Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel is the most heartbreaking drama ever to appear on TV.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of the televisual worlds of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, has an unusual talent: he is brilliant at showing us work. What does it feel like to test fast-food sauce recipes, to push a mail cart around an office, to make a cement walkway, or to highlight relevant items in a laborious legal discovery process? What does it look like to cook up meth? In his hands, the work of men and women becomes weirdly gripping.
But the work he’s really interested in is what men and women do when they fashion themselves, and when events change them. And here, all the precision and craft — the straight lines and fine calculations — that he showcases (and demonstrates himself) in those montages of labor are thrown out.
Saul Goodman was supposed to be a joke. The character was originally conceived as comic relief for the AMC drama Breaking Bad, which lasted five exciting seasons before concluding in 2013. Saul’s fake name was a play on the phrase “[it]’s all good, man,” a kind of branding that even bumbling criminals could come up with. Saul was a shyster criminal attorney whose function in the plot was to give teacher–turned–meth dealer Walter White and his criminally minded student Jesse Pinkman an entrance into Albuquerque’s criminal world. He was supposed to have a three-episode arc and be done.
The character lasted for the rest of the show’s run, and now is heading into his fifth season in the spinoff prequel, Better Call Saul, which is the most heartbreaking drama series ever produced for television.
At some point, film director Peter Jackson got stuck in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, his career doomed to ever-more expansive explorations of the same fantasy realm. He was worse the wear for it. Gilligan, a showrunner who had done some work on The X-Files, has gotten stuck in Albuquerque, doing two series for AMC and the Breaking Bad postscript El Camino for Netflix. But Gilligan in his fictional world, unlike Jackson in his, is improving over time.
The journeyman comic writer and performer Bob Odenkirk, hired by Gilligan to play Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, proved far more valuable than a three-episode arc. Odenkirk’s own career transformation is as remarkable as Walter White’s into Heisenberg or Jimmy’s into Saul. Odenkirk had written for Saturday Night Live and Conan O’Brien’s talk show, and he had a recurring role on The Larry Sanders Show. In the late 1990s, he was the less-well-known and less successful half of HBO’s Mr. Show, a sketch-comedy series co-hosted by David Cross. Now, on this series, Odenkirk is every bit the accomplished dramatic actor that Bryan Cranston became when working with Gilligan.
Gilligan has said, over and over again, that the challenge he set himself in Breaking Bad was telling a story “about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” The audience had no idea how far Walter White would go. And I think viewers will pick different moments in the show’s arc as the point when they went from guiltily admiring Walter as an anti-hero alpha male to realizing he was a monster, turning on him and rooting for his downfall.
The heartbreaking, staggering genius of Better Call Saul is that we know what Jimmy McGill becomes later in Breaking Bad. We know he abets the horrors of Walter White; we know he has to enter the criminal world’s version of a witness-protection program, getting booted down from cash-rich criminal lawyer to manager of an Omaha Cinnabon.
In Better Call Saul, we watch him try to claw his way up from small-time con artist to a decent lawyer, and we see him fall back into being a con artist with a license to practice law. Early on we meet his love interest, occasional partner in confidence tricks, and conscience, the lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Like Jimmy/Saul, she clawed her way to her position in life from nothing. She likes Jimmy McGill and champions him. She genuinely wants what is good for him. But she is wary of him, too, as she is wary of her own dark side. As viewers become invested in Kim, her presence in the show becomes an ongoing torture. Showrunners report getting agonized letters and messages from fans pleading with them not to hurt her or bring her to an awful end.
Why? Because the existence of Breaking Bad informs us that Wexler must exit this life without ever meeting Walter White. As the prequel proceeds, the number of characters who are unique to Saul’s world declines, and the reintroduction of the criminals and cops familiar to us from Breaking Bad picks up pace. As they return, so does our dread in knowing that Kim must go.
We know that Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is going to meet the Devil and enter hell. What is devastating about Better Call Saul is knowing that this is coming while watching all the times the possibility of redemption is rejected by our protagonist. Because Gilligan has made us omniscient, he’s put us in the judgment seat. The drama comes from how much we understand and even sympathize with Saul’s choices, and how unaware he is of where they will lead him. We might be the sympathetic friend who is about to get crushed by Saul’s choices. We might be the unfortunate man who has a talent for something bad, and was kicked one too many times while trying to do good.