Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are two of my all-time favorite TV shows.
Breaking Bad remains an essential instruction manual in how to write compelling characters by putting them in wild predicaments of their own making. I’m watching the show again with my 15-year-old years after I first watched it and I think I love it even more now than before. Talk about an intense show with real character arcs!
I’m also watching the prequel series, Better Call Saul, which places crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) at the center of his own Breaking Bad-adjacent story. It’s evolved from a Prodigal Son allegory about pre-Saul Jimmy McGill and his tragic conflict with his brilliant but mentally unwell brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) into a tale of drug cartels and revenge.
In some ways, Better Caul Saul has actually improved on Breaking Bad. The latter lost just a bit of its momentum in the final season or so, whereas Better Call Saul is every bit as good as it ever was, managing somehow to keep the stakes high even though it’s a prequel and we know the fate of many of its characters.
The show does this in two ways. First, it has introduced a handful of other compelling characters that we never see in Breaking Bad and makes us wait on the edge of our seat to see what happens to them.
We found out what happens to Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) during the shocking conclusion to the Season 6 mid-season finale and the fate of Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) earlier in the season, but we still don’t know will befall Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) or Saul’s partner-in-everything, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seahorn).
This not-knowing is a huge part of the prequel’s success. Too often, prequels feel toothless because we know what happens (or can’t possibly happen) to all the main characters. Look no further than the deeply mediocre Obi-Wan Kenobi show on Disney+ for a sterling example of what I’m talking about.
The second way Better Call Saul keeps us guessing is how it will finally tie-in to Breaking Bad and what Saul’s ultimate fate will be. We know what happens to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and thanks to El Camino we know what happens in Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) storyline. But we still don’t know what happens to Saul.
From the beginning of the series, we’ve seen black and white scenes with Saul working in a Cinnabon at a mall after his escape from Albuquerque and the police. He has a new look and a new identity. And I know I’m not alone in wondering if he’ll slouch his way off into the sunset or finally meet his comeuppance.
A Tale Of Two Sauls
The Saul of Breaking Bad feels very much like a man who deserves jail time. The Saul of Breaking Bad is as slimey as they come, and as a Breaking Bad fan I’m happy to see him face justice. He enabled Walter White and Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and myriad other bad guys, going far beyond defense lawyer and becoming a straight-up criminal (lawyer).
But the Saul of Better Call Saul is a bird of a different feather, and herein lies my problem. This is where I think the final episodes of the prequel series will need to work extra hard, because right now the two shows are so far from aligned it’s not even funny.
Better Call Saul’s Saul is a complicated, mostly likeable guy who often does the wrong thing for the right reasons. His biggest mistakes are usually because he takes things too far, but he often does this because he wants to prove himself or because he simply doesn’t care to play by the rules. He wanted to be a lawyer but Chuck tried to sabotage him every step of the way because he didn’t think his brother Jimmy was honest enough or respectful enough of the law. So Jimmy (at the time) played dirty. But we still empathized with is predicament.
Even in the first half of the final season, Jimmy is largely sympathetic, often pushing back against Kim’s excesses in her bizarre revenge quest against Howard. The Saul Goodman of this show is compassionate, affable and while he bends and twists the rules and sometimes takes things much too far, he’s always grounded in a sense of basic morality. It may be a fast and loose kind of morality but it’s there.
More to the point, he behaves like a nice guy to almost everyone. He’s kind to elderly people and respectful to women and, when he’s not pranking or conning people, generally not a bad dude.
As I noted above, I’m re-watching Breaking Bad with my 15-year-old and not long ago we had our first encounter with that show’s original version of Saul Goodman. Like the prequel version of this character, he’s smooth-talking and quick on his feet, a talker who can talk his way out of—or into—just about anything.
Unlike the prequel version, Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman is a sexist slime-bag and a creep who’s overtly obsessed with making money and lots of it. In one of his first scenes he’s leaving his office with his assistant Francesca (Tina Parker) when he suggests to her that he follow her home. She replies, “No,” rather sternly and he says “What!? For safety!” As she walks away he says, “God you are killing me with that booty,” like the biggest creep you can think of.
Here’s the scene:
He also refers to her as “Honey Tits” at one point and is just . . . generally a total prick in Breaking Bad, though his prickishness is overshadowed by the petulant narcissism and gargantuan ego of Walter White.
Still, we’re five-and-a-half seasons into Better Call Saul and Saul remains a pretty good guy who makes some pretty big mistakes. None of those mistakes are anything like sexually harassing his assistant—who he has now worked with for years—and remarking on her ‘booty.’
(Saul also remains much thinner thanks to Odenkirk losing a bunch of weight, but that’s a continuity change I can stomach).
Now, you can say “Oh well this is the trouble with prequels” and “Oh well Saul was just a cartoon character at this point and wasn’t very fleshed out” and that’s all true, but it’s not enough. My question is, how will the very talented, very clever creators of Better Call Saul connect these dots?
Frankly, it seems like an impossible task with just a handful of episodes remaining. How do you take the Saul at the very end of the most recent episode, shocked and horrified at what just happened, and transform him into the leering, money-obsessed creep he is by the time Walter and Jesse waltz into his life?
For a long time now I’ve expected the show to start pushing Saul down his own winding road of calamity and decadence, not merely changing him from Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, but having Saul himself ‘break bad’ over time. This has not happened even a little, even as he’s taken on jobs for the cartel and represented Lalo. In many ways, Nacho’s arc has been more compelling and dramatic (and damn if Michael Mando didn’t nail his final scene like a boss). In some ways, even poor uptight Howard has had a more profound character arc.
And that is, I think, a bit worrisome. Don’t get me wrong, I have every faith in the creators of this show. It’s brilliant and so much more than I ever expected from a spinoff of Breaking Bad.
Still, there are only six episodes remaining with the first—Season 6, Episode 8—airing this coming Monday, July 11th (I am going to review now that my horrific writer’s block appears to be dissipating). How much change can Saul undergo in this short timeframe?
We know that Kim’s fate will be indelibly wed to whatever happens to Jimmy/Saul in the next few episodes, whether she lives or dies, is imprisoned or captured, or simply disappears. But even there, how does Saul go from someone who genuinely cares for people like Francesca to . . . “God you’re killing me with that booty!”
I’m sure it’s a question the show’s creators have asked themselves many times. It is the question that they set out to answer, no doubt. Let’s see if they can stick the landing.
The fact that both Cranston and Paul are reprising their roles at some point in the second half of the season only serves to underscore these concerns.
P.S. Do you think Carol Burnett’s character, Marion, will have something to do with the Sandpiper case? I’m very curious. I honestly wasn’t even aware she was still acting until I found out about her role in the show. Pretty cool!
Follow me on this blog for all your daily Wordles, game coverage and TV and movie reviews.