How “Better Call Saul” Brilliantly Killed the Thrills of “Breaking Bad”

I don’t want “Better Call Saul” to catch up with “Breaking Bad.” It will, of course. We know where the story ends. But so much of the brilliance of the Bob Odenkirk-led prequel, which begins its sixth and final season on Monday, is how reluctantly it seems to be getting where it’s going. By the end of the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” the unassuming chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had already begun cooking meth and committed his first murder, albeit in self-defense. “Better Call Saul” is similarly premised on the descent of its hero, Jimmy McGill, who by the time of “Breaking Bad” has become the sociopathic “criminal attorney” Saul Goodman. “Breaking Bad” was set between 2008 and 2010, and, according to scrupulous online timekeepers, “Better Call Saul” has so far brought its characters through only June of 2004. By this point, Jimmy has proved adept at bending the law and at executing the occasional scam. But there is still a vast psychic distance between the gentle protagonist of “Better Call Saul” and the despicable figure who, in his first episode of “Breaking Bad,” can’t fathom why Walter won’t simply kill a compromised friend. By the start of Season 6, Jimmy has begun using his new name, in his commercials and his law practice, and he rationalizes his way into defending (and abetting) cartel criminals in court. But “Saul” is still just a character he plays. He has not yet lost himself in the role.

Odenkirk was originally cast on “Breaking Bad” as comic relief, for a three-episode arc. (The character was written by Peter Gould, who co-created “Better Call Saul” with Vince Gilligan, the showrunner of “Breaking Bad.”) Saul’s look was modelled after a notorious Albuquerque personal-injury lawyer whose garish billboards and TV ads had caught the eye of the show’s writing staff. With his mulleted comb-over and multicolored suits, Saul Goodman was a caricature of shamelessness, and an embodiment of the anti-Semitic “shyster” trope. (“The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys,” he tells Walter during their first meeting. “They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”) But the character kept returning each season, and the idea of a “Saul”-focussed spinoff became a running joke on set. When such a show arrived, in 2015, the cartoon cutout from “Breaking Bad” had been transformed into a fully fleshed-out and startlingly sympathetic person. The Jimmy McGill we meet in Season 1 is defined by the people he cares for, including his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and his hapless clients, an assortment of penniless criminals and forgotten senior citizens. Whereas “Breaking Bad” ’s Saul would sell his proverbial grandmother for a buck, Jimmy, in “Better Call Saul” Season 4, engineers a humiliating scheme—and defers his million-dollar windfall from a class-action settlement—just to reconcile his elderly client Irene with her friends. Most of all, Jimmy cares about his partner, Kim Wexler, and the life (and law practice) he hopes to build with her.

Walter White’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), was one of the most (unjustly) hated characters in modern television. She had the audacity to object to her husband’s murderous midlife crisis, which for many fans made her a buzzkill. As other critics have pointed out, the writers of “Better Call Saul” seemed intent on avoiding a repeat of the Skyler problem when they wrote the character of Kim. Played by the beguilingly opaque Rhea Seehorn, Kim is Jimmy’s partner in crime; the pair even run cons together, bilking blowhards for free drinks and checks they don’t bother to cash. Whereas Skyler was an uncomfortable reminder of all the responsibilities that Walter was shirking, Kim is Jimmy’s unconditional ally and enabler. But the character of Kim never appears in “Breaking Bad,” and the question hanging over “Better Call Saul” is: why? Each season opens with a black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s fate after “Breaking Bad” ends, a numbing purgatory in Nebraska, where he is hiding under the alias Gene Takovic. He labors silently in an Omaha Cinnabon, without hope, without joy, and without Kim, watching old commercials of himself as Saul on degrading VHS tapes. If Kim doesn’t die by the end of the final season, then something even worse might be in the offing: the prospect that she—the show’s most fundamentally decent character—will break bad, too. In Season 6’s opening montage, set after the end of “Breaking Bad,” we see a tequila stopper that Kim kept from her first con with Jimmy, a token of their relationship, lying lost in a gutter.

Also pointedly absent from “Breaking Bad” is Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), a mid-level cartel lieutenant who attempts to get out of the game—and keep his family from being drawn in—only to grow more deeply embroiled. Nacho’s fate has become tangled with that of “Better Call Saul” ’s second parallel protagonist, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), a former cop whose descent into crime both mirrors and facilitates Jimmy’s own. On “Breaking Bad,” Mike served the same limited narrative function as Saul. (In fact, he was initially written into the show because Odenkirk had a scheduling conflict.) Like Saul, Mike schooled Walter in the soulless, efficient business of being a criminal. He also demonstrated the lonely end point of that path. In the course of “Better Call Saul,” we learn how Mike got there. Motivated by guilt over the death of his son, who was murdered at the hands of other corrupt cops, Mike provides for his daughter-in-law to keep his self-hatred at bay. In Season 2, Nacho identifies Mike as “the guy who won’t pull the trigger,” and he increasingly appeals to Mike for help in escaping his employers. For Mike, Nacho seems to offer a chance for redemption, a surrogate son figure who can still be saved. But then Mike kills his friend Werner Ziegler, and it becomes clear that he’s given in to a sense of fatalism. Choices “put you on a road,” he lectures Jimmy, “and nothing can be done about that.” If that road leads to Mike murdering Nacho—as I suspect it will—their story will have its perfect, terrible ending.

“Better Call Saul” ’s air of proleptic regret may be the best measure of what its creators learned from “Breaking Bad.” The original show was ostensibly about transformation, as it reminded us through heavy-handed shots of chemistry paraphernalia and more than a few on-the-nose soliloquies. But the revelation of the final season was that Walter had never really changed at all. A terminal-cancer diagnosis only freed him to be the sociopath he had always secretly longed to be. “You are a time bomb,” Mike tells him, in Season 5. The reagents were all measured out and assembled; Walt was just waiting for a catalyst to set him off. In this sense, the show was dorm-room Nietzscheanism, a parable about cathartic self-realization through violence. Liberated from fear by the inevitability of his own death, Walter breaks loose from the emasculating shackles of conventional morality and is finally able to live free and die. In the finale, he tells Skyler the truth: “I did it for me. I liked it,” he explains, adding, “I was alive.”

The worst thing about “Breaking Bad” was that we liked it, too. The showrunners became increasingly uneasy with how the series’ “bad fans” rooted for its hero—and against Skyler—and made increasingly explicit efforts to convey the depths of Walter’s evil. We saw him partner with Nazis, ruin his family, and destroy everything he’d claimed to be building. But the narrative could never overpower the allure of its protagonist. No matter how ugly Walt’s victories became, the show’s pleasure was always, at least a little bit, about living vicariously through his violent triumphs and awful freedoms. If he was a time bomb, we watched to see the fireworks.

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“Better Call Saul” has turned this formula on its head. We know that Jimmy McGill really will change and that, far from being Jimmy’s authentic self, Saul Goodman is his negation: to become Saul, Jimmy must effectively perish. The transformation seems to have begun in Season 1, when Jimmy discovered—exactly as Skyler did—that the person he loved most in the world, his brother Chuck, not only lied to him and betrayed him but held him in contempt. Before Chuck dies, in an ambiguously suicidal house fire in Season 3, he berates his perennial fail-brother not simply for hurting people (“over and over and over . . . everyone around you”) but for what he sees as Jimmy’s hypocritical show of remorse. “Stop apologizing and accept it, embrace it. . . . I’d have more respect for you if you did,” he says. Jimmy’s tragedy is that he believes Chuck’s diagnosis, and tries to win his posthumous respect by living without regrets. In so doing, Jimmy becomes something much closer to what his brother actually was: a lonely and resentful man, too proud to allow himself to be helped.

There’s an uncanny aspect to making a prequel series more than a decade after the original. The characters are supposed to be years younger than when we first met them, yet the actors have visibly aged. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will reportedly make appearances in “Better Call Saul” ’s final season, which could mean that Paul, who is forty-two, will be playing a teen-age version of his character, Jesse Pinkman. In 2009, Saul and Mike’s faces were still as smooth and blank as their backstories. Now, like memento mori, the lines on their brows add to the sense of inevitability that haunts the show. Both series share a penchant for photomontages that follow the protagonists over months or years, whether reviewing documents or brushing their teeth, and for time-lapse photography of the dusty New Mexico landscape. But, if the point of these techniques in “Breaking Bad” was to emphasize the Ozymandian hubris of Walter’s colossal ego, in “Better Call Saul,” they convey the pathos of the individual lost in the sweep of time—not unlike the ice-cream cone that Jimmy drops on the sidewalk during Season 5, and which returns in the following episode, eaten away at by ants. Do we want to see the characters reach their final destination? I’ll watch; I’ve come this far—of course I’ll watch. But “Better Call Saul” does not seem interested in giving its fans an ending that they can thrill to. All I feel for Jimmy is dread.

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