Better Call Saul has gone full Breaking Bad – so why does it feel like punishment?

The return of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman has been central to Breaking Bad’s spin-off show – but after all the hype, it fell flat. At least we know there’s more of them to come …

Warning: this article contains spoilers to season six, episode 11 of Better Call Saul. Do not read on if you haven’t watched

One of Better Call Saul’s signature moves is to give us things we want in ways that make us instantly regret wanting them. Take two weeks ago, for instance. Since its inception, Better Call Saul viewers had been itching to see the moment where lovable but flawed Jimmy McGill burst into flames and emerged as Breaking Bad’s amoral Saul Goodman.

But when that moment finally came – in a smash-cut flash-forward at the climax of one of the most devastatingly emotional sequences of the entire series – it felt like a bereavement. Saul had arrived, but long before we could process the grief of losing Jimmy. Say what you like about Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, but they really know how to punish people.

This week, they’ve done it again. The reappearance of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul has been a fundamental piece of Better Call Saul legend. And Gould and Gilligan had primed us for their arrival long in advance. They even had the brass balls to name this episode Breaking Bad (as a nod to the Breaking Bad season two episode Better Call Saul), for crying out loud. This whole thing has been a breadcrumb trail designed to destroy the internet. How could such an agonisingly awaited cameo be anything other than a glorious lap of honour?

But when it came, once again, it felt slightly empty. The Walt and Jesse scene was basically an addendum to an old Breaking Bad scene; where Saul is taken out to the desert and pleads for his life. True, it’s an important moment – it’s the Rosetta Stone for the entire arc of Better Call Saul, referencing Lalo and Nacho Salamanca for the first time – but the epilogue we were treated to amounted to little more than small talk. Yes, it was a thrill to see Cranston and Paul back as their most indelible characters (especially Paul, revelling in Jesse’s snotty snarkiness after the bleakness of El Camino), but other than that it felt like flat fan service.

It’s hard, too, to know what long-absent Breaking Bad fans would have made of everything that surrounded it. The Walt and Jesse scene was folded into another black-and-white flash-forward episode, with Gene Takavic slowly duping a sequence of drunks for no immediate cause. Last week’s instalment, another full-length black-and-white Takavic scam, was (wrongly) called the worst Better Call Saul episode ever by others. The people who said this have had years to tune themselves into Better Call Saul’s deliberate pace. Anyone who came into this week’s episode blind, just to get a hit of the old propulsive Breaking Bad energy, may well have been entirely mystified by its slow adherence to process.

Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) inspects Walt and Jesse’s equipment.
Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) inspects Walt and Jesse’s equipment. Photograph: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

However, it’s important to state that this was a terrific episode. To love Better Call Saul is to keep an eye on the bigger picture. For instance, Howard Hamlin’s death, as shocking as it was, came at the end of seven episodes of meticulous, translucent plotting. It feels as if something similar is at play here. One of the drunks has cancer, which is absolutely not a coincidence. Carol Burnett’s character, Marion, (especially now she has access to the internet), appears to be teetering on the brink of figuring out Gene’s true identity. And let’s not forget the call in the phone booth. The audio was muted, but Jimmy was visibly agitated. Was he learning something new about Kim? Was he talking to Kim? Surely this will all be resolved in the next couple of hours of television.

Plus, I can’t help but feel like the Breaking Bad scenes were designed as a curveball. Cranston has let it slip that he and Paul filmed three scenes for Better Call Saul; one together then one each separately. Of these three, we have only seen the first. The episode ended with Saul Goodman ready to confront Walter White in his school (a scene which also took place in the same Breaking Bad episode as the desert encounter), so we almost certainly haven’t seen the last of the pair.

But who knows? The joy of these last few Better Call Saul episodes is that the show is already done. Fun and Games, the episode from a fortnight ago, pretty much wrapped things up for everyone. It explained exactly what happened to Jimmy, Kim, Gus and Mike. So this final clutch of episodes is working from a completely blank slate. Next week’s penultimate episode might be all about Gene, or all about Walter White, or maybe even Marion. We are in uncharted territory here. As fun as it was to see Cranston and Paul back bickering in their Bounder, nothing will be as exciting as whatever lies ahead. God, I’m going to miss this show.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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