Better Call Saul is too good to be a spinoff

Vince Gilligan's new show is proof he should have moved outside the Breaking Bad universe

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The airwaves are littered with the rival successors to TV’s so-called “golden age,” but only one has spawned a straight-up spin-off. Better Call Saul, which premieres Sunday on AMC, focuses on the early life of “criminal lawyer” Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) when he was struggling lawyer Jimmy McGill, six years before the events of Breaking Bad. And spoiler alert — it’s excellent. That’s unsurprising given the assembled talent behind and in front of the camera, but somewhat paradoxically, the quality of Better Call Saul serves as a strong argument that creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould should have made a series outside of the shadow of Walter White.

At the height of television’s second golden age, the success of TV shows was usually attributed to singular auteurs, writer-showrunners whose visions for their series guide years-long projects — David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, some other dudes named David, all in the Difficult Men vein. But the medium is far more collaborative than that lens would give it credit for, something that has become increasingly apparent as our collective obsession with every aspect of our shows moves beyond the “cult of the showrunner.” Directors are increasingly important to the process — the biggest creative influence on The Knick isn’t writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, but Steven Soderbergh. Even actors often contribute to the writing for their characters — Bryan Cranston was reportedly the motivating force behind Walt’s sliver of redemption in the Breaking Bad finale.

But while Breaking Bad may have catapulted Cranston and Aaron Paul to superstardom, it’s arguably done more for the people behind the camera. Writer Moira Walley-Beckett has her own series (Starz’s Flesh and Bone), producer George Mastras has a development deal with HBO, and Michelle MacLaren is one of the hottest working directors. And with creator Vince Gilligan and producer Peter Gould getting almost the whole band back together, it’s almost impossible to imagine Better Call Saul being straight-up bad. But the idea did have the potential to devolve into merely well-executed fanservice, throwing out glimpses of Walt in the background or a young Jesse Pinkman getting in trouble with the law.

As a spin-off of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul has an even higher bar to clear than most television shows (which have to justify their continued presence on the air and network resources) — it has to uphold a legacy. And if there’s one thing that’s hard to dispute about the show, it’s this: the pilot of Better Call Saul is more assured, better-directed, and simply better than Breaking Bad’s, something that appears to be almost entirely due to the increased comfort and seasoning of the team. It’s not just that Gilligan, Gould, MacLaren, and everyone else have improved at their jobs over the course of the past six years — it’s that they’ve gotten so good at working together and realizing each other’s visions.

It simply has a better pilot than 'Breaking Bad' did

Sitting down to watch the first episodes of Better Call Saul, I was a nervous wreck. (I probably have more invested in Breaking Bad than any other television show — I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it.) But more than anything else, watching Better Call Saul is comforting; it feels like going home. There’s the same lethally potent attention to minor tasks (mostly related to cooking), the same wryness in the music selection, and the same maddening cold opens. The inevitable return to the beautiful desert vistas the crew crafted over the years is powerful, like smelling an old piece of clothing. Even seeing names in the credits from Gilligan to Jonathan Banks to editor Skip Macdonald is a joy.

And it’s evident just how much everyone loves working together, and how much they’ve grown. There are moments in Better Call Saul that could go head to head with anything on Breaking Bad, especially a visually arresting sequence in the MacLaren-directed second episode that artfully condenses the day-to-day indignities of Jimmy’s life as a public defender — an entire series on its own — into just a couple of minutes. MacLaren finds him basically everywhere at once in the courthouse, making it feel like someplace we’ve lived for years.

Better Call Saul promotional image (AMC) Photo: Netflix

Oddly enough, the success of MacLaren and credited writer Gould in creating this environment is the best piece of evidence that Gilligan and company didn’t really need the comforts of home. The manner in which Better Call Saul suggests the ease of its own creation makes one wonder about the multitude of ways it could have been its own series. The producers’ renewed confidence lends itself to a real sense of play, along with the series’ general more comic bent. (Though the pilot, the best of the three episodes sent to critics, is also the grimmest.) Breaking Bad was often funny, but it could also be unceasingly serious and morbid, perhaps because the team grew increasingly aware that it was making a Great Drama. Better Call Saul may eventually fully establish itself as its own show, but the Breaking Bad mantle is still a veneer of capital-S Seriousness threatening to weigh it down.

In fact, most of the good things about Better Call Saul don’t need to take place in the Breaking Bad universe at all. The elements that explicitly tie the two series are some of the weaker aspects of the show. A pair of goofy kids meant to evoke Jesse Pinkman fall almost totally flat. The surprise return of a beloved Breaking Bad character is fun, but it’s that character’s accomplice who becomes far more compelling. The one notable exception is the best part of Better Call Saul so far — its opening sequence, which depicts Saul’s life after the conclusion of Breaking Bad as, at once, deeply comic, worn, and bone-chillingly sad. It’s a blitzkrieg of dramatic irony, and not only does it plant a flag firmly at the end of Jimmy’s story, it gives us a frame through which to view his life and choices and sets up Better Call Saul’s distinct thematic concerns.

Where Breaking Bad is about someone consistently choosing to do the wrong thing, Better Call Saul is about someone trying to do the right thing, at a cost. The most intriguing secondary character on the show isn’t Jonathan Banks’ Mike (whom I love, but has had more than enough time in the spotlight), but Michael McKean’s Chuck, Jimmy’s older brother and fading moral lighthouse who is also suffering from some sort of debilitating mental illness. Dealing with his brother is far more emotionally complicated than anything Saul had to do on Breaking Bad (where he was, essentially, comic relief), and Odenkirk’s performance is accordingly far more nuanced and impressive, imbuing his future pronouncements ("Conscience gets expensive, doesn’t it?") with new pathos.

Better Call Saul promotional image (AMC)

There are a few things Better Call Saul appears to be about — the way people get led by systems into difficult moral decisions, the performative nature of the adversarial legal system (there might be more time spent on Jimmy rehearsing for the courtroom than any other activity), and even the power of speech (Jimmy’s "mouth"). It’s important that all of those ideas are bigger than Jimmy himself, whereas Breaking Bad was exactly as big as Walt and his decisions. On this show, the bad things that happen are the result of misunderstandings — the main plot is kicked off by a literal case of mistaken identity – because Better Call Saul is comic, rather than tragic. Jimmy is hapless and legitimately unlucky, swept about by forces out of his control while trying to do his best, rather than making the singular, moral decision that Walt makes at the beginning of Breaking Bad. In some respects, that’s more relatable.

Once the novelty of a 'Breaking Bad' spin-off that isn’t terrible has worn off, what’s left?

Still, while some version of Better Call Saul has the potential to be "better" than Breaking Bad, it’s not this one. The show could grow into a great exploration of smaller, more human concerns, but as it is now, it’s perpetually threatened to be overshadowed by the mythos it chose to place itself within. Once the novelty of a Breaking Bad spin-off that isn’t terrible has worn off, what’s left? Those quick hits of fanservice will always put it in its place, which is a shame when the show has the potential to be so much more. The best case scenario is that it uses its predecessor as a foundation, groundwork for a totally different kind of story that still functions as a subset of the Breaking Bad franchise — but its tools are being deployed in service of a piece of art that doesn’t need the assist.

At the end of the day, I don’t need to know how Saul Goodman became Saul Goodman. Gilligan and Gould could have told a story about this exact character, with all of the same people on the creative team and all of the same ideas, but not in service of their previous work. After watching the first three episodes of Better Call Saul, I want to see what happens to Jimmy McGill. I just wish I didn’t already know.

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