'S’all good, man': How Better Call Saul became superior to Breaking Bad

It may not have always been obvious but now the truth is unavoidable: Vince Gilligan’s spin-off is better

  • WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS. (Don’t read unless you are up to date with season four of Better Call Saul)

Breaking Bad is the greatest television programme ever made. This much is a widely established fact. The characters, the commitment to change in a medium that usually avoids it like the plague, all the narrative bravura; Breaking Bad has the lot. No television programme was, is or will be as good as Breaking Bad.

Except for Better Call Saul, obviously.

It has not always been better, of course. Early episodes tended to exist as vehicles for obscure Breaking Bad Easter eggs. Subsequent episodes suffered from a weird refusal to merge the various storylines, which meant that your attention would ebb and rise whenever, say, Nacho got to have another sulkily intense turn in front of camera. Worse still, the thing was positively glacial; as if the writers were doing everything they could to keep a foot on the brake, up to and including broadcasting a brutally drawn-out scene where one character slowly and methodically dismantled an entire car.

But one moment during this week’s series four finale – a gorgeous, achingly sad moment of grim duty between two friends bathed in moonlight, a distant city transformed into a string of soft-focus fairy lights behind them on the horizon – was absolutely note perfect. And that made me realise that the whole superlab arc that preceded it, with all its misdirection and creeping dread, had been just as perfect. And every episode this series has been perfect. Even Breaking Bad had the odd dip, but this has been a display of sustained brilliance.

Every slack element of the show has been tightened up. Nacho’s eat-your-vegetables slog of a thread has been jettisoned (at least temporarily) for the giddier rewards of The Adventures of Lalo Salamanca. Rhea Seehorn’s incredible performance as Kim – seriously, name me a better actor working today – has been pushed to the fore. And now, finally, Jimmy’s desperation has hardened into something much darker. The final line of the episode was “It’s all good, man” for a reason. Whisper it, but we might have just witnessed the death of Jimmy McGill as we know him.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul.
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul. Photograph: Robert Trachtenberg/AP

That whole scene certainly felt like a death. There was no humanity to be found in Jimmy, crowing about how his faked sincerity had won over a room of strangers to the repulsed disbelief of his partner. Watching him pull away from Kim at the end, her face sagging with realisation as she drifted into the background, felt like a deliberate echo of the final shot of The Godfather.

That Better Call Saul can aim for such iconography and so seamlessly pull it off is a testament to what an amazing show it has become. It now has a sense of self that puts it above almost everything else on television. Better Call Saul had a weird start – before it began, it was envisioned as a half-hour sitcom – and early episodes toyed with slightly uncomfortable comedic japes, such as the billboard scheme from series one. But gradually, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have realised that Better Call Saul functions best as pure tragedy.

Breaking Bad also had tragic elements. Forget the annoying “This would never have happened with the NHS” memes, because that series was about a man embracing all the old resentments that had already eaten him alive before the cancer diagnosis. But with Better Call Saul, there has always been a sense that he has resisted a similar change. McGill has always tried to do the right thing, albeit not on completely ethical terms; and whenever he slips down a rung, it is mostly down to a lapse of judgment rather than a Walter White-style sense of entitlement.

And, really, Gilligan’s oft-repeated “Mr Chips to Scarface” line was just an attempt to force tragedy in Breaking Bad. At every turn, in every interview, Gilligan warned us that worse things were to come. But he does not have to do that with Better Call Saul, because we already know what a scumbag Saul Goodman is.

Watching the line narrow, watching Jimmy slowly slip towards Saul, has been utterly heartbreaking. The flash-forward cold open earlier this series, where we see Saul frantically clearing house after the events of Breaking Bad, came with an undeniable hit of instant pleasure – here was the cartoon cockroach Saul we all remember, as frantic and silly as he ever was – but it was also hard not to become overcome by sadness. To see Saul in full flight is to see everything that Jimmy has lost along the way. The flash-forward was a reminder that this was all coming. Nothing in the world can stop Jimmy losing his humanity, all we can do is strap in and brace.

Sure, Breaking Bad was good. But the prospect of the next episode never made me feel sick with equal parts excitement and apprehension. Better Call Saul has just done this 10 times in a row. If you ask me, it is the superior series. Fight me.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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