Breaking Bad was one of the most critically acclaimed series of the past few years, a lot of which had to do with the world the show created. Vince Gilligan and AMC’s proposal to revisit that world, this time with a focus on Saul Goodman, was met with both excitement and trepidation. After all, could the creative team capture lightning in a bottle twice and create something equally good? The first season of Better Call Saul seems to have put all those concerns to rest, as the ten episodes have exceeded expectations, delighting fans of Breaking Bad by expanding the story without taking anything away from what came before.
But how did the show play for those who haven’t seen Breaking Bad? Does the series work as effectively for someone unfamiliar with the world of Albuquerque, New Mexico as seen through the lens of Gilligan and Co.? And how do the story beats play out for someone unfamiliar with where things end up? Do scenes hold the same power, and are moments interpreted in the same way? TV Editor Kate Kulzick, who’s seen Breaking Bad, and Managing Editor Deepayan Sengupta, who hasn’t, sit down for a conversation about the first season of Better Call Saul from these two perspectives.
Deepayan: Hi Kate, and thanks for not making me turn in my “tv fan” card the minute you found out I hadn’t seen Breaking Bad.
So let me start with what I do know about Breaking Bad. It’s been such a cultural juggernaut over the past few years that its pull has been nearly inescapable. I know some of the character names; Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Gus Fring, Skyler White, and, of course, Saul Goodman. I know Walter’s famous “I am the one who knocks” monologue, that fans are not fond of Skyler, that Krysten Ritter was on the show, and I did see one episode, the one where Dean Norris’ DEA agent finally arrested Walt, which, if I’m not mistaken, is the one right before “Ozymandias”. So I’ve got some passing familiarity with the show.
I was initially drawn towards Better Call Saul for two reasons; Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk. Having heard so much praise for Breaking Bad from people whose judgement I trusted, such as you, I knew that Gilligan was capable of making masterpieces. A return to the world he’d inhabited before might seem like a creator retreating to safety, but it seemed to me that Gilligan was better than that, that he wouldn’t make a spinoff unless he felt like he could tell another compelling story. And, of course, the chance to see Odenkirk stretch his acting muscles in a lead role was a draw in and of itself.
So then I suppose the main question that comes up is, does this show work for someone who hasn’t seen Breaking Bad? And the answer on this end is an emphatic yes. I found the first season compelling right from the start, and the fact that I didn’t know anything about Saul Goodman didn’t stop me from getting sucked right into the show, from the first time we meet Jimmy McGill practicing his opening speech in the bathroom. Seeing the man working in a Cinnabon and spending his nights watching his old commercials gave me all the context I needed to know that things would go very poorly for him at some point. In addition, not knowing what was coming helped add some genuine suspense in subsequent episodes. Like when Tuco seems to be this close to cutting Jimmy’s finger off in the second episode, I found myself genuinely wondering if the Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad was a nine-fingered lawyer or not. When he shows Kim the office he’s set to buy with the Kettleman bribe, I similarly had no way of knowing if that’s where he operates out of when the events of Breaking Bad occur, and the ending of the episode thus hits me a lot harder than it would have if I knew the office was a pipe dream.
And I don’t think not watching Breaking Bad robbed anything of its emotional power. The story of Mike, for example, was still affecting. Would it have worked better if I knew everything he’d subsequently done? Possibly. But as it stands, it didn’t fall flat either.
So, Kate, having seen Breaking Bad, what attracted you to watch Better Call Saul, and how did the show live up to your expectations? And what moments stood out to you from the season?
Kate: I approached the series with skepticism, to put it mildly. After Breaking Bad‘s phenomenal final stretch, any attempt to revisit that world felt like pure folly and making a prequel, rather than picking up with certain characters some time later, seemed even riskier. I’ve been spectacularly wrong about series before (I was dreading NBC’s proposed Silence of the Lambs prequel and look how that turned out) and I was thrilled to repeat that experience this year with Better Call Saul. It never occurred to me that the series would be anything other than a look at Saul Goodman’s life pre-Walt; by focusing not on Saul, but Jimmy McGill, Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould opened up a new world of possibilities for themselves, immediately separating the two series while also acknowledging their connection. Better Call Saul season one has shown a down-on-his-luck lawyer struggling to get by in a world that seems dedicated to punishing him for trying to walk the straight and narrow, culminating in his end of season decision to embrace his past, rather than run from it. That’s a compelling narrative all on its own, but for fans of Breaking Bad, which was pitched as “Mr. Chips to Scarface”, that journey has a constant parallel in Walt’s transformation (or revelation of self, depending on one’s take).
The series’ connection gives depth and discussion fodder to each episode, BCS and its hero acting as a counterpoint to BBad‘s darker point of view, but Gilligan and Gould have gone out of their way to keep the two only tangentially and thematically related. The only characters shared by the two series are Jimmy/Saul, Mike, and in his two episodes, Tuco. Jonathan Banks has been great as Mike, but far more important to the show’s success are Michael McKean’s affecting turn as Jimmy’s brother Chuck and Rhea Seehorn’s dry and charismatic Kim. It’s been an impressive balance so far, at least from the post-BBad perspective. What has the experience been for you, Deepayan? Has Mike felt shoehorned in or an organic presence?
Deepayan: I’ve felt similarly to you in the fact that the two shows feel like independent entities. I haven’t felt lost at any point during Better Call Saul, or felt like I needed some more backstory to understand the relevance of something happening onscreen. I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve seen so far (even the Kettleman couple, though I’ll admit part of that was the hilarious scene of Mrs. Kettleman insisting that Jimmy’s the kind of lawyer guilty people hire, while holding out a portion of the stolen cash to bribe him with), though I’m honestly surprised to hear that Tuco is the character who pops up on Breaking Bad, as I’d have assumed, based on the second episode, that Nacho would’ve gotten tired of his impulsive antics and had him bumped off at some point. Then again, I suppose that speaks to how well the show sketches out its own corner of this universe.
As far as Mike goes, I feel like he has been an organic presence. While his story hasn’t always intersected with Jimmy, the character himself has been compelling enough, starting from when he dissected the Kettleman abduction story for Jimmy, that I’ve been interested to learn more about him. Part of that has been the way he approaches everything as just a job, something he explicitly points out in the season finale. With the exception of the time he killed the officers who set up his son, and his interactions with his daughter-in-law (and it’s a joy to have Kerry Condon back on screen, though her natural Irish accent is sorely missed), Mike seems to approach everything as something that needs to be done. This is an interesting contrast to Jimmy, who is specifically trying to walk the straight and narrow for much of the season. Mike’s disinterest in morality is the main draw for watching him here, though Banks’ performance doesn’t hurt either.
With regards to Chuck and Kim, does their absence in Breaking Bad colour how you view their relationships with Jimmy? Especially early on in the season, did you anticipate/dread the other show dropping between Chuck and Jimmy, given the former’s absence later on in Saul’s life?
Kate: Chuck has been interesting to watch, as the pilot seemed to foreshadow an altogether different tragedy than the one presented in “Pimento“. Given Chuck’s condition, the easy guess was that he’d eventually end up institutionalized or pass away, stripping Jimmy of his only family and explaining his absence in Jimmy’s life later on. Chuck’s betrayal of and disdain for Jimmy is far more effective, making hubris and ego the tie between Chuck and Walt, rather than illness. Whereas the writers have a little fun playing with audience expectations about Chuck (by the finale, we’re convinced Jimmy’s better off without him), Kim is straight-up dread, at least for me. She’s wonderful and brings out the absolute best in Jimmy, and she’s very loyal. Given what we’ve seen so far this season, it’s unlikely he’d end their relationship and it would take a lot for Kim to cut ties with Jimmy, so whatever’s coming won’t be pretty. They’re great together and knowing this will eventually fall apart adds a tinge of melancholy to many of their scenes. Jimmy’s final moments in the season finale could have been triumphant, with Jimmy taking ownership of his future and deciding to no longer model himself on Chuck, but make his own way. But I couldn’t fully enjoy them, because I know this path will take Jimmy away from Kim and the funnier, more relaxed, happier person he is when he’s with her.
One of the biggest surprises for me with Better Call Saul, and the one I feel most doltish about not expecting, has been the show’s embrace of elements of Breaking Bad‘s visual storytelling. It’s incredibly patient, building dread or laugh-out-loud comedy with silence, long takes, and creative camera work. For fans of this production team, the visual aesthetic of the series is a familiar and welcome presence. What has it been like for a new viewer?
Deepayan: It’s actually been really fun. I’ve noticed that there’s a distinctive look to this series that, while I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is, clearly differentiates this show from practically every other series. And there have been several moments that have been great to watch, independent of their importance to the ongoing story; off the top of my head, I can think of the wordless black-and-white opening to the series, especially the way the camera perched on top of the stairs to look down at the character as he sat to watch tv, and the long take of the woman slowly coming down the stairlift while Jimmy patiently waits, the slow pan down the list of wanted criminals to stop at Jimmy’s face, then Mike’s, as well as the stationary camera that nonetheless captures everything when Jimmy reveals that the Kettleman’s money is gone. All of it has been wonderful to watch.
The other aspect of the visuals I’ve noticed is that screencaps almost look like they come from a graphic novel. This struck me the most in Mike’s review of “Pimento“, where the three images could be believably passed off as lifted straight from the pages of a comic. I have no idea if that’s what they were going for, but to me, it’s a testament to how well the show manages to display its visual understanding.
One of my bigger concerns going into the show is that a lot of it would require some knowledge of the events of Breaking Bad. While that hasn’t been the case, have there been any moments you felt came off as too fan service-y, or plot points/characters you feel wouldn’t have had an impact to anyone unfamiliar with Gilligan’s previous show?
Kate: The only one that stands out to me is the reveal of Tuco at the door at the end of the pilot. Breaking Bad fans know Jimmy’s about to have a very specifically bad day, but I wonder what that cliffhanger was like for those unfamiliar with just how unstable Tuco can be. I was glad this wound up being the only Breaking Bad-inspired cliffhanger and the more the show has stood on its own, the stronger it’s been. Tuco was fun, but nowhere near as entertaining as the Kettlemens or as engaging as Nacho (who will hopefully be back next season). Better Call Saul has more than delivered with its dramatic moments—Jimmy and Chuck’s final scene is a highlight for TV so far this year—but it’s the comedy of the Kettlemens denying their guilt or the slow courtroom reveal of Jimmy’s clients’ crime in the pilot that define the series for me, at least so far. What are the moments that come to mind for you? What do you take away from the season and what are you most excited about for season two?
Deepayan: I actually enjoyed Tuco’s presence, especially in how his violent tendencies were juxtaposed with his insistence on keeping his grandma shielded from whatever was going on in the house. I sensed something was amiss when it turned out the skater kids didn’t end up at the Kettleman home, and the fact that Jimmy was greeted at the door by someone with a gun worked as a cliffhanger for me.
As far as moments that define the season go, I’m inclined to go back to the scene of Mrs. Kettleman offering Jimmy a bribe while insisting that he’s the kind of lawyer guilty people hire. But for me, while the show has been undeniably funny, the character moments have really hit the hardest. Jimmy angrily kicking at the door of the law office he knows he won’t have, Jimmy second-guessing his decision to meet with the law firm as he toys with Marco’s ring, and I’m also inclined to add in Mike’s tearful confession to his daughter-in-law about the circumstances surrounding his son’s death. Adding in Chuck’s outburst to Jimmy, there’s a common theme of “No good deed goes unpunished”, and the excellent way Gilligan and co. went about portraying that is one of the things I love about the season.
With regards to season two, I’d actually love to see how Jimmy’s relationship with Howard Hamlin goes. The fact that Howard no longer has to cover Chuck means that he can actually start to treat Jimmy better, but Jimmy’s slide back to the wrong side of morality means that Howard might just come to see things Chuck’s way. I’d also love to see more of Mike’s story in Albuquerque, although if all we get in the second season is him in the tollbooth, it’ll still be delightful. But the fact that he acquitted himself so well in the pharmaceutical exchange can’t have gone unnoticed, which seems to indicate Ehrmantraut will become a recognised figure in the seedier circles of Albuquerque, and I can’t wait to see that happen. What are you most excited to see in the second season? And do you have any final thoughts?
Kate: I’m excited to see a slipperier side of Jimmy, though I hope he’ll keep fighting for underdogs of all stripes, and not just criminals. Mike will surely figure into Jimmy’s less-than-upright plans and getting more with him will undoubtedly be fun. It may take more than one more season for Jimmy to make the switch to Saul, but once he does (or maybe even before), I look forward to the series bringing in another familiar face from Breaking Bad, Lavell Crawford’s Huell Babineaux. But even should none of these elements come to the fore in season two, I can’t wait to see what Gillian, Gould, and the rest of the Better Call Saul team are interested in exploring. They’ve earned my trust and whatever direction they choose to take the series in, I’m sure it’ll be an entertaining, thoughtful, and visually striking ride.