The story of how loser lawyer Jimmy McGill became legal superstar Saul Goodman returns to Lightbox tonight for its second season. Andrew Todd looks at how Better Call Saul avoided the curse of the prequel.
Spoilers for Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad follow.
Who is the audience for Better Call Saul? Those who haven’t seen Breaking Bad (though seriously, why on earth not?) aren’t going to be first in line for this, its spin-off. And while many Breaking Bad fans know the brilliance of that show’s comic-relief lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), they may have their doubts he can carry a show of his own.
Then there are those who saw Better Call Saul’s first season: they know that not only can Goodman sustain a show, he can do so in a way that doesn’t even require prior viewing of Breaking Bad. That’s because Better Call Saul is altogether a different monster: funnier, less brutal, and in many ways, more tragic.
Prequels have a bad reputation – “prequelitis”, some call it – and the derision has been largely deserved. Telling stories about characters who’ve already been introduced chronologically later is inherently fraught. The stakes are lower: we already know the characters survive into the “next” movie or TV show, so it’s hard to drum up much concern for them here in the present. Take Anakin or Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels: those films are a relentless, predictable slog towards an outcome we already know.
Worse, prequels are frequently filled with winking references and “clever” foreshadowing that entirely relies on the audience knowing what’s going to happen later on. The Star Wars films are full of these, but they’re not even among the worst offenders. Monsters University is almost entirely comprised of references to the first film, while The Thing (2011) is almost a scene-for-scene remake of The Thing (1982).
So how did the Better Call Saul team avoid these pitfalls? The answer was surprisingly simple. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould not only wrote an original and standalone story, but also neatly sidestepped prequelitis by taking a comic support character from one series and employing him as a tragic lead in another. Tonally, it seems like that shouldn’t work, but through some smart narrative distancing and thoughtful writing, by God, they pulled it off.
When we meet the title character of Better Call Saul, he’s miles away from his Saul Goodman days – he’s even got a different name. His former self, Jimmy McGill, is recognisably the same person as Goodman, but in a vastly different context. He has no clients. He works from a crappy little office that’s little more than a storage closet for a nail salon. He’s constantly taking care of his more-successful but cripplingly neurotic brother, who secretly scorns him. He’s haunted by his con-artist past, and equally haunted by his conspicuously empty future. Jimmy is a character with little to lose and a lot to gain. He’s got goals that matter – the stakes are his happiness, career, and maybe even survival.
Crucially, Better Call Saul never really allows its protagonist to win. Even the comic moments (much rarer than anyone expected) and moments of victory are tinged with sadness. There’s a sense that Jimmy will always be limited to small victories, masked by big failures. That’s mirrored in his personality, all bravado and banter concealing deep, deep insecurities.
How possible is to reinvent one’s self? The question is woven through Better Call Saul. Jimmy’s former reputation as con artist “Slippin’ Jimmy” constantly comes back to bite him in the ass, and informs his every action, whether he wants to admit it or not. Even when doing the right thing, he does it out of self-interest, and often utilising the same dodgy tactics as when he was fleecing drunks. He’s opportunistic and two-faced, and worst of all, laced with guilt – he knows he’s still Slippin’ Jimmy at heart, and feels awful about it, but continues behaving that way because it’s all he knows. He even goes back to Chicago for a week of swindling with his old partner in crime, and that week of lucre is one of a few victories he gets to enjoy. But it’s an empty victory, and he knows it.
What makes Jimmy such a compelling character – and Better Call Saul such a compelling show – is his desperation. He’s got something to prove. In that respect, and his constant comparing of himself with his would-be peers, he’s a similar to Walter White. But while Walt has the skills, amorality, and sheer force of will to improvise his way out of bad situations, Jimmy can’t seem to make anything stick. He’s forever stuck in a loop of shortchanging people and being shortchanged himself, which makes Better Call Saul a much sadder show than Breaking Bad. Jimmy desperately wants to attain the kind of success his brother enjoys, but he never will. The audience knows he never will, and deep down, it feels like Jimmy knows it too.
The show’s other great triumph is in how it links to Breaking Bad in subtle and unexpected ways. With the exception of Tuco Salamanca’s almost-winking appearance at the start of the series, references to the earlier show are recontextualised and given new meaning. That makes it easier for newcomers to enjoy the show, but it also makes it a fascinating viewing experience for Breaking Bad fans.
What were throwaway gags for Saul Goodman are now tragic points of personal shame for Jimmy McGill. Saul’s law degree from the University of American Samoa is funny in Breaking Bad, but for Jimmy it’s emblematic of not only his drive but his persecution complex. Saul tries to sell Walter White the nail salon Jimmy works out of – showing he never really gets away from his old habits. And Saul’s pinky ring turns out to have belonged to Slippin’ Jimmy’s accomplice and buddy Marco (The Last Man On Earth’s Mel Rodriguez), whose death lends significant pathos to a tiny character detail.
It’s telling that the one episode that doesn’t really fit with the rest – and won’t really work for those who haven’t seen Breaking Bad – is the episode focused on former cop, current parking attendant, and future enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut. It’s not a bad bit of drama, but it doesn’t tell us anything we’re not expecting. It basically amounts to his having shot some fellow officers for being crooked, which isn’t exactly outside the circle of expectation for that character. We’ve always known he’s a cranky badass with a sense of justice, so there’s no image being subverted there.
The first season of Better Call Saul ends with its main character still far from achieving his later status as the Albuquerque underworld’s go-to lawyer. The goal seems less to mechanically explain how Jimmy became Saul than to inform the character choices made in Breaking Bad. Rewatching that show in light of the new one, will we see Saul’s past haunting him still? Will we see the history between Saul and Mike? Ultimately, that’s reading a lot into choices that have been reverse-engineered to start with, but it’s a fun reason to mount another Breaking Bad rewatch.
Better Call Saul is an extraordinary kind of prequel: one that not only entertains us but surprises us, making us re-examine a character we thought we knew. It constantly takes unexpected turns – just when we think our pathetic hero’s on track to becoming the guy we know, life takes yet another shit on him, setting him back for the umpteenth time.
But for all this talk of prequels, you ultimately don’t need to have seen Breaking Bad to enjoy Better Call Saul. All you need know is that it’s a story about a third-rate lawyer who has ambition and a capacity for sketchy tactics. Veterans of this alternate Albuquerque are as much in the dark as newcomers. After 10 hours of storytelling, we still don’t really know where the story is taking its protagonist. Does Jimmy? Does he know what he’s doing? Does he even believe in himself? Do we?
I may not believe in Jimmy McGill, but I believe in Better Call Saul.
Season 2 of Better Call Saul arrives at 8pm tonight and will be delivered express to Lightbox viewers every Tuesday. Click below to start watching now.
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