“Better Call Saul” Breaks Better Than “Breaking Bad”
About midway through the second season of “Better Call Saul,” I admit I’m still delighted with the show. When Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” (“BB”) prequel began over a year ago, I envisioned it, at best, as being a sort of “The Lone Gunman” styled spinoff. The Gunmen were the comic relief characters of the “The X-Files,” much as Saul Goodman was in “BB.”
I was a fan of both “The X-Files” and “BB,” and it was because of his work on the former that I knew who Gilligan was when AMC first promoted the show. Name recognition as “BB’s” showrunner (in an age with showrunner-as-celebrity), along with the tantalizing title, geared me up for “BB” at the outset.
The show’s hook, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer has his last hurrah manufacturing crystal meth, was certainly original. Early on, though, I had difficulty buying some of the premises of the plot.
Why, I wondered, would any American school teacher ever be without health insurance? School systems are known for, yes, low pay, but yes, good benefits, too. (Remember this was before the ACA, but still…) True, you might have to be smart enough to enroll for the benefits, but wasn’t Walter supposed to be smart? And wasn’t his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), clipping coupons and selling on e-Bay in an effort at home economy?
Why, I further mulled, wouldn’t Skyler work, however far along in even a potentially difficult pregnancy, even in some capacity, if economic difficulty befell her family? (Recall Walter, Jr. [R.J. Mitte] had a disability, but he was of an age and self-sufficient enough to get by without her hanging around.)
As the show progressed (slowly, due to an inopportune writers strike in its first season), these incongruities mattered less, though, since the story really wasn’t about Walter’s cancer, but about his hubris and greed.
The only reason I continued watching was I knew roughly where the story was going plot-wise. But I’m not prone, even in bouts, to schadenfreude, so that certainly wasn’t keeping me tuned in. I really hated the characters. In fact, other than Jesse, I didn’t even care what happened to any of the main ones.
Walt, although an adequate teacher and father, was an arrogant, boorish, and humorless man even before his unfortunate diagnosis. Skyler was a whiny, nagging hold-out. Her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), was even worse with her vacuousness, purple palette, and inexplicable penchant for stealing shoes. Walter, Jr. was, honestly, just plain difficult to watch. The arrogant DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), at least had the redeeming quality of having a sense of humor. His co-workers were fine, but it wasn’t their story.
The tweekers, like Badger and Skinny Pete, were mildly interesting (if underdeveloped), but Aaron Paul, in his role as Jesse Pinkman, was the clear breakout talent in the series. Jesse’s family, Jane, and her father added depth to his character.
Underdeveloped, too, was the couple and their backstory with Grey Matter, which may have gone a long way in making Walter a more sympathetic character, as a screwed-over scientist in a cruelly mystifying business milieu.
Skyler’s lover, Ted Beneke, who might have given her part-time employment earlier could have added dimension to her character as well, perhaps with her learning some financial tricks from him after Walt’s Grey Matter days that would test both her skills and morals in Walt’s later venture.
Gale, and later Lydia, were enjoyable but short-lived characters. Gus Fring, conversely, was just despicable. Tuco, Tio, and the cousins were all cast well and good in a story about drug trade in New Mexico. But personally I didn’t need more of them.
Which is a perfect lead-in to the characters of Mike Ehrmantraut and Saul Goodman, the most compelling of them, although I didn’t fully appreciate the possibility at the time. That was especially true when I heard it was dubbed a comedy, until I recalled TV Guide had originally advertised “BB” as a comedy, too. Like I said, I envisaged a “The Lone Gunman” thing. Not that that was a bad little show. I rather fancied it.
I would’ve written “BB” differently, but it was Gilligan’s story and he deservedly got the big bucks. It had fits and starts due to extended hiatuses, but the finale was satisfying, and at least AMC had the decency to give it an end — along with “Mad Men.” But what Gilligan and his writers room have done in “Better Call Saul” far surpassed my most hopeful expectations and even gave us a twofer, I think, with the inclusion of Mike.
On this, his second series, Gilligan (and Peter Gould) appear to have learned a great deal from “BB,” especially in terms of character development. They have given Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) the chance to breathe and not rushed him into the inevitable, namely, Saul Goodman. They have provided Mike (Jonathan Banks) with a credible back story involving his dead cop son, daughter-in-law Stacie, and granddaughter, Kaylee.
They introduced Jimmy’s whacked-out brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a law partner in a large firm, adding dimension to Jimmy, but creating another compelling character in his own right (with a strange electromagnetic sensitivity) along with fellow partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). Who the other Hamlin is in HHM is remains a mystery. Associate attorney, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), plays an appropriate love interest for Jimmy. The Kettlemans, Pryce, and others, while flawed, have appeal, manage to pique interest, and aren’t totally despicable. At least I care to know what happens to them.
My hope is that Gilligan and Gould won’t rush Jimmy into the Saul Goodman or “BB” world. We’ve been there, done that. Jimmy has his own story to tell: how he broke bad as a lawyer.
Now how about a pre-prequel about Mike’s ‘Nam days?