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Better Call Saul: When a Spinoff Surpasses Its Origin Story

The third season of the Bob Odenkirk-helmed show reveals a depth and pathos missing from ‘Breaking Bad.’

Robert Trachtenberg/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Google “Walter White,” and his face glowers at you from the sidebar of your search results, the toxic extreme of an archetypal character who was ubiquitous in the early years of this decade: the male anti-hero. The problem with Breaking Bad, as I saw it, is that it became a voyeuristic morality play about manhood and power. Watching Walt enact an escalating series of masculinity rites (beating on teenage bullies, playing chicken with oncoming traffic, etc.) in his tighty-whities was never interesting to me. Perhaps, as a young woman, I was simply unable to appreciate the compelling insights that a middle-aged man, wrestling with his own mortality and wearing his own tighty-whities, might have found in Breaking Bad. It just felt bleak and exhausting.

Of course, I am in the minority. Breaking Bad was not only beloved, but the subject of an enormous amount of critical inquiry (book titles alone include Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives and The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character, and Ethics). It was treated with a seriousness that its spinoff, Better Call Saul, about to enter its third season, has not received. And yet, Better Call Saul is a more successful, more entertaining character study. If an anti-hero is an inherently flawed, even immoral character that you root for nonetheless, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is an anti-hero—but of a very different kind than his predecessor.

Whereas Walter White was a lesson for what could happen to an everyman under the wrong circumstances, Jimmy is not a blank slate that aspires to any kind of universality. He is not a stand-in for anything; he is entirely himself, an endearing patchwork of brilliance, self-destruction, good-heartedness, and sleaze, all battling for primacy. Like his trademark yellow Suzuki Esteem with the mismatched door, Jimmy is unmistakeable—you can see him and his flaws a mile away. He can change names and uniforms and offices but he can never shake his own nature.

Indeed, much of the conflict in the show stems from the novel idea that sleaziness is not merely a tool used in pursuit of money, power, or prestige, but an essential animus unto itself. It’s not in Jimmy’s blood, per se—his rigid, uncompromising brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and their naive, wholesome father don’t share it—but it’s part of Jimmy’s intrinsic makeup nonetheless. The result of all this is a show that is less abstract and more human. Perhaps more importantly, it is also a show that doesn’t take itself so damn seriously.

Better Call Saul is the story of how Jimmy McGill—brother, two-bit lawyer, and former conman—becomes money-laundering, poison cigarette–toting Saul Goodman. More than following any one plot, it details Jimmy’s attempts to make something of himself. In season one, he’s trying to scheme his way into lucrative cases and into a career in elder law. He does this to prove to Chuck—a high-brow law partner disabled by a psychosomatic allergy to electricity—that he, too, is capable of being an upstanding lawyer. Season two sees him flirt with a steady job at a reputable firm, which he predictably finds stifling.

But at the center of the story is the deterioration of the relationship between the two brothers as they attempt to sabotage each other. Chuck does this because he believes “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun,” and Jimmy because he is reacting to this rejection. The other major relationship is Jimmy’s on-and-off love affair with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), from whom he is constantly trying to conceal his sketchier side.

This story is interwoven with Breaking Bad fan-favorite Mike Erhmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) stoic drift into criminal enterprise to provide for his grandchild and widowed daughter-in-law. It is also interspersed with flash forwards to Jimmy’s life after Breaking Bad (which begins six years after the events of Better Call Saul) managing a mall Cinnabon in Omaha, as a man named Gene. They’re shot in melancholy black and white, with almost no dialogue. There are many lingering shots of glaze being prepared and booze being sipped languorously as Jimmy/Saul/Gene watches his own TV commercials on VHS tape.

Season three almost immediately returns to the revelation that ended season two, that Chuck had surreptitiously taped Jimmy admitting to falsifying documents to sabotage his brother. Chuck has proven adept at manipulating Jimmy when he needs to, and this plot turn demonstrates one of the best qualities of Jimmy’s narrative: It eschews the indulgent trope of the anti-hero being the best at whatever it is he does. Walter White is the best meth cook and later the best criminal mastermind. Don Draper is the best ad man, Nucky Thompson is the best gangster. This has been part of the formula for writing an anti-hero for almost 20 years, but Jimmy doesn’t need to be superlative to be interesting—he isn’t the best lawyer, or even the best crook. He’s smart, crafty, and maybe even talented, but he’s constantly bungling his schemes or, as we see in the beginning of season three, getting outmaneuvered by his brother. If he does ever get the better of Chuck, I can only imagine that it will be with a really dirty trick, and at serious personal cost.

As fans riddled out over a year ago, season three also heralds the return of Breaking Bad’s best villain, Gustavo Fring, which was confirmed via a surreal Los Pollos Hermanos ad in January. His sinister presence suggests the trajectory of the show is really about to change from the more subdued vibe it has adopted. For the most part, the more dangerous elements on the show have been tenuously contained by Ehrmantrout, as he attempts to keep his shady dealings from seeping into his family life. But Mike’s entanglements with the local drug cartels are getting thornier.

It has been noted, usually in praise, that Better Call Saul has traded much of its predecessor’s ultraviolence for interpersonal drama and questions about legal ethics. But things had to change sometime, and at this point the show is full of potentially game-changing landmines: Gus is back on the scene; Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck is in shambles; a taped admission to a felony is in the mix; and even some of last season’s more lighthearted cons may be coming back to bite Jimmy. The thin veneer of his good name seems ready to crack.

Better Call Saul seems to be hastening its creep towards the events of Breaking Bad, and may be getting closer to the specific underworld it inhabited. Still, I trust that the show can go there while preserving what has made Saul distinct. While slow-building character work is one of its strong suits, Jimmy McGill is built for the moments when the shit hits the fan. Some of his best scenes have been the most off-the-wall: negotiating the fair punishment for insulting a drug lord’s grandma (one broken leg per offender), for instance, or full body dumpster-diving for shredded paperwork. He is a creature of catastrophe, and his flair equips him to take the show into higher-stakes plotlines without losing its eccentric soul.

Better Call Saul takes the best elements of Breaking Bad—the cinematography, the masterful directing, and some of the show’s best characters—and strips away the pretension that weighed it down. But the great gift that Breaking Bad has bequeathed to its successor is a sense of destiny. We already know how this ends, with Jimmy reinventing himself as the unapologetic dirtbag criminal attorney Saul Goodman. There can be no illusion that Jimmy will ultimately go straight, or repair his relationship with his brother, or find a lasting connection with Kim. Things can only get seedier from here, but at least we can be sure they’ll get there with humor and character.