Two writers debate which of AMC's acclaimed Albuquerque crime dramas is the best.

By Darren Franich and James Hibberd
April 15, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Better Call Saul

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  • TV Show
network
  • AMC
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Hear-ye, hear-ye, we’re gathered today for the case of Better Call Saul vs. Breaking Bad to determine which AMC drama truly reigns supreme. EW editor-at-large James Hibberd will present the case that Breaking Bad remains the better series while EW TV critic Darren Franich will argue for the defense. Court is now in session...

JAMES: Let’s start with our point of agreement. Better Call Saul is having an incredible run of episodes right now. I particularly loved the recent Saul-Kim-Lalo standoff. It was a Breaking Bad-like crime drama moment where the scene abruptly shifted into a Better Call Saul-like legal drama with a living room serving as the courtroom. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) acted as Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) lawyer, fighting for her client's life, and in that moment became just like Saul, representing a man she knew was hiding something — "Your honor, my criminal client is honest as the day is long and would never lie!"

And before that, Nacho (Michael Mando) dropping off Lalo (Tony Dalton) at the well. The way the show played that moment out. “Do you want me to stay?" No, no, go. “Sure you don’t want me to stay?” No, no, it’s fine. Your feeling of tension started to rise. You knew something bad was going to happen. Nacho is allllllmost gone when Lalo knocked on his window. Then it led to Goodman chatting blithely away with Kim, ignoring that cell ringing over and over again, then Mike’s urgent Taken-like speech as Kim fearfully backs away from their door. It was all a world-class scene construction that wrung every ounce of drama possible out of their confrontation.

DARREN: Kim is a master of unexpected legal strategy, whether she's bigfooting a bank CEO or Jedi mind-tricking the latest murdering Salamanca drugspawn. In the Wexler spirit, I'll begin this defense of Better Call Saul with some critiques. The early seasons were hit-or-miss, depending on unnecessary prequel canon and Michael McKean's too-quirky-for-my-tastes Chuck. The Fring-Salamanca narconovela hasn't always fit into the show. I didn't like the Superlab at all.

But I've come around to respecting Better Call Saul's eccentric pacing. Saul Goodman was a fabulous grotesque on Breaking Bad, and it's stunning how completely this spin-off has deepened our understanding of his motivations — and made his shady con-man act the stuff of corrosive drama. Odenkirk keeps plumbing new dark corners of Jimmy McGill's self-defeating psyche. And Saul co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have turned willful detours into unexpected delights. Jimmy's goofy Elder Law practice turned into a subplot that totally riveted me. The production design is impeccable; I've been obsessing about the fish tank in Jimmy and Kim's apartment for years. And now season 5 has been one incredible hall of fame moment after another. The seventh episode, "JMM," was the best hour this universe has ever produced, from the oddly sweet bad-decision marriage to Jimmy's eruptive "God in Human Clothing!" speech.

It felt like the ultimate Better Call Saul episode, complete with tense Mesa Verde negotiations and Chuck's ghost haunting Jimmy through Howard's perfect tan. And then the next episode, "Bagman," was some kind of an ultimate Breaking Bad episode, tense desert gunplay leading into funny, freaky survival tale. We're arguing about two great TV shows, James. Am I cheating if I pick the one that achieves the best of both worlds?

JAMES: I concur with "JMM" being terrific — from Kim’s literal “check and mate” move, saying marriage was the only way she'd stay with Saul (and here we thought he was the one outmaneuvering her) — to their incredibly pathetic half-hearted “I dos" to Saul’s apocalyptic Emmy-bait meltdown.

And I respect your defense strategy of trying to get out ahead of Saul’s most obvious weaknesses — its early seasons — by dismissing them first. But the early seasons you’re shrugging off are a huge reason the show suffers in comparison to Breaking Bad.

I think there’s some recency bias going on with Saul — like the way fans disappointed by a show’s final season suddenly think badly of the series as a whole, except in this case, it's just the opposite. The first three seasons of Saul were a weird bifurcated show — part-time legal dramedy and part-time weak Breaking Bad prequel, jumping between relatively mild-mannered corporate intrigue and ho-hum activities in the criminal underworld. It’s easy to forget poor Mike spent an entire season working in a parking lot. Or that Jimmy’s brother Chuck was a very off-putting character; the scenes of Chuck and his space blanket were pretty painful. Saul was always incredibly well made, but even most of its fans concede its first few years were a mixed bag.

But compare that to Breaking Bad. The show's very first episode established all five major characters who would carry the drama through to the final year and immediately launched a simple, crystal-clear (ha!) premise — a teacher with cancer cooks meth to support his family. The story had immediate urgency, and Walt's goal and all its complications fueled every single episode. Each hour felt like it ended on a cliffhanger because the story had so much momentum, yet Breaking Bad's character development was somehow equally terrific.

Saul has been a meandering character drama that only recently seemed to decide which story it was telling. It's having its best season because all its major characters are finally part of the same story now that Goodman is fully “in the game,” the criminal world (and Kim is getting there too).

DARREN: I don't think "meandering" is an insult. I'm charmed with showrunner Gould's nerdish fixation on the everyday overbelly of Albuquerque. That wider focus creates unconventional high points. Think of Jimmy and Kim horsing around inside the glass bricked shower of their dream house. Or all the stuff-happening-gradually montages that depend on Jonathan Banks' meteor-hitting-Mars granite face. Cast an eye, if you will, to Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), a borderland balrog reduced to ding-alongs at a retirement-home birthday.

Unlike you, I don't love this season because it has unified into one story. I love season 5 because all the plotlines are on fire on their own terms. Lalo made the Salamancas feel dangerous again. The curious plight of one angry old man in Tucumcari consumed Kim and Jimmy in a personal-professional duel. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) really wants to keep his fryers clean: This is new information!

Conversely, the nonstop momentum you're describing wasn't always good for Breaking Bad. I love so much of the show, but I can never quite get past the final season's dependency on Uncle Jack's facelessly tough white supremacists. It felt like Bad was bending over backward to create a villain (literal Nazis!) worse than Walt.

And one thing that bugs me about Breaking Bad in hindsight is that Walter White wound up becoming, like, kind of too cool: The source of untold "One Who Knocks" paraphrases, an action hero eradicating a paramilitary squad with a science-powered machine gun. Saul challenges that form of antihero empowerment. "JMM" ended with Jimmy giving his own version of the "Say My Name" speech, bragging about his secret worlds and the lightning bolts shooting out of his fingertips. One episode later, he was drinking his own urine while he starved to death in the desert.

And Kim Wexler, James! I can't think of another character on television who's so relatable yet eccentric, with motivations that are straightforward (be a good lawyer, be a good person), and then actions that are constantly surprising.

JAMES: Since you once ranked “The Fly” as Breaking Bad’s finest hour, I know you have the admirable ability to embrace a good meander, whereas I impatiently require at least some degree of plot momentum to feel all-in.

And you say every Saul character is on fire on its own terms. But you couldn’t have had that level of heat last season, for instance, because of that season-long storyline about the building of Gus’ superlab. As always, the show was well done. I wasn’t bored. The Saul creative team can make almost any subject interesting — and that was the proof! Because it was literally a major subplot about a construction project, something we already knew got built, and we even know how the superlab ends — literally no stakes or suspense (if “construction project suspense” is even a thing?), aside from the fate of a foreman we didn’t care about before or since. That’s like Solo: A Star Wars Story explaining how Han got his dangling dice and his last name, prequel-itus filling in a backstory from the iconic original that nobody ever wanted to know. Saul could have deleted that subplot, and it would not have changed anything in season 5. The only character it could have impacted, Mike, ended up right back where he was before, working for Gus. Whereas everything of significance that happened in Breaking Bad needed to happen to advance the story and characters forward. There were some tangents (like Marie’s shoplifting), but they typically amounted to a handful of scenes, not a significant subplot introducing a bunch of new characters that went nowhere.

You mention Gus. In Breaking Bad, Fring was one of the best TV villains of all time. Whenever he came on screen, you leaned in. You hung on his every meticulously enunciated word. On Saul, he’s … fine? Part of this, unavoidably, is because we know he must survive. But part of it is the show hasn’t made use of his menace and tactical mastery as effectively as Breaking Bad. Here we got the sequence, as you say, of Gus repeatedly ordering a Pollos Hermanos employee to clean a deep fryer — which even surpassed “let’s watch people plan the superlab” in terms of its impressively towering degree of “who gives a s---?”

As for Kim? ... Agree! Rhea Seehorn is incredible in this role, and she’s been great from the very start. And she’s arguably the best, certainly the strongest, female character in either series (though I also contend Anna Gunn was underrated in Breaking Bad — she conveyed so much during tough scenes where Walt has all the scene-stealing lines, and she’s tasked with mostly reacting). Even with Wexler, however, I have some nitpick. Some of what’s been recently embraced as Kim’s complexity comes off to me like the writers are trying to steer her hardworking professional character into the crime drama storyline. You note her choices are surprising, and they are, but even surprising character choices should always feel in retrospect like, “yes, that’s exactly what that character would do.” But when Kim backed Goodman’s increasingly risky plays on behalf of a rude homeowner and ditched her Mesa Verde client for destinations unknown, I wasn't quite buying that she would give up everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.

DARREN: I knew we’d get to “Fly” eventually! That claustrophobic masterpiece is definitely in my top 5 favorite Breaking Bad episodes, but the specific meandering charms of Better Call Saul are a bit different. This show keeps opening up new directions, tapping rich veins of fascination in a narrative that, circa 2013, had mostly sharpened into a crime-god duel.

That comes across in small moments of ambient weirdness, like the poetic prologue where ants assaulted Jimmy’s dropped ice cream. But season 5 has also shaded deeper understanding of central Bad characters. Mike's become an even more tragic figure, I think, his emotionally scarred backstory adding to Banks' rueful mystique. Gus was a big concern for a while, no question, his shadowy presence reminding me of Darth Vader’s terrible appearance in another bad Star Wars prequel, Rogue One.

This season brought the character back to life for me. The “Dedicado a Max” episode gave Esposito's titan of atrocity a secret slice of heaven. Also, it turns out Gus is a really dedicated fast-food franchiser. That bit with the fry cook (which I love!) was a deep expression of his obsessive-compulsive drives. Here’s a meth kingpin as focused on double-reverse DEA scams as he is on the sanitary conditions of his shell-company restaurant. To continue our ever-flimsier Star Wars comparisons, all the business with Madrigal felt like the Breaking Bad equivalent of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars, a thrilling expansion of elliptical lore. I want to visit all the Madrigal junk-food joints, James! Order me one large everything at Luftwaffle!

As for Kim, I don’t think her unpredictability is quite as unpredictable as you’re saying. She has always been an incredibly dedicated worker with an impulsive streak: Seeking out Mesa Verde’s business, striking out on her own, hell, being with Jimmy at all. Monday’s episode climaxed with the revelation that, among other things, Kim would make a hell of a cartel lawyer. She mincemeated Lalo’s silent-killer act — and made “Saul Goodman” look like the schmo that he is. Seehorn embodies Kim as a tough careerist with a wild edge. Actually, the performer and the character sum up everything I love about the series: hardworking craftsmanship mixed with flights of fancy, following the rules (of franchise continuity) while embracing maniacal far-flung schemes.

And we haven’t even gotten to the unusual element I admire most about Saul. I’m talking about Gene Takovic, Cinnabon manager. Has there ever been a slower burn in TV history, James?

JAMES: Clearly, the most direct path to your heart is for a drama series to add random insects.

And I'm starting to sense another pattern in your Saul defense, which basically goes like this: “But Kim tho!” And I hear you. “But Kim tho!” is the show’s best defense. And I appreciate your analysis of her big moves this season and you’re probably right about her motives — at least, “right” in terms of what the show’s writers’ intended, though I’d say it's still the show’s responsibility to make each feel organic.

As for the Gene scenes, oh man. This year was the first time those scenes had a real storyline, with Gene potentially being outed as the fugitive Goodman. The previous season's Gene entries were just portraits of misery. It would be one thing if that was the entire point. But it felt like Saul’s writers had no idea where Gene was going to end up so they kept kicking that narrative sticky bun down the road with the intention of figuring it out later. It’s like they finally got around to doing something with Gene only because they have a series end date next season.

(By and by, the whole Cinnabon job itself bugged me. That came out of a throwaway joke in Breaking Bad, that Saul would probably end up working at a Cinnabon, ha-ha. The man laundered roughly $80 million for Walter White, negotiating a cut of 17 — then later 5 — percent, and seemed like he knew, and therefore would have prepared, for the fact that someday he might have to flee. So why did he end up working at a Nebraska Cinnabon and living in a sadness apartment? Even after The Disappearer’s fee, he should have at least $4 million socked away in off-the-books cash. We know why Walter lost his money, but why did Saul lose his? Why isn’t Saul on a beach in Mexico? I realize this is unimportant and could very well be explained later but I'm perturbed at the start of each season by Goodman's personal finances.).

All that said, I can’t wait to see the season finale and I am totally down to join you for a Luftwaffle.

DARREN: Arguing the case for Better Call Saul right now makes me feel like Saul Goodman defending Lalo. My client is unpredictable, has made some mistakes, and could definitely end up killing my goldfish. What will the final season bring? Let's ask the judge for a yearlong recess so we can hold off on a final verdict for now. Because there was definitely a time when the Gene scenes confounded me, too. The last few prologues have been remarkably tense television, though, imbued with the dawning sorrow that everything about Jimmy's life — everything about this whole entire show we are watching for years and years! — will evaporate into lonely terror.

The latest check-in with Gene ended with a long close-up on our lead character resolving himself into a life-changing decision. That moment was a reminder of just how utterly fabulous a dramatic actor Bob Odenkirk has become in his decade-plus career as Saul Goodman. To my "But Kim tho!" plea, let me also enter a "But Saul too!" addendum. Odenkirk keeps finding new dimensions to play in this man of many names. I don't know what the future holds for Jimmy, or Saul, or Gene. But 11 years after he strolled into Walter White's classroom, I've never been more scared — or more excited — to find out how his story will end.

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Episode Recaps

Better Call Saul

Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own Vince Gilligan prequel.

type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 4
episodes
  • 40
rating
genre
creator
  • Vince Gilligan
  • Peter Gould
network
  • AMC
stream service

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