AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-) had its season finale last night, and its first season is a miracle that only Saul Goodman could pull off: not only is it the rare spinoff that’s actually any good (for every Frasier, there’s The Tortellis, the Cheers companion piece you’ve probably never even heard of), but Saul is as good as its parent series, the most cinematic show in television history, Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Creator Vince Gilligan achieves this by making Breaking Bad a drama with comedic overtones and Better Call Saul a comedy with dramatic overtones, which is perfect for the delightfully scummy lawyer Jimmy McGill, better known as Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), whose story is decidedly less tragic than that of the cancer-riddled, high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston); the two shows complement, rather than compete against, each other. That being said, even Breaking Bad, the greatest work of fiction ever telecast, has its missteps (I still don’t like the “fly” episode, no matter what the critics have to say about it), and so Better Call Saul – which is neither superior nor inferior, but equal (so far) – is not without its own imperfections; none of these episodes are bad, but some have more strengths than others, and, conveniently, there are exactly ten of them.
- “Marco” (Episode Ten)
Am I the only one who found last night’s finale to be underwhelming? It wasn’t disappointing, but it wasn’t as world-stopping as the plane crash at the end of Breaking Bad’s second season, or the race-against-time third season finale, or the (literally) explosive fourth season finale, or the game-changing fifth season finale, or the tying-up-loose-ends series finale. The first season of Breaking Bad ended prematurely during the Hollywood writers’ strike, and I think the same thing happened to the first season of Better Call Saul – abruptness.
- “Alpine Shepherd Boy” (Episode Five)
One flaw that I think Better Call Saul suffers from is a habit of introducing character developments and never going anywhere with them. Jimmy’s technophobic brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), is finally hospitalized for his neuroses, and overcomes them gradually over the next few episodes, but ultimately… stays technophobic and housebound and isn’t even part of Jimmy’s life anymore? This cast of characters is interesting, so the showrunners can get away with it, but it’s episodes like these, which might as well not even exist for all the importance they have later on, that make Better Call Saul feel less focused than Breaking Bad.
- “Nacho” (Episode Three)
Again, with the lack of focus. Nacho (Michael Mando) is a coolly intimidating counterpoint to his meth-crazed partner-in-crime, Breaking Bad gangster Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), and the fact that Better Call Saul is a prequel series taking place six years before Walter White takes over the New Mexico drug scene, means that something has to happen to Nacho sometime between 2002 and Breaking Bad (hopefully a kill as creative as the ones in Bad), since Tuco makes an appearance without him. The mystery of the disappeared Kettleman family is well-crafted (with a hilarious conclusion), and prime suspect Nacho threatens Jimmy’s life with his cartel connections if the in-over-his-head attorney doesn’t get him exonerated, but, after being let out of jail, Nacho vaguely threatens Jimmy, and is virtually never seen again for the rest of the season.
- “Bingo” (Episode Seven)
I don’t understand the TV critics who hate the Kettlemans (Julie Ann Emery and Jeremy Shamos) – I think they’re funny, and I think they deliver on the narrative tension. Maybe I’m too used to the aestheticized ultraviolence on display in Breaking Bad, since Better Call Saul is more of a black comedy legal drama than it is an action-packed adventure serial, but I feel like all the conflict that the Kettlemans provide is resolved a little bit too… cleanly. Yes, we get a peek at the Saul Goodman who Jimmy McGill will become (not a criminal lawyer, but a criminal lawyer) when he has Breaking Bad alumnus Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) burgle the embezzled cash that the Kettlemans use to bribe and blackmail Jimmy into representing their never-gonna-happen “not guilty” plea, but… like I said, it’s not Breaking Bad “good,” it’s Better Call Saul “good,” but it’s not Better Call Saul “great,” either.
- “Uno” (Episode One)
The pilot episode to Better Call Saul is at times funny, at times thrilling, at all times entertaining, with a didn’t-see-that-one-coming cameo from Tuco Salamanca. However, one weakness that Breaking Bad and Saul have in common is their reliance on coincidences (what are the odds that Jimmy winds up held hostage by the same monstrous drug addict who will cross paths with his client from Hell, six years later?). Breaking Bad makes its coincidences work because it grapples with the theme of actions having consequences, and, yes, Better Call Saul takes place in this same karmic Albuquerque as Bad, but we don’t need another show about actions having consequences – we already have Breaking Bad; on the other hand, we’re only one season into Better Call Saul, a show that wouldn’t exist without the now-classic Breaking Bad, so we can’t expect too much from it quite yet by way of “identity.”
- “Mijo” (Episode Two)
This is the episode for Breaking Bad purists, the one with acts of violence as brutal and sadistic as anything Walter White has ever done (or seen done). What’s brilliant about it, though, is that it isn’t gratuitous at all; rather, Better Call Saul takes the creative opportunity to be the “yin” to the “yang” of Breaking Bad, through its violence – the Breaking Bad violence is graphic, almost artistic, but the Better Call Saul violence is effective not because of what you see, but because of what you don’t see. What keeps it from ranking higher up in this list is what we’ll call “Titanic syndrome” – you know Rose survives the sinking in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) because she lives to tell the tale via flashbacks, eighty years later, and so the suspense is gone; you know Jimmy and Tuco somehow resolve their differences because they get to meet Walter White, six years later (you just don’t know how they’ll resolve their differences).
- “Pimento” (Episode Nine)
The twist ending in this one is devastating. The Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul writers usually produce their most climactic catharses with their penultimate episodes, instead of their finales (“Phoenix” in Season Two, “Half Measures” in Season Three, “Crawl Space” in Season Four, “Ozymandias” in Season Five; hell, even Season One’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” deserves an honorable mention, even though it’s second-to-last in an incomplete season). Mike’s subplot is deliciously badass, but, alas, I’m unsure of how relevant it is, because Better Call Saul can’t decide just yet whether it’s the backstory to Saul Goodman or the backstory to Breaking Bad in general; Breaking Bad gets lost in its secondary characters, near the end, but at least all their individual exploits can be traced back to Heisenberg, whereas Better Call Saul hasn’t established that kind of focal point in its earliest stages (which, again, is to be expected of such a young series).
- “RICO” (Episode Eight)
Here, Better Call Saul settles into its own, unique rhythm. It takes skill to make a RICO case against a retirement community skimming off its residents’ social security checks as exciting as a RICO case against organized crime (which we more commonly see in pop culture). How Jimmy McGill goes from practicing “elder law” to helping Walt out as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad because he knows a guy… who knows a guy… who knows another guy, is something we’re eager to see throughout the rest of the series (though it would be decidedly less intriguing if Better Call Saul were a standalone work).
- “Hero” (Episode Four)
We don’t just get a “peek” at Jimmy’s inner Saul in this chapter – we get a full-blown Saul Goodman escapade. Rarely does something make me laugh out loud when I’m watching it by myself, but this had me in hysterics. It’s smart, it’s sleek, and nothing is what it seems.
- “Five-O” (Episode Six)
Just like TV and movies rarely get me to laugh, they rarely get me to cry, either, but Jonathan Banks’s monologue at the end of this midseason gut-punch had me choked up and on the verge of tears, and, so help me, if he doesn’t win an Emmy for it, or even a Golden Globe, then I give up on awards shows. “Five-O” isn’t about Jimmy/Saul, it’s about Mike, and Vince Gilligan’s team gambles Mike’s hardboiled persona when they cast him in a heartbreakingly vulnerable light, but you don’t even notice or care because it’s so masterfully executed. It’s a transcendent experience – it feels not so much like an episode in a series, but more like a short film, or a painfully depressing play, and it surpasses much (if not all) of Breaking Bad; it certainly surpasses all other television.
I hate how negative some of these reviews sound – Better Call Saul is something I looked forward to every week, and I’ll be checking every day for updates on the second season. I was forced to be nitpicky because none of its shortcomings are glaring; it’s as close to perfection as a work of art can come, as close as Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul may not be overly accessible to non-Breaking Bad fans, and you definitely have to watch Bad first for Saul to have the same impact, but self-reference is the stuff mythologies are made of, and mythology separates the “iconic” from the merely “well-done.”
Need a new addiction? Better call Saul!