IN SOME ways, it’s hard to account for the success of Breaking Bad. Was its viewership largely invested in the character drama that built its tension perfectly over its five seasons, supported by the best ensemble cast this side of The Wire; or is its legacy in the unspoken agreement between people with Heisenberg posters, a hazmat suit ready for next Halloween and a bad case of Skyler White syndrome that in Walt’s position, wouldn’t you do the same? And does its popularity among that demographic lower its worth as a cultural touchstone? And does it even matter?
Incidentally, it’s those fans that tend to be the worst judge of character. Vince Gilligan, on the other hand, takes an idea for a character that could have once been simply a cold open for Breaking Bad and brings to it a vibrant life of its own. Better Call Saul, though still filled with the intoxicating sense of anxiety that made that show so thrilling to watch, is refreshing. Free of the weight of Walter White’s evilness, hanging over the last two seasons like a barrel of drug money. It feels good to root for the character of Jimmy McGill, despite knowing that his date with the devil is inevitable.
Better Call Saul opens seven years before the events of Breaking Bad, with Saul still working under his birth name after leaving the law firm he and his brother helped build up. In a familiar twist of the absurd, Chuck McGill is holed up in a house lit by lanterns and candles after suffering a breakdown related to “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”, after which Jimmy tries to support the two with $700 trials at the county courtroom, which has a very familiar face as its parking attendant.
Jimmy’s old lawyer pals, like Ted Beneke’s company or Elliot and Gretchen’s altruistic scientists in Bad, act like characters from a different, more boring show, serving to highlight the comparable bizarre lives of Albuquerque’s criminal underbelly. In this story, Jimmy is the vandal in Ted’s offices with the potted plant. We are witnessing the beginnings of a criminal, but one with a more tangible conscience, the compassion and wit of Jimmy is reliably played by Bob Odenkirk. As the series progresses, there will no doubt be more cameos from Bad regulars. And Bryan Cranston will be directing an episode later in this season; make of that what you will.
Further plot points, I won’t spoil. But already Better Call Saul is proving itself to be more than just a spinoff. Any questions or doubts are alleviated by the beautifully selected music by Dave Porter and the continued use of Albuquerque as a location. Again we see the expanses of the New Mexico desert, home to Bad’s most iconic scenes, as a device through which characters are born; Jimmy uses his bargaining skills to settle the most tense scene of the series so far out there, in the dirt.
Some characters are safe, but that doesn’t stop Better Call Saul from retaining the drama of its predecessor. There is still danger, but it is not “the” danger.