When Breaking Bad ended almost a decade ago, I was hit with a lot of emotions. I actually tried watching the series from the very beginning but I gave up because I didn’t find it all too interesting. It was only after the later seasons started getting rave review that I decided to push through with the show and I ended up understanding why Breaking Bad is a critical hit. So, when the show ended I was kind of sad it was over. But there was a silver lining as the producers of Breaking Bad announced they were creating Better Call Saul, a spin-off/prequel/sequel featuring probably my favorite supporting character, Saul Goodman.
Now that Better Call Saul has wrapped up as well, I’m also feeling the same twinge of melancholy emotions once again. In fact, I can say I experienced virtually the same feelings all throughout Better Call Saul’s six seasons when compared to what I went through with Breaking Bad. That’s both a positive and a negative… but I’ll talk about that later.
By the way, even though Better Call Saul, the entire series, has already ended and millions have already watched the entire thing, I’m still going to make this a SPOILER FREE review as I would assume there are some who are still unsure if its really good enough to be devoting a lot of time to a series. So, yeah, SPOILER FREE review here.
Anyway, Better Call Saul takes place both before and after the events of Breaking Bad. But it’s mostly before. Each season typically opens with Saul Goodman’s life on the run from the law and these segments show how far he’s fallen and how he still craves the thrill of pulling cons and trying to outsmart the people around him. These are usually pushed to the side for the majority of the season as Better Call Saul then follows Jimmy McGill, a former small-time con artist who decided to follow his older brother’s footsteps and become a lawyer. The majority of Better Call Saul is focused on showing how Jimmy McGill, an aspiring lawyer out to prove himself, slowly but surely became Saul Goodman, the fast-talking attorney who’s willing to use his knowledge of the law to get criminals off.
One thing that did frustrate me with Better Call Saul was it’s a very slow burn. Like Breaking Bad, I really had some trouble getting through the first couple of seasons as I was simply looking for when Jimmy McGill would eventually become Saul Goodman. There was never a real tipping point and it kind of frustrated me. However, during the middle of the second season, my mindset suddenly shifted from just wanting to see Saul Goodman being his flamboyant self to just enjoying the journey of how a guy who was trying to be good can become so bad.
A lot of what changed my mindset does have to do with acting performances. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, in Better Call Saul did a perfect job in bringing their characters to life. Bob Odenkirk’s performance as Jimmy McGill and, eventually, Saul Goodman showed a vulnerable side, making you kind of root for him, despite you knowing what he’s doing is rather despicable. Both Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito reprise their roles as mob enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut and Gustavo Fring. Once again, they pull off really fantastic jobs in their roles. These people, as they were already known factors, I expected them to be incredibly good. What I didn’t expect was the new cast members to be equally as good.
You have Michael McKean as Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s brilliant but rather neurotic older brother, Michael Mando as Nacho Vargas, an ambitious low-level drug dealer, Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin, a somewhat obnoxious senior partner at Chuck McGill’s law practice, and Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca, a charismatic, intelligent but very sadistic killer for the cartel.
However, the best new character and probably my favorite character in Better Call Saul is Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler. Like with Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, Kim Wexler gets to show a lot of growth. Her character actually changes slowly because of her closeness to Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman. Adding to this is Rhea Seehorn’s chemistry to Bon Odenkirk and, well, everyone else she gets to interact with in the series. She’s also the most sympathetic character in the entire show, succumbing to the bad influences of the people around her but being able to justify her actions… in her own mind. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind to see a Kim Wexler spin-off now that Better Call Saul is done. That’s how good she is.
One of the “issues” some people have with the show is how the people react to certain situations. It may come off as unrealistic or irrational for a lot of people. Basically, the people who say that wouldn’t do the same things Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman or Kim Wexler do. But, to me, this is missing one of the central points of what makes Better Call Saul a good show. It’s not what I would do; it’s what they would do. Some of the things may be too mean spirited or cold-hearted for a lot of us. But it doesn’t matter how we feel and what we would do. What ultimately matters is what these severely flawed individuals would do and the extreme lengths they would go through to do it. That’s what makes them interesting and makes you get attached to them… even though they do perform some rather despicable acts.
Although I do like the overall slow burn, I do think there are some pacing issues, especially during the earlier seasons of Better Call Saul. Things build up a little too slowly in the very first season as, in retrospect, feels like a whole lot of setup for Jimmy McGill and a lot of the focus is on his relationship with his brother, Chuck McGill. Kim Wexler also seems more like an afterthought in this season, making me almost write her off as inessential to the entire series. The first season is fine but, ultimately, doesn’t have the gravitas you would expect from the prequel/sequel to Breaking Bad. Things do get much better in the second season as the friction between Jimmy and Chuck starts to really heat up and you get to see the stirrings of the old Saul Goodman we grew to love in Breaking Bad. So, basically, you do have to kind of ride out the first season before things start to really get interesting. Strangely enough, this is the exact same experience I had with Breaking Bad.
I do also have a minor gripe with the overall structure of Better Call Saul as, well, practically half of the series isn’t focused on Jimmy McGill’s slow transformation into Saul Goodman. The other half of the series is more on Mike Ehrmantraut’s journey from disgraced cop to mob enforcer for Gus Fring. His story is a little wonky as it takes a while to get there. A part of me believes that wasn’t the plan and they had to make changes because Mike’s story felt a little aimless as all it did was hammer home the idea he was super capable and easy to underestimate. It recovered nicely with the introduction of Gus, sure. But until that point, I didn’t really care for Mike’s storylines.
Despite these issues, I really do like the stories Better Call Saul are trying to tell. Not exactly because the stories are really good but how they’re told. Don’t get me wrong; the story arcs are really interesting but it’s their execution that really makes it for me. A lot of the emotion is conveyed through uncomfortable silence and just focusing on the faces of the characters. They also use creative camera angles to make sure your eyes are drawn to certain points of the screen. A lot of stuff is also never explained out loud and it’s up to the viewer to pick up on the details to get the complete picture. I will say it can get problematic, especially when they make do some callbacks to events that happened a season or two ago. But, if you pay attention and have a good memory of what happened previously, you can figure it out. Basically, I like how the show puts a lot of faith in the viewer to put it all together.
While I can heap heavy praise on Better Call Saul and I do give it high marks, I can’t really say it’s for everyone. If you didn’t watch Breaking Bad, you might not understand the motivations of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut as you kind of have to know where they’re going to go before you can understand why they act and behave the way they do in Better Call Saul. Like I said earlier, a lot of the story and what the characters are thinking are told in-between the lines. If you don’t pay close attention or can’t remember the callback, it can be confusing or you might not get the importance of the scene. If you can keep up (or you have no problem reviewing previous episodes or recap videos) and get all the nuance of the scenes, Better Call Saul is a must-watch.
Have you seen Better Call Saul? What did you think of it? Better question: do you think Better Call Saul is better or worse than Breaking Bad? Let me know in the comments section below!