In 2008 Bryan Cranston embodied the hapless, soon-to-be drug lord Walter White, a character that would become a household name the world over. Breaking Bad was one of those shows that raised the bar for everything that came after, just like The Wire or Twin Peaks, it was decade-defining. It also ended in, some would argue, the perfect way after only 5 seasons of relatively modest length, a stunt that only a handful of shows have managed to do before. So unsurprisingly, Sony wanted to prolong the brand that had garnered global adoration and had cemented its place in the annals of TV greatness. Consequently, Better Call Saul was born and here are the top 5 reasons why, in my humble opinion, it surpasses Breaking Bad as one of the best shows ever made.
One of the key themes of Breaking Bad was Walt’s gradual decline from high school teacher and loving family man into extreme criminal and ultimately, a monster. But though the first couple of seasons teased this out nice and slowly, in the latter, the speed of his descent into the abyss increased exponentially and for me, that’s where it started to depart from plausibility. What Better Call Saul has done so well is to retain this measured pace throughout. The opening flash-forward scene in the pilot episode triggers a story-arc that has yet to be fulfilled and we’ve had 5 full seasons since then. But even the smaller narrative arcs span several seasons, such as Jimmy’s (Saul’s legal name) relationship with his brother Chuck or the origins of Mike’s employment under Gus. Additionally, each episode drops on a weekly basis which only enhances the creeping progression of the story, it’s delightfully frustrating but if you have the patience, thoroughly rewarding.
There is a grounded quality running through Better Call Saul that I felt was, by and large, lacking from Breaking Bad, certainly in the later seasons. Sometimes Walt gets away with the most brash and audacious things when in reality he’d have been caught or at least cast under suspicion many times over, especially when his brother-in-law is the one hunting him. There is also a layer of glorification running through Breaking Bad, eulogising Walt’s choices, which I found to further remove the story from authenticity. Not to say there aren’t similar beats in BCS, but because Jimmy’s criminality is far less extreme and he is set-up to be highly street-smart, he can get away with a lot more before it loses credibility. Plus, most of the time, Jimmy isn’t actually breaking the law, he’s simply utilising loopholes and cutting corners to be a good lawyer for his clients. His corruption comes from a place of wanting to help others, not necessarily from greed or selfishness and so he is always reluctant to do the questionable things and when he does, those deeds linger over him long after the fact. Contrastingly, Walt’s criminal actions, driven by pride and a stubborn refusal to be bested, don’t haunt him in the same way. He isn’t retrospectively and continuously affected like Jimmy is, when in reality, there’s little chance Walt could have committed the atrocities he does without being heavily traumatised.
This connects fundamentally to the deliberate pacing of the show. Having so much time to spend with these characters across the seasons, allows us to see the complexities and nuance of their behaviours, to understand them on a deeper level. With only five or six main characters, and secondary characters having little-to-no bearing on the plot, everyone of real importance gets acres of screen time and the show revels in placing them in a range of challenging circumstances. Be it Jimmy and Kim’s lives as lawyers-by-day-con-artists-by-night, Mike’s dichotomy of family-man-come-hit-man, Gus’ volatile drug war or Nacho’s demeaning servitude as a double agent, we see many sides to each character from a mixture of perspectives, resulting in exquisitely designed backstory, character development and story-arcs. In fairness one of BB’s strengths is its use of peripheral characters and how this supporting landscape shifts from season to season, however, it’s not unjust to say that the majority of supporting characters are rather thinly drawn (there are exceptions of course) in favour of expanding Jesse and Walt’s characters.
The trickiest thing about a prequel is the fact that the audience knows where the story is going and in this case knows what ultimately becomes of Jimmy / Saul. What the writers have done beautifully is they’ve used this inevitability to cast a shadow of tragedy over the entire show. This, combined with the drawn out nature of the story, creates a melancholic atmosphere that you can’t ignore. Every time Jimmy succeeds in life, we know that it won’t last, be it in work, love or crime. The show leans into this certainty by showing us glimpses of what Jimmy’s life could have been and then snatching it from him. But what makes it truly bleak is that often it’s Jimmy’s own actions that cause his downfalls. Forever hamstrung by his compulsion to always go one step too far, even when his own safety is at stake and though we know Jimmy will ultimately be fine (or alive at least), that’s more than can be said for the many characters caught in his orbit. His failures and descent into crime are inevitable, yet the show somehow retains jeopardy and stakes. It’s a masterful achievement.
A story is only as good as its characters. Luckily, both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have impeccable characters in abundance, performed flawlessly by actors at the top of their game. However, where BB shot themselves in the foot by criminally mis-casting Anna Gunn as Skyler White and creating a character that was loathed the world over, BCS retains fan-favourites from it’s predecessor as well as bringing us a host of captivating newcomers. We see the great Jonathan Banks return as Mike Ehrmantraut, the retired cop who finds himself working for the formidable drug lord Gus Fring, (Giancarlo Esposito also reprising his role) each of whom are given detailed and powerful back story, a device largely absent from BB across all characters. We also have three vastly different but equally fascinating newcomers, namely Kim Wexler, Chuck McGill and Nacho Varga. Chuck is Jimmy’s successful older brother and not the nice kind. His relationship with Jimmy is hollow yet Jimmy goes out of his way to care for Chuck, far more than he deserves. There are several interesting explorative threads here that delve into familial love and resentment. The knowledge of this sibling relationship contextualises the character we know from BB, through it we begin to understand some of the traumas and hardships that ultimately lead him down the path toward crime. Then there’s Kim, played by a sublime Rhea Seehorn, one of Jimmy’s closest friends and also a fellow lawyer. Though her success reaches far beyond his own, Jimmy retains an admiration for Kim as she does for him and their loving yet fractious relationship serves as the nucleus of the BCS world. A fiery chemistry emanates from their interactions, beautiful and unyielding, it’s a rare privilege to see two actors create such a lived-in dynamic the way Seehorn and Odenkirk do. Finally, the relative youngster Michael Mando plays Nacho, the reluctant drug dealer who runs in some of the dangerous circles we know from BB, including that of Hector Salamanca’s. Mando’s character is arguably the most complex of the new cast, similarly to Jimmy, his motivations are, for the most part, genuine rather than sinister, but the world in which he operates doesn’t allow for such sentimentality. Watching him navigate this volatile landscape is both compelling and exhausting in equal measure. Where Breaking Bad had some glaring weak links in its ensemble, Better Call Saul has none.