‘Better Call Saul’ Is the Prequel ‘Breaking Bad’ Deserves

In his first season or two on Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman was a sleazy lawyer caricature who periodically popped in to Walter White’s life for comic relief. But over the course of 43 episodes, Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk shaped Saul into a fascinating mess of contradictions — bottom-feeding yet weirdly brilliant, mercenary yet surprisingly loyal, nonjudgmental to a fault. As Walter grew into his meth-lord devil horns, his morality meter shifting from “it’s complicated” to “pure evil,” the comparatively sympathetic lawyer held the show’s increasingly divided characters — Walt, Jesse, and Mike especially — together. It’s impressive how fully Breaking Bad was able to develop Saul without ever going into detail about his past.

Better Call Saul, a spinoff that feels like it’s arrived rather quickly despite the fact that Breaking Bad ended in 2013 and Gilligan and Odenkirk were talking about the idea well over a year before that, is a series-length look at that untold backstory. And, curiously enough, its development (which happened far more publicly than most shows’) mirrors Saul Goodman’s. Originally envisioned as a half-hour sitcom and greenlighted even before Gilligan was officially on board, the version that will premiere Sunday night on AMC is an hour-long series co-created by Gilligan and Breaking Bad writer/producer Peter Gould that splits the difference between crime drama and black comedy.

Which is to say that Better Call Saul is much more similar to the show that gave its protagonist life than I had expected. Its first few episodes aren’t quite as epic as Breaking Bad‘s, but they’re surprising, character-packed, and tense enough to give the series a fighting chance of becoming its predecessor’s equal. The cinematography is every bit as inventive, the dialogue is just as efficient and thick with multiple meanings, and the acting is certainly on par with the show that gave us “Ozymandias.”

Gilligan’s direction is unmistakable in the pilot, which he co-wrote with Gould. Safe in the knowledge of Breaking Bad fans’ patience and goodwill, he begins boldly, with a black-and-white sequence that updates us on Saul’s solitary, fearful post-Walter White existence. It takes about seven minutes before we get a line of dialogue, which gives us a welcome opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Gilligan’s ear for sound. I can’t think of another television creator who uses incidental noises so effectively to set scenes: an extra sucking down soda from a giant plastic cup, the screech of TV-cart wheels on a courtroom floor. These choices added a hyperreal layer of self-awareness to Breaking Bad, and they do the same for Better Call Saul.

Though it’s set in the past, the Saul Goodman at the show’s center isn’t the outsize TV-commercial lawyer of Breaking Bad Season 2; he’s the morally complex, frustrating, but often likable Season 5 version. Except, of course, that his name isn’t Saul Goodman yet. In Albuquerque 2002, our antihero still goes by his given name, Jimmy McGill — or, as the sign on the door to his shabby office and makeshift apartment (in the back of a nail salon) proclaims, “James M. McGill, Esq.”

Jimmy’s world slowly comes into focus in the first three episodes: he is balancing laughably low-paid public defender work with caring for his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner at a high-end law firm who is on indefinite leave due to a mysterious (perhaps mental) illness, and struggling to get by. He’s a regular at the local courthouse, where he antagonizes parking attendant ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, reprising his beloved role) and makes deals with opposing counsel in the restroom. At Chuck’s firm, smug partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) treats Jimmy like a petulant child, but he evidently has a complicated history with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seahorn), an up-and-coming young attorney. One of my few frustrations about Better Call Saul is that, like its predecessor, it’s short on female characters. The good news is that, despite only appearing a few times in the first three episodes, Kim already shows great potential for richness and conflict.

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As in Breaking Bad, Gilligan doesn’t rush to define every relationship or fill in every backstory. Better Call Saul‘s promotional materials identify Chuck as Jimmy’s brother, but if you watched the show without reading anything about it, all you’d know until the third episode is that they share a last name. I won’t be surprised if a full season passes before we find out exactly what happened between Jimmy and Kim.

Instead of exhausting itself with exposition, Better Call Saul throws Jimmy headfirst into a classic Saul Goodman scheme — one that ties together everyone from the fancy lawyers and a local politician to a pair of skateboarding scammers and a few angry thugs when it backfires. This does far more to establish Jimmy’s world than Gilligan would have accomplished had he taken the time to tell us every character’s favorite color and relationship status and where they went to college.

By far the most fascinating character on the show, of course, is Jimmy himself — the down-and-out defender with the beat-up car who will, in the space of a few short years, remake himself as Albuquerque’s #1 extralegal lawyer. A desperate desert scene midway through Episode 2 brings to the forefront something that Breaking Bad often suggested: Jimmy/Saul’s mouth is both his best weapon and his biggest liability. It’s the source of everything good and terrible in his life, and the reason why he is both a terrible lawyer and an excellent one.

Critics, myself included, have become fond of labeling every complicated white man at the center of a TV drama an “antihero” and bemoaning how common these characters have become. And don’t get me wrong — there are far too many hard-drinking, womanizing middle-aged men on television who are mysteriously brilliant and/or great at their jobs. But Vince Gilligan, despite having been elevated to demigod status sometime around Season 4 of Breaking Bad, has rarely gotten credit for how much his protagonists diverge from that trope. Walter White wasn’t an antihero so much as a repressed blank slate who found within himself an unlikely talent and a limitless capacity for villainy.

What makes Jimmy different is that his moral flexibility is in place from the very beginning, so in that way, his transformation into Saul will inevitably be subtler than Walt’s. The fact that his saving grace and fatal flaw are one and the same means that he isn’t quite like the classic antihero, either. Jimmy’s problem isn’t that his life is compartmentalized — it’s that it’s all jumbled together. Those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know where all this confusion will lead him, but in Better Call Saul, Odenkirk and Gilligan prove that it will be both fun and fascinating to watch him get there.