This article contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad.”
There’s a scene in the second episode of “Better Call Saul” where the protagonist, the lawyer then named Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), is in a courthouse bathroom straightening his tie, preparing for his long and arduous day as a lowly public defender. Right before he leaves, however, he does something that reveals something about the core of his character: He flicks his hands out to his sides, splays his fingers, and says, “It’s showtime folks!” as a montage of his day set to Vivaldi begins.
This scene is a direct nod to Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” a film about Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a theater director and choreographer whose narcissism, devotion to his work, and psychological trauma leads him to live a life that is successful but vapid and devoid of genuine human connection. On Gideon’s deathbed, he imagines his send-off from the world as a glorious final act of a grand musical, but in reality, it is just the banal zipping up of a body bag.
Copying Gideon’s actions, Jimmy identifies himself with the Gideon character. But why identify with a man whose life is depicted in such bathetic tragedy? The answer is that Jimmy is not focusing on Gideon’s sad, anti-climactic end but identifying with Gideon’s talent as a charismatic showman idolized by nearly everyone around him. When Jimmy emulates Gideon in front of the mirror, he believes he can be the master showman, the biggest personality, the most clever and ingenious mastermind in the room without sacrificing anything he initially cared about. But that’s not what happens. We know that from the very opening scene that depicts his black-and-white future as a balding Cinnabon manager, and we know what happens before that. We’ve all seen “Breaking Bad.”
“Better Call Saul” is set to start its sixth and final season on Monday, April 18, ending the story of Saul Goodman that started over a decade ago on “Breaking Bad.” Initially conceived as a tertiary character who would only appear in three episodes, Saul is a one-note comic foil who helps Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. With some clever quips and some crafty plans, he helps the protagonists circumnavigate the trappings of the legal system so they can continue to grow their meth empire while giving him a cut of the profits. When we first meet him, he is a far cry from the high-minded young man imitating Roy Scheider in the courthouse bathroom.
The time span between that scene and the events of “Breaking Bad” is roughly six years, and “Better Call Saul” fills in the gaps, exploring how this hopeful and conflicted lawyer becomes a simple-minded, money-grubbing criminal whose morality is so ambivalent that he refers to having someone murdered as sending them on “a trip to Belize.” “Breaking Bad” was the story of how Walter White became Heisenberg; “Better Call Saul” is the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman. Those who gave up after the first few episodes because “it’s slower than ‘Breaking Bad’” or “it’s less action packed” are missing out on an intricately constructed, finely acted, subtle, and affecting hybrid legal and cartel comic drama/tragedy.
What’s initially captivating about this show is its refined use of the visual medium to tell its story. Besides the shots looking prettier, the writers and directors of the show have made put more effort into using television as a canvas, experimenting with how the screen can be used to depict a story. The clearest example of this is its greater experimentation with montage. “Breaking Bad” has many montages, and lots of them were great, but “Saul” differentiates itself by varying the styles of montage to correspond to the aspect of the story being told.
Take the depiction of Jimmy’s days at the courthouse in season 1, episode 2 compared to his time pulling low-level cons on bar patrons eight episodes later. The former uses repetition of key moments to illustrate the repetition and draining aspects of his life; coffee, arguing, and bathroom pep talks are the main components of his day. The latter uses intense close-ups of characters with black backgrounds combined with superimposed inserts of foaming beer and flowing money to evoke the glamorous and sleazy feeling that Jimmy feels while executing a grift.
Perhaps the best example of the show’s inventiveness with the montage is the opening of season 4, episode 6’s “Something Stupid.” The screen is split down the middle as we get two simultaneous montages of the lives of Jimmy and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a fellow lawyer who is nebulously romantically involved with him. The montage relies on its use of contrast from one side of the screen to the other. While Jimmy is throwing a tennis ball at a wall, Kim is moving legal case files; while Jimmy is peddling cell phones to people on the street, Kim is giving instructions to her paralegals in a tape recorder; while Jimmy is printing out business cards for his underground business, Kim is having her name printed on her new law office. The montage underscores our understanding of what disparate lives these characters live. When the montage transitions into single shots of the two of them eating dinner together, or lying in bed, the split screen is still there, showing the isolation each feels while being with each other.
What makes the show truly appealing are the characters and their layered and ambiguous relationships to each other. “Saul” allows the characters and their dynamics to unfold slowly and intricately over a greater period of time. One aspect of this is the show’s use of each episode’s cold open to occasionally give purposeful and pointed flashbacks (and flashforwards) that allow us to understand new depths of the characters. An example of this is in season 2, episode 10, when Jimmy and his brother Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) are at their mother’s deathbed and the audience witnesses her last words, causing us to reevaluate the characters attitudes towards each other and towards reality.
In “Saul,” when characters turn, change, or reveal their true nature, the impact is equal if not greater to the confrontations found in “Breaking Bad.” “Breaking Bad”’s fourth season builds up to an ending with a poisoned child, a hit on a DEA agent, Walter White shouting manically in a crawl space, Jesse putting a gun to Walt’s head, a car bomb in a parking lot, and a bomb rigged to a wheelchair that exploded in a hospital. The fourth season of “Better Call Saul” builds up to an ending where Jimmy McGill changes his name, and the moment is, in some ways, more devastating than all the events in that other show. That is, of course, thanks to the writers for signaling what that moment means, what is gained, and, more importantly, what is lost.
Another part of the show is the mob plot line involving Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) continual descent into the world of the cartel where he interacts with regular and novel “Breaking Bad” characters alike. The most notable addition to this plotline is Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) whose attempts at escaping the cartel life only drag him deeper into it. Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) is a delight to watch whenever he enters the scene, both for his charismatic performance and the intrigue in how he will drive the plot into unexpected and unwelcome places. When the cartel plot focuses on these novelties, it’s as gripping as its legal counterpart, but when it focuses on Mike and the characters in “Breaking Bad,” the show is somewhat hemmed in by its sense of predestination. Unlike Jimmy, Mike and Gus don’t change that much from “Better Call Saul” to “Breaking Bad,” so watching their trajectory is less compelling as they are essentially already at the finish line.
Last, but not least, the show needs to be commended for its performances. This is nothing unique to “Saul,” but nonetheless the actors are great here. Odenkirk is great at turning his one-note character into someone with so many layers of pride, anger, resentment, earnestness, and affability while having it seem like the same guy we saw originally. McKean is great as his brother, conveying his conflicted feelings towards his brother with a great level of gravitas and poise. I want to give special focus however to Seehorn, who does a fantastic job of portraying a stoic character with steadfast morals who also has a giddy and mischievous exuberance. There are a few moments when the stoicism breaks, when she smiles briefly at Jimmy’s antics or suddenly and abruptly shouts “yes!” when she acquires a new client in an empty parking lot, but these moments are rare, and always a delight to see. Nonetheless, thanks to Seehorn’s performance, the audience can see all those emotions bubbling beneath the surface.
Watching the trailer for the final season, I was struck by a line uttered by Mike that truly captures why this show continues to excite me: “Whatever happens next, it’s not gonna go down the way you think it is.” While the line was presented ambiguously, it was clearly placed in the trailer as a message to the audience about the unpredictability of the show. That’s why the show is still exciting: While we know it is a prequel to “Breaking Bad,” that Saul becomes a crooked lawyer who has to flee to Omaha with nary a Kim in sight, and that Nacho or Lalo are not within this world at all, I still have no clue what is going to happen within these last 13 episodes. Even for a show that is a legal and personal drama, it still has the grand tension of a great suspense film or “Breaking Bad.” It’s a show about how a guy changes his name, and it’s as gripping and suspenseful as a show about a man who builds a meth empire while being chased by the DEA and his cartel enemies. Pretty good work for a character who was only meant to show up in three episodes.
Isaac Slomski-Pritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.