Review: 'Better Call Saul' remains a masterclass in dramatic storytelling
It’s been so long since the explosive conclusion of “Breaking Bad” in 2013 that “Better Call Saul” — the 2015 prequel spinoff created by “Breaking Bad” masterminds Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould — feels like its own show. And I’ll admit, I was wary of its ability to stand out from its predecessor, most of all because Saul Goodman, the smooth-talking, comb-over-sporting strip mall lawyer played with electricity and heart by Bob Odenkirk, was largely a one-note side piece in the original show. A skeevy lawyer who helps criminals hide their money and avoid jail time — end of story. It didn’t seem substantive enough for its own show, and it seemed like “Better Call Saul” would be doomed to the spin-off junk pile in the wasteland of failed TV shows. But I had faith in Gilligan and Gould, so I approached “Better Call Saul” with tepid hope. Now, five years and almost five complete seasons later — the fifth season is currently underway — part of me loves “Saul” even more than “Breaking Bad.”
I won’t go so far as to say that “Better Call Saul” is objectively a better show — the power, originality and impact of “Breaking Bad” made it one of the greatest television shows of all time, and it deserves its undisputed place in the upper echelon of TV history. But “Saul” is different. The show isn’t really about prodding the life of a criminal lawyer. It seems that Gilligan and Gould knew as well as any viewer that watching episode after episode of Saul frantically helping drug dealers and murderers would get old fast. Instead, they made the show about the collapse of Goodman’s life. His fall is so total and irreversible that he’s forced to become a de facto legal counsel for con men and cartels. And that’s a lot more interesting to watch.
In the world of “Better Call Saul,” our titular lawyer is less Saul Goodman and more Jimmy McGill, his real name by birth. He’s a wannabe lawyer struggling beneath the shadow of his older brother and slowly stepping into the sub-legal world of his future self, the Saul Goodman we know in “Breaking Bad.” Season five, which has two episodes remaining and airs on Monday nights on AMC, shows that descent near its completion. The season begins with Jimmy changing his legal name to Saul Goodman, fully embracing his cheapo criminal lawyer status. At this point, he’s selling cell phones out of a carnival tent with Saul Goodman on speed dial; he’s offering 50 percent off coupons for representation on all non-violent crimes; he’s paying off janitors to cause an elevator malfunction to get some alone time with a fussy public defender. It’s an onslaught of legal deviousness, but it’s also not entirely new — we’ve seen Jimmy do this sort of thing in the show before. He’s a genius when it comes to a good scam.
Which brings me to the biggest issue I’ve had with “Better Call Saul” this season: a feeling of stasis. Despite the name change, we haven’t really seen anything new from Jimmy. He’s been a scammer since the show began, and that was no surprise given that we know where he’s headed. But I get the feeling that something big is going to have to change for Jimmy, and soon. He’s still got a hold on the legitimate world, clawing and scratching his way to keep from diving headfirst into criminality. I think Gould and Gilligan know this too, but it seems like they’re a bit reticent to make the jump, especially since they still have the sixth and final season to fill with content next year. But I think it’s coming, and with two episodes left to air, it may well be coming this season, especially after the events of this past Monday’s episode, which left a lot of blood and bullets in the deserts of New Mexico.
Even with the dramatic violence of the most recent episode, though (on which I will spare the details so as not to spoil the season), part of what makes “Better Call Saul” so great is that it doesn’t rely on these big set pieces for its drama. And this is what sets it apart from “Breaking Bad.” Despite phenomenal writing, acting and some all-time great characters, “Breaking Bad” always had the option of using violence to invigorate the narrative. “Better Call Saul” doesn’t have that luxury, and I think it’s better for it. Some of the best scenes in the show — the courtroom duel in season three’s “Chicanery” episode comes to mind — are delivered with words and emotion, not guns and violence. That’s a much more challenging kind of drama to write and execute, and “Saul” always pulls it off with aplomb. The showrunners have eschewed violence in favor of character, and it’s that shift toward creating a real-life tragedy that makes me sometimes favor “Saul” over “Breaking Bad.”
Much of this extraordinary character development stems from Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s on-and-off girlfriend and fellow lawyer, played by the extraordinary Rhea Seehorn. Odenkirk has gotten much of the acting attention for this show, including four Emmy nominations, but Seehorn has remained largely under the radar. Her performance is the single most important part of “Better Call Saul,” because she’s the reason Jimmy hasn’t gone full-blown Saul Goodman yet. She imbues the show with a sense of grit and determination, and she reminds us that anyone, even the most well-meaning and high achieving of us, can fall prey to the machinations of a manipulator like Jimmy McGill. Kim and Jimmy’s relationship covers so much complicated ground that Gould and Gilligan could’ve ignored the whole criminal element altogether and still have had a killer show on their hands. The scariest part is that Kim is nowhere to be seen in “Breaking Bad,” and that’s the world where “Saul” is headed. I don’t know how Kim exits Jimmy’s life for good, but I’m afraid to find out.
With two episodes left, the jury’s still out on season five of “Better Call Saul.” It’s been another impressive season, if somewhat static. Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler are two of the best characters on television, and Gilligan and Gould run a show so well-written, well-acted and well-directed that it’s hard to ever complain. It seems the gears are turning too, as the riveting eighth episode has the season poised for an epic finale — one in which more blood may be spilled and more vitriolic words spewed. I won’t be so naive as to claim that I can predict where Gilligan and Gould plan to take us next. For now, all we can do is sit back and enjoy.