This review contains spoilers.
You’re now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.
While I really enjoyed Breaking Bad, I’m generally sceptical of spin-offs. I gave this one a go because I like Bob Odenkirk (if you haven’t seen it, check out his sketch comedy series Mr Show with David Cross) and because I have great faith in Vince Gilligan as a writer (other people apparently had faith as well – according to IMDb, Better Call Saul had the highest debut rating in cable history, with 6.9 million viewers watching the first episode). I’m happy to report that this is a spin-off series that really works – both as an interesting and revealing prequel to Breaking Bad, and as a show in its own right.
Better Call Saul takes place in 2002 – six years before Breaking Bad. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is not yet Saul Goodman but James McGill, a scam artist turned small time lawyer struggling to make an ‘honest’ living. James McGill used to be ‘Slippin’ Jimmy,’ a con artist with a serious talent for ripping people off. But after his big-time lawyer brother Chuck (Michael McKean) bails him out James decides to turn over a new leaf. He studies hard, earns a law degree, and becomes a lawyer himself.
As this reviewer for The Independent notes, Better Call Saul has lower stakes than Breaking Bad. But it doesn’t matter. Saul is a quieter, funnier, and stranger kind of series, and so the dramatic moments (when they do come) resonate perfectly. The writing is excellent – scenes feel well paced and carefully structured. The performances are also top notch: Michael McKean is wonderful as the genius lawyer with a (somatic) electromagnetic sensitivity. Rhea Seehorn is also great as Kim Wexler, McGill’s close friend. While there is some hint of romantic possibility between James and Kim, it is not the focus of their relationship, and this is really refreshing. She is first and foremost a good friend, someone who grounds and supports him.
I did feel like the final scene of the last episode was a bit too much of a quick turnaround. I could see where the motivation was coming from, but I didn’t feel like it had been built up enough. I’m interested to see where they take the series from here. In a way, because this is a prequel, the writers are kind of restricted in terms of what they can do with the characters. But perhaps having those sorts of boundaries to work inside of is a good thing. It’s certainly different. And, as this writer for Variety notes, knowing where these characters end up in Breaking Bad gives a weight and sense of impending tragedy to Saul that is really compelling. Having said that, I don’t think you need to have watched Breaking Bad to enjoy Better Call Saul; this series works well on its own, and while watching I rarely found myself thinking back to events in Breaking Bad, or wishing there were more references. The biggest (and most important) link between the two shows I think is thematic: the question of morality and what makes something right or wrong, an action good or bad. As Spencer Kornhaber notes in The Atlantic, “Better Call Saul is, like Breaking Bad, a great meditation on the nature of wrongdoing.” I know exactly where James McGill is headed, in the long-run, and yet I can’t help but like him.
Better Call Saul is created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. The series first aired in 2015, and has been renewed for a second season.