When I rank the top TV shows of all time, Breaking Bad remains the king. Breaking Bad is a masterclass in nail-biting suspense, tight plotting, gorgeous cinematography, relentless pacing, and riveting acting.
Meanwhile, Better Call Saul, the show’s prequel spin off focusing on Jimmy McGill. The man who becomes sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, probably wouldn’t rank in my top five.
And yet, when you put them directly against each other, head to head, I dare say that Better Call Saul — which premieres the fifth episode of its fifth season tonight — is better than Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad is an operatic tragedy, full of scheming gods and anguished transformations and drug deals with the devil. But Better Call Saul is something much smaller, but much more real: It’s less a tragedy of how one man’s pride and ego turned him into a villain and destroys everything he loves, and more of a tragedy about how easy it is, despite our best efforts, to become the caricature our worst critics see us as.
Breaking Bad is about monsters. Better Call Saul is about humans.!
Just as Walter White “breaks bad” to become the drug kingpin Heisenberg, small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill breaks bad to become Saul Goodman. But Walter White’s arc is largely a descent in one direction, one immoral compromise leading to another, as Walter’s depravity sinks lower and lower until there’s no humanity left.
And yet McGill’s upcoming heel-turn is more crushing.
Not because he leaves a huge body count, but because for so much of the series, he’s desperately trying to become a better person. He wants to do right. He’s genuinely smart, genuinely talented. But the world he finds is so often unjust. When the whole karma thing feels like a con, why not con them right back?
Walter is a snarling wolf. McGill is a sad-eyed puppy who’s been kicked and mistreated.
Better Call Saul doesn’t have breakneck pacing. It has something that can be even better. It has slow, confident, perfectly controlled pacing. If Breaking Bad had stir-fry pacing, Better Call Saul is closer to a marinade and a braise. It’s slower. But it’s richer and more complex.
Think of one of Breaking Bad’s best episodes. The one that took place entirely in one room, focusing on Walt and Jesse trying to kill a housefly that could contaminate their meth lab. It was great, not because it had a ton of plot development or action sequences, but because it downshifted, focusing entirely on character, particularly the relationship between Walt and Jesse.
Better Call Saul applies those lessons and that tone to the entire series. I’ve never seen a show more confident that it has your attention, simply through the mastery of the craft of television.
Where Breaking Bad had the twisted mentor/student relationship of Jesse and Walt, Better Call Saul pits Jimmy McGill (comic actor Bob Odenkirk, Mr. Show) against his older brother Chuck (comic actor Michael McKean, Spinal Tap.)
It highlights how similar her persistence and ambition is to McGill’s. But where Jimmy focuses on moxie and pizzaz (“It’s showtime!”) Wexler is all about tenacity. Unlike Jimmy, she goes by the book — and then highlights that book and takes notes with perfect penmanship.
Nobody’s murdered in any of these montages. They’re beautiful montages about the sorts of things people do every day. But it’s precisely because the scope is so narrow. The people so normal, that the show ultimately feels more meaningful than Breaking Bad. Even if it’s not as in-your-face impressive.
In fact, if there’s any flaw to Better Call Saul it’s when it becomes too much like Breaking Bad. Whenever there’s a plotline featuring Mike, the ex-cop turned fixer from Breaking Bad, I want to yell at the screen, “Booo! Enough of this drug underworld stuff! Get back to Jimmy McGill’s brother wrestling with mental illness!”
As the Better Call Saul goes forward — as it moves away from McGill’s relationship with his brother and closer to the first episode of Breaking Bad — the risk is it will become less of the great show it’s become, and closer to a pale imitation of the great show it spun off from.
Catch the trailer of Season 5 here.