Better Call Saul aired its ten-episode first season this spring. The show, a spinoff from Breaking Bad with Bob Odenkirk in the title role, earned a warm critical reception and was renewed for a second season even before it aired.
Saul‘s first season seemed a great point for discussion. To do it justice, I spoke with TV critic Mario McKellop, who was amazingly generous with his time and thoughts.
What follows is our back-and-forth. And for fair warning, spoilers abound for both the first season and Breaking Bad.
Eric (EM): At their start, spin-offs have to strike a careful balance. On the one hand, they have to stake out their own identity. Maybe more importantly, they have to show that they’re staking out their own identity. Even before they’re sure what kind of show they are, or want to be, they have to define themselves through some separation from their predecessor.
At the same time, spin-offs have to provide comfort and signal familiarity. They’re asking audiences to place trust in a new premise, and to justify this they have to show that they can deliver again what they used to be selling.
I think Better Call Saul approaches this balance by going for familiar technique and different concerns. The sensibility is the same for the things that most made Breaking Bad feel like Breaking Bad: shifting chronology, the comfort with long scenes and uneven structures, the commitment to treating television compositions like cinema, and treating the smaller scale less like a budget imposition and more like a spur to creativity.
But for all the familiarity in presentation, the interests here seem remarkably different. Nothing about the show feels like it has an organizing “hook” in the way Breaking Bad always did. The plan feels far less determined. And to the extent it’s interested in questions of character, it seems driven far more by the internal than by the external. Jimmy is less a predefined anchor figure and more a point-of-view character, even if we come to know quite a lot about him. What exactly the show is trying to put into view, though, seems far less murky and subtle than Mr. Chips to Scarface.
Did you feel like the first episodes were directing themselves more to new viewers, or to Breaking Bad fans? And do you think it struck a balance in what it was trying to do?
Mario (MM): In answer to your first question, I think Better Call Saul is aimed at Breaking Bad fans, and if other people come along for the ride, that’s great. The show’s first episode lays out a foundation for the series in the way most TV pilots do. You get to know Jimmy and the world he inhabits, you’re introduced to his brother Chuck and the presumably series spanning question about whether or not Jimmy can turn over a new leaf. If you’ve never seen a single episode of Breaking Bad, I think you could get through most of the first episode without having to consult Wikipedia.
The thing is, all of that stuff is secondary to the big question the show poses for long-time fans, which is how did Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman. The sad, conflicted guy we see in Better Call Saul is so different from the boisterous, all-in consigliere we know from Breaking Bad that you just have to keep watching to find out what happened to precipitate such a drastic change. And since we know where the character ends up in, we also have to wonder what happens to the show’s supporting cast, most of whom would be horrified to see the man Jimmy will inevitably become.
Also, if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, would the opening episode’s flash forward make any sense? Would the big reveal at the end of the first episode or the middle of the desert showdown in the second episode have any impact if you weren’t familiar with Tuco? I think the show provides enough context as to not be inscrutable to new viewers, but it works best if you already know the world. The fact that a show called Better Call Saul follows a character named Jimmy suggests that its producers know that the series is playing to a preexisting audience.
I think a lot of the show’s appeal lies with how it fills in the blanks. We know that Mike comes to work for Saul, but we didn’t know how that relationship came to be. We also know that Saul is familiar with Gus, but weren’t didn’t know how he got entangled in New Mexico’s drug trade.
In that way, Better Call Saul operates similarly to the Star Wars prequels in that it fills in details that were only alluded to in the original series, despite being very different in tone. Over time, Saul may define itself outside of Breaking Bad, but as of its first season, it’s a subordinate work. That’s not say that the show is bad. It’s very well-crafted and Bob Odenkirk and the rest of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Better Call Saul is one of the better fill-in-the-blanks properties to come down the pike in a long while.
Do you think the show is overly reliant on Breaking Bad references? And is Jimmy McGill a compelling character right out of the gate, or does it take you some time to warm up to him?
EM: So far, I don’t think the show’s relying too much on Breaking Bad references. I’d be worried if the show provided moments that depend for their resonance on call-backs to BB moments or iconography, or if it had turned out to be a season-long exercise in laying Easter Eggs. Your point about the title, though, settles any argument about whether the show is operating, or even trying to operate, like an independent entity. Better Call Saul actually puts an interesting spin on an old convention: most major spin-offs feature the name of the spin-off character. Here it provides the most explicit tie back to the predecessor, and the most coherent organizing principle the show has going for it. It’s a reminder, and a promise, about where this is heading.
Even if BCS isn’t necessarily finding itself obscured in the shadow of Breaking Bad, though, having the older work in mind does have odd effects. So much of how Breaking Bad veterans read the show will be colored by what we know about where Jimmy ends up, and what he gets involved in. Those threads aren’t a direct presence, most of the time. But we know how things tend to go in this shared universe, and you’re right to key in on the embedded promise that most of what we’re seeing here is going to meet a decisive end. The major question I don’t think we can answer yet is whether it’s the same moral universe, as well, and what that will mean for our lead.
At the same time, there’s a lot of freedom here, even with the eventual intersection lying down the road. I always look to opening credits for what they can tell us about the status quo of a series, and BCS gives us a lot in a short time. Though it’s not the complete blank slate of the Lost credits (still the best choice Lindelof and Cuse ever made), it provides no constraint whatsoever on what kind of show this can evolve into, even tonally. (Compare Breaking Bad, which could never get away from chemistry/meth even amid the occasional gesture toward Walter or Jesse calling it quits). All BCS gives us is a sense of place, and a clever disarming of prestige intentions through the total lack of taste. I wouldn’t put it past Gilligan to be threading a narrative through the disconnected images (even if that’d be too much of a repeat of Breaking Bad‘s stuffed animal in the pool). But even if he doesn’t, it’s a chance to establish a certain VHS-decrepit milieu without boxing in the approach they can take.
Especially interesting, too, that our lead isn’t even in the credits. You asked about my impressions of him, and I don’t know how anyone could be rooting against the guy. He’s not a “difficult man” in the recent and famous fashion. To the extent a character like this is going to rub anyone the wrong way it would primarily be through incompetence. Yet the show does a fairly good job of establishing that Jimmy is relatively sharp and relatively adept. Combine that with the ready allegiance to an underdog, and that’s always going to be enough for a rooting interest. He’s not the smartest guy in the room, but he’s also got a backbone, and that’s enough.
Of course, I’d prefer the writers to veer away from him crossing lines of professional ethics and responsibility quite so consistently, which is probably just where I’m coming from. Arguably though there’s more fun to the storytelling when he stays inside the lines. Put another way, I find the frantic letter-writing in the bathroom more interesting than him agreeing to destroy a detective’ notes. But we’ll see where it goes.
The show also deserves real credit for keeping an interest throughout without much recourse either to sex or violence, a contrarian choice for a cable show to make. Our only real romance is a few half-hearted flirtations from Jimmy with Kim. And really the most violent things get is a few broken bones for the skateboard scam artists.
Except, of course, for “Five-O,” our little crime film, which has a real body count. The story felt like it was at the level of sophistication of one of the old Lost flashbacks. It’s well worth it for the incredible concluding monologue from Jonathan Banks. Some critics brought up the legitimate question of whether the episode works at all without trading on what we know about Mike from the old show; and certainly letting one character just talk at length felt all too familiar. For all that this felt like a more morose version of the already grim “Half Measures” speech, though, the jarringly “parachuted in” aspect were the mortal consequences. I wonder if the writers, by focusing on Mike, fell into old patterns, and didn’t register that shooting people for the first time should really be a bigger deal relative to the tone of the show so far. Though I wonder if Saul‘s ability to keep our interest without lurid detail is in part because it can trade on a real level of off-screen menace the text of the thing hasn’t actually built on its own.
What did you think of “Five-O,” and do you think the first season has given us a sense of what is characteristic of this show? Did you come away with an episode or scene that most stood out for you? And seriously: how great is Jonathan Banks?
MM: Man, I love “Five-O.” I think it’s the best episode of the season that wasn’t written by one of the show’s creators. The Lost comparison you made is dead on. The best parts of that show were the genre-hopping flashbacks. It also reminded me of The X-Files, specifically the episodes of that show that weren’t focused on the alien conspiracy at all and had a very different tone than most other episodes in the season, like “Bad Blood” and “Hungry,” both of which were written by Vince Gilligan.
Though it has the same thematic underpinnings, “Five-O” doesn’t really feel like the rest of the series. For one thing, Jimmy not being the focus of the narrative means that everything’s much quieter. Most episodes of Better Call Saul are filled with verbiage and color, which is fitting as it reflects Jimmy as a character. In “Five-O,” there’s no small talk and it’s lit like a ‘70s film noir, which feels totally appropriate for Mike.
And as you mentioned, the violence in “Five-O” is unlikely anything else in the first season. Jimmy has a real aversion to violence; so it’s a big deal when Tuco brutalizes those skaters, but it’s just another part of life for Mike. I suspect that Jimmy coming to understand the utility of violence will be a big part of his transition into Saul. As we saw play out over six seasons of Breaking Bad, when you step outside the bounds of the law, you invite violence into your life.
Tone and visuals aside, “Five-O” fits right in with BCS thematically. Jimmy spends most of the first season desperately trying to prove he’s not the two-bit hustler he was and will inevitably become again. Mike spends it trying to walk on the straight and narrow, but he can only put off the inevitable for so long. Just as pride won’t let Jimmy play the part of the honest lawyer, Mike’s guilt draws him back into the same world of corruption and violence that got his son killed.
If you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, “Five-O” probably doesn’t hit as hard, but it’s a devastating hour of television, even if you’ve never seen any of those characters before because Jonathan Banks is the man. He’s fantastic throughout the episode, but that ending monologue is why people make the argument that TV is better than film right now. It’s not true, but the way Banks’ voice cracks when he says “I broke my boy” will make you believe it anyway. My hope is that as BCS goes on, we get more episodes like ‘Five-O”, beautiful little one-offs that inform character rather than move the plot forward, but are essential to the narrative all then same.
Aside from all of “Five-O,” the scene that really sticks with me in BCS is the end of “Pimento.” The Mike stuff in that episode is too goofy for my taste, but the conversation Jimmy has with Chuck is heartbreaking. I figured that Chuck was behind Saul’s persona non grata status with HHM in “RICO,” but it was devastating to watch that reveal play out. For the first time, I really understood why he felt the need to turn his back on the idea of ever being a good man. I also think it’s Bob Odenkirk’s best moment on the show.
So, what do you think of Jimmy’s relationship to Chuck, and what do you think of Chuck as a character? Is all of his talk about the sacredness of the law real or is it a justification for his egotism?
EM: Even before anything Chuck was revealed to have done, I think BCS indicated that what Chuck was saying wasn’t anything the showrunners actually believed. The show didn’t commit the classic Sorkin sin of providing competing arguments their least compelling articulation, but mostly because there isn’t a worldview underlying his words that the writers has any investment in, whether to prove or rebut. Everything he advanced about law in general or his profession in particular was for telling us what he was like rather than signaling what the show cared about.
Nonetheless, what Chuck said and what he believes has a direct relationship to the most sincere statement the first season has to make. Chuck does have a certain integrity, though misplaced. And what’s really moving about that last stretch of “Pimento” and the final act of the season is that his judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He takes a dim view toward Jimmy’s character; Jimmy decides he’s right, and proves it. If Chuck had ever believed in Jimmy then he’d have never done the various things that validated his pessimism. It’s difficult to say Chuck is wrong, and you also can’t say what he did was right. That’s a complex and evocative place for the show to end up. And when the show conveying that message is a spin-off premised on the inevitability of a certain chain of events occurring, the self-fulfilling quality has a real resonance.
Even if I didn’t think the character quite worked as an argument, if he was one, I thought what McKean did with Chuck was fantastic, and I think he makes a really interesting foil for Jimmy. On a performer level the showrunners were smart to have found the rare character actor who can go toe-to-toe on intelligence with Odenkirk. But the villainous turn also deserves real credit for being something that the first half of the season really isn’t devoted to setting up. Then it becomes all too clear; though I wasn’t quite on the ball enough to realize it by “RICO,” by mid-“Pimento” the shape of what we were looking at was set. The show held a card, and waited to play it.
Now that they have, there’s no space for “sympathetic Chuck” left in the second season; he’s past our allegiance. In a way it reminds me of Tony’s mother on The Sopranos. Our thematic interlocutor has revealed a master scheme and alienated our lead, but is still left hanging around in the world of the show. It’ll be interesting whether the writers decide to just embrace the villainous turn or try to mitigate it; I do tend to think the first approach would work a lot better. The idea that this guy can serve as a conscience for Jimmy is a non-starter by now.
Attention to master-plotting, though, might not be the best way to take in this series, and your “X-Files” comparison gets better the more I think about it. “Monster of the week” versus “mythology” trade-offs are right at the heart of the twin masters this series is going to have to serve going forward. The only reason I’d question how relevant it is to Saul is not the creators’ intentions but the network’s imperatives. I have no clue whether AMC would ever allow the series enough space and rope for the writers to feel free to do the one-offs with any frequency. If anything they’re going to feel pressure to connect to Breaking Bad more and more, if and when cancellation approaches. In that sense there’s an odd inversion compared to X-Files, where the mythology episodes will feel, to this series, like detours and pauses, while the episodes focusing on what this series has carved out on its own will feel more organic.
“Pimento” is all sorts of interesting for that reason, too. It emerges quite naturally from BCS‘ own storytelling. But it lays the groundwork necessary for the end of the season, “Marco,” to really land. In most senses its conclusion, with Jimmy seeming to reject any redemptive aspect to the first season, felt abrupt. More a moment dictated by the series needing to continue rather than any narrative necessity internal to BCS‘ own storytelling. The effect, however, combined with “Pimento,” is to signal that other people’s expectations can frustrate even the best intentions. And though I don’t want to read the whole first season as a frustrated commentary on the limitations imposed on spin-offs, damn if that’s not an available takeaway for the cynical viewer.
Everything you say (accurately) about the sincere strength of “Five-O,” though, brings to mind what the fuss is about. If this is going to be a delivery mechanism for great scenes and a few standout episodes from a creative team we really love, isn’t Better Call Saul all upside? Is there anything this show could do that could really render it a failure, or worse, seriously hurt its predecessor? Or is this all a bonus round, and should we stay content with whatever wins it can scoop up before time runs out?
MM: You made excellent points about how the show position’s Chuck’s betrayal and how he articulates his beliefs. Like Walter White’s increasingly unconvincing claims about staying in the drug business for his family, Chuck cut Jimmy’s legs out from under him because he’s ashamed of him and the idea that they might in any way be equals appalls him, not because of some need to protect the law. As opposed to Sorkin, Gilligan and Gould articulate their beliefs through object lessons in what not do. Interestingly, their lessons are often about the importance of honesty and the virtue of putting aside one’s pride to accept help, or put another way, how being a difficult man won’t save you.
As to your questions, I wouldn’t mind if Better Call Saul ends up being all bonus round. I’d love to see more of Mike careful outmaneuvering a range of people who never see him coming and I’d really be interested to see how he came to join Gus Fring’s organization. This isn’t information that would change my feelings about Breaking Bad one way or another, but I feel like there’s a potential in that particular piece of marginalia. I’d also be into watching a season of BCS that went full on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and showed us what Saul was doing through over the course of Breaking Bad. For the sheer formal challenge of pulling something like that off, if nothing else.
Ultimately, we know where Jimmy is going, and while the process of how he got from point A to point B is interesting, I think people will start losing interest in the show if it’s just Jimmy feeling ambivalent about his amorality for years on end. For me, Breaking Bad went from engaging to must watch in the early part of the third season, when Walt really decided to go all in. The only thing that would really ruin the show for me is if we start seeing characters from the original show pop up all the time for no particular reason. I kind of feel that way about Tuco in the first season, but I can see how he could be woven into the narrative in a way that makes sense. But if Jimmy bumps into Walt at the car wash, I’ll start losing interest with a quickness.
So, now that we’ve identified one of Better Call Saul’s greatest strengths, let’s talk about weaknesses. I felt that Kim was a pretty underdeveloped character. Obviously, the show is about Jimmy, but almost all of the show’s other regular character had more to do than she did. I really liked the ambiguity of her character in the premiere, but after that she settled into a very underwritten, Skyler White sort of place. I don’t to paint Gilligan as some kind of Pizzolatto type because he wrote Scully very well and he obviously tried to course correct with Skyler near the end of Breaking Bad, but the guy seems to have something of a woman problem. I don’t know if it’s about not wanting to get something wrong or a Sorkin-esque blindness to his own deficiencies, but there’s something’s fundamentally wrong when most of the recurring characters have more of an arc than one of the leads. And though I dug the show’s refusal to do a case of the week procedural thing, I didn’t care for the Kettlemans.
What’s your take on Kim? What didn’t work for you this season? Were there any characters in the show that didn’t work for you, or even whole episodes?
EM: I think we line up in our sense of the mischief we’d like to show to get up to, what opportunities it might have; and, more pessimistically, what would move the whole exercise from interesting to embarrassing. Potential like that, I think, is evident in Kim. I’ll say this about her: though she’s underdeveloped, she hasn’t begun with glaring problems the show will have to fix. She’s a reserved character, but not necessarily passive, and she has an independent perspective. I didn’t hear any Skyler alarm bells when she showed up, or as the season progressed.
Which is a good thing with a Breaking Bad offshoot. I agree that Gilligan and his team never had a Pizzolatto problem, but it certainly had a problem in finding ways for its women characters to channel the show’s real strengths. It was more a failure of craft than a situation where I question the underlying attitude, but the failure to bring to bear the same care can become an underlying attitude, and the difference can prove academic in practice. The biggest problem was that Breaking Bad never really had a subtle woman character, and its real successes were those that leaned into broad strokes. Lydia worked great, but she was a concept and a comedic rhythm more often than not. I couldn’t say for sure, but Marie’s great moments were all laughs. And Skyler hardly ever got one, which just laid bare how little the show ever knew what to do with her. With that history in mind, and sharing your dislike for the Kettlemans, Betsy is a disaster. She’s arguably a direct descendant of the more positive traditions of BB women characters, in being an engine for laughs, but she’s still recognizably a self-justifying wife hen-pecking her husband. It’s surprising to me that she got off the page in that form, and this team isn’t at the point where they get the benefit of the doubt.
All this is a way of saying that for Kim to be a character with room to grow sure beats the alternative. More specifically, like a lot of things with BCS, I think my opinion of her so far is going to depend a lot upon the second installment. If they didn’t have time to fill in the blank spaces because they had a lot else they had to do and set up, but it’s around the corner, then that’s fine. If it turns out that they just don’t have an interest in her beyond a plot function and a person for other characters to talk to, that’s a much bigger issue. (And much of this could apply equally to Mike’s daughter-in-law). Beyond her gender, though, Kim’s also an important test case for the show’s ability to fashion a sympathetic character from scratch, rather than trading on our past associations. We’re already giving Jimmy and Mike credit, and BB has a way with villains. Giving us someone new to root for would be the more impressive feat.
If there’s anything that’s a concern, then, it’s that the more minor new faces are showing similar issues: either flawed and familiar or generic and unformed. Jimmy’s Chicago friend, who meets his untimely end as the season wraps up, seemed to exist solely for narrative purposes, and his death didn’t hit me at all. Even if it’s true that all characters exist for narrative purposes, the show didn’t even feel the need to hide the machinery. More than anything else, even big-picture relations to its forebearer, I’d like BCS to have more people show up who feel like they have lives they’re living independent of their intersection with Jimmy. That’s the big challenge for BCS in all its qualities, really. It has to establish that there’s more going on than service to something else.
I can’t think of any episodes that fell flat, though, and if anything the consistency is quite impressive. Let’s cast a wider net on comparisons. Does this show’s first season remind you of any other shows? Is this more Lost or more Parks & Rec—are we in for a refinement and an expansion, or a wholesale shift in approach? And is there anything Saul can tell us about what the landscape is like for television right now? We’re typing this up with the last of the golden age shows, Mad Men, in sight of its series finale, and going out quite like itself. Is BCS tending the flame of the old ways, or representative of something new? Where is it headed, and is it going to have some company along the way?
MM: I don’t know if you’ve listened to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast, but it’s useful in understanding certain aspects of the show. For example, Vince Gilligan spoke at length about his infatuation with the Betsy character, and he repeatedly mentions that he wanted to be dominated by her. So, like Sorkin, he clearly has a type and his predilections have blinded him to the fact that his female characters are seriously unwritten. As such, I can’t see Kim coming into her own in really way. She’ll probably end up getting some stuff to do à la Maria’s shoplifting or Skyler’s affair with Ted, but I don’t think she’s ever getting her own “Five-O.” Still, Gilligan isn’t the chief creative force this time around so maybe things will be different.
I totally agree with you about Marco. I appreciated the nuance of Mel Rodriguez’s performance (the way he couldn’t really explain the particulars of his boring day job was well done), but I sort of felt like Marco was analogous to Bai Ling’s character on Lost and the pinkie ring was Jack’s tattoos. I understood from the first episode of BCS that Jimmy had done something so bad that he couldn’t ever go back to his old life in Cicero. That lily didn’t need gilding.
I am inclined to think that Better Call Saul will go the way of Parks & Rec in that it will refine and redefine itself rather than spend the rest of its run trying to recapture the magic of its first season like Lost did. Breaking Bad had a similarly good, but not great first season and only became the version of the show that it’s remembered as in its second season. I expect Saul will expand its world along similar lines and I expect Tuco to become to a galvanizing force in Jimmy’s life as he once was in Walter White’s.
It’s harder to figure out what changes BCS will affect in its second season because the change that BB underwent was one of pacing. A lot of that show’s first season was paced slowly and hesitantly, mirroring Walter’s gradual transformation into Heisenberg. Things picked up speed as he delved into his new life as a criminal because in that line of work, if you don’t move fast and act decisively, you die. Given how Norwegian slow TV Jimmy’s journey was at times, I’m thinking his embrace of his true nature will take a good while longer. That being the case, the show will have to get us reasons to really care about what’s happening with Mike, Chuck and Kim beyond dramatic irony.
While I enjoy BCS A great deal, I do wonder if its success will lead to further spin-offs or revivals of great shows. I look at the return of Twin Peaks with equal amounts of fascination and dread. I thought the fourth season of Arrested Development was great, but I don’t know if that story needed a depressing epilogue. I’d absolutely watch Peggy Olsen, but I also appreciate that her story will end with Mad Men’s finale. Quality TV spin-offs are nothing new and one of America’s finest cultural institutions is a spin-off. But stories have meaning because they end. If Jimmy’s story is to have meaning, it’ll have to move past Walter White. I’m not at all sure that it will because the showrunners don’t seem interested in reach a certain point as opposed to circuitously examining the nature of morality. That’s an interesting and novel idea, but it’s a difficult second album idea, like making a movie about a bunch of sixties garage rock wannabes or a TV show about a surfer who may be the second coming of Christ.
Having worked as a TV recapper for a few years now, I have become disillusioned with the notion of the Golden Age of Television. As great as The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Deadwood and are I don’t that they are good enough to balance out the existence of Toddlers and Tiaras, The Bachelor and all of the mediocre crap that isn’t actually offensive, but is produced at such an accelerated rate and in such compromised fashion that any sense of quality control has long since been abandoned to accommodate the relentless demand for new content.
The Simpsons and Twin Peaks are two of the greatest TV shows ever and they once aired at the same time, but no one considers the early ‘90s to be the golden age of anything. I’m hopeful for the future because of things like Broad City, Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal, Rick and Morty and The Knick because they’re all amazing in different ways and because they feel like a rejection of some of the things that have preceded them. I need to see more of Better Call Saul before I can say whether it belongs in the past or the future.