‘More profound than Breaking Bad’: goodbye Better Call Saul, the show like nothing else on TV

After 61 immaculate episodes, this cinematic, immersive drama ends today. It was visually beautiful, detail-oriented TV that became so much more than Vince Gilligan’s previous show

Farewell Saul Goodman: the star of the spin-off we never saw coming. When Jesse Pinkman drove off into the desert at the end of Breaking Bad’s final episode nine years ago, leaving behind a mortally wounded Walter White, the safe money would not have bet on Bob Odenkirk starring as the reptilian “Slipping” Jimmy McGill in a prequel that traced his mutation from small-time schlemiel into still more slimy attorney Saul Goodman.

It was more likely that glamorous slacker meth-cook Jesse would drive off to adventures new. Instead, of course, Aaron Paul went on to voice Todd in BoJack Horseman, who is essentially a more lovable Jesse minus the crystal blue persuasion.

Just as Frasier spun off improbably from Cheers, so Saul emerged from the corpse of Breaking Bad. Over six series, Better Call Saul evolved into a more profound and beautiful drama about human corruption than its predecessor. It mutated into something visually more sumptuous than Breaking Bad, while never, for a moment, losing its verbal dexterity and moral compass.

A recent episode, for instance, included a virtuosic series of shots through the interiors of Saul’s apartment, unfolding like the interiors of a painting from the Dutch golden age. Sometimes, all plot development suspended for a few hypnotic moments, the camera would linger on a worn-out dollar bill caught on a cactus thorn, or on some abstract composition of a piece of metal foil blown about the desert.

Tina Parker as Francesca Liddy.
Tina Parker as Francesca Liddy. Photograph: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Very little TV has the confidence to take its time in this way. And the same is true of those long, wordless scenes of working men (they usually have been men) doing things, be it making cinnamon rolls in Omaha, springing an elaborate scam, building a meth lab underneath a laundry or, as Mike once calmly did, changing a window frame like a craftsman while holed up south of the border away from the drug thugs who wanted to kill him.

There is, Vince Gilligan and his fellow creatives know, something soothing about watching someone do work they are proud of – manual, meticulous, informed work that proves the craft antidote to the daily grind (what late anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”). Beyond the bullshit, there is, in Gilligan’s worldview, a respect for the work and for the honouring of it by its depiction on screen – even if that work is cooking pure meth or manipulating the legal system.

Really, there is nothing on television at the moment that has dared to beguile us in these ways, nor has there been a show for a long time that switches back and forth between storylines, confident that the audience is savvy enough to keep up. How strange, perhaps even singular, to find a long-form drama that doesn’t insult our intelligence, but sets it to work.

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring.
Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. Photograph: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

All that is to say that, after 61 episodes of meticulous film-making, writing and acting (not to mention a mid-season heart attack on set for dear old Bob Odenkirk that made me, and doubtless other fans, worry selfishly that, just possibly, we’d never get to see an episode (called Saul Gone) that gave us closure on this story), Better Call Saul has been a nearly constant pleasure and a lesson in how television can be cinematic as well as immersive, epic as well as grittily focused on detail.

For those reasons, for me at least, it has been one of those things that have become vanishingly rare in our non-stop bingearama of entertainment – appointment TV. Its final episode is, as a result, sweet sorrow. .

From the get go, all that said, this wasn’t a promising premise. For Breaking Bad, Gilligan had the idea that Walter White’s journey from chemistry teacher to pork-pie-hat-wearing drug kingpin traced the dramatic arc from Mr Chips to Scarface. But Better Call Saul has no such character development: Saul has always been bad, even when he was upstart Jimmy. Or so we might suppose, right up to the last moments of this note-perfect finale – when we finally take our leave of the star of this unpredictable spin-off.

• This article was amended on 17 August 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Walter White was “murdered” in the finale of Breaking Bad.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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