How Better Call Saul stepped out of Breaking Bad’s shadow

Better Call Saul has developed into a TV drama every bit as compelling as its predecessor, Breaking Bad. Here's how...

Contains spoilers for Better Call Saul seasons 1 and 2

Better Call Saul had an impossible task. Following swiftly on the heels of a television series often referred to as the best ever, expectations, rightly or wrongly, were sky high. People were hungry for more of the world and characters that Breaking Bad made them fall in love with, and just over a year after the beloved finale of its predecessor, Better Call Saul debuted at a time when the sheen of myth was just starting to glow over Breaking Bad; far enough away that an already great television show had been even more idealised in people’s minds but close enough that the buzz was still strong. Everyone was hungry for more, and Better Call Saul had to deliver.

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The more discerning fans coming into the new show knew to temper expectations. So much made Breaking Bad special; a particular alchemy of great writing and acting, powerful themes, an irresistible story and explosive twists and turns around every corner. Not to mention the world class direction and beautiful cinematography. And sure, given the right creative team (the same one, in Better Call Saul’s case) it could emulate a lot of that. But how could the story be anywhere near as enthralling when we already knew the outcome? How could Saul Goodman, the comic relief character, ever be as compelling as Walter White?

It seems strange now, but when Better Call Saul was first discussed there was even talk of it taking the form of a half-hour comedy. Vince Gilligan was very open in interviews about being unsure of what direction to take the show; would be pre or post Breaking Bad? Would it be serialised or episodic? Considering the character at the heart of it, there were a lot of possibilities, but not much in the way of a clear creative vision. And as Breaking Bad took on its hallowed status, the prospect of a spinoff slowly turned from one of a fun bonus to one of impossible expectations. Was there any way Better Call Saul could live up to the legacy that gave it birth? And if so, how?

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The answer, funnily enough, lay in completely ignoring the promise of its title. Instead of giving us more Saul Goodman, the series introduced us to Jimmy McGill. And while in the first episode there were glimmers of the man he would become and the world he would inhabit, it very quickly became clear that this was not the character we knew. Sure, Jimmy had Saul’s quick wit, irreverent humour and loose definition of the word morality, but he also had something we barely ever saw in Saul; a beating, wounded human heart. Where Saul was brash, Jimmy was… well, he was still brash, but there was a desperation and sadness to his actions that his future self lacked. Everything Jimmy did in that first season was about climbing above his station, about becoming more than the con man he used to be, about making his brother proud. Jimmy and Saul were recognisably the same character, but Jimmy had hope where Saul had cynicism. Jimmy wanted to be a good person, where Saul couldn’t care less. And while the differences weren’t immediately obvious in that first episode, they quickly became clear, crystallising in the moment where Jimmy avoids a score that would make him rich and comfortable in the name of ‘doing the right thing’.

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Before long there was a different question at the heart of the show than ‘what crazy antic will Saul get up to next?’. Bit by bit, the show established a dramatic heart that turned it into something special, and it did this by doing what so many prequels fail to do. Imagine a version of The Phantom Menace where Obi Wan Kenobi is a petulant, angry teenager resentful of Qui Gon’s teachings and trying and failing not to fall in love with Padme. Consider a version of Hannibal Rising where the younger incarnation of the cannibal isn’t, well, a cannibal. One of the biggest problems with these films is the fact that they don’t really offer us anything different from what we know; the younger versions of these iconic characters are more or less the same as the people they will grow to become. If nobody changes, then the events they go through can’t be that important. Better Call Saul, meanwhile, works because Jimmy McGill is not the character we know, and furthermore, it uses our knowledge against us. We came into the show wanting more Saul Goodman, but as we got to know Jimmy McGill the prospect of this hopeful, desperate, beaten down man turning into the careless and corrupt Saul went from being interesting to tragic. We want Jimmy McGill to succeed, but we know he doesn’t. And even if we don’t necessarily want him to become Saul, we’re fascinated to see how it happens.

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In its own way, Better Call Saul is telling a story as Shakespearean as that of Breaking Bad, yet to make it work it had to engage with its material in a different way. And so, while the former certainly has a criminal element, bombs and guns mostly give way to legal documents and courtroom subterfuge. Breaking Bad’s second season centred around a downed plane and an act of indirect murder by choosing to do nothing. The drama in Better Call Saul’s second season stemmed from swapping a one and a six on a legal document. And it was just as compelling.

The stakes in Better Call Saul are nowhere near as high as Breaking Bad’s. For a start, we know that our two central characters will survive and are still operating when Walter White comes on to the scene in eight years’ time. But predominantly, the central tensions in Saul are whether our protagonist will be disbarred or whether his girlfriend will leave him, rather than whether he’ll be shot and killed. The thing is, people often mistake high stakes for life and death situations. But look at Mad Men, which killed its fair share of characters but never in especially explosive ways. The stakes in Mad Men felt high because the show did such a good job of demonstrating how high they felt for the characters. Better Call Saul does the same thing; Jimmy has a lot to lose because the things he is gambling with (his career, his relationship with Kim) are all he has, and he knows it.

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One potential problem is the fact that Jimmy’s story always runs side by side with Mike’s, and Mike’s adventures are far more reminiscent of Breaking Bad. So while Jimmy’s world is one of personal difficulties and courtroom struggles, Mike’s is shady arms deals, assassinations and taking down drug lords. There’s been a bit of criticism that Mike’s story draws attention to the low stakes of Jimmy’s, but I’m not sure I agree. Mike is used to the world he lives in and can handle himself. Besides, Jimmy’s is somewhat more relatable; personally, I find his story much more compelling. And while there is occasionally a feeling of watching two very different shows side by side, we know that eventually these characters will work together in the shadow of Gustavo Fring, and that helps unify things even if it poses the question of whether the structure would work for anyone who hadn’t seen Breaking Bad.

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One edge Better Call Saul has over its predecessor is a different approach to morality. While Breaking Bad drew us in by making us understand exactly why Walter White would become a meth cook in the first episode, from then onwards there wasn’t much doubt that he was a bad guy. Complex, compelling and kind of awesome, yeah, but not remotely a good person. In Breaking Bad, every action had consequences; the show as good as laid that out in its discussion of chemistry in the first episode and spent the rest of its run proving it. By the end, give or take a few exceptions (R.I.P Hank) just about every character got what they deserved. For a show as dark as Breaking Bad, the ending was surprisingly neat and the morality absolute. Bad people who do bad things come to a bad end. No matter how many awesome monologues he had, Walter White was always going to end up disgraced and gunned down.

Better Call Saul, however, has no such distinction between heroes and villains. The central conflict between Jimmy and Chuck is so compelling because it’s easy to see why both characters are doing what they’re doing, and the morality of their actions is beautifully inverse of the other. Chuck does the right thing for the wrong reasons, Jimmy the wrong thing for the right reasons. Jimmy has a heart of gold and doesn’t care about the law, Chuck is obsessed with the law and has a blackened husk where his heart should be. But furthermore, the flaws of both of them are, in some ways, the fault of the other. Chuck, for all his success in his career, always felt inferior and unloved compared to Jimmy, who people tend to like immediately. Jimmy, meanwhile, so much wants to be like his impressive brother who never had time for him. The tragedy here is that Jimmy has no idea how Chuck feels and could therefore never understand that emulating Chuck in the one area where Chuck has dominance is about the worst thing he could do. Is Chuck an awful person? Yeah, but any hatred is tempered by the fact that we get him. Anyone with siblings knows how that kind of jealousy feels; while Chuck and Jimmy might take a normal emotion to an ugly extreme, the fact that it’s rooted in something recognisable makes it pack so much more of a punch, and makes the lines between good and bad that much harder to define.

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Even Kim, who could so easily be relegated to just the disapproving girlfriend stereotype, struggles with right and wrong. At first she has no time for Jimmy’s schemes, but that soon evolves into a sort of wilful ignorance and, by the end of the season, she’s almost complicit. This is less to do with any kind of corruption than it is with her having been gradually worn down by her awful treatment at the hands of Howard Hamlin. Kim is punished for Jimmy’s actions, works herself almost to death to regain her position and still gets nothing for it. Rhea Seehorn’s performance is so powerful because we see, in excruciating detail, how her optimism and innocence is eroded by consistent unjust treatment that she refuses to complain about. It all culminates in the moment where Chuck confronts her with Jimmy’s doctoring of the Mesa Verde documents and Kim, with steely resolve, covers for Jimmy. Even though she knows he did it, even though she is furious at him and herself, she still makes her choice, a shortcut to cling to what she has worked so hard for. And why shouldn’t she? The lucrative Mesa Verde account, a prize that draws all the characters into conflict in the home stretch of the season, would singlehandedly create Kim’s fledgling firm, while HHM hardly needs it. Kim bought Mesa Verde to the table, she worked as hard as possible to secure them and Chuck snatched them away out of nothing but spite. At the start of the season, Kim would have accepted this as part of business. By the end, she’s done being kicked around, and what’s so effective about the way this is written is that there is never any dialogue delineating this moment or any shift in her thinking. Kim never complains, but her embitterment is clear in Seehorn’s face and sterling performance. Better Call Saul trusts us to understand what is happening.

The best thing about reviewing Better Call Saul for Den of Geek over these past few weeks was getting screeners. Not because I got to watch the episodes early, although that was lovely, but because it gave me the time to watch every episode twice before reviewing; once to enjoy it, twice to really dig into what was going on. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life; even the quietest episodes would yield pages of notes. Sometimes I think Better Call Saul’s best point of comparison is not Breaking Bad, but Mad Men; both shows exist in the moments between characters and the things that are not said, the charged tensions and resentments that drive people to choices that are no less shocking for not involving explosions. And both reward rewatching. I’ve had a (probably imperfect) theory for a while that one of the clearest indicators of quality in film or television is rewatch value. There’s a reason that classic films tend to offer something new with almost every new viewing; this exhilarating feeling that you are watching something that has so much subtext and meaning lovingly threaded into its very fabric. Better Call Saul is that kind of show. It’s so subtle that it’s easy to miss things the first time around, which is far from a bad thing. It just offers more to enjoy upon the revisit.

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Shortly after the penultimate episode of season two aired, my Dad, who will fall asleep in any television show that has more than a few minutes of unbroken dialogue, sent me a text simply stating that ‘Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad.’ And since the second season ended, he’s not the only person who has said that. Personally, I don’t quite agree; it took Breaking Bad until its third season to really start garnering its ‘best show ever’ buzz and it probably didn’t become an explosive phenomenon until its final run. Better Call Saul is in its early days yet and it’s not quite perfect, but what it is offering is a series that can stand head and shoulders next to the one that spawned it. It might lack the operatic, epic scope of Breaking Bad, but it is in many ways a deeper, richer, more intelligent show that uses the same universe to explore a different, more complex approach to human morality. For all their similarities, both superficial and thematic, I think that Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are very different shows that both excel in their own rights, while managing to enrich each other. It’s too early to announce wholesale that the spin-off is better than the original show, but at this stage we can celebrate the fact that Better Call Saul managed to exceed all expectations, living up to its predecessor while forging a path entirely its own, a path that I for one cannot wait to keep following in years to come.