A piece by Slate magazine’s Julia Turner is making the rounds today that argues passionately why Better Call Saul is the superior show, when compared with its parent, Breaking Bad. It’s a great piece, and well worth a read, and since tonight’s episode is the last of Saul’s superb second season, it’s worth our time to look back on what qualities the shows share – and how they differ.
I’m not prepared to argue decisively that Saul is a better show than Breaking Bad (although Turner makes excellent and persuasive points), but they certainly share strengths. Right from that first shot in the first scene of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and his collaborators blend melodrama, crime drama, black comedy and a visual boldness rivalling Sergio Leone to create one of the most unique and powerful programs ever presented on the small screen. This show created its own universe, and made its own gravy, very quickly. By mid-way through the first season, it could rely on lingering shots of desert vistas or surreal, oddly specific moments (speaking, if anything, the visual language of comic books) to add dimension and depth to this odd parallel Albuquerque. Saul emphatically exists in that same universe, where there are villains that come close to cartoony (Hector, Tuco, the assassin twins) and boldly drawn character archetypes like Mike Ehrmantraut (a powerful blend of Charles Bronson and Jake Gittes), but it also finds room for heartbreakingly realistic characters like Kim Wexler. It’s a world as carefully and deliberately realized as the 1960s Mad Men, and all the more superior because it’s not a historical re-creation, but an original twist on modern reality. Saul benefits from having that world pre-established, but to its credit, it doesn’t (generally) trade on its links to Breaking Bad. It could have easily coasted on references and name-dropping, but instead it proceeds at its own pace, through the same world.
One of the major differences between the two shows is their respective protagonists. Walter White, and this becomes more obvious on repeat viewings, is never a particularly sympathetic character in all five seasons of the show. Henpecked and humiliated at its start, his towering, colossal ego is clearly fighting to emerge right from the pilot episode. Repeat viewings of Breaking Bad make it very clear that one must take everything he says, from the first episode to the last, with approximately one gigantic horse-sized salt lick. A penny for every time he says, “I’m doing this for my family,” would go a long way towards solving the nation’s deficit problems, but it seems to me that this was always a smokescreen. White sees a way towards power and respect — the most important things to him — through his drug business and he takes every path offered to him that will lead him to that goal, aside from a few brief moments in which he’s convinced to pull away temporarily. There is no struggle, and no tragic fall, in the character of Walter White. He starts out bad, he doesn’t “break” bad (to coin the southern saying that gives the show its title). That Gilligan et al were able to pull along audience sympathy and investment in the fate and adventures of this character as well as they did is a real feat, considering the character arc is so dangerously shallow. (Bryan Cranston’s tightly wound performance deserves all the credit it receives as well, of course.)
The situation is quite different with Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill. The greatest strength of Better Call Saul, at least in its comparison with the parent show, is that Jimmy starts out very sympathetic. He made mistakes in his past, but he’s trying to make amends — that’s a veritable definition of a sympathetic character. Even his “fall” into the character of Saul Goodman is fascinating to watch, and certainly not resolved yet, even as we head into the show’s third season. Goodman is not an evil character, by any stretch, but rather a “fallen” character. His humour and his glibness and his costume is every bit as much of a personality-defining armour as Darth Vader’s. And just like Anakin Skywalker inside his iron lung, Goodman hides the shadow of a good, caring, deeply nice man behind the mercenary needs of the world. To play the “fall” of a great character is meaty dramatic sauce, and much more emotional than the genre thrills of Breaking Bad. Bob Odenkirk emerges here as one of the greatest male leads currently working in television, hitting all the right notes of desperation and conflict as Jimmy, and all the more impressive in the way we know he’s gong to play Saul.
As if Jimmy’s fall isn’t enough, Breaking Bad fans can have their cake and eat it too with Better Call Saul through the character of Mike. He has less of a journey from “Saul” Mike to “Breaking Bad” Mike, but it’s still interesting to watch this hardened old cop “break bad” in his own way, and unlike Walter White, Mike really does do it for his family. Mike also is a character who has made mistakes, and is making amends, one day at a time. Once again, it’s hard to beat that character for audience sympathy. Mike’s entanglements with the Salamanca family and (we can only hope) perhaps Gustavo Fring himself next season allow the show to open up and re-visit the deserts and the border towns and the hard-core meth trade that Breaking Bad showed us, only this time from the perspective of a relative insider. Walter White had to learn all about being a criminal. Mike knows criminals, and though he has to drop a few of his police-trained morals, he at least can speak the language of the gangster, and knows most of the rules of that world, going in.
Saul’s struggles, and Mike’s for that matter, are a closer match to those of Breaking Bad’s first “breakout” character, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse struggles all five season with his conscience, his addictions and finally, after suffering enough purgatory for anyone to forgive him his sins, rises and survives the show, to make a real future for himself. We know that Mike ends his life with dignity, and we also have a glimpse of where Saul will wind up (“Gene”, the manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska), but their fates are arguably less triumphant than Jesse’s. Still, the journey those characters take towards that destiny hits many of the same emotional beats. Audiences, I think, will always root for the character striving to do better than the character determined to do worse. Even though it’s fun to be the bad guy (and Breaking Bad makes it very fun indeed, at times), those flawed souls trying to do their best, and often failing, are much more relatable, and in the end, they will steal our hearts.
Without taking sides, it’s fair to say that Breaking Bad is more plot-driven, and more of a “this can go anywhere” crime story with sharp peaks of tension and horrific sudden plot twists (often involving violence and intrigue). Whereas Better Call Saul is much more of a slow-burning, thoughtful, artful character study, watching someone wrestle with their own basic nature until tragedy (of some kind — we haven’t been shown it yet) finally pushes him to replace a good man with Goodman. It isn’t as if one show is better than the other, but rather that they are wonderful companion pieces, through which we can explore human morality and struggle, wrapped in a flat-out enjoyable genre-TV sensibility.