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‘Better Call Saul’ — An Evolution of the ‘Breaking Bad’ Formula

4 min read
Better Call Saul

When reached its self-fulfilling, bullet-sodden climax in September of 2013, it was immediately met with rapturous critical acclaim, placing it in the pantheon of ‘greatest' shows of all time, alongside stalwart series The Sopranos and The Wire. Some ten years and a sequel film later, Breaking Bad's legacy has only gone from strength to strength but perhaps the main reason for its continued success, has been its spin-off sister show, , a prequel that follows the humble beginnings and hubristic flaws of Jimmy McGill () before adopting the moniker of Saul Goodman, the slick, wise-cracking attorney in Breaking Bad. The two shows obviously overlap in certain places, with locations, characters and a plethora of easter eggs referencing Breaking Bad, yet what's more notable is how its creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have evolved and possibly improved upon an already established winning formula.

The central element in Breaking Bad is undoubtedly Walter White (), a meagre chemistry teacher who after being diagnosed with a terminal lung cancer begins putting his talents to more sinister uses — making and selling crystal meth with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to fund his treatment and provide for his family. Over the course of five seasons, Walt and Jesse's transformation is seemingly boundless, but its culmination is alluded to in the very first episode. While teaching his class, Walt waxes lyrical about the beauty in chemistry: “chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. That's all of life right? It's the constant, it's the cycle… It's growth, then decay, then transformation”.

What made Breaking Bad so special is that like Walt, there is a certain amount of revelry that the audience participates in when watching his descent to madness. With every shocking twist, dramatic revelation or violent outburst, we're only sucked in further, and with every subsequent season the pacing only increased, adding fuel to the already inevitable collision we were all going to experience. It's perhaps strange then that the creative force behind one of television's most plot-heavy, action-based series would turn to a relatively small side character in Saul Goodman, to spin-off from the heights of Breaking Bad. 


Better Call Saul

The ‘How Instead Of The ‘Why'

Those expecting similar narrative pacing may ultimately be let down by Better Call Saul's laconic attitude to story-telling, but it's in this attitude that the show really begins to shine. Where Breaking Bad's rip-roaring journey of egoistic downfall had us all on the edge of our seats waiting to find out what would become of our favourite characters, Better Call Saul is far less concerned with the ‘why', and instead, chooses to focus on the ‘how'; how did someone like Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman end up working as a high-profile criminal lawyer, how did Breaking Bad's big-bad Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) rise to power, and how did Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) avoid getting caught up in the mess that Saul and Walt are part of in Breaking Bad? 

It's because we already know the fate of the overlapping characters that Better Call Saul seems so comfortable taking its time. Gilligan and Gould are able to indulge in a level of detail that only serves to further colour in the lines of our already vivid perception of these characters and their respective story arcs, all while not once feeling over, or perhaps more importantly, self indulgent.

There are certain moments that can at times seem relatively inconsequential in comparison to the ever dangerous stakes of its predecessor. Think Episode 5 of Season 1, Alpine Shepherd Boy, where Jimmy's former life as a con-artist helps him charm his ways into representing and exploiting the elderly women of the Caballo sin Nombre care home. What may seem like a relatively small-fry plot point, is not only a tie-in to an episode of Breaking Bad (Season 3, Episode 2), but in terms of narrative further drives a wedge between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), as well as foreshadowing the upcoming Sandpiper Case that serves as a narrative throughline all the way up until the current season.


Better Call Saul


Rich & Rewarding

By comprising a litany of these greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts narrative strands, the world of Better Call Saul feels that more richer, rewarding its audience for connecting the dots and creating their own due process, while also ensuring that the punchier, more intense moments hit you like a tonne of bricks. The characters may struggle to find balance, namely its eponymous anti-hero, but Saul's push and pull between tension and tedium hangs in perfect equilibrium. Add to that, the already present cinematic aesthetic established by Michael Slovis' cinematography on Breaking Bad, as well as a similar penchant for employing a variety of implicit and explicit symbolism, and Better Call Saul is every part its predecessor's equal, at least in terms of its thoughtful, and wry visual storytelling.

Where Breaking Bad was a show about the metamorphosis of certain characters, aptly nodding to its chemistry-heavy foundations, Better Call Saul, just like its lawyer protagonist, is concerned with process. For Jimmy/Saul, this process has changed somewhat, from initially trying to establish himself as a legitimate lawyer to impress his brother, to now adapting to survive, at any and all costs. Suddenly, the previous lax attitude that seemed to stem from Better Call Saul's corner-cutting protagonist feels different now, and while the show's pacing has remained the same in its final season, it's a knowing reluctance that emanates from Saul, almost as if he too, knows what's to come.

For a show labelled more of ‘slow-burn' than its progenitor, the heat is certainly on for our favourite slippery attorney, and as Better Call Saul enters its mid-season hiatus, all attention has been brought to the dramatic cliffhanger that closed Episode 7, a moment that reminds us that despite the fun and hijinx, our actions have a way of catching up to us, and sometimes there's only so far you can run.