Better Call Saul: Better Than Expected


Better Call Saul Season 2 Poster. Pictured: Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman) walking uphill.

Ed K., Contributing Writer

Before I go into depth about the shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I want to give a spoiler warning. If you have not seen Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul but plan to in the future, do not read any further. Both shows are experienced best when you go in blind.

Breaking Bad is commonly regarded as one of the greatest TV shows of the 21st century, and has even been called the greatest TV drama of all time. The popular crime show is about Walter White (nickname Walt), a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who decides to “break bad” when he is diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. Walt teams up with his former student Jesse Pinkman to cook and sell drugs so Walt can secure a future for his wife and two children once he eventually succumbs to cancer. The show follows Walt as he slowly turns darker and darker, meeting drug lords, manipulating his family and friends, and committing horrible acts of violence all in the name of gaining more power in the Albuquerque underworld. Breaking Bad premiered in 2008 and ran to 2013 with 5 seasons under its belt, racking up awards and acclaim with each season. But all great things must come to an end and with the finale of Breaking Bad in 2013, creator Vince Gilligan had to answer an important question: what was the next step for this franchise? Making a show about the lawyer of course!

In Season 2, Episode 8 of Breaking Bad, an extremely important character is introduced. After one of Jesse’s idiot friends Badger gets busted for dealing drugs, Walt and Jesse have to stop him from potentially revealing their identities. To get Badger out of police custody, they hire Saul Goodman, a crooked criminal lawyer who has connections to the New Mexico drug trade. From this point on, Saul becomes an invaluable asset to Walt, Jesse, and their drug business by helping them launder money, cover up their tracks, and even giving Walt information that leads him to kill one of the series’s biggest villains, Gus Fring.
Saul is one of the most important characters and serves as comic relief in many instances, but during his time on Breaking Bad, Saul comes off as a flat, one-dimensional character with little to no redeeming qualities. Yes, he does help Walt and Jesse even when he has nothing to gain, but other than that there’s no real depth to Saul. Why make a show about a character as dull as Saul? One of Breaking Bad’s greatest strengths in its storytelling is the incredibly deep, complex personalities in every character, and that is why Better Call Saul exists. It takes the audience back to the year 2000 and fleshes out characters that the writers weren’t able to perfect in Breaking Bad while setting itself apart from its predecessor by telling its own unique story filled with great new characters, a riveting plot, and one of the best “villains” on TV currently.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Michael McKean as Chuck McGill

In Better Call Saul, you meet Jimmy McGill, the real name of Saul Goodman. He’s an underpaid public defender in Albuquerque who lives and works in the back of a nail salon and has a crummy old car for transportation. After moving from Illinois to New Mexico, Jimmy cares for his brother Chuck McGill, one of the founders of Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill (HHM), a prestigious law firm in Albuquerque. Chuck claims he has electromagnetic sensitivity which has turned him into a hermit with only Jimmy to take care of him. Jimmy’s trying to lead an honest life and escape from his “Slippin’ Jimmy” life in Chicago as a con-man, but he slips back into it when opportunities arise to get rich.
Right away in the first episode, we understand Jimmy’s conflict. He actively wants to turn his life around and be a better person, but he always takes the easy way out. It would be hard to support Jimmy and understand his struggles if he was just a mean and sarcastic jerk all the time, but thanks to the great writing in every episode and Bob Odenkirk’s amazing performance as this character, Jimmy is ultimately someone you feel bad for, but in an unconventional way. You don’t feel sympathetic for Jimmy because everything bad that happens to him is out of his control. Rather, most of his troubles come from him and his actions (more on this later). Jimmy McGill is a complex masterpiece of character work and one who you constantly want to be better for himself and others around him.

Although it may not seem as engaging as Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul has an equally if not more engaging story than its predecessor. As previously established, Jimmy’s life at the start of Season 1 is not very good. Episode 1 immediately gets into the action and strongly starts building its characters. Jimmy is just scraping by with the money he gets from working as a public defender, and he has to routinely take care of Chuck, which includes stopping one of Chuck’s partners from buying Chuck out from the firm. Jimmy’s under intense pressure and it all comes to a boil when he attempts to convince the wealthy Kettlemens to hire him for their embezzlement charges. They refuse, and Jimmy cracks under all the pressure. He attempts to con them into accepting his counsel but gets in a bit of a “tight” situation with the cartel, which is then branched off into a “B” storyline to Jimmy’s lawyer plotline. Throughout the season’s story, we are greeted with familiar faces such as Mike Ehramantraut and Tuco Salamanca, but brand-new interesting and deep characters are also introduced. Howard Hamlin acts as the antagonist for most of Season 1, always degrading Jimmy and eroding his self-esteem publicly. Kim Wexler is a lawyer at Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill who acts as Jimmy’s love interest and seemingly only ally in his life. The last of the important new characters is Nacho Varga, a highly intelligent member of the cartel. Admittedly, Nacho’s motives aren’t set up well in Season 1, but in the beginning of Season 2 we see where Nacho’s obligations lie. He wants to protect his family from his criminal life and he is willing to go to extremes to do so, as proven when he frames Tuco Salamanca for assault early in Season 2. Season 1 clearly establishes the motivations for Jimmy to break bad while also setting up and exploring the complexities of various side characters, making its story enthralling and engaging.

Michael McKean as Chuck McGill

A good story needs a good villain, and Better Call Saul Season 1 has exactly that. Breaking Bad has one of the greatest TV villains of all time in the drug kingpin Gustavo Fring. From the end of Season 2 to the end of Season 4, Fring was one of the most intimidating and evil human beings on TV. Fring killed many, many people throughout the show to keep his empire afloat and threatened to kill even more to protect his throne. He was a perfect antagonist for the large scope of the show, and Better Call Saul matched his villainy with Chuck McGill. Now Chuck and Gus aren’t the same in terms of pure evil acts, as Chuck has never killed someone in cold blood, but Chuck is just as bad if not worse than Gus because of the hate that you feel towards him. Throughout most of Season 1, the main villain is thought to be Howard Hamlin, the arrogant head of HHM. Howard constantly pushes Jimmy down, tries to ruin his career, and it is shown in a flashback that it was he who denied Jimmy a job at HHM when he passed the BAR exam. However, in the penultimate episode, the “mastermind” behind Hamlin’s actions is revealed to be Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s older brother. When Jimmy confronts Chuck about this betrayal, it’s revealed that Chuck’s motivations are simply due to jealousy and spite. Chuck hates Jimmy because Jimmy was able to coast through his life while Chuck had to work for everything in his life. Jimmy failed the BAR two times but is now a lawyer, something Chuck considers a disgrace. Chuck says that Jimmy will never be a real lawyer because when things get just a little bit difficult, Slippin’ Jimmy returns. What solidifies him as a great villain though is that Chuck has somewhat of a point. Right from Episode 1, Jimmy is scamming others and breaking the law, and even though he constantly wants to be an honest man, he never stays that way, proving Chuck’s point. He doesn’t think or attempt to accept that Jimmy can change, so he constantly puts Jimmy down. Chuck has consistently betrayed Jimmy because of petty jealousy, making him one of the easiest TV characters to hate and one of the best villains in the Breaking Bad universe.

I didn’t expect much from Better Call Saul when I started watching it, but the show immediately hooks its viewers: the characters and writing are rock-solid and extraordinarily deep, the plot may seem dull but quickly pulls you into it, and Chuck McGill perfectly captures the essence of Satan on TV. I would strongly recommend Better Call Saul if you enjoy Breaking Bad or watching good TV in general.