Breaking Bad, one of the greatest series ever, might have been the most entertaining show in television history. But against all odds, its spin-off Better Call Saul is one great final season away from being worthy of the honor as “the better show.”
The newly finished fifth season of Better Call Saul was the series’ best yet. Quite the accomplishment since every season has been at worst good and at best amazing. Through its first four years, it was already in the discussion for best spin-off and best prequel in TV history. In fairness to Breaking Bad, that’s partly because it boasts much of what made its predecessor so good.
Building on the Best of Breaking Bad
The casts of both shows are absolutely phenomenal, especially their leads. Few performers could have lived up to Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s work as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. But Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn’s Jimmy and Kim have been every bit as good. The rest of the Better Call Saul lineup—Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael McKean, Michael Mando, and Patrick Fabian—have all given nuanced, memorable performances as strong as anything on Breaking Bad.
Both series look incredible, with Better Call Saul having adopted that distinct Breaking Bad aesthetic; this unified approach in cinematography, camera angles, and framing solidifies the shows’ connection. Granted, Better Call Saul still has a unique touch, its black and white flash-forwards to “Cinnabon Gene,”that helps separate the show’s look in a meaningful way.
And both tell exciting, tense, action-packed stories wrapped around deep character studies. Many of Breaking Bad‘s best scenes involved guns and life-or-death situations, while Better Call Saul‘s best moments, prior to season five at least, have taken place in courtrooms or living rooms. Its highest stakes tend to be the emotional destruction of interpersonal relationships.
A Journey with an End
But despite the differences in locations and death tolls, each show is ultimately an engrossing story about a mesmerizing lead who lost his moral compass, and the terror that his descent into evil created for the people around him.
How much you enjoy watching genuinely heart-racing action sequences versus how much you enjoy watching two brothers ripping apart old family wounds likely determines which show you prefer. And Breaking Bad‘s constant barrage of “holy s***” moments at breakneck speed are maybe TV’s best ever, which is why so many list it as their all-time favorite.
Breaking Bad was far more entertaining on a week-to-week basis than its spin-off is. But what has made Better Call Saul better is that its seemingly biggest weakness as a prequel has turned into its biggest strength.
We know where Jimmy, Mike, and Gus will end up. Their “bad choice roads” will bring them all to ruin. And that inevitability has worked to the series’ advantage. Having a (mostly) defined final destination has let Vince Gilligan and the rest of the Better Call Saul creative team craft a sharper and more focused show.
Better Call Saul has a longterm plan that clearly wasn’t at play in Breaking Bad. The writers won’t still be trying to figure out what to do with ricin in the finale, or coming up with more and more outlandish ways for Saul Goodman to escape from danger. As a result, Better Call Saul has played out like a meticulously written novel that is equal parts funny, heartbreaking, exciting, and tragic, full of a rich cast of characters of incredible depth.
The “anything can happen/even we don’t know what will happen” approach obviously worked for Breaking Bad. It was genuinely thrilling, to the point it frequently made me physically ill watching it. But the tradeoff was that even some of the best episodes felt rushed. A problem like how to destroy a confiscated laptop in police storage was resolved via a giant magnet by episode’s end. Of course that led to yet another problem, which in normal Breaking Bad fashion was then resolved by the end of the next episode. Then the cycle would would start anew. Tim Heidecker once joked that Breaking Bad should be called, “It’s Always Something!” It’s a perfect description for the absurdly fast-paced presentation and resolution of problems the show was fond of.
On Better Call Saul, conflicts can last a half a season or more. Some episodes don’t even move the plot forward, instead choosing to focus on character development via painful conversations punctuated by silence. That approach comes with its own issues too—the series has been rightfully criticized for being too slow, which was a problem during season three. But this method has led to incredibly moving and powerful stories, filled with characters we care about in situations we can empathize with in ways we couldn’t with Walter White.
Obviously a slower approach hasn’t prevented Better Call Saul from also featuring mind-blowing, highly stressful scenes and dramatic moments. And when the show does get to a Breaking Bad-style action sequence they hit hard in a different way because of the slow build. Breaking Bad was like a runaway locomotive that kept picking up steam, leaving you exhausted as you tried to keep up. Better Call Saul is like the famous Alfred Hitchcock notion of suspense, where the characters don’t know what the audience does—there’s a bomb under the table that will explode at any time.
And despite being a prequel there’s still enough mystery to make that final inevitable explosion even more suspenseful. We don’t know if Kim or Nacho will bear the brunt when it goes off. More importantly, we don’t know if they deserve to be.
No Easy Answers
Over the course of five seasons almost every major character on Better Call Saul has given us reasons to both root for and against them. (Minus the sociopathic Lalo, who is an incredible villain.) At times the condescending Chuck seemed totally loathsome; in other moments, we felt bad for the sick, lonely old man. Even Howard, who seemed like the easiest person on the show to hate, turned out to be a complicated figure far more complex than we initially knew.
After the season five finale, it’s not even clear if Kim herself, the emotional backbone of the show, is quite the person we’ve thought she is. Whereas we assumed Jimmy would be the one to ruin her life, she might push him into fully embracing Saul Goodman. She’s feeding Jimmy’s worst instincts, which might be even worse than Chuck denying Jimmy’s best. It’s just the latest twist for arguably the show’s best character. (Which the great Rhea Seehorn has made a standout since the beginning.) Now we have to wonder: if Kim meets an unfortunate end, will it ultimately be her own doing? It’s a truly incredible development that it’s even a possibility, an absolute testament to the show’s character-heavy focus.
Kim’s role is why we don’t know how much we’ll hate or empathize with Jimmy McGill by the end either. We’ve seen both sides of him, and it’s not clear if we should be on his side or rooting for his demise. Our feelings can change from season to season, episode to episode, or even scene to scene. His story is a classic nature versus nurture question. Could he have been a better man if Chuck had treated him better? Or if Kim didn’t push him to be his worse self? Or was “Slippin’ Jimmy” destined to become “Gene” because he’s truly a bad person?
Though it may not have been obvious during first watch of Breaking Bad, retrospect shows us that Walter White was clearly the villain from the start, with no one to blame for what he became. In a total stunner, it has never been clear exactly who Jimmy McGill is and why. Better Call Saul‘s refusal to give us easy answers has made for a more challenging show, and ultimately, a more rewarding journey.
Sticking the Landing
Pound for pound, I think Better Call Saul has been the better show through five seasons than Breaking Bad was through its first four. Better Call Saul was excellent right away, whereas Breaking Bad‘s first two years had great individual moments and amazing performances. It was a far cry from the seminal show it became midway through season three.
That fifth season, minus the finale I’m not a fan of, was mind-blowing. It somehow topped season four, which is one of the best in television history. Few shows will ever create a moment as good as Gus’s death, or Walt confronting Hank about the tracer on his car. Yet somehow Breaking Bad topped both at the end of its run. “Ozymandias” and “The Granite State” are two of the best episodes anyone has—or will—ever make.
If Better Call Saul doesn’t deliver a truly great final season it will be hard to say it was better than its predecessor. Even if Breaking Bad had lower lows, its highs will be hard to argue against. But if Better Call Saul does give us an amazing last season—if the end of Jimmy McGill’s story is as great as the end of Walter White’s—then it will rightfully deserve to be remembered as the superior show.
Of course, what really matters isn’t which show is better. What matters is they are both great.
Featured Image: AMC
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.
Featured Image: AMC