Breaking Bad Was a Masterpiece. Better Call Saul Is, Somehow, Even Better
While both shows have their merits, Better Call Saul’s approach to character helps make it stronger as a whole.
I remember watching the Breaking Bad finale with delight. I was a sophomore in college. Just a year before I had binged the four seasons available on Netflix in a matter of a few days. I was certainly not unique in this regard.
Better Call Saul doesn’t have the kind of breakneck, “bingeability”, so to speak, that Breaking Bad has. In fact, in virtually every way it’s a completely different show. It’s more meditative, more focused on character, and less interested in the cinematic action and tension that made Breaking Bad one of the most popular and highly rated TV shows of all time. Yet, it’s for those precise reasons that I find it to be more impactful than its predecessor. In Better Call Saul, Gilligan has not just deepened the character of Saul Goodman, but the world within which he exists.
When Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, he said he wanted Walter White to start as Mr. Chips and end as Scarface. In a very simple way, this helped create the building blocks of the show. It gave Walter White a clear trajectory and it imbued the story with a dark undertone. By declaring that he wanted to change a mild-mannered man into a violent beast, he was telling the audience that Walter White’s story ends in disaster. It informs plot as much as it informs character.
In comparison, Better Call Saul doesn’t have as clear a trajectory. We meet Saul before he is Saul — back when he is Jimmy McGill — and we know he will eventually become Saul. However, unlike with the “Mr. Chips to Scarface” blueprint, there is no indication as to what kind of story it will be, or where it will end up. Before airing, Better Call Saul could have been anything from a comedy, to a dark crime drama, to something in-between.
It turns out though, this works to Saul’s benefit. It allowed Gilligan to truly focus on character in a way he wasn’t able to in Breaking Bad. That is part of the reason why Saul sometimes feels a bit more meandering than Bad did. Jimmy McGill’s story is one of relationships, of people, and of internal turmoil. His difficult relationship with his brother Chuck took up the majority of three seasons of the show. His on-again, off-again relationship with Kim Wexler is a crucial part of understanding the “Saul” persona. Even in episodes where Gilligan dips back into his Breaking Bad roots — episodes like “Five-O”, where we flashback to Mike’s time as a police officer — the focus is still on how characters interact and how they affect each other.
I’ve been rewatching The Sopranos over the past few weeks, and part of the reason I am drawn to Better Call Saul is because it strikes a similar balance between character and plot. There was always a focus on Tony Soprano and his mob dealings, but his family life was equally as important. Whole episodes were dedicated to his dreams, wherein (in a very Lynchian manner) he had to discover truths through symbols in his subconscious. More to the point, Tony’s interactions with his family, particularly Carmela, AJ, and Meadow, were the lifeblood of the show’s power. And let’s not forget Dr. Melfi, who is perhaps the most important person in Tony’s life by the end of the show’s run.
My point is that The Sopranos garnered its reputation as one of the best TV shows of all time (for what it’s worth, it’s my favorite show) because of its focus on character and interpersonal relationships. To paraphrase David Chase, if you’re watching The Sopranos just to see Tony Soprano kill people, you’re watching it for the wrong reason.
None of this is to say that Breaking Bad is a bad show. Far from it. I rewatched it a few months ago and was completely blown away all over again. Gilligan mastered a tightrope act of tension, plotting, and character development that is still astonishing and nail-biting to watch. Bryan Cranston’s performance remains one of the best TV has ever seen. The supporting cast remains one of the most versatile and memorable of all time.
At the same time, Better Call Saul feels more confident, more assured in its characterization. While certain characters, like Skylar, didn’t always get the depth they deserved, Saul gives everyone — from Jimmy, to Chuck, to Nacho, to Kim, to Mike — much deserved depth and insight. And because Gilligan doesn’t have a pulse-pounding plot pushing him forward at every second, requiring every moment service that Scarface ending, he can let the camera linger on seemingly innocuous moments. Moments like Jimmy and Kim talking are given an appropriate amount of time and weight. It helps make their ups and downs more impactful. Similarly, Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck is given more time than it probably would have gotten on Breaking Bad. As a result, it creates some of the most satisfying drama and suspense in the show.
I see Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as two sides of the same coin. They are telling similar stories, about men falling into crime and depravity in their search for power and money. Yet, they tell those stories in fundamentally different ways. Breaking Bad will always be remembered for its explosive action and career-defining performances. Better Call Saul will be remembered for its small moments, its fully fleshed-out characters, and its personal nature. For my money, the latter is the more difficult effort to pull off, and ultimately is more powerful as a whole.
Better Call Saul is currently airing its fifth season on AMC.