This article contains very minor spoilers for “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
“Breaking Bad” is one of the most gripping and well-written dramas in the history of television. It captivated millions of people, becoming a massive hit in the early days of Netflix as one of the first shows to be widely binge-watched. Yet, fans of the show or quality TV in general are doing themselves a disservice if they aren’t watching “Better Call Saul.”
The show is a prequel focused on Jimmy McGill, the streetwise, scheming, resourceful and charming man who later becomes known as Saul Goodman, the callous and morally questionable legal counsel for most criminals in the city of Albuquerque.
I was skeptical of the show at first as a “Breaking Bad” prequel, especially with its initial pitch being a zany 30-minute comedy where Goodman would bring in a new client to save every week. Though, it may have dumbfounded me even more to make it an hour-long drama that takes a very character-driven approach with a deliberate pace.
And that pace is what I think turned many off of the show early. People wanting to return to the blood-soaked violence and high-stakes negotiations mixed with awkward dinner scenes of “Breaking Bad” were given something totally different. However, this approach has paid dividends five seasons in.
While the pacing can be very slow, the Peter Gould-created “Better Call Saul” keeps the same high-quality character writing, direction, cinematography and musical direction of “Breaking Bad” and is never boring.
The core cast includes Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), returning private eye and fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Johnathan Banks), straight-laced lawyer and close friend of Jimmy Kim Wexler (Rhea Seahorn), Jimmy’s medically challenged but intellectually brilliant brother Chuck (Michael McKean), Chuck’s partner at the firm Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) and a drug dealer working for the infamous Salamanca clan named Nacho (Michael Mando).
There is also a new character, a Salamanca relative that shows up in the back half of a later season who steals the show and is quickly becoming one of my favorite denizens of the whole ABQ universe.
Throughout the show’s run, several “Breaking Bad” alums make cameo appearances or full-on returns, which rarely, if ever feel like fan service, as they usually have a role to serve in the plot. It’s super enjoyable to see these characters come back and play a different part in the story.
Pretty much every actor is tremendous and plays their part well, specifically McKean, Seahorn, Banks and Odenkirk. It’s a shame that the show hasn’t enjoyed the same success at the Emmys as its parent program.
The only thing that can be jarring is the age of the “Breaking Bad” era actors that are supposed to be younger versions of their characters, especially Banks and Odenkirk. However, I can suspend my disbelief as they are still bringing their A-game to the material. Odenkirk is still the lightning ball of energy you’d expect his character to be.
The stakes of “Better Call Saul” are low. Jimmy is just fighting to make money and care for his brother who has a medical condition that makes him have psychological episodes when exposed to magnetic rays. He is constantly struggling to stay on the straight and narrow path, as he has been a conman in his younger years.
Yet, it is easy for the viewer to root for and become invested in Jimmy’s conflicts, as many obstacles are thrown his way from places you don’t expect and he always has the resolve to beat the odds.
It’s a testament to the writing and Odenkirk’s performance that I still refer to him as Jimmy in this show’s timeline and not Saul. It really does feel like two distinct halves of one person.
The other half of the show involves Mike arriving in Albuquerque to reconnect with his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter.
Side Note: that granddaughter, named Kaylee, is the lone source of inconsistency in the universe’s timeline, as her age and the actors portraying her seem to change every season. It’s pretty distracting and seems to just be an accepted mistake by the writers.
He’s a retired cop that looks for work that puts him in the crosshairs of many involved in the drug business. An early episode titled “Five-O” is entirely focused on Mike and his past. This episode is one of the best in the entire series, featuring a masterful performance from Banks.
These two parts of the show will appear jarring to someone unfamiliar with “Breaking Bad,” as Mike and Jimmy interact infrequently and the two worlds don’t have a lot of intersection until the season four mark. It doesn’t bother me, as both stories interest me greatly and I revel in returning to the criminal underworld. Yet, I have seen people prefer one story over the other, which caused problems for their enjoyment.
However, don’t let the slow pace and the low stakes fool you because this series is still full of twists and turns. Love, deception, betrayal, shocking appearances, some dark humor and brutal violence are all ingredients in the formula, they’re just more spread out.
It’s all expertly written and the show will subvert your expectations many times in a way that isn’t insulting or lazy and makes sense upon rewatch.
One of the biggest reasons to stick with the show is the cinematography and overall presentation. “Breaking Bad” was already a slick show with gorgeous shot composition and use of color. The music and montages shown are inspired choices that convey the passage of time or set the mood brilliantly.
“Better Call Saul” doubles down on that front. Because the story moves at a slower pace and isn’t juggling around so many intense, ticking clock elements in its narrative, the craft used to navigate this world stands out much more.
The little snippets to open episodes are also engaging and sometimes quite unconventional. They may start off from where the previous episode ended, but more often than not, it may be a flashback to Jimmy’s past or scenes of him and his brother, Chuck, as children. One episode’s cold open is just a timelapse of a whole bunch of ants eating an ice cream cone. The team isn’t afraid to take risks and make strange decisions and most of the time, they pan out.
In addition, each season starts with flash-forwards to the time period after “Breaking Bad,” showing what life is like for surviving characters of the series. It’s a great teaser of what’s to come and increases the scope of “Better Call Saul” as more than just a prequel.
The music choice is never conventional and always fits the situation. This is doubly true for the montage sequences. In “Breaking Bad,” they were mostly used to show the meth-making process, but there are some really creative and funny ones in “Better Call Saul.”
A couple examples include Kim digging down deep and calling every favor she has to get out of a situation, Jimmy doing increasingly disruptive acts to get fired from a job he no longer wants and a time skip that splits the screen in two as we watch several months of Jimmy and Kim’s lives and how they differ set to a nice cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Something Stupid” by Lola Marsh.
Much like its parent show, “Better Call Saul” uses a wide variety of camera lenses and ways to frame scenes that keep everything interesting and maintain the show’s film-like presentation. The team behind “Breaking Bad” has matured in their skill and put it to good use here.
If you have any interest in filmmaking, the technique used here will stimulate you even if the story doesn’t.
All in all, “Better Call Saul” has jumped out of the shadow of its predecessor and stands out as its own show. It made some wise decisions to escape common prequel problems and is a great way to revisit our favorite “criminal” lawyer.
It is important to realize that “Better Call Saul” is a different show than “Breaking Bad” and won’t reach the same heights in terms of action and suspense, yet it makes up for it with its robust character development and rich cinematography.
Now is a good time to catch up if you haven’t as the sixth season, likely coming sometime next year, will be the curtain call for the series.