Unpopular opinion: Better Call Saul is superior to Breaking Bad

Why this spinoff show is an improvement on the original

Nathan believes that Better Call Saul succeeds through subtlety.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Netflix

When Better Call Saul, a spinoff to the beloved AMC show Breaking Bad based on the secondary character Saul Goodman was announced in 2013, some fans were apprehensive. After all, why risk tarnishing the legacy of a classic show with what could amount to a cheesy cash grab?

Breaking Bad was beloved during its run forfeaturing dynamic characters. Specifically, it portrayed Walter White’s transformation from a mild-mannered high school teacher into a maniacal drug lord.

Although White’s story was often dark, the showrunner of Better Call Saul, Peter Gould, said the spinoff was originally intended to have a much lighter tone than the original show.

“If Breaking Bad was 80 per cent drama and 20 per cent comedy, [Better Call Saul] was going to be 80 per cent comedy and 20 per cent drama. Boy, did that turn out not to be true,” said Gould.

Better Call Saul, entering its fifth season on AMC on Feb. 23, has instead leaned into drama like its predecessor. After all, both shows depict a once morally-upstanding character descending into depravity due to bad circumstances, coupled with their own pride and greed.

Despite merely being Walt’s goofy criminal attorney on Breaking Bad, in his spinoff series, the titular Saul is much more fleshed out. In the beginning, he still goes by his real name, Jimmy McGill.

In Better Call Saul, Jimmy isn’t yet the cartoonish, morally bankrupt lawyer who calls himself Saul Goodman. He’s a more complex character, often doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Jimmy McGill is a down-on-his-luck solo practitioner, living out of a rented storage space in a nail salon. He’s likable because he’s an underdog, and we root for him even though we know who he’ll become. 

For example, in Season 2, Jimmy’s older brother Chuck and his powerful law firm steal an important client from Jimmy’s girlfriend, Kim Wexler. In response, Jimmy secretly doctors legal documents, changing the address of the client’s proposed bank.

This causes months of setbacks for the client, which in turn, embarrasses Chuck in court and sends the wealthy client back to Kim. Jimmy screws over his brother, but he does it out of love for his girlfriend.

While Jimmy is treated sympathetically, he’s also shown to be a gifted scam artist who once called himself Slippin’ Jimmy, his alias for his darker side: a man for whom the ends often justify the shady means.

As his begrudging brother Chuck warns, “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.”

A large focus of the show is on the rocky relationship between the two McGill brothers, which fractures into an all-out feud when Chuck secretly records Jimmy confessing to altering the legal documents.

As a consequence, Jimmy is suspended from practising the law for twelve months and must prove that he’s straightened up, or face permanent disbarment.

Ironically, the show convinces you that Jimmy could actually straighten up his act.

In the first few seasons, Jimmy takes a brief foray into elder law, defending vulnerable seniors from a retirement home that’s overcharging them. He could have led a respectable career helping the elderly; however, his legal suspension derails those plans and pushes him into becoming Saul Goodman, the criminallawyer who defends seedy lowlifes, drug dealers, and guilty people.

The slow pace of Better Call Saul, one of its key differences from Breaking Bad, is also one of its greatest strengths. Breaking Badoften resorted to life-or-death situations and overtly dramatic moments to propel the story. For Saul, that’s not the case.

Life-or-death moments, although exciting, are easy catalysts for the main character’s change. With Saul, the writers take advantage of the fact that Jimmy’s trajectory is already established in order to tell a nuanced story using subtle revelations. It’s a stellar combination of acting, writing, and visual storytelling.

For example, season four ends with a brilliant scene in which Jimmy McGill must convince a committee to reinstate his law license.

Previously, the committee deemed him insincere after he butchered an interview. This time, he convincingly feigns a heartfelt speech, making one of the committee members cry, and even getting a reaction from Kim, who watches the hearing unfold.

Like Kim, the literal audience is moved by—and thereby tricked by—Jimmy’s sympathetic performance. We become victims to one of his cons.

This moment feels like a tipping point. The speech works. Jimmy, or “Saul,” gets his law license back. The chimp is handed a machine gun. Sadly, the good-natured part of Jimmy dies in the process.

Here, the payoff relies on our deep understanding of the characters and the inner workings of their relationships to grasp the significance. 

Compare this to a climactic scene toward the end of season 2 of Breaking Bad. Walt finds his partner Jesse passed out with his girlfriend Jane, who is overdosing on heroin.

Shockingly, Walt lets her die because he sees her as a danger to their drug operation.

In this instance, Walt’s deed is clearly evil, and it does what it’s designed to do: shock and sadden the audience and reveal who Walt has become. 

But on Better Call Saul, the journey is subtler. The characters exist in a grey space between the boundaries of right and wrong. This is a mature development on the themes of Breaking Bad, building on the original show’s exploration of what makes people good or bad.

Breaking Bad was thrilling, but it could also be downright depressing. By season 2, Walt was already evil. The show became an exercise in showing us just how much worsehe could become on his quest for more power.

Better Call Saul is more entertaining than its predecessor because Jimmy McGill remains a loveable underdog even when he’s breaking the rules. He’s pushed into becoming a bitter conman partly by forces outside his control, and partly through his own impulses.

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