I’ll come out and say it: Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad.
That isn’t to disparage the legacy of what many consider to be “the greatest show ever made” (“except for maybe The Wire,” as the Family Guy joke goes). Five years after the end of the Walter White saga, the stamp on popular culture made by Breaking Bad is still wholly undeniable. Few shows have ever so defined their era in the way Breaking Bad managed. So rarely has any show been held up and lauded as the gold standard in the quite the way it has.
With good reason. A decade since it premiered on AMC, Breaking Bad still manages to delight and enthrall us with its journey into moral decline and the thin edges that exist between any of us and criminality. The rise of Walter White as Heisenberg and the subsequent crash and burn of his would be empire is nothing short of Shakespearean. It’s a work of brilliance whose impact on the culture will be felt for years—maybe even decades.
But Better Call Saul is still better.
No one knew quite what to expect when the announcement of a spinoff series following Bob Odenkirk’s sleezy lawyer Saul Goodman was first announced way back in 2014. At the time, it felt like a cheap cash in, a way to keep the money train flowing. We should have expected better from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and writer Peter Gould (who created the Saul Goodman character). After spending 5 seasons with Breaking Bad, we should have known they wouldn’t let us down.
From the very outset of the spinoff, we’ve seen an already impeccable creative team working at the peak of their powers. The pivot from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul might have been jarring—indeed, tonally the shows couldn’t be farther apart—but the lessons learned from the first series were applied, and then some, to the follow up.
While Breaking Bad will no doubt be remembered as one of the greatest good-to-evil transitions of all time, Better Call Saul explores similar themes in a much more deliberate and focused manner. Part of this is because we already know Saul’s ultimate outcome. As we saw in the series premiere, Saul’s prediction that he’d be managing a Cinnabon in Nebraska had come to fruition. This adds a certain dramatic heft to the series, not only giving us a glimpse at a post-Breaking Bad universe but providing us with a bit of fatalism to guide us along the way.
So much of Breaking Bad—especially the last season which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, kind of meanders—was working in service to the unknown. Would Walter escape and, if so, how? Would Walter die and, if so, how? It was exciting and tense, to be sure, and no doubt left us with what is probably the greatest episode of television ever made (“Ozymandias”), but mere plot is so often the least interesting aspect of narrative.
With the final outcome of Better Call Saul left to no doubt, Gilligan and Gould have been able to more deliberately play with more interesting narrative pieces like character and tone, exploring the moral grey areas that define Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill with greater depth. Like its progenitor, the series takes us on a journey of ethical decline, but the formula has been refined creatively. Knowing the outcome increases the dramatic tension because, unlike Walter for much of Breaking Bad, Jimmy is a likeable guy.
There’s a kind of retroactive reconsideration that takes place while watching Better Call Saul. In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman was a sleaze ball that we loved to hate. By the time we met him he was a despicable person, representing the worst lawyer stereotypes. He creeped us out, repulsed us, tested our sense of right and wrong. Which is part of the genius of his spinoff.
Watching the series, you almost root for Jimmy. Even knowing his destiny, we can’t help but hope that he gets his act together and goes on a more righteous path—one leading away from Walter White. Even as we’re moving ever closer to the events of Breaking Bad, we, the audience, pray for some miracle to occur that might change things for Jimmy, that might prevent him from going full Saul. That we know he doesn’t propels the tragedy; that he’s so likeable is why this works.
Let’s face it, even though Walt was always mild-mannered, he was still kind of a dick. His ascent—and eventual descent—as Heisenberg made a kind of sense. Walter was a manipulative, rage fueled monster. The world owed him a life better than the one he made for himself, and his sense of entitlement colored the character and his story. His cancer may have been a tragic catalyst, but he would have always been an asshole.
Contrast that with Jimmy McGill. As sleazy as Saul was over the course of Breaking Bad, we are given a few hints about his true nature. We’re shown brief moments of inner-being that clues us in to the fact that Saul’s sleaze is just part of his act. None moreso than in Saul’s final appearance in the series in the penultimate episode, “Granite State.” At no point in the series did Saul’s façade drop as much as when he utters his final words, “It’s over.”
For Jimmy, the pathos of this line reveals so much about the character even if much of it didn’t come to our attention until later. It wasn’t just the schemes with Walter and the cartels Saul/Jimmy lamented, it was an entire life, one that he built brick by brick, that got blown away by Hurricane Walter. Here, he is Icarus, with all the time in the world to consider just how close to the sun he’d gotten as he tumbles farther and farther down.
Odenkirk peppers his performance throughout Breaking Bad with little moments like that which reveal Jimmy’s true nature. By the time we meet him in Breaking Bad, he’s already jaded and spoiled, but his inner-Jimmy still clearly speaks to him, a Jiminy Cricket to Saul Goodman’s Pinocchio.
No, Saul Goodman never was A Real Boy. He was an act put on by someone who got themselves in too deep. Though both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul each deal with how a person can slowly change based on the decisions they make, the former was a series about a monster, while the latter is a series about the struggle to maintain one’s humanity.
At the beginning of Better Call Saul, we meet a man with every reason to celebrate. Jimmy McGill is someone who has hit the rockiest of bottoms, and managed to claw his way up into something resembling success. He is, for all intents and purposes, the epitome of the American Story. From dregs he has risen, if somewhat speciously. A former inmate, he’s now a lawyer, scraping together a living by acting as a court appointed attorney for those in need.
He’s sweet, he’s empathetic, he’s driven, he cares. When we first meet Jimmy McGill, he’s everything that Saul Goodman was not. It’s a bit of a shock, at first, but sets up a wild arc full of mistakes and tragedy. All good narrative begins with a simple question, and the driving force behind Better Call Saul is the simple query: How did this sweet boy become the slimeball we met in Breaking Bad? Flying in the face of the notion that spoilers ruin the narrative, Better Call Saul uses the outcome we already know to lead us down a path of intense drama and pure heartbreak.
Largely building on the pathos seen in the line, “It’s over,” Better Call Saul allows us to see his ascent. We can’t help but cheer as he proves himself, time and time again, to be an astute, if improper, legal mind. We hiss when his brother Chuck (a brilliantly performed Michael McKean, whose lack of an Emmy for his role is nothing short of a sin) pulls strings to keep him down. We beam as Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) spiral ever closer into a dance of love.
With every step Jimmy takes on the good and righteous path, we know that all his best intentions lead him only to the fury of Walter. The lure of destiny draws ever nearer, which makes the appearances of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) all the more terrifying. Gilligan and Gould are toying with us, letting us think that we’re watching the tale of a bad seed making good. But no; what we’re really seeing is the futility of fighting fate.
Rather than being needless call backs, Better Call Saul uses characters from Breaking Bad as a way to heighten the existential terror inherent in the series. It would have been easy to handle Gus with a wink and a nod; instead they choose to deepen an already complex terror. Recall his introduction in Better Call Saul in the episode “Witness.” The show uses what we know already of Fring to have him lord over the action. Saul sits, fretfully eating chicken, while a figure looms in the background, sweeping the floor, moving closer and closer to our hero.
That moment is a distillation of everything that makes Better Call Saul so great and so unique. In the hands of a lesser series, the moment might’ve been played for winks and nods. Here, it’s nothing short of pure deliberation. It uses what we know already against us, subverting expectations and playing with our emotions.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the show’s handling of Mike. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) was a fan favorite from the moment he was introduced in Breaking Bad in the show’s second season finale, “ABQ.” Acting as a kind of criminal shaman for Walter and Jesse throughout the rest of the series, Mike was nothing short of badass. He was a character rich in subtext and charm, and his death was what finally turned many of the show’s fans against Walt forever.
While not a flat character by any means, compared to his portrayal in Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad’s Mike is barely three dimensional. Consider the first-season stunner, “Five-O.” Here, Jimmy McGill plays second fiddle as we explore the history of the fan favorite fixer. From his son’s death at the hands of dirty cops to his meticulous revenge, we’re given a peak deep inside the psyche of a man we thought that we knew, only to find out that we were totally and completely ignorant.
This subversion of what we know is far from the only thing that works in the show’s favor. Take Kim and Nacho (Michael Mando), both of whom are fantastic additions to the wider Breaking Bad universe. They’re both characters we love, though for different reasons. Kim’s nose-to-the-grindstone and by-the-book approach to her life and career are admirable and provide a wonderful contrast to Jimmy’s corner-cutting ways. Nacho is the classic gangster with a heart of gold, a player who knows the game and does well at it, even though we suspect he hates it.
They’re fascinating to watch, Kim as she gets pulled closer and closer into Jimmy’s world and Nacho as he crosses path with Gus, whom we already know as one of the greatest, most frightening villains of the modern era. We love them both, and want them to succeed, even though we know the axe of fate hangs ever closer to their heads.
Their absence in Breaking Bad creates a heartbreaking void in the lives of both Jimmy and Mike. We suspect that the closer we get to the timeline of Breaking Bad the more their lives will careen out of control. Even as we hope for some semblance of a happy ending. Perhaps Kim just gets fed up and moves back home (which, coincidentally, is “a small town near the Kansas-Nebraska border,” not too far from where we know Jimmy eventually winds up…) or finds her dream job across the country. Maybe Nacho is able to retire from The Life, and just goes to work for his dad’s shop.
We hope for these things even while we suspect we’re wrong. But that’s the other question that propels so much of Better Call Saul’s narrative: Where are they? Again we find Gilligan and Gould teasing us with what we know in order to reveal to us how little we actually do. It’s a genius device that keeps us compelled and invested as we move towards the moment when Saul’s path finally intersects with Walter’s.
In that way, Better Call Saul is a lot like The Godfather: Part II. Your enjoyment is entirely dependent upon your knowledge of its predecessor, but armed with that knowledge the successor exceeds the original. It’s the rare sequel that can pull that off, especially when the sequel is, in fact, a prequel. By no rights should Better Call Saul be as good as it has managed to be, but here we are, headed into the start of a fourth season with the promise of (at least) one more to come, and the series is managing to pull off what so few spinoffs and sequels have ever managed to do.
Maybe it’ll never be as important or relevant as Breaking Bad. Maybe we’ll never see a line as cold as “I am the one who knocks” or an episode as pants-shittingly intense as “Ozymandias” (although “Chicanery” from last season certainly makes a great argument for itself). Maybe we’ll never see a performance as deep as Bryan Cranston’s. But so what? Zeitgeist might be important, and certainly Breaking Bad had that, but Better Call Saul has managed to step out of it’s progenitor’s shadow to forge a path of its own.
That alone is an impressive enough feat, and combined with the powerhouse performances from its cast, stellar writing that finds the deepest of tension in the smallest of scenes, and a thematic playground that has been refined and perfected, Better Call Saul is more than living up to its namesake. Saying something as bold as it’s even better than Breaking Bad is eyebrow raising, for sure. But am I serious?
You’re goddamn right.
Better Call Saul returns to AMC on Monday August 6.