“Better Call Saul”: TV’s greatest spin off to date

Written By Jake Dabkowski, Editor-in-Chief

Five Globes

Breaking Bad is revered by many television critics as the greatest television series of all time. The show won numerous Emmy awards, garnered other historic accolades, and had an extraordinary impact on popular culture.

When it was first announced that series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would be developing a spin-off show about Saul Goodman, Walter White’s sleazy lawyer, many were quick to suggest the show was nothing more than a cash grab. 

In Breaking Bad, Goodman was introduced for two very specific reasons. 

Reason number one being that the show had progressed to a point where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, two methamphetamine manufacturers, were constantly evading law enforcement. Having a corrupt lawyer on their side would help audiences suspend their disbelief as to why these characters, who admittedly were not very skilled at being criminals aside from cooking meth, stayed away from jail.

Reason number two was that the show was getting incredibly depressing, fast, and it needed a swift injection of comic relief. The first season of Breaking Bad has a lot of comedic elements, which makes sense considering Bryan Cranston’s background in comedy. As the show got into darker territory, Goodman, played by renowned comedian Bob Odenkirk, would help ease some of the tension and give the characters a break.

In 2011, at the height of Breaking Bad’s popularity, the question on everyone’s minds was simple: “why make a show about Saul Goodman?” The answer now is obvious: because it is a more compelling story than Breaking Bad.

A majority of Better Call Saul is a prequel to the events of Breaking Bad, with most of the show set in the early 2000s. Rather than start the show as Saul Goodman, which is stated in Breaking Bad to be a pseudonym, Odenkirk portrays Jimmy McGill; a kind, but flawed, lawyer working as a public defender. The immediate question is how does McGill, public defender, someday become Saul Goodman, a key component in the largest methamphetamine ring in history? It’s a question that’s hard to answer, yet somehow Gilligan and Gould consistently deliver an engaging and entertaining show.

Breaking Bad is a much more bombastic show than Better Call Saul. Breaking Bad is littered with gun fights and explosions, where Better Call Saul is driven primarily by its characters. Which is a good thing, because what this franchise, especially Better Call Saul, excels at is its strong character work.

Every single character in Better Call Saul, whether they’re big or small, feels like a real person. Each character acts and behaves the way that real people would behave. The show gets to the root causes of what makes each character tick before giving you gunfights and explosions. In a big way, Better Call Saul is the calm before Breaking Bad’s storm.

That’s not to say that Better Call Saul is devoid of action. There’s plenty of it. Somehow, however, the show made people talking while walking down courthouse hallways much more interesting than the action sequences, which is a testament to the quality of the show’s writing.

It is also due in small part to the cinematography of the show. Every episode of the show is absolutely stunning to look at, even whenever it’s something as simple as a character getting a cup of coffee or a dropped ice cream cone on a sidewalk. Combining that with the show’s stellar editing, the show would be enjoyable to watch, even if the story were weak. And yet, the story ends up being the best part.

That story is driven, and delivered, by so many incredible performances that it would be impossible to name all of them. Odenkirk, of course, delivers the performance of a lifetime as Jimmy McGill-turned Saul Goodman, and will undoubtedly be looked back on as one of the most impressive dramatic performances that the medium has ever seen. The fact that he has yet to win an Emmy for this role is not just mind-boggling, it’s insulting.

The even larger Emmy snub, however, is Rhea Seehorn’s performance as Kim Wexler, McGill’s love interest and fellow lawyer. Seehorn was originally cast to be on the show as a small, recurring love interest, but Gilligan and Gould saw her potential and turned her into one of the most compelling characters of the series.

McGill and Wexler’s relationship ends up being the emotional heart of the series, and the dynamic that they have feels authentic, something that is incredibly difficult to achieve. The chemistry between the two is so unique and real, and the way that the show grows their bond is the main driving point of the show.

Alongside them are a litany of great characters. On the side of the law, there is no shortage of fantastic performances. Patrick Fabian plays the nuanced Howard Hamlin, a rival lawyer to McGill, and consistently keeps audiences on the edge of their seats as his character develops. Michael McKean, a highly respected comedic actor, delivers a fantastic dramatic performance as Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s more experienced and respected older brother. The two of them are partners at a law firm, and our main gateway into the legal world.

On the side of criminality, once again, nothing but stellar performances. Tony Dalton kills as the charming, but sociopathic, Lalo Salamanca, a character first mentioned in a throwaway line by Goodman in Breaking Bad. Salamanca does not appear until later seasons of the show, which I think is a great example of why Better Call Saul is so good: it takes its time.

Michael Mando portrays Ignacio Varga, another character mentioned in Breaking Bad. Unlike Salamanca, Varga is introduced in the show’s second episode, and serves as a means of bringing McGill into the criminal underworld that he will someday flourish in. Returning from Breaking Bad, Giancarlo Esposito delights as Gus Fring, providing fascinating background to his villainous performance.

The best return from Breaking Bad, aside from Goodman himself, is undoubtedly Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmentraut. In Breaking Bad, Ehrmentraut is a relatively straightforward character: he’s a criminal who does what he does to provide for his granddaughter. In Better Call Saul, we get to see Ehrmentraut’s descent from retired, formerly-corrupt cop to cold blooded murderer. His character’s moral destruction is a deliberate and dynamic parallel to Jimmy McGill’s descent to Saul Goodman, and the relationship between the two is one of the most interesting elements of the entire show.

When watching Better Call Saul for the first time, the beginning of the show can seem slow, but it is essential to keep watching. By the end of it, any viewer will be glad that they stuck with it, and will see that the slow-burn character development is what makes the more dramatic moments feel so real.