Is Better Call Saul becoming too much like Breaking Bad? EW's critics debate
In some ways, the fourth season of Better Call Saul — which premieres Monday, Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. on AMC — marks a new beginning for the Breaking Bad prequel, as the characters react to the fiery demise that ended season 3. But on the other hand, Better Call Saul is returning to familiar territory: Cartels, drug-adjacent skullduggery, and the shadowy machinations of a magnificent drug lord with a fast food empire. By its creators’ own admission, Better Call Saul has never looked more like Breaking Bad. Is that a problem? EW’s critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich discuss.
DARREN: Better Call Saul used to feel like two very different TV shows, a split represented by the two lead dudes. In one quadrant of sun-drenched Albuquerque, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) got into wacky (yet inadvertently meticulous) legal capers, many of them skirmishes in an ongoing Cain-and-Abel war with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Meanwhile, across town and genres, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) existed in a world of subterranean drug lords and dark-comic crime happenings. To be way too simplistic: Half of Better Call Saul was Better Call Saul, and the other half was Breaking Bad: The Early Years.
Now here we are in season 4, Kristen, and I find myself feeling like Better Call Saul has now become THREE very different shows. Jimmy reacts to the death of his brother by, well, embarking on capers that have nothing to do with the Albuquerque drug trade. Mike is beginning his own new career phase, requiring one of my favorite Silent Mike Montages ever: From the thrilling adventure hour that brought you “Mike Takes His Car Apart” and “Mike Disassembles Then Reassembles a Tracking Device” comes “Mike Slowly Infiltrates a Warehouse.”
And then there’s the renewed focus on Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), which feels more than ever like violent-tense scenes missing from Breaking Bad season 3. We’ve seen three episodes of season 4, Kristen, and what strikes me is that there are a lot of tiny delights. (On this show, making coffee looks Hitchcockian.) But there’s a resistant macro-feeling of: Like, why? We know what happens to Gus — hell, we know what happens to Gus’ henchmen. I’m left with the feeling that the Gus Fring scenes in Better Call Saul are the dark-drama equivalent of the horrible Darth Vader scenes in Rogue One, this looming figure of evil awesomeness brought out of retirement to emanate coolness fumes.
I know you come at Better Call Saul from a slightly different place than I do, Kristen. So I’m intrigued to know what you think of the new season.
KRISTEN: You forgot “Mike Meticulously Inserts Nails Into a Garden Hose.”
That said, Darren, I appreciate your diplomatic choice of words. I do, in fact, come at Better Call Saul from a “slightly different place” — meaning, I’ve seen maybe four episodes of Breaking Bad in my life, and have viewed and loved Better Call Saul as an entity unto itself, rather than a prequel to anything else. It’s enough to know where Jimmy winds up — Saul Goodman (and later, Gene Takavic) — to enjoy the slow, exquisitely-rendered tale of how he got there.
This is likely an #UnpopularOpinion, but the introduction of Gus Fring last season seemed, to me, totally unnecessary. Yes, Saul needs to link to Breaking Bad — but that’s what Mike Ehrmantraut is for! He is the thread that ties poor Jimmy, a talented con-man, to the internecine drug cartel world that will ultimately lead him to Walter White. Of course, the show needs to give Mike something to do besides spar with Jimmy over diner coffee, and Saul is partly his story, too: These are both men at war with themselves. Mike needs to be useful, even though his bosses at Madrigal want him to stay home and cash his check, no questions asked. And four seasons in, Jimmy is still struggling to keep Saul at arm’s length: He’s trying to find an honest-to-goodness job in sales, but he’s so disgusted by his own fast-talking charm that he can’t bear to work for anyone who falls for it.
This is the quiet drama Saul thrives on. Odenkirk conveys so much with so little — a furrowed brow, an aimless stare into space — that he’s made the inner life of Jimmy McGill as rich and expressive as the outer bombast of Saul Goodman. So with each additional scene devoted to the Salamanca-Fring drug feud, I’m beginning to feel robbed. How do Gus Fring’s tensions with Nacho (Michael Mando) show us anything about Jimmy’s transformation? Of course Giancarlo Esposito is the master at delivering a chilling gaze, but he already had 3 seasons to do so on Breaking Bad. Must his character now muscle in on scenes that could’ve gone to Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, or Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin? Can’t the Better Call Saul writers let Jimmy’s story stand on its own?
DARREN: Perfectly said, Kristen! Fabian looks like a living Ken Doll, but he’s turned his princely attorney into such a subtle character. (The emotional core of the season premiere…is Howard Hamlin). Meanwhile, the curious ascension of Kim is one of Saul‘s most compelling, hard-to-pin-down arcs. Seehorn has a wonderful way of making the complex cerebrals of attorneyship feel palpable. Her corporate, document-heavy lawyering feels just as thrilling to me as anything Sam Waterson ever did on Law & Order. There’s a sequence involving Kim and her client Mesa Verde in the third episode that I just adore. The setup is simple: She’s looking at architectural models for Mesa Verde branches in Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and beyond. But there’s so much happening internally, with Kim, with her job, with where she thinks she’s going. It’s quiet AND bombastic.
I think it’s notable that you — a casual BB viewer but devoted BCS watcher — have arrived at the same feeling as I, someone who watched all of Breaking Bad and loved most of it (the finale, meh). There is the part of Better Call Saul that is about the con-man-ish travails of a shysty-lovable lawyer — and then someone in the writers’ room will say “BUT BREAKING BAD” and then we get a scene with the Cousins looking Cousin-ly.
At some point (maybe this season!) Jimmy’s story will connect decisively with the Gus side of things. But the weird part is, having blathered on about the disconnection, I don’t think I WANT these story strands to come together! Episode 2 of this season is directed by the great Michelle MacLaren, who films a Jimmy job interview with a remarkable range of tones — casual humor, swaggering charisma, blunt dispassion. It’s more thrilling than any scene from the big-budget sci-fi fantasies filling our TV screens this year — and Jimmy is talking about printers. The low stakes feel marvelously cosmic — more interesting, for me, than Gus and his Lex-Luthor-of-Drugs act. Do you find the idea of a Jimmy-Gus conversation enticing, Kristen, or infuriating?
KRISTEN: More than anything, I’d find it disappointing — for all of the reasons you articulated above. The low-stakes moments are what make Better Call Saul so special, whether it’s Jimmy intentionally sabotaging a job interview, or poor Nacho wilting under the weight of his father’s disappointment. And for me, the most pressing question of all isn’t about how Jimmy becomes Saul or how Saul meets Gus — it’s how will Jimmy lose Kim Wexler? Somehow, this woman who loves Jimmy despite his slippery moral center (or maybe, in part, because of it) is going to leave him — and I highly doubt it’ll be in a body bag. There’s a scene in the third episode where Kim listens to Jimmy read a letter aloud. Jimmy’s the one talking, but all of the crucial action is on Kim’s face — it’s as though it’s dawning on her, slowly, that she’ll never truly understand the man next to her.
Jimmy, deep down, is a sweetheart — a loving guy who just wants to make Kim happy. Doesn’t it follow, then, that losing her would be the thing that sends him over the edge into Saul-ville? That may be a more traditionally feminine take on a fictional universe dominated by toxic men (and deeply-hated women), but the concept of “antihero” is gender-neutral. So, a humble plea to Vince Gilligan and the Better Call Saul writers: Next time you feel the urge to say “BUT BREAKING BAD,” try saying this instead: “BUT KIM WEXLER!” It may not be as fun as writing another scene for Gus Fring, but it’ll be — insert air-quotes here — the right thing.
Better Call Saul season 4 premieres Monday, Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. on AMC.