Welp, I’m about a year overdue, but I did promise that I would render my final verdict on Better Call Saul. Last night, Dana and I watched the BSC episode concerning Mike’s backstory, which turned out to be the Mike high point of the series. Today, I engaged in a thread by the one and only Wes Craven, in which he expresses bafflement at the notion that Better Call Saul is perceived by some to be superior to its predecessor, Breaking Bad. Perhaps this is God’s way of telling me that it’s time for me to hold forth, so here goes.
First, anyone who believes that Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad should be given an acid bath in Jesse’s tub. I have written elsewhere about my opinion of the two shows, but now that both are complete, I stand by my initial assertion that Bob Odenkirk is simply not leading man material; certainly not in the way that Bryan Cranston was. This becomes more evident as BSC moves along and becomes more serious. As the story calls on Jimmy/Saul to plumb the depths of his complex core, I don’t feel it in the way that I did with Cranston.
It is ironic that I began the show fully invested in Mike’s character, while caring little about Jimmy. At the end, I was largely underwhelmed by the Mike arc. Unlike BB, which revolved around Walter and Jesse, it felt as if BSC ran along parallel tracks. The characters of Jimmy and Mike seldom intersect. When they do, the moments are fleeting. One gets the impression in BB that Saul and Mike are in it together, but the prequel doesn’t bear this out. Also, the drug stuff involving Mike, Nacho, Hector, Tuco, The Cousins, Gus and Lalo all feels anticlimactic. We know Gus is ultimately going to prevail over Lalo. We know that Hector winds up stranded in a nursing home at Gus’s mercy. We know The Cousins live through BSC, only to be killed by Hank in BB. We’re supposed to care about Nacho’s fate, but really, he’s a small cog in a bigger wheel. When he finally kills himself with a ‘fuck you!’ to Lalo, it has a meh feel. The worst part is the cold fact that we know that everything that Mike does in the name of providing for his granddaughter will ultimately come to not. Why is any of this dramatically interesting?
The Jimmy arc is more compelling, particularly in the early seasons when Chuck was alive. We don’t need long, clever musical montages of Saul selling burner phones and representing hookers in court to know why he does what he does. Chuck is the reason. But once Chuck dies, Jimmy’s story becomes less absorbing to me. He eventually transfers his feelings of hostility from his dead brother to Howard Hamlin, but of course, this doesn’t end well. I think the best moments of the series happen between Jimmy and Chuck. Both are right about each other’s flaws and both are powerless to do anything about it while they are locked in their sibling antagonism.
This brings me to Kim. Many critics and fans fell in love with Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s sometime girlfriend, partner, friend and eventual spouse. In the growing age of strong female characters, Kim is supposed to represent the moon to Jimmy’s sun. Yet, it never feels earned to me. At first, Kim appears to be a strong, confident, intelligent woman who deals with a career setback and eventually goes out on her own. Then, she becomes Jimmy’s enabler, aiding him in his con games. Her code is, “The mark deserves it.” Then, she becomes his wife. It seems she loves taking the dark ride that Jimmy offers…until she doesn’t. She pushes Jimmy to go after Howard, but ultimately, she appears to fall victim to her own sense of guilt and regret when things turn fatal for poor Howard. Her story ends as she is living a self-punishing life of dullness, complete with a monosyllabic sex partner. When she breaks down in a less than convincing crying jag on an airport shuttle, we’re supposed to bleed for her, but it feels like a female trope meant to wring sympathy from a jury.
My problem with the Kim character is that she feels like the result of an identity crisis born in the writers room. Yes, she is a woman of conflicting passions and morality, but none of it feels particularly self-aware. It’s as if the writers are engaged in a game of tug-of-war with Kim. Will she be good or bad this week? Will she be Jimmy’s conscience, or the devil on his shoulder? Unlike Walter White’s descent into pure evil, which felt organic, this feels patched together, as if we are seeing sign posts planted along a highway that is in a state of constant disrepair.
Finally, the ending. I started out lukewarm on the finale of Breaking Bad, but my appreciation for it grew over time. Conversely, I started out really liking the finale of Better Call Saul, but like it less and less as I process it more. Given all we know about Jimmy’s character, I can’t believe that he would throw himself upon the mercy of the court and take 76 years in prison just because he loves Kim. That is simply not in keeping with anything that we’ve learned about the character. Yes, it was cathartic to see Jimmy confess all of his sins in court, particularly his role in the suicide of his brother, but the confession also felt inorganic to me. I did like the flashes we saw of Jimmy’s life as Gene in Omaha. We always knew the criminal life was too much of a temptation for Jimmy to resist. I like the idea of Carol Burnett serving as Jimmy/Saul/Gene’s undoing. I just don’t buy that he’d throw himself on the sword to save Kim. Nothing we saw in the previous 61 episodes indicated that he was capable of that level of self-sacrifice.
A big problem with BSC is what critic Hannah Grace Long calls, “Prequelitis.” You see it all over the place with Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, Game of Thrones and all other stories of an origin nature. When you’re writing a prequel, you can’t help but do a certain amount of dot-connecting. This is how Jimmy meets Mike. Check. This is how Mike meets Gus. Check. This is how Gus outwits the cartel. Check. Man we even get Gale Boetticher singing the periodic tables. Cool, or superfluous? You be the judge. Unlike Breaking Bad, which had a clear canvas on which to paint, Better Call Saul is bound to be a bit contrived. This leads to storytelling that is choppy, uneven and sometimes, disappointing. You can’t help but compare the prequel to the original. You can’t help but build up your expectations based on previous work. And when those expectations are not met, many fans can’t help but be disappointed. It is as inevitable as a heroin addict choking on her own vomit.
Vince Gilligan once said that Breaking Bad was really about the in-between moments. BSC was even moreso, but too often, it fell down on the job due to the viewing audience already knowing where the story was supposed to go.
The best example is Mike. In the episode, “Five-O,” Mike confesses his sins to his daughter-in-law after he relocates to Albuquerque. He asks her, “Can you live with it?” The next time we see Mike with his granddaughter, they are playing happily together. Given the nature of the crimes Mike admitted to Stacey, one would think she would have a hard time forgiving him, but she appears to do just that without any explanation as to how she made that emotional journey. This is something Breaking Bad would never have done. It couldn’t. In BB, we already know that Mike has a great relationship with his surviving family. Therefore, BSC doesn’t have to go to the trouble of showing us how Mike gets there. This is lazy writing in the service of prequelitis.
I’m high-lighting the weaknesses of Better Call Saul, but it really is a solid series by prequel standards. The writing is very good, especially compared to most other dramatic fare today. If you like Breaking Bad, BSC is worth a look just to see how all of the pieces fit together. But when people try to tell you that BSc is superior, give them a verbal box cutter.
Last Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of the Breaking Bad series finale. I will be watching it this fall as a commemoration. I never tire of the show and still feel it is the best television series of all time. Better Call Saul is worthy, but Heisenberg’s shoes are impossible to fill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is engaging in wishcasting.
And Bethany, if you’re reading this and want to argue with me, come do it in person in Omaha. We’ll debate it over a pint at a place called Brazen Head pub. They don’t serve fried chicken with meth batter, but their fish and chips are excellent.