Does it have to turn into ‘Breaking Bad’ NOW?
I appreciated Breaking Bad. I loved the cinematography. The acting and the writing were fantastic, as was the focus on platonic relationships. I didn’t love how intensely male-dominated it was, or how annoying the few female characters could be, or how little sense of humor it had, or how it reinforced stereotypes of Latinos as not-very-fleshed-out criminals, but the show did manage to have one of the most spot-on series endings in television history.
My favorite part of Breaking Bad was Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman. He was the comic relief, sparse though it was. So when I heard that Vince Gilligan was developing a show called Better Call Saul, I was excited. The show exceeded expectations. Breaking Bad was beautifully shot, but Better Call Saul’s cinematography is even richer and more inventive. Where Breaking Bad had plot and high stakes, Better Call Saul has heart, humor, and character development…and plot and high stakes.
Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad, so you don’t need to have seen Breaking Bad to appreciate it. If Breaking Bad left you cold or you found it too violent, you’ll like the first three seasons of Better Call Saul, but you may want to stop watching there. If you loved Breaking Bad, you’ll probably still like Better Call Saul, because it’s a better show, and it turns into Breaking Bad.
The show introduces us to Jimmy McGill: Saul Goodman before he becomes Saul. We see Jimmy and his brother Chuck as youngsters in a blue collar suburb of Chicago. We see that Jimmy has always been a bit of a conman, manipulating his way through life, while his brother followed the rules. As adults, Chuck (Michael McKean) is a well-respected partner at a big Albuquerque law firm, and Jimmy has, belatedly, scratched and scraped his way into becoming a lawyer. Jimmy yearns for his big brother’s approval. He’s never going to get it.
Better Call Saul introduces us to Kim (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy’s partner. They practice law together for a while, they live together, they sleep in the same bed, and yet we never see them have sex. This is an interesting choice. It makes the relationship feel platonic, which was a Breaking Bad specialty. We see the deep caring that these two have for each other that goes far beyond the sexual. They pull each other out of their ruts and get the other back on their feet. Jimmy teaches Kim how to con. They only con terrible people, for fun, for the thrill of it, and Kim loves it, but doesn’t get fully sucked in…yet.
Despite the occasional rule-bending, Jimmy and Kim do a lot of good. They uncover shady dealings at a retirement community that’s taking advantage of seniors. Jimmy is good with old people. He genuinely cares about them. He builds a business around them. We love Jimmy. We root for Jimmy, and for Kim, even though Jimmy doesn’t always make the right choices. He is the underdog. He is us. Kim loves him and sticks by him, and that validates the audience’s choice to stick by him too, because Kim is crazy-smart and sensible.
The series also features Breaking Bad’s Mike character (Jonathan Banks), as well as Giancarlo Esposito’s drug kingpin, Gus. The show focuses more on the back story and character development of Mike, the white character, than the Afro-Latino one. This choice bothers me, but we get to see a longer, more complex journey of these characters than we were ever privy to in Breaking Bad. The other featured character of Better Call Saul is Nacho, played by Michael Mando (Orphan Black), who gradually becomes part of the underbelly of the drug world. He intersects with Jimmy early on in the series, and then again in Season 5 as Jimmy becomes Saul and the drug world starts pulling him in as well.
That’s where the series is now. With each episode, the world of Better Call Saul steps closer to the world of Breaking Bad. The tone is shifting, the priorities are shifting. It’s dropped the women, besides Kim, from the narrative. The humor is falling away. The series has reached a dark place. This was part of the deal, I should have realized. The series was always careening toward blood and consequences.
Since the show is a prequel, most viewers know what happens to Jimmy/Saul. We know what happens to Mike and Gus. Kim and Nacho aren’t in Breaking Bad, so I’m left to assume that they may die by series’ end. Am I up for that in this scary, isolated world we currently live in? After I watched Better Call Saul last night, I had to cleanse with an episode of Schitt’s Creek, where all the characters are kind to one another in their neurotic, self-involved ways. Better Call Saul has the misfortune of going to a bleak place, at the same time as the whole world is doing the same, and I suspect people will bow out in search of laughs and fantasy.
Better Call Saul’s actors, writers, and ohmygod the cinematography will probably keep me on until the end, but I expect it to be rough. If they manage to make the ending as satisfying as Breaking Bad’s, I will be impressed.