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'Better Call Saul': Looking back on its divisive first season

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Ursula Coyote/AMC

Warning: finale spoilers below!

Last night, Jimmy waved good-bye to the morals that kept him firmly on one side of the law, closing out his brief stint as an honest lawyer and the first season of the Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul

Unlike its precedessor, the Bob Odenkirk-led drama has split the opinions of critics and fans alike. Now that the first season has concluded, EW TV critic Melissa Maerz and writer Kevin P. Sullivan discuss their reactions to the past 10 weeks of Jimmy, Chuck, Kim, and Mike. 

MELISSA MAERZ: Okay, Kevin. I want to hear your thoughts about Better Call Saul‘s season finale. But first, I want to defend the show itself, which is one of my favorite things on TV right now.

Because it’s a spinoff of Breaking Bad, which seems to be everyone’s favorite show, expectations were almost impossibly high from the beginning. So I wasn’t surprised to find that many critics whose opinions I respect seem to think the show is good but not great. Some have wondered whether anyone would even watch it if it wasn’t a Breaking Bad spin-off. Others have criticized its uneven tone, claiming that it’s a spaghetti western one minute and a hardboiled noir drama the next.

I understand those complaints, and I did love the Breaking Bad inside jokes that creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould smuggled in. But to me, this is a totally different show from its predecessor—and the fact that it’s tonally uneven fits its subject well. Like Jimmy McGill himself, Better Call Saul is just making it up as he goes along. There’s a reason why the show’s hero talks so much in the courtroom: If he’s headed in one direction and it’s not working, he’ll just head in another direction until something sticks. That’s how he saved those redheaded kids from Tuco and his friends in one of my favorite episodes, and that’s why his story is being told this way, too.

Of course, the rest of us already know who Jimmy ends up becoming—the slippery Saul Goodman. And for me, that’s what makes Better Call Saul the perfect combination of comedy and tragedy. You take a guy who really wants to be good, but present him with only terrible options. That’s when a funny story becomes heartbreaking. That’s my take, anyway. What do you think?

KEVIN P. SULLIVAN: As an enormous Breaking Bad fan, it pains me to admit that my take on the show falls firmly in the “good, not great” category—with one caveat.

There are plenty of good shows on TV, but I can’t think of any that I find as interesting on a creative level as Better Call Saul. It’s important to remember the position that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were in when they were approaching the spin-off. Breaking Bad‘s breathless reception basically gave the co-creators a license to print money with the prequel show. To cash in, all they had to do was deliver a repackaged version of their previous show, with the same tone and moments of explosive violence—but Better Call Saul is so different that I consider it one of the bravest creative moves in recent TV history

Slow, messy, and unfocused at times, this is unrepentantly a different show. But it has the same knack for scene structure and dialogue that always made Breaking Bad stand out. Obviously, one episode, “Five-O,” stands out as the season’s most Breaking Bad-ish hour—but a closer look at the Mike-centric story reveals that it fits right into the spin-off, with longer scenes and an emphasis on character choices and conversations rather than action. For me, that was a crystalizing moment for the series—and when Jimmy came back into the spotlight, the show was more confident than ever in the story it was telling. I think that was true right up to the finale, which took a major left turn. Were you surprised by where the finale went?

MAERZ: Definitely. Remember in Breaking Bad, when Saul said, “If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work. I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it”? Well, it was fun to actually see what happened that night. But I didn’t expect the episode to focus so much on Marco.

Season finales don’t often spend so much time revisiting the past, because they’re focused on pointing the way forward. You could argue that everything’s a little too neat in this episode, that the wheeler-dealing with Marco was the old-fashioned “one last hurrah” before Jimmy finally decides that he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him, then becomes an actual criminal. But the more I think about this finale, the more I think it’s not that simple.

Consider where Better Call Saul differs from Breaking Bad: Walter White started out as a good guy before going dark. But Jimmy started out as a morally questionable guy trying very hard to “break good.” There’s even a moral sensibility to his silver dollar con: He’s not taking advantage of honest people. Instead, he’s stealing from people who are trying to steal from others. He might look like a comic book villian who’s transformed from mild-mannered civilian Jimmy McGill into evil mastermind Saul Goodman when he puts on Marco’s ring, and the episode does make for a great origin story in the comic book tradition. But he doesn’t instantly become a bad guy. By wearing the ring, he’s reminding himself that actions have consequences, which is something that Walter White never quite learned. And I have to imagine that, despite Jimmy backing out of the meeting with the other law firm, and despite him telling Mike that he’ll “never make that mistake again,” he hasn’t reached any real turning point. I mean, he can’t stop hanging out just outside Chuck’s house, making sure that his brother is getting what he needs to survive. Deep down, the guy still has a big heart.

Mike says once you’ve done illegal things, you’re a criminal. But that’s what I love about this show: It’s a good reminder that being a criminal doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. What did you make of the attention Marco got?

SULLIVAN: As unexpected as the return to Chicago and Marco was, I think it totally made sense. As you pointed out, both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul tell stories of transformation. We see Walter’s shift from good to bad, from start to finish—but we’re catching up with Jimmy’s move in the opposite direction, and we’re doing so in the middle. I think bringing Marco back was a good way of showing that Slippin’ Jimmy has made some progress. But because we know how this story ends, it’s clear that Jimmy won’t make it much further.

Throughout this whole season, Jimmy has tried and tried to make the right decision. Unfortunately, the world (or, more specifically, Chuck) is there to tell him, “That’s as far as you’re allowed to go.” In the shared universe of these two shows, there’s no limit to how bad you can be. But unless you belong to the privileged few, there are restrictions to how truly good you can go. That’s a dark and cynical message for a “comedy”—and I’m happy Gould and Gilligan used the finale to service that theme, even if Jimmy’s parking lot epiphany did come on a little too quickly.

I think you’re absolutely right that there’s more to this story, and I’m excited to see where they take it next year. What do you think (or hope) is in store for us when the show returns? 

MAERZ: Well, I’m sorry to say that my expectations are still insanely high. For me, this show has always been impervious to spoilers, because it’s not really about big plot twists or cliffhangers. Instead, it’s about the pleasure of slowly watching characters take form. Some people have criticized Better Call Saul for introducing great characters that were ultimately abandoned (Betsy Kettleman, we hardly knew ye!)—but based on what we know from Breaking Bad, we obviously haven’t seen the last of Tucco and his crew. And considering that only a few episodes ago, Marco was just a random body in an alleyway, I have to believe that other minor characters from season 1 will eventually become a lot more interesting. Is it safe to assume that Mike’s daughter-in-law dies at some point, since we later see him raising his granddaughter? And I’m guessing that there’s an eventual rift between Jimmy and Kim, since she’s nowhere to be found in his later life.

Obviously, I don’t expect all of this to go down in season 2. I love the idea of not knowing exactly what’s ahead, but still feeling powerless to stop what we know is coming. That’s how you create real suspense. What do you hope happens?

SULLIVAN: I’m definitely of the opinion that a good show should end sooner rather than later, so I wouldn’t be terribly upset if Saul only lasts through its second or third season. (Also, how much TV can we really squeeze out of the time between now and Breaking Bad?)

As we said before, Jimmy is certainly on the road to Saul, but he’s not quite there yet. And Mike still has some rungs of the criminal underworld to climb before he’s working for the owner of Los Pollos Hermanos. Honestly, of all Breaking Bad characters, I think Gus Fring has the most juice left in him. But I have a feeling that he’ll end up as a series finale cameo, if anything. Better Call Saul has never been a show that I can predict—so if anything, I just want the spinoff to keep surprising me.

That said, I also wouldn’t be mad if we saw more of present-day Saul in Nebraska.

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