In a Hollywood flush with soulless prequels, sequels, and reboots produced for financial solvency rather than creative fulfillment, the news of a Breaking Bad prequel was met with justified skepticism. It wasn’t that people didn’t trust showrunner Vince Gilligan, and it wasn’t that people weren’t interested in Bob Odenkirk’s scene-stealing lawyer, but they had simply been hurt by cash-grabs too many times before.
Years later, similarly mixed feelings would arise over the announcement of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, a Netflix-produced film that picks up seconds after the end of the flagship show. El Camino isn’t bad, but it is also an example of how Better Call Saul, now in its fifth and penultimate season, could have gone wrong. Camino was an entertaining watch and an excuse to spend more time with beloved characters, but at the end of the day, it contributed little to the greater mythos of Gilligan’s New Mexico. Soon after the credits rolled, it faded almost entirely from my mind. With this in mind, it’s a miracle that Better Call Saul is not only one of the best shows currently airing on TV but, at times, even better than Breaking Bad.
Though Better Call Saul is, at its core, Saul Goodman’s origin story, its pilot begins years after the events of Breaking Bad at a shopping-mall Cinnabon in Nebraska, where a paranoid Saul—now going by the name of Gene—is trying to hide from the past. Gene’s segments, filmed in black and white and appearing only about once per season, ensure the viewer never forgets what is waiting for Saul at the end of the road. This inevitability is the tragic undercurrent that runs throughout the entire show. Whereas Walter White’s moral corruption was open-ended, with flashes of goodness giving the viewer hope that he might change for the better, there is no such hope for James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill, the fresher-faced precursor to Saul Goodman working as a public defender back in 2002. This does mean that Better Call Saul lacks much of the shock and awe of Breaking Bad, but it swaps this out for a slower-burning, melancholic, and profoundly impacting character study. Jimmy will always become Saul—the seeds of this change are immediately apparent—and we can’t look away.
Jimmy is not the only familiar face returning from Breaking Bad, as Better Call Saul also gives additional insight into characters like Mike Ehrmantrau, Hector and Tuco Salamanca, Gus Fring, Krazy 8, Huell Babineaux, and more. Mike, in particular, is something of a secondary protagonist for the show, and while his moral corruption is not as pronounced as Jimmy’s it is still compelling to watch. However, arguably, the most complex and well-crafted characters Better Call Saul has to offer are those original to its world: Jimmy’s friend/partner/girlfriend Kim Wexler and his older brother Chuck McGill.
The underlying inevitability takes on a fascinating new dimension with Kim and Chuck. Since they don’t appear in Breaking Bad, we don’t know exactly who they become, but we do know they are ultimately removed from Saul’s life. Moreover, they are the two characters most directly affected by Jimmy’s change. Kim, a talented lawyer, often finds her promising career threatened by her personal connection to Jimmy; however, despite her concerns about his growing immortality, she also finds enjoyment in it and lets his less-than-ethical tactics slip into her work. Chuck, a brilliant man dealing with an unusual medical condition that has turned him into a recluse, fights his brother at every turn, viewing “Slippin’ Jimmy” as an affront to the legal profession. Meanwhile, embroiled in Albuquerque’s shady underworld is Jimmy’s sometimes-client Ignacio “Nacho” Varga, a cool and calculating agent of the Salamanca’s drug business. Overall, Better Call Saul’s rich tapestry of characters is great in its design, but truly brilliant in its execution. It’s a shame that the show has not secured a single Emmy win for acting, as the portrayals of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and Chuck (Michael McKean) are all more than deserving.
While Better Call Saul is often a more meditative work than Breaking Bad, it is important to emphasize that its slow burn is never remotely boring. The perils of the drug trade are ongoing, leading to tense scenes with lethal stakes, but even when the story departs from the criminal elements of Los Pollos Hermanos and El Michoacáno, it remains engrossing. It soars through the law offices of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, sets up tense standoffs in the courtrooms of Albuquerque, pulls us in with uncharacteristically exciting montages of lawyerly tedium, and mines incredible amounts of drama from a spelling error on a legal document. It does all this with swaggering style, reusing many of the directorial elements that made Breaking Bad stand out, such as shots from the point of view of objects and wide time lapses of the New Mexico scenery. This style is fun and effective but also thematically important, driving home the feelings of existential angst and powerlessness that pervaded Walter White’s own journey.
With season five currently airing and season six on the way, it is now confirmed that Better Call Saul will run for longer than its predecessor. When your predecessor is commonly considered one of the best TV shows of all time, expectations are set incredibly high. Still, Better Call Saul has not merely met my expectations, but exceeded them. It’s heartbreaking, hilarious, tense, and everything in between. As a continuation of Breaking Bad’s universe, but more so as a self-contained work of art, it deserves endless recognition (and hopefully a few Emmy wins). If any hesitation remains about (re)entering the world of Albuquerque, don’t worry: S’all good, man!