Did Better Call Saul exceed Breaking Bad? Who cares!
The Breaking Bad spin-off has fully escaped the shadow of its parent show.
Even before Better Call Saul made its debut, people were questioning whether it would be able to match Breaking Bad, or even go one better. And that conversation only intensified over the course of its run, reaching fever pitch following its conclusion.
All opinions are, of course, up for debate. But regardless, it's a rare example of a prequel that is well-respected in relation to its parent show.
As the dust settles over the finale, and as we await further TV spin-offs (House Of The Dragon is up first, followed by The Rings Of Power), let's examine how this particular offshoot swerved the notorious prequel curse.
For starters, Better Call Saul wisely avoids mimicking Breaking Bad, which is no mean feat. It must have been tempting to try and replicate one of television's greatest achievements, especially given the character crossover and the shared themes and story beats. But this is a completely different beast.
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Both are character-driven, but most of Better Call Saul's drama lies in introspection, not explosiveness. Breaking Bad focuses on hot-button issues like gangsters, crystal meth and cancer, while its follow-up's early seasons essentially boil down to the fractured relationship between two brothers. And while its leisurely pace alienated many initially, acting as a barrier to the mass appeal enjoyed by Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's decision to shun the predecessor's frenetic intensity in favour of something that marches to the beat of a different drum is just as impactful.
By choosing not to replicate Breaking Bad's formula, Better Call Saul has cemented its status as a singular piece of work to be appreciated in its own right.
Gilligan and Gould also kept us guessing right until the very end, which is almost unheard of in prequels given the audience's prior knowledge of key details. If you watch The Lord Of The Rings first, you will likely experience The Hobbit with less interest because most of the character fates are mapped out. But Better Call Saul, much like The Godfather: Part II, avoids that problem because its chronology both predates and exceeds Breaking Bad's timeline.
The fates of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), for example, are never in doubt, but numerous other players, including Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), were uncertain. Better Call Saul works because it's a sequel as well as a prequel.
Spin-offs usually struggle to manufacture original characters, but Better Call Saul's new cast is arguably as captivating as Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) in Breaking Bad. Many viewers were as invested in Kim as they were in any of the other personalities, past and present, with Seehorn soaring in a role that's integral to Jimmy’s storyline. Michael Mando’s affectionate portrayal of Nacho made him far more interesting than your average TV drug dealer, while Chuck, gracefully portrayed by Michael McKean, was pivotal to Jimmy's decline. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the psychopathic Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) gave Better Call Saul a sharp dose of threat in its later seasons as he went toe-to-toe with the stone-faced Fring.
It could even be argued that some of Better Call Saul's newcomers improve upon the original series's weaknesses.
Breaking Bad's treatment of its female characters was criticised, but it's difficult to apply that same fault to the spin-off. Kim is more multi-dimensional than Skyler White (Anna Gunn) ever was, and the same can also be said for Nacho, who was provided with layers rarely afforded to Breaking Bad's many latino gangsters.
While presenting new characters to invest in, Better Call Saul simultaneously deepened the returning cast. Prequels often reintroduce characters for the sake of fan service — Darth Vader's appearance in Rogue One was cool, but we didn't learn anything new about him. Better Call Saul could have followed a similar route by bringing Gus and Mike briefly back, before kicking them to the kerb, but thankfully the writers went further, using the pair effectively. Fring is afforded far more pathos and Mike is portrayed as a tragic hero rather than a mere henchman.
But most significantly, the series adds a completely different dimension to its titular character. In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman was a hilariously heartless conman who mostly served as comic relief. In Better Call Saul, he's reframed entirely as a deeply tragic figure with a complex background. All of that culminates to fundamentally change how we think about Breaking Bad. When you watch it back after Better Call Saul, every appearance from Saul, Mike and Gus feels far more meaningful.
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For all its excellence, Better Call Saul isn't perfect. As it progressed, the more apparent it became that the cast are significantly older than they were in Breaking Bad, which somewhat confused the chronology. That being said, age is an external problem that's impossible to alter (de-ageing technology could have created a jarring viewing experience). Those aforementioned leisurely early seasons were too slow and too uneventful for some, forcing a portion of viewers to bow out prematurely and never return. But for those who stuck around, Better Call Saul's reputation is far rosier, with the show now being spoken about as one of the all-time greats.
Given that the ballad of Jimmy McGill is so different to Breaking Bad, it is far too reductive to assess its quality in relation to its predecessor. Why pit them against one another when you can just appreciate both?
Instead, the point should be this: it doesn't matter if it's better or falls short. The fact that people are asking the question at all proves that Better Call Saul has done its job, and is a rare achievement that is unlikely to be repeated again.
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