Truth be told, I was never a massive Breaking Bad fanboy. I watched the show, enjoyed it a lot but never quite found myself on the same level of hype as most other fans and so, when I saw Better Call Saul on Netflix, I really wasn’t in a rush to watch it. Saul Goodman was a good character but a guy worthy of his own show? I didn’t think so. But one day, similar to most when you find yourself browsing Netflix, I just didn’t know what to watch and I finally gave the show a chance. And let me tell you…
Better Call Saul takes two crucial Breaking Bad characters, Jimmy McGill (our soon to be Saul protagonist), a man who constantly feels the need to bend and break the rules in his favour, and Mike Ehrmantraut, a man who takes morally flexible jobs, does them to the letter without doing any more or less than asked, and puts them in a show together… And it works.
Part of the reason why it works is because of how slow the show is. Seriously, compared to most TV shows this thing moves at a snail’s pace. While the cliff hanger to Breaking Bad’s first season was Walter White throwing an explosive on the ground to assert dominance over a drug lord, and walking away like a bad ass, the season finale to Better Call Saul is Jimmy realising he has spent his life trying to make his brother happy and vows not to let his brother have such control over him again. Then, at the end of Breaking Bad season 2, the finale is two planes crashing into one and other in the sky because of how profoundly Walter and Jesse affected the life of a air-traffic control guy, while Better Call Saul’s season 2 finale is Jimmy’s brother, Chuck, turning off a tape recorder he used to secretly record Jimmy confessing to a felony. Sure there’s drama, but it’s not quite as flashy as Breaking Bad…
And that’s why I like it. Because, while it might not sound like it on paper, the reveal that Chuck had been recording Jimmy is executed in such a way that it gets an equivalent reaction out of me that the two planes smashing into each other also managed. Because the show is so slow paced it means that when anything happens, and I mean anything, it feels like a big deal. Whether it’s Kim, a great lawyer and Jimmy’s love interest, refusing to share an office with him or Chuck trying to assert that his aversion to electricity is a physical condition, rather than a mental one, it all hits as hard as equivalent scenes from faster paced shows.
Part of this is because we see everything these character’s do. And I mean everything. In one episode Mike is hired to kill a man. We see him discuss the plan with the man who hired him, contact someone to buy an untraceable gun and him analysing which weapon would be best for the job only for him to change his mind and decide that killing isn’t something he wants to do. He informs the person he got the guns from, and then offers an alternate solution to the man who hired him. And that’s Mike’s arc for an entire episode. It is only in the one after that we see Mike execute his new plan that sees his target arrested and put away for a long time, rather than dead, that we get a wrap up to this little story. It would have been so easy for Mike to just to say “no, I don’t do hitman jobs” and then suggest another plan, but instead we get to see the character go through the motions and gradually decide he doesn’t want to compromise himself by going that extra step to murder someone. Simply put, if the interactions in this show weren’t so drawn out and well written then it would not only feel generic, but also stale.
Thankfully this is not the case.
But that doesn’t mean immediate change cannot be seen across seasons. Season one sees Jimmy trying to redeem himself and be a straight, upstanding lawyer only to find that it isn’t only unrewarding for him in terms of his career and liveable income, but also on a personal level. The season ends with him deciding not to play it straight anymore and it is reflected immediately at the start of season 2 when the first episode concludes with Jimmy flicking a switch that says “do not touch”. I wouldn’t say it’s jarring, but between pretty much every season of the show you can feel that something is different. The difference between Season1 and 2, regarding the show’s focus and tone, is most notable in my opinion. It has all the same humour and goals, but seems to relax itself a little more. All this means that Better Call Saul never once feels like it’s riding off of the success or living in the shadow of it’s predecessor, but rather that it exists as its own entity worthy of praise separate from that which came before.
If you’re looking for easy viewing then this isn’t really a show you should be watching. The slow pace means that every change that occurs is subtle. Look away for just a moment and you might miss the half-glance Mike gives to someone indicating his changed perspective on something. You’re really in it for the long haul on this one which means that, although I personally enjoy how slow it is, it can also be hard to stick with for people who perhaps go into it expecting another Breaking Bad. And as I said, this show is it’s own entity, so don’t go into this expecting that.
Better Call Saul is a prequel, yes. But what season 1 and 2 do above all else is set it up as it’s own thing. There are characters you recognise, yes, locations that will make you point at the screen but only a marginal amount of it is done for the sake of a mere call back. Unfortunately I do feel the presence of characters like Tuco are a little forced (not fan-servicey, more like out of place), but at the same time it’s hard to complain when the character is used to an end that serves the plot of two leading characters in the show, rather than just for name recognition or gaining clout with long time fans.
So not only for it’s ambition, but also it’s confidence in itself and willingness to set itself apart, I would highly recommend Better Call Saul seasons one and two. It is a tremendously written and acted show that, given the time, might just steal away your evenings.
NOTE: I hope this post wasn’t too vague about the show. I tried something new by talking about how the show goes about presenting itself and it’s story, rather than giving my traditional rundown on an episode by episode basis. The reason being that, when I was writing my Loki review, I thought I dragged it out far too long simply by including the episode summaries. I much proffered by brief synopsis of seasons before delving into the main review I did for the Handmaid’s Tale. That too was something new for me to try. I hope this way of writing about TV was clear for you dear, blessed readers. If not, by all means sling me some constructive criticism! Writing about TV shows can be hard due to their length, so feedback is always welcome.