For a show that hasn’t yet proved why it should exist, Better Call Saul is remarkably well executed.
Writing that about such a good-natured show is hard, especially when it comes from such talent as Vince Gilligan and a number of his Breaking Bad writers. But spin-offs are always dicey even when the prospects seem rich. When the source material is as focused, singular, and masterful as Breaking Bad, where so much potent character work was achieved, continuing to explore that world feels redundant. Who wants a Sopranos prequel about young Junior and Tony’s dad? After the stunning, operatic crescendo of the final season which, against the odds, was deeply satisfying, was there really a need for more?
Gilligan and his team answered the question the only way possible in the affirmative: yes, if we shift gears with a different type of lead character and a less intense tone. Assuage viewers of any sense that they’re getting a remake by putting Saul Goodman in the lead. Saul deliberately avoided the type of high-stakes intensity that Walt brought to his doorstep, so a show about him and his different priorities would inevitably be less overwhelming to watch.
And much of Better Call Saul’s first season achieves this. This is a pleasant comedy-drama with a distinctive balance between the two, hewing closer to drama than might be expected with Bob Odenkirk as the star. As small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill (Saul’s real name) tries to make a name for himself, he gets embroiled in starker situations than he expects but discovers how well he can talk his way out of them. It comes close to functioning as an autonomous drama, even though you know that, like Frasier, a show about this guy wouldn’t have been greenlit if it wasn’t a spin-off.
But its prequel status nags, and only impedes the show further as the season progresses. Prequels are often justified as showing us how a character became who they were in the original, as if learning the details matters enough to justify a whole new text. But all too often, the answers are in the source material as exposition, flashback, or just in how the character is written and performed. As Walt became increasingly merciless, we saw Saul’s suppressed morality emerge as he grappled with the cruelties he was complicit in. This told us that Saul was not always an amoral shyster, and definitely not a sociopath like Walt. We could infer that before he built his grubby business, he wanted something more for himself. Instead he chose or was driven to profit from crime.
So while a prequel about Saul is tempting in order to hang out with an entertaining and oddly endearing character played by the delightful Odenkirk, there’s precious little narrative reason for it to exist. We’re getting the pieces of a puzzle we’ve already got a complete copy of.
The same applies to Mike (Jonathan Banks), who in the new show is working as a parking garage attendant so he can be near his remaining family. He’s recently left the force and only begins dabbling in crime this season to make ends meet. He proves extremely capable, with all the qualities someone like Gus Fring would want in a fixer.
But again, we knew from Breaking Bad that Mike used to be a cop and was devoted to his granddaughter. Sure, a few details were fuzzy, and Better Call Saul fills them in with a powerful flashback episode featuring a tremendous performance by Banks. But it still wasn’t vital, and it’s strange to see Banks in the role again only a couple of years after Mike’s sad, quiet death scene. It feels wrong, like desperate overreach. Future seasons might see the return of Gus Fring too, an exceptionally menacing and distinctive character whose return would be too much of a good thing.
The tone of Mike’s flashback episode exemplifies Saul’s unfortunate similarities to Breaking Bad. Unlike much of the rest of the season, this truly felt like an episode of the original show. Odenkirk was mostly absent, leaving only Mike’s laconic humour to lighten things up, which inevitably brought us closer to Breaking Bad’s wry darkness.
If this is the result of spotlighting Mike and his murky history, how much will the show continue to feel like its parent as he and Jimmy descend further into shady dealings and meet people like Gus? Jimmy’s second episode encounter with Tuco in the desert – while a gripping sequence in its own right – already felt like a sudden return to Breaking Bad territory, although it was alleviated as the focus moved to Chuck and the embezzling couple.
Not only will that descent return us to the tone of Breaking Bad, the descent itself is too reminiscent. While Bad hardly has a monopoly on falls from grace, when a spin-off show echoes the same arc it gives credence to the usually knee-jerk charges that the sequel/prequel/whatever is just the same thing all over again.
It’s no wonder that by the end of the season it’s hard to see where else the show can go without stating the obvious. Jimmy rejects the opportunity for a legitimate job at a law firm, believing after Chuck’s betrayal that all he has to offer is his Slippin’ Jimmy conman skills and that he might as well own that. But as he drives off in the final shot, it’s not hard to believe he gets some new clients, takes a lease out on that crazy office, and sidles up to Breaking Bad.
Sure, we don’t know why he changes his name to Saul Goodman, but given both shows are set in Albuquerque it’s probably isn’t to protect his safety or something similarly compelling. Even though Saul’s not yet defending criminals on the scale of his Breaking Bad clients, we know that’s his destination. We now have enough information to join the dots without more seasons doing it for us.
What Better Call Saul had to offer was the more optimistic, largely straight-shooting guy Saul used to be and how and why that persona wilted. The first season has largely carried out that arc. To be fair, Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould have done as good a job as could possibly be done with this framework and the obligations of a prequel. For once, the problem lies in intent, not execution. Whether Better Call Saul came to us via studio pressure for more Breaking Bad or Gilligan and Gould’s heartfelt desire to make a Saul Goodman show, it remains a show looking futilely for a reason to exist.