It feels like an age since rumours of a Saul Goodman spin off began circulating. In fact, mentions of the spin-off can found as far back as 2012, so the debut of Better Call Saul has been a long time coming. That’s not to say too long. Good things come to those who wait and Better Call Saul is a good thing and it’s been worth waiting for. It’s still hard to believe that Breaking Bad ended a year and a half ago. Watching Better Call Saul felt like slipping into an old, familiar bed.
Creating a spin-off of one of the most popular shows on modern television could have been a disaster. It’s not that I don’t have faith in Vince Gilligan’s abilities as a writer and director. But telling such a dramatic and captivating story can be hard to recreate, especially when treading back into the same universe and setting. Having seen Breaking Bad and becoming acquainted with Albuquerque, viewers come to expect a certain level of storytelling and character development. There will obviously be backlash if the latter doesn’t match up to the expectations created by the former.
Good news all round then. Fans of Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan can collectively breathe easy. Better Call Saul is good. Only time will tell if it even glances the same greatness that Breaking Bad became but it is certainly off to a good start. It feels familiar without being a complete retread of previous material. This is the same affable, loquacious Saul Goodman that we know and love, but his name is James McGill and he hasn’t quite broke bad yet.
It’s interesting seeing Saul Goodman try to be an honest lawyer, defending his clients to the best of his legal ability rather than his criminal abilities. There’s shades of the man he will become, such as the scam he attempts to run on Betsy Keller to manipulate her into giving him their business but there’s still a conscience in there. Even knowing that he owes his life to Nacho, Jimmy refuses to participate in stealing the one point five million that the Kellers allegedly stole. The man he is then is a far shot from the man who helps Walter and Jesse distribute their meth and launder their money.
Furthermore, this is not a man trying to figure out where he went wrong. This is a man looking back at the good times. Let that sink in for a moment. Gene, the former Saul Goodman thinks of standing the desert, talking Tuco down from a death sentence to a couple of leg breakings, as a nostalgic moment. The opening to the first episode is some of the best cinematography that I’ve seen in any television show. Without a word, we see Saul Goodman as he is now, out of the game and hidden in Nebraska, baking bread and longing for the man he was. Maybe he’s looking back and wishing he’d never met Walter White, but he still wishes to be Saul Goodman with the cheesy late night commercials.
Better Call Saul casts Breaking Bad in a whole new light. It’s the ‘in media res’ of Saul Goodman’s story. We don’t have the full picture yet. We have the middle and the end but beginning is lacking, and that’s what Better Call Saul aims to tell. And in the telling, Breaking Bad becomes Saul’s comeuppance. Before, Saul was just some sleazy criminal defence lawyer, looking to make a fast buck any way he could. Here we see Saul on the straight and narrow, sitting at the crossroads to a darker path. It’s riveting viewing in the same morbid way that a trainwreck is fascinating.
Breaking Bad told the complete story of Walter White and his transformation from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher, whose life wasn’t what he had anticipated and felt he’d never got what he deserved, to a drug lord with a meth empire, willing to poison children and kill whoever he felt slighted him. From season one to season five, that was the progression. With each passing episode, Walter became more morally corrupt and eventually just became Heisenberg. But in the end, we saw that come back and bite him on the ass. His family were terrified of him, his son told him to die, his brother in law was killed due to an association with white supremacists, his partner was being held hostage and forced to cook, his former business partners were discrediting him on television and his cancer was back. Saul Goodman was a casualty of Walter’s downfall, forced into hiding at the same time. Now it seems that Walter’s downfall may have just coincided with Saul’s own.
It’s not without it’s flaws though. For one, the show does lack tension and intensity. While the series does seem to be a little more humorous in tone than Breaking Bad, it’s still not meant to comedic. The old Shakespearean category of ‘romance’ seems to fit best. Moments such as Jimmy, kneeling in the desert, begging for his life, are obviously meant to be dramatic and exciting but we know that Jimmy can’t die here. Tuco too, has to survive. That said, I did like the twist by having Jimmy haggle for the lives of the skaters, thereby keeping the peril of death in the scene and still maintaining Jimmy’s culpability.
With this creation, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have shown that they are as talented as Breaking Bad made them out to be. They weren’t just fortunate to hit a run-away winner. And with Better Call Saul, they have the potential for another. It’s really good viewing, interesting and enthralling in imaginative ways, and it doesn’t require any previous viewing. It stands alone from Breaking Bad, intriguing because the implications but quality viewing in its own right. With a debut of 6.9 million viewers, Better Call Saul is the show to watch right now.