Five Ways Better Call Saul Could Become Even Better than Breaking Bad
I don’t know what you’re doing this Valentine’s Day weekend, but chances are good it will involve swanky restaurant reservations, watching Love Actually or The Princess Bride, and ingesting startling amounts of chocolate, all of which are among life’s finest pursuits. Those things are most likely in my future, too, but another thing I’ll be doing is preparing for the return of one of my favorite television shows.
No, I’m not referring to the Sunday return of The Walking Dead, although I’m certainly looking forward to that. Fast forward to Monday, and you’ll find what I’m truly excited about: the magnificent return of Better Call Saul.
If you’ve read my New Year’s piece on my favorites of 2015, you know I spent a considerable amount of real estate there lauding Vince Gilligan’s newest desert noir series, the prequel story of slick Breaking Bad attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) before he became Saul.
Better Call Saul is beautiful in that it works on two levels. If you already know the saga of Walter White, you catch all the Breaking Bad references and setups. However, that’s not required. If you’re a newbie, it doesn’t diminish your enjoyment one bit.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the phase of this piece where I rhapsodize over the show, heaping it with the mountains of praise it so richly deserves. As you read ahead, though, remember this: I love Breaking Bad. To me, it’s the pinnacle of serialized storytelling, the perfect example of what the confluence of superb writing, directing, and acting looks like.
Bearing all that in mind, here are five things about Better Call Saul that I believe could eventually make it a better show than Breaking Bad.
Jimmy and Chuck
In Breaking Bad, we know next to nothing about Saul Goodman outside of his strip mall law office, and that’s fine. We don’t need more than that. He’s Walter White’s attorney, and what we do see of him is just the right mixture of funny dialogue and rapid-fire legalese.
With Better Call Saul, he’s center stage, and we’re shuttled back to the time when Saul is the wee Jimmy McGill (née Slippin’ Jimmy, a street con artist from Cicero, Illinois), now a lowly mail clerk with a cheap law degree from University of American Samoa. This series is about his evolution into Saul, so the entire story is built around his personal life, a major part of which is his older brother, Chuck, who is played like a champ by Michael McKean.
Chuck is everything his brother isn’t: He’s successful, driven, respected, and an ex-senior partner in a well-known law firm. Unfortunately, Chuck also may or may not be suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a disorder that keeps him housebound and at the mercy of his younger brother. It’s this disability and Chuck’s resulting dependence on Jimmy that gives us such a keen insight into both characters.
And if all that isn’t enough, Chuck gets to deliver one of the most memorable lines in a show replete with delightful zingers. Infuriated at his brother’s belief that he might actually be considered a competent attorney, Chuck tells him, “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!” If you’re thinking this comment doesn’t go over well, you get a discounted law consultation.
Jimmy and Mike
Ex-cop, henchman, and parking lot attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the Vince Gilligan universe (more on Mike coming up), and his slow-building relationship with Jimmy is an integral part of Better Call Saul.
Like everything else with this series, however, seeing the Jimmy/Mike pair grow is something we have to earn. There are no easy answers or sudden revelations here. Maybe we’re up to our hairlines with Breaking Bad trivia, and we know where these two guys end up. Fine, that’s how we approach the story, but it doesn’t give us any real privileged knowledge. On the other hand, maybe this is our first exposure to these characters. Again, that’s fine, and it also works extremely well.
I love a lot of good television, but there are two episodes I come back to repeatedly. One is older, 1996’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” from The X-Files, and the other is a new one, Better Call Saul’s 2015 installment “Five-O,” which is built entirely around Mike Ehrmantraut’s backstory.
When I first heard rumblings of this show, one of the things that made me the happiest was hearing Jonathan Banks was returning to play Mike, a man who manages to be stoic, terrifying, inscrutable, and even lovable, all at the same time. In “Five-O,” Jonathan Banks shines, delivering a performance worthy of every television-related award in existence.
Oddly enough, considering his prickly demeanor, I’d also argue that Mike may turn out to be the heart of this show. Also, this guy loves two things above all else: his granddaughter and pimento cheese. Say what you will, but you have to admire that in a man.
Jimmy’s Slow Journey to Saul
When the idea of Better Call Saul was first mentioned, I read criticisms claiming there wouldn’t be enough story, enough time for us to watch Jimmy transition into Saul. My first thought was, well, the man’s a lawyer, not The Incredible Hulk, followed closely by my second, what do critics know, anyway?
With Breaking Bad, Walter White’s initial crisis comes fairly early, and it makes sense for his story. After all, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, which tends to put things on a bit of a fast track. It turns out Jimmy McGill’s story journey moves at a slower pace, and Vince Gilligan and company give us more time to live with the character and understand why he makes the decisions he does. Do we love him? Sure. Dislike him? Occasionally. Feel embarrassed for him? Absolutely. And we’re there with him, every step of the way.
Everyone All Together
This is the element that truly sets Better Call Saul apart: Each of the characters I’ve mentioned here—along with quite a few I haven’t listed—is worthy of his own story. Not to say Breaking Bad didn’t have complex, interesting characters. It did, and the show mined that potential beautifully, but everyone seemed to exist to serve Walt’s story, and that’s beautiful—it’s the way stories work.
Now, thinking about these new characters, the possibilities seem endless:
Mike’s sketchy career with the Philadelphia police department? What time and channel?
Chuck’s tenure with and eventual retirement from the Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill law firm? Sign me up.
Jimmy getting his degree from the University of American Samoa? Oh, I’m there. (I’m fairly sure it never involved him actually going to American Samoa.)
All the characters in Better Call Saul help tell Saul’s story, but they do much more than that. I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s so much interesting backstory here that the entire supporting cast could have their own shows, and I would absolutely watch them like I had nothing better going on in my life. Bottom line, I can’t recall ever having said that about another series.
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Okay, then. If you’ve been watching Better Call Saul, this Monday night means welcome back to Albuquerque. If you haven’t been watching it, well, just pretend you have and start getting caught up.
For instructions on how to get current on Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, or any other excellent shows, feel free to check out my other recent piece on the value of binge-watching good television.