Perhaps to the roving cynic, Better Call Saul would be remembered as “the Breaking Bad spin-off.” After five seasons (really, more like six) of Walter White’s Tony Montana-like ascension of the American methamphetamine racket, Saul initially felt like it might be an interesting-but-superfluous dive back into that world of crime and chaos that courts the drug empires of the Mexican cartels. I’ll be honest, I liked Bad a good deal—heck I think it’s great. But I’m not a rabid fan, and initially I wasn’t tuned into Saul. I’m not an avid TV-watcher, where I’m an obsessive filmgoer.
I have become positively giddy at the very thought of Better Call Saul.
Saul’s fifth season wrapped two weeks ago, and it’s actually the best thing on television. I would say, without question, it surpasses than Breaking Bad, though I’m reluctant to compare works of art in such black-and-white values. Sure, Saul has one final season to go, and we’ve seen the greatest of television thrones melt down in their final act. Nonetheless, my hyperbolic stance stands. Being both a prequel and a sequel to the timeframe of Breaking Bad, we know where Jimmy McGill’s journey will take him—to an extent; there’s some notion of how things play out, though a greater uncertainty beyond that. Yet one of the show’s multitude strengths is the ways in which it constantly weaves turns that surprise and enrich our understanding of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s crimescape even in the space between Saul and Bad, not even touching upon the post-Breaking Bad era Saul’s Cinnabon-swan songs allude to. No, even if we knew where things were going, Better Call Saul proves it’s about the road traveled to get there. But first and foremost, the man of the hour.
Bob Odenkirk’s fast-talking Saul Goodman initially appears in Breaking Bad’s second season, his over-the-top showmanship instantly painting him as a comic relief character. To be fair, Breaking Bad indulges in moments of comedy—pitch-black though it may be—through nearly all of its cast; Hank’s blunt machoism or any number of Jesse’s “Bitch!” explosions. There’s even a dry sense of humor to much of the technical construction of the show, be it Rian Johnson’s famous bottle-episode in which Walt and Jesse track a contaminating-fly, or the macabre, elegiac murder compilation of prison-shanking potential-loose ends. But Saul Goodman was a walking, talking caricature all his own. In a good way, of course, but he was “that guy.”
With that in mind, along comes Better Call Saul. “Really?” one might have wondered, “Are they doing, like, a comedy spin-off..?” The deception of Better Call Saul’s premise is almost a part of what makes it so brilliant. Anyone expecting a light lean into Bad’s quirkier side is in for a shock. In its first three seasons, Better Call Saul is a family drama, in more ways than one.
A Business of Relations
One of the absolutely unique and genius aspects of Jimmy’s (I’ll alternate between “Jimmy” and “Saul” for the character, more often using the former for discussing him as he appears in BCS) depiction is the multitude of relationships he forms across the series. First and foremost, there’s Chuck.
For much of the first seasons of Better Call Saul, Jimmy struggles with living in the shadow of his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean). A successful lawyer, where Jimmy is not, Chuck exudes a sophistication and commands a resume of talent that is revered by other characters and played at odds with Jimmy’s antics and shadier tendencies. The fraternity turns nasty as things play out, with the brothers’ involvement at HH&M, the law firm Chuck co-founded, pushing Jimmy to the crossroads that eventually leads to the manifestation of Saul Goodman. The feud becomes positively biblical in the vitriol and anger manifested in these two men.
Except, Jimmy loves his brother.
Chuck’s defining characteristic, for many viewers, is his seemingly-irrational but very-real EHS, or electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Debilitated by things like lights, cell phones… anything electronic, Chuck is down-and-out when Better Call Saul starts its roll. Jimmy plays caretaker for his sick brother, who is spoken of fondly by former colleagues, yet always with a tinge of incredulousness at the former law-titan’s withdrawal from work. Through the bitter anger and mind games, the slights and the (not always passive) aggression between Jimmy and Chuck, until the bitter end, Jimmy takes care of his older brother. The lengths to which Better Call Saul manufactures palpable tension and drama from this one facet of its increasingly-large tableau of characters and scenarios is absolutely tremendous. For the bulk of Saul’s drama to genuinely stem from Jimmy’s strained relationship with Chuck, and how that impedes his struggle to make a living as a lawyer, is bold in show that is, ultimately, a crime story. Like I said, you could get a real rise out of reading about Cain and Abel. Now imagine they had to deal with narcos on top of each other.
But before we even broach the south-of-the-border battlefield populated by cartels and gangsters of the vicious sort, we’re still talkin’ Jimmy. And we’re talkin’ love. Reintroducing us to Jimmy as “the funny lawyer” and then giving him a tender relationship with his brother, one we as the audience are meant to be touched by, is a bold move. You know what’s even bolder for a “comic” character? Making him sexy.
Okay, so we don’t whip-zoom to Bob Odenkirk’s tight abs or luscious hair. One day. But what we do get, and she’s one of Better Call Saul’s secret weapons, is Kim Wexler. Rhea Seehorn’s performance as Jimmy’s partner-in-law and partner-in-life is some of the finest acting across a series that, simply put, has nothing but terrific turns. But for the moment, consider Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, and how that looks when we really step back. Jimmy, deceptively written off by many characters as a shyster and conman, is allowed to woo and be wooed by a beautiful, whip-smart, and charismatic woman. What Better Call Saul does over the course of its run, with Jimmy hustling in and out of situations both comically-dire and simply dire, is take a character who adopts a caricature persona for public eyes and allows him to be a human being.
The relationship with Kim is one founded on mutual respect, her for his morality and strong sense of justice (and probably the fact that he can reference some good movies), and his for her… utter brilliance. Kim is an upstanding lawyer, but just as much of a stalwart personality as one could hope for. This ranges from diving into boxes of paperwork without complaint to staring down an armed narcotraficante with nothing but her backbone. Though season five’s finale conjures images of deep tragedy for Kim’s character, the fact remains that she’s been nothing but decent over the show’s run.
I digress, as is easy to do when tackling the gargantuan beast that is Better Call Saul.
Kim’s relationship with Jimmy is something that television or motion pictures as a medium don’t often show us: It shows us a “normal” (yes, I’m referring to James McGill and all of his escapades as “normal”) couple in the bedroom. For Jimmy, this character we’ve known to be slippery and subject to some extremely bizarre situations, the genuine, nuanced, and downright mature relationship with Kim is some of the most-humanizing drama to be seen on TV. That Jimmy is—no disrespect to the great Odenkirk—not a supermodel lead, who tears through Mexican gangsters with his bulging biceps, and yet allowed to be depicted as a caring, compassionate partner in life and in physical love is quite simply something we don’t see on the screen, big or little.
You can almost forget about its ingenious, hard-boiled crime storytelling; Better Call Saul is one of the greatest romances to be seen on television, ever.
But you can’t just forget about something like the drug war, can you?
To Break Bad
With Kim Wexler, we’re starting to see a car veer off course. With Nacho Varga, we’ve been watching a powder keg rolled closer to a gas station. Michael Mando’s Ignacio “Nacho” Varga is almost-instantly a likeable hoodlum; something in Mando’s quiet—especially juxtaposed with his short-lived screen boss Tuco Salamanca—is seen as dignified and mysterious. His dealings with the out-of-towner, Mike Ehrmantraut, immediately softens us up to this new face. Jonathan Banks’ fan-favorite performance as Mike expands tenfold in Saul, but it’s the context of Breaking Bad and his role in it that allows for his association with Nacho to make the later someone of interest. Mike’s respect, already earned by his tired wit and tried grit, embeds Nacho with the hope of being an equally-respectable player in this underworld.
But it takes a heck of a lot to last as long as Mike does in this job, and right now we’re seeing Nacho put through a moral, physical, and mental wringer that is going to make or break our boy. There’s naturally a sympathy for Nacho’s plight when his father, a good, honest man, is made a pawn and used as fatal leverage against Nacho, with the stone cold Chilean boss Gustavo Fringe twisting Varga’s arm to inform on the south-of-the-border Salamanca cartel, bitter enemies of Fringe.
Nacho, as well as Mike, of course, becoming our avenue into the world of the drug trade is one of Better Call Saul’s wisest and most-human moves. It also becomes a means of making us terrified and anxious about guns and gangsters all over again. While Breaking Bad eventually saw our protagonist on the attack, in the form of Walter White’s rise to jefehood, we begin to explore that world once again in Saul through the eyes of an underling and an outsider. Nacho works from the bottom to the highest of high stakes, seeing his future balance between annihilation and fame and fortune, with things often switching in the blink of an eye. It’s a high-wire act.
Meanwhile, Mike’s gradual slip into darkness is tracked beautifully, with his major moral hurdle capping off season four, when he’s made to put down an innocent man to serve his criminal obligations. The way the ugliness and brutality of the cartels is gradually peeled back by Nacho and Mike’s development and increased involvement with this world’s criminal players is a stroke of genius, making for positively-breath-stopping suspense in moments of action and long-term “Oh, I hope he doesn’t do that…” heartache as our characters barrel towards the beast.
Live in the Moment
Earlier I’d alluded to the trajectory of Jimmy, who we first see reinvent himself as Saul Goodman as being a known quantity. Still to be fully seen, we have the inky, black-and-white prologue-refrains of each season, in which Saul has become “Gene Takovac,” a Cinnabon manager off in Nebraska. How Jimmy’s journey as Gene plays out, only the Fates may know. But with that aspect of Better Call Saul’s narrative lingering in the back of our minds (with the potential for some really dramatic and unexpected turns), we’re left to watch events play out to a somewhat-foregone conclusion. And this is the prize jewel in Better Call Saul’s crown.
When I describe what I like to see in movies and television, I’ll usually say something like “smart people doing things smartly.” That is, process. Captured properly, filmmaking can make watching a person go through routine and express themselves—even through mundane action—an utterly-riveting and enlightening experience. We experience stories, fictional or otherwise, to expand our own ideas of humanity, right? What better way to understand other people than watch them do… normal, “other people” stuff?
The aforementioned multiple seasons that kick off Better Call Saul largely focusing on Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck is a luxury that Gilligan, Gould, and the collective writers positively revel in. There’s not an overeagerness to reach “the end.” Heck, we know Jimmy at least lives to see the events of Breaking Bad. Where so much television becomes a bit of a bore in the who-lives-and-who-dies landscape of drama—arguably popularized by the traumatic Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones—Better Call Saul understands that the road traveled is what is ultimately remembered once you reach your conclusion. If knowing the ending was such an independent satisfaction, why not just skip ahead? Who needs to watch Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back! I can just tell you by watching Return of the Jedi: The good guys win! No, process is what makes Better Call Saul so special.
And it isn’t strictly in the grand scheme of things. In the seventh episode of the first season—Bingo—Mike is contracted by Jimmy to do a little surveillance. We’re not at sniper rifles and cocaine just yet. This is lower-stakes, with Mike looking to nail some embezzlers with an honest-to-goodness, jazz-scored stakeout. And we get to tag along.
Mike picks an apple. Eats it. A leap in time later, and Mike has a line of apple cores as the operation reaches some development. Now, we don’t get a real-time hour of Mike watching the fraudsters from afar, but the episode dedicates valuable time, in this age of attention-spans, to simply watching. Mike just watches, eventually going about the operation with some good-old B&E to track the money.
The sequence is “long” in its duration, meticulously depicting a beat in the episode that could have been hurried along or edited down. And yet Better Call Saul instead decides to captivate our attention with a dialogue-less stretch of show-don’t-tell storytelling, making Mike’s investigation a six-ish minute sequence of—pardon an expression I almost always find pretentious—pure cinema. Better Call Saul weaves a story on an epic scale, tracking characters across decades. But the genius kicks in when the writers know when to track minutes rather than years, squeezing excitement and interest out of the minor just as much as the major. Not only does the series balance the everyday with the explosive, it manages to make both something you can’t look away from, your attention rapt.
It’s in this way that Better Call Saul simply doesn’t fail in delivering the goods, season after season: It writes its own rules. Whereas television will usually build to a climax with the season finale (of if you’ll allow its reference again, Game of Thrones with the penultimate dramatic flair, followed by a look at where we’re off to next), Better Call Saul treats its collective run as a slow burn, punctuating with exciting moments where we least expect them. Because in a show that’s “about the drug war” (if you want to speak about things simply), we know bullets will fly. That’s no surprise. It’s everything else that happens where Better Call Saul hits you.
In conversation with friends I’m constantly calling Better Call Saul “the smartest thing on television” and I mean it with all of my being. Whatever meager credit you might attribute my opinion, watching hundreds of movies a year, absorbing as much stuff as possible, in relation to writing and filmmaking, Better Call Saul simply does everything right.
From a technical standpoint the production is sophisticated and stylish at the same time, not quite employing the manic camerawork that shook the frame of Breaking Bad so often, instead going full-western in so many of its wide shots, or playing to the detailed rhythm of classic crime films in its methodically-plotted set pieces.
But besides the wizardry behind the camera, the aforementioned, heartbreaking drama that spirals out of the seemingly-mundane aspects of James McGill’s descent into criminality, stemming from his family and love lives, positively blindsides you in a work that would, at first glance, appear to be about stone-cold cartel killers. Better Call Saul knows how to surprise its audience with something they don’t expect, making a lovers’ quarrel just as devastating as a drive-by shooting.
Better Call Saul has it all. It never descends too far into its action setpieces, though certainly adrenaline-junkies will have their breath stopped when bullets occasionally fly; it renders its protagonists bare for analysis, taking them through situations of all kinds to test them for our dramatic consumption. It’s a show of white-knuckle intensity and genuine heartache, impending tragedy and fumbling criminal comedy (I don’t dare investigate whether a “squat cobbler” is a real thing). But throughout all of its vast tableau of brilliance, Better Call Saul is manufactured with laser detail, heart, and pure talent. Never before have I found myself so genuinely-enthralled, worried, excited, or downright-dumbstruck by a television show’s intelligence and heart. And ultimately, if you take our titular lead, the show makes every bit of sense. Saul Goodman, for his persona and antics, is an incredibly smart guy. What his series allows us to realize also, is that he’s every bit as human as the rest of us.