Few TV creators have had a more successful 15-year run than Vince Gilligan. Jumping from the career-making Breaking Bad right to Better Call Saul, which was co-created by Peter Gould, Gilligan has proven to be one of the best minds in TV writing, and it is Better Call Saul that cemented that legacy.
Breaking Bad was a staggering achievement, to be sure, but it also came from nowhere. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, had Breaking Bad looming over its shoulder the whole time. Gilligan knew it would be dangerous to return to the same well, and he did it anyway. Why? Because he had an even better story to tell.
This is not to take anything away from the greatness of Breaking Bad, which is irrefutable. Instead, it’s about acknowledging that, through five seasons, Better Call Saul has managed to eclipse it.
One of the chief joys of watching Breaking Bad was that it was impossible to know what was going to happen. Walt would find himself zip-tied to a radiator, and just minutes later, Mike was dead. Better Call Saul has none of that going for it. We know where Saul ends up, and are even treated to flashes of him working at a Cinnabon. The same is true for Mike, who is killed by Walt in Breaking Bad.
That inevitability should have hurt the show’s ability to make us care about what’s happening on the show from moment to moment, but instead, Better Call Saul becomes something almost Shakespearean. Jimmy McGill, the man who becomes Saul Goodman, does so slowly, incapable of recognizing the man he’s ultimately going to become.
This slow downward spiral should be familiar to Breaking Bad fans, who watched Walter White do the same thing on Breaking Bad. Except on that show, every shift felt more monumental. That’s not to say that Better Call Saul doesn’t have its fair share of thrilling set pieces, but the show is more focused in general on the ways in which men can become evil even as they continue to tell themselves that they’ve done nothing wrong. Walt did the same thing, of course, but we all knew he was lying. Saul, on the other hand, seems like a guy presented with bad options who just picks one, and causes a lot of collateral damage in the process.
As a result, Saul feels like a more tragic figure — an amateur huckster who finds himself suddenly in over his head and has to scramble to avoid being killed by whoever’s after him that week. He is willing to work with anyone, but he’s not the kind of menace that Walt ultimately became, and is more generally likable as a result.
Even as an air of inevitability hangs over most of the cast, Saul smartly combines those characters with people like Nacho, Kim, and Lalo, who are completely new to this universe and therefore have uncertain fates. Kim, in particular, proves to be an X factor on Saul, someone who is a true accomplice to Jimmy and who may or may not survive to see him totally transform into Saul Goodman.
Rhea Seahorn consistently delivers one of the best performances on TV in the role, and, as the season 5 finale suggested, she’s managed to play Kim’s slowly degrading morality in a way that’s even subtler than Bob Odenkirk’s performance as Saul. Both Jimmy and Kim are doing bad things for what they believe to be virtuous reasons, and their collaboration may only hasten their collective downfall.
Even that relationship, though, gets at what makes Better Call Saul a more complicated, and ultimately better, product than its predecessor. Breaking Bad could often have a very singular, plot-driven focus. It was Walt and Jesse, and with the exception of an occasional divergence, the show was basically about them trying to scheme their way to the top of a meth empire.
Saul is, by contrast, a much less focused show, and all the better for it.
Because the show is much less singularly focused, Better Call Saul is unafraid of extended tangents about elder law, or the ways Jimmy spends an entire year without his legal license. Characters like Chuck McGill, who was brilliantly portrayed by Michael McKean through the show’s first three seasons, is a full character in and of himself, even as we see the ways that his death ultimately leads Jimmy toward becoming Saul.
Jimmy is going to end up as Saul — there’s little doubt about where this show will ultimately take us. Along the way, though, Jimmy’s journey has been much more circuitous. He’s landed big-time jobs only to discover he doesn’t want them, and helped everyone from high-level cartel members to small-time crooks get away with their criminal activity.
Even as Jimmy’s legal activity seems to lead him in a particular direction, it’s not the only thing the show cares about. In fact, Better Call Saul is almost surprisingly romantic, telling the story of Jimmy and Kim as they navigate and deal with one another’s choices. The most electric scene of the series thus far came when the cartel invaded Jimmy and Kim’s domestic space, forcing Kim, in particular, to decide what kind of life she wanted to lead. Ultimately, it was Kim who proved assertive, and Kim who decided that the life she had built with Jimmy was one she wanted to protect.
Better Call Saul, then, is more of a love story than Breaking Bad ever was, and more interested in the way each of its characters devolves, almost unconsciously, into someone amoral. Breaking Bad had moments of incredible humanity, but it was ultimately a show built around archetypes. Better Call Saul is, by contrast, a show about the particular people it’s focused on. It’s an evolution of the story that was told in Breaking Bad, and one that has time for more heart, humor, and weirdness than its predecessor could ever muster.
The first part of Better Call Saul‘s sixth season concludes tonight on AMC. Part 2 premieres on July 11.
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