in a Wagnerian opera, whose plausibility we must forgive because the voice is right. What matters is not the reality but the story, so long as it is a story in which we need to believe.
We are getting used to this peculiar phenomenon of actors playing the younger versions of established characters. Perhaps the most glaring absurdity has been Antony Hopkins playing a younger Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon (2002), eleven years after he first portrayed the character in Silence of the Lambs. Make-up and lighting can only do so much. Nothing can be done to disguise the weariness in the eyes. Even in sequels, particularly action franchise films, actors project themselves as still having the energy of their younger selves – Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford – despite the increasing absurdity of such presumption. We the viewers are being instructed to ignore the passing of time, while being presented with unavoidable evidence to the contrary.
This is one of the defining characteristics of our age – the urge to agelessness. But while those who apply the hairdye, undergo Botox or plastic surgery, or flex muscles now buried in flab are presumably convinced to a degree of the success of the results, we who view always see differently. And of course, you cannot have a prequel without having the later story first. The prequel is a paradox, always coming afterwards yet trying to persuade you of its prior existence.
But as I watched Better Call Saul I found myself equally distracted by and yet indulgent of actors cast against the progress of time. The urge to believe in a story conquers everything. Plausibility defers to credibility. Just as past generations excused cowboy films in which villains were shot without a drop of blood being shed, or corpses still lay breathing, the need to keep the story going blinds me. It’s not the suspension of disbelief; it’s the sustainment of belief. Without a faith in stories, we are nothing.
We think we are sophisticated viewers, in how we accept meta-narratives, or post-narratives, or whatever you want to call this age of knowing viewing, where we understand the artifice while allowing it credibility. But really we are no different to early cinema audiences, who accepted dramatic codes that later generations find absurd, or Saturday morning cinema children cheering on pudgy heroes whose gunshots never missed. The yearning to believe keeps us young, prequels of our present selves.