(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: Better Call Saul
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: What if sleazy criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) had his own tragic backstory? The prequel series to Breaking Bad takes on the impossible task of following up one of the most revered prestige dramas ever, and in the process, creates a rich and layered character drama about a man at war with his better self that even manages to outstrip its predecessor.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: “Better Call Saul is the best show on TV right now.” “You liked Breaking Bad? Well, Better Call Saul is even better.” “You would really like Better Call Saul.” I’ve been hearing some variation of these refrains for the past five years now, and I would respond with a tight smile and a, “I’ve heard! I’ll get around to it eventually.” But I had so many shows to watch and so little time — until quarantine hit and I suddenly found myself with no excuse: I needed to finally get around to Better Call Saul. I had watched the first episode when it premiered in 2015, and was intrigued, but not enough to keep watching. I had been enthralled with Breaking Bad throughout its five-season run, watching it live on-air since its beginning, but had somewhat soured on the whole property thanks to a toxic fanbase that idolized Walt’s criminal victories without reckoning with the moral quandaries that the show laid bare (yes, I’m still stinging a little about the hatred for Skyler and even, to an extent, Jesse). But as soon as I dug into Better Call Saul, which has enjoyed even more critical acclaim than Breaking Bad but has had a much quieter pop culture impact, it was abundantly clear that Vince Gilligan had evolved his ideas on morality and tragedy from Breaking Bad into something even more profound.
Vince Gilligan could have easily crafted a show around Saul Goodman, dirty criminal attorney at law, in a riff on the procedural that dominates our TV landscape. But Gilligan chose instead to challenge himself, and challenge the audience, with an intimate character drama as satisfying as it is devastating. Better Call Saul is the master class in storytelling as you’d expect from the creator who gave us the tale of Walter White, but it also manages to evolve and improve upon the ideas that Gilligan first explored in Breaking Bad: what separates a good man from a bad man? While that question was always kind of buried in the nail-biting action sequences and scheming new villains that populated Breaking Bad, it becomes front and center in Better Call Saul, embodied in the truly tragic character of Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill.
A reformed petty criminal, Jimmy McGill is inspired by his distinguished lawyer brother, Chuck (a withering Michael McKean) to turn his life around for the better — passing the Bar exam, practicing as a public defender, diligently paying his dues. But the pull of criminality is too strong for Jimmy, who can’t stop himself from taking a few shortcuts every now and then, which inadvertently gets him involved in some of the shadier elements in Albuquerque. The distressing thing is, Jimmy always aspires to be good, and Odenkirk’s tortured performance as he struggles between doing the right thing and the easy thing is stunning to watch. There’s a guileless vulnerability to Jimmy, which gets worn down by his brother’s patronizing attitude, his own mistakes, the universe’s cosmic indifference to his plight. Better Call Saul manages to do few other prequels has done, and use its prequel status to better the story — imbuing Jimmy’s story, in all its triumphs and failures, with the bitter knowledge that the battle between his worst and best self will ultimately be lost. It feels inevitable, like gravity.
Of course, I can’t talk about Better Call Saul without mentioning its breakout character and MVP, Kim Wexler (the eternally snubbed Rhea Seehorn). I’m convinced that Kim Wexler was the missing ingredient that pushes Better Call Saul ahead of Breaking Bad. Stalwart and impossibly principled, Kim is the foil and romantic interest to Jimmy, through which Gilligan can play out the show’s biggest moral battles. Her principles make her push Jimmy to be better, but her love for him forces her to make her own compromises. Her absence from Breaking Bad makes her fate, and equally inevitable fall from grace, even more distressing. Shout out Jonathan Banks too, as the ex-cop turned criminal muscle (in his own depressing journey to criminality) for ripping my heart out every episode.
I didn’t realize until I properly watched Better Call Saul how much I missed Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould’s writing, and how nice it felt to watch a show that was so consistently well-written and frequently devastating. Maybe it’s because I remember Gilligan’s narrative beats so well, and it’s easy to fall back into it. But it’s likely because Better Call Saul shows what a tightly wound script and intricate character drama can do to elevate a series far above the crowded TV landscape.
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