We’re now two seasons into Better Call Saul, the prequel to AMC’s crime epic, Breaking Bad, which tells the back story of Walt and Jesse’s shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman. Here are a few thoughts:
If you’re looking for Breaking Bad 2.0, this ain’t it. The transformation of Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman does parallel that of Walter White to Heisenberg, but the change is much more subtle. Whereas Walter was a meek chemistry teacher who became a murderous drug lord, the path that Jimmy treads to become Saul is much shorter and narrower. Jimmy was always a theatrical con man who merely changed his name and his clothes. The series reflects this.
There is more comedy in the prequel. The cliffhangers and dramatic gut-punch moments that hooked fans of the mother ship week after week just aren’t there for Saul. By the end of the second season of Breaking Bad, we’d had shootings, beatings, a strangling, poison gas, a plane crash, a blackmailing junkie choking on her own vomit, a mercury bomb in a drug lair, more shootings, more beatings, an exploding human head on a turtle, a junkie’s head crushed by an ATM, Hector ringing his bell in a wheelchair and bloody body parts in an acid bath.
On Saul, we’ve had a couple of shootings, a couple of beatings and…umm…that’s pretty much it. You guys can call me bloodthirsty if you want, but is it too much to ask that we get a little violence with our crime show? The more twisted, the better. He he!
Another flaw in the slaw is the fact that Bob Odenkirk doesn’t possess the leading man qualities that made Bryan Cranston such a force of nature. Odenkirk was pitch-perfect as a supporting player for Walt and Jesse; a comical figure who would often stir a healthy dose of levity into an otherwise dark mixture. Odenkirk’s limited range is high-lighted when he carries the emotional burden of the show.
He is at his best when he is running a scam, whether it is on a drunk in an alley, on Ken Wins at a swanky hotel bar, or on the psychopathic Tuco Salamanca. He owns the stage when he is creating a flashy commercial, scheming on how to put one over on his lawyer bosses, or skirting ethical guidelines in service of an elderly client.
The cracks in Odenkirk’s armor appear when he plays the more emotional scenes, particularly against his mentally ill brother, Chuck. Jimmy McGill exhibits a mixture of compassion, vengeance and sibling rivalry with his brother. Odenkirk is competent in the illustration of this emotional gambit, but he does not excel at it as did his meth-making predecessor.
Of course, many of us aren’t really watching as much for Saul as we are for the further adventures of Mike Ehrmantraut. Next to Walt and Hank, Mike was one of my favorite characters on Breaking Bad and I freely admitted that I cared much more about his origins than those of Saul Goodman. One of the things I was hoping for in the prequel was more screen time for Mike and little Kaylee.
But thus far, I’ve been somewhat disappointed. Mike was reduced to cameos in the first few installments. Things turned around with the telling of his arrival in Albuquerque in the flashback episode, “5-0.” This was, in my opinion, Breaking Bad quality work. It’s no coincidence that it was also one of the darkest episodes of a series that is otherwise much lighter in tone.
After “5-0,” Mike seems to have been reduced to a supporting role. I realize that the title of this series is not, Better Like Mike, but I don’t care. Jonathan Banks is amazing in this role and Mike is a more compelling character than Saul. I do have a preference of crime shows over comedies, so that may explain my bias. Still, I think the majority of Breaking Bad fans would agree with me on this point.
Maybe the producers of Better Call Saul just want to take it easy on ol’ Mike. As of this writing, Jonathan Banks is 69 years old.
What the hell am I talking about?! My parents are both 69 and they still kick ass and take names! Age is no excuse. We like Mike!!!
Going forward with season three, the writers are going to have to darken the tone of the series. Yes, Saul isn’t a blood-soaked crime epic, but it has a bit of a schizophrenic feel to it, as if it can’t decide if it wants to be a full comedy, a legal drama, or another Breaking Bad. Jimmy McGill isn’t yet the guy who urged Walt to send Jesse to Belize, but he needs to start taking more than baby steps to get to that point before he loses my interest completely.
Now, let’s discuss the 500-pound chicken in the room. We’ve seen quite a number of crossover characters from the original series, but no one but the most ardent BB fans care about Lawson the gun dealer, Stephanie the realtor or Fran the waitress. We’re watching so we can cheer with glee when Tuco breaks a couple of legs, when pre-stroke Hector walks into a bar and talks nice to Mike, and when his silent nephews (The Cousins) stalk little Kaylee from a rooftop.
That said, every fan in the world is going to scream loud enough to tweak Mike’s hearing aid when Gustavo Fring returns to their small screens. Frankly, the finale of season two was a big disappointment because it was all build-up with no real payoff. We know Mike’s not going to kill Hector, but all we get is a cryptic note on his windshield? C’mon! Gus needs to make his presence known in season three and it needs to happen sooner than later.
I’ve been critical in this writing and it belies my opinion that Better Call Saul is a good show. As usual, the supporting cast is stellar, especially Michael McKean as Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill, and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s on-again, off-again romantic and legal partner.
Sidebar: Wouldn’t it be great if Kim could somehow be the one who defends Jesse if he ever got caught? It’s a nice thought, but I don’t think it will happen.
Yes, Better Call Saul is a good show. But that’s all it is…good. It’s not crazy good as was Breaking Bad. It’s not appointment television. I like the show, but I love eating all of Katy’s popcorn and annoying her while petting Tytus the cat.
Maybe there are people out there who think Saul surpasses Heisenberg. Fair enough. Entertainment is subjective. People think Donald Trump is worth voting for and I’m entitled to think those people are dead wrong. If you disagree with me and think my comparisons of Saul to Breaking Bad are spurious, ask yourself an honest question. Would you be watching Better Call Saul if it were a stand-alone show that had no connection to Breaking Bad? My answer is…uh uh. What’s yours?
Come on, now. Be honest.