On paper, Better Call Saul was a risky bet. Breaking Bad and its phenomenal run as a weekly drama is commonly praised as one of the best of the best, if not, THE best, of tv shows. A spin off of the show seemed like a bad idea given how spin offs are usually viewed by fans (Remember the X-Files spin off series about The Lone Gunmen? I remember, and Vince Gilligan himself was also involved with that). So, when AMC announced a spin off detailing the backstory of criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, we had every right to be skeptical. Sure, Saul was a great character on Breaking Bad, but he also seemed kind of one-dimensional. Given Bob Odenkirk’s background in comedy, Saul Goodman seemed like the comic relief of the story of Heisenberg and Jesse Pinkman and only popped up when it was time to get the main characters out of trouble. Would anyone give a fuck about Saul’s past and how he got to where he is in the context of Breaking Bad? Turns out, we do, and it’s one of the best shows currently airing on television.
Prequels are a tricky thing to pull off. From a conceptual standpoint, the audience already knows the outcome of the story. For example, look at the Star Wars prequels. While we didn’t know much in the way of specifics, we knew that these movies would show us Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader. With The Hobbit movies, we knew Bilbo and The Ring would make it through the story unscathed because we see them in the Lord of the Rings movies. So why should we care? The audience knows what happens at point A and point B. The trick is getting the audience to care about the line that goes from point A to point B. Star Wars failed at this by creating an Anakin Skywalker that was unlikable to begin with and showing little comradry between him and Obi-Wan Kenobi, so Anakin’s downfall never felt tragic like George Lucas wanted it. By Episode III, the audience was pretty much like, “Alright, just get to the final lightsaber duel.” We didn’t feel any sense of betrayal between these two supposed old friends because most of their adventures happened offscreen. With The Hobbit, a simple story that could have been told in a 2 and a half hour movie somehow got stretched into three 2 and a half hour movies, so Bilbo’s journey was muddled with dwarf/elf subplots and extended action scenes that muddied up the fucks we were supposed to give about Bilbo’s journey.
So how could a Breaking Bad prequel work? We start off with Saul Goodman in the early 2000s going by his birth name Jimmy McGill. He’s a bit of a slick talker and has a history of small cons, but he is still ultimately a man who is trying to do good, stay on the right side of the law, and make his older brother proud. This is far off from the slimey, opportunistic Saul Goodman who we meet in season 2 of Breaking Bad. Saul is a likable character as well but more in a comic relief kind of way and the way he uses his slick talk and bending of the law to benefit Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. So, we’ve got a point A: good guy Jimmy McGill, and we’ve got a point B: *criminal* lawyer Saul Goodman. How are the writers going to pull off getting us interested in this journey when we already know where it ends? The answer? Don’t underestimate Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk.
I’m going to get into some spoilers for the show, so if you haven’t watched it all or if you haven’t caught up yet, turn back now.
So, here we are in the early 2000s. The New Mexico setting is the same as Breaking Bad, but the characters from Breaking Bad are in different positions than they were when we met them in the future (yes, I’m aware of the fuckery of tense in that sentence). Jimmy McGill is definitely not Saul Goodman. Jimmy is more cheerful, pleasant, and caring than his future incarnation. Jimmy is one of those court appointed defense attorneys that criminals get if they can’t afford a better one. Jimmy is frustrated with the work, but he is relatively happy with how far he has gotten since he started off working in the mail room of his older brother Chuck’s law firm, Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill. As you see throughout the series, Jimmy has always felt that he lived under Chuck’s shadow and because of Jimmy’s history as a small time con artist, Chuck doesn’t exactly have a favorable view of his brother. Jimmy wants his brother’s approval because he’s the only family he has left. The conflict between the two brothers drives most of the narrative, and it is really quite compelling to watch not only for its entertainment value but for what it brings to the table regarding the discussion of siblings. The title of this blog reflects Jimmy’s view of Chuck throughout most of the show.
Also returning from Breaking Bad is Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Gus Fring’s right hand man, and all around badass. In Breaking Bad, Mike was Gus’ go-to guy for intimidation, killings, crime scene cleanups, and various other criminal favors. When we meet Mike in Better Call Saul, he hasn’t even met Gus yet. He’s working as the parking garage attendant at the courthouse that Jimmy frequents. But Mike isn’t an innocent flower at this point. He used to be a corrupt cop and does criminal jobs here and there, but he’s mostly keeping his head low so he can help provide for his granddaughter Kaylee. Mike is working as the parking garage attendant at the courthouse where Jimmy handles his cases, and that is where their paths cross for the first time.
The third main character in the show is someone who is new to the Breaking Bad universe, Kim Wexler, portrayed by Rhea Seehorn. Kim is an attorney at HH&M, and it is implied that her and Jimmy have a light romantic history together. This aspect is never shoved down our throats. There is never a, “Will they or won’t they” subplot about whether or not Jimmy and Kim will hook back up. Kim is a woman who is close to Jimmy but she also cares about the law. At times, she will help Jimmy because of their bond and at other times, she’ll keep her distance. Without getting too much into spoilers who haven’t seen the show, Kim ends up becoming a pretty complex character, especially during season 2 when her loyalties are tested.
Outside of the story is the show’s amazing production design and aesthetics. Many of the crew members from Breaking Bad joined Better Call Saul. Like Breaking Bad, each episode is shot with excellent cinematography. You could press the “pause” button at any given moment during the show and have a still worth hanging up on your wall. Also credit must be given to the hair and makeup department. Obviously since the show is set in 2003, we’re going to be seeing a younger Saul Goodman here, and the crew has done an impeccable job of making Bob Odenkirk look like he did during Mr. Show’s prime in the late 90s. He’s got a full head of hair and his wrinkles have been ironed out without making him look like a mannequin. In some episodes, there are flashbacks that go back even farther in time, but the show wisely hides Odenkirk with shadows and minimal lighting. You can only take an actor back so far, and it would have been creepy to see a CGI de-aged Bob Odenkirk walking around.
What Better Call Saul achieves where other prequels fail is giving us a likable protagonist. Shit, this one is downright lovable. Jimmy has a past as a con-artist, but it was mostly small-potato crimes. In the show, we find this charming and funny character who is just trying to do right in his life. His wit and knowledge of the law shows that he’s not TOO different from the man he will become, but as of now, he’s a man that we can get behind, a man we DON’T want to see become Saul Goodman even though we already know that’s where he ends up. Despite his brother’s dismissive nature, Jimmy still truly loves his brother. His business with Mike starts out with small favors (nothing like the shit that goes down later on in Breaking Bad). He wants Kim’s respect, and maybe love, but the show doesn’t shove that part down our throats. It’s not a romance. It’s a character study. The Star Wars prequels failed because Anakin Skywalker never came across as a likable protagonist. We were told we were supposed to like him, but it never really gelled. He always comes across as whiny and shallow. So, by the time we got to Episode III to see his downfall into becoming Darth Vader, we were all just kind of like, “Yeah, we know. Let’s just get this over with.” In Better Call Saul, a strong part of me doesn’t want to see Jimmy become Saul. I want Jimmy achieve his dreams of being a respectable attorney. I like Jimmy. Going by the way he handled the case for the old folks home in the first two seasons, I’d even want to hire Jimmy to handle my family’s cases. But as these things go in the Breaking Bad universe, it’s hard to catch a break. For every good natured thing Jimmy does, an awful thing comes along and kicks him back a little bit.
As we’ve gotten further along into season 3, we’re starting to see the seeds of Saul Goodman, and I can honestly say, it’s not how I expected it to turn out. In the back of my mind, I always figured Jimmy’s criminal past would catch up to him, or he’d find that being a *criminal* lawyer was simply more profitable, but…without spoiling…it seems his descent is more tragic in nature. It looks as though he doesn’t want to go down this path, but he has to in order to ensure his survival. As we hit the halfway point in season 3, the dots connecting to Breaking Bad are becoming more apparent. We are seeing the seeds of things that come to fruition in Breaking Bad. But Better Call Saul has been handling the Breaking Bad reference points with enough grace and restraint to not make it feel like Breaking Bad fan-fiction.
While they could pull a Lost and drop the ball completely in later seasons, I don’t see that happening given the quality of writing on this show. Better Call Saul works as a prequel to Breaking Bad, it works as an origin story for a character we meet in Breaking Bad, and I would also go so far as to say that it works as a dramatic character study that could be enjoyed by someone who hasn’t even seen Breaking Bad. Every season of Better Call Saul shows where Saul is after the events of Breaking Bad. I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, but he’s not in a fun place. And with each episode of Better Call Saul, I get more and more uncomfortable with the fact that this character ends up there. I like Jimmy. I know what he becomes, and when that happens, I’ll feel gutted. And that’s how Better Call Saul rises above other prequel stories.