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How Better Call Saul turned Breaking Bad's formula on its head

  • "Better Call Saul's air of proleptic regret may be the best measure of what its creators learned from Breaking Bad," says Aaron Bady of co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's approach to the Saul Goodman spinoff, pointing out how the Kim Wexler character appears to be a direct response to the Skyler White hate on Breaking Bad. "The original show was ostensibly about transformation, as it reminded us through heavy-handed shots of chemistry paraphernalia and more than a few on-the-nose soliloquies," says Bady. "But the revelation of the final season was that Walter had never really changed at all." Bady notes the unease that Gilligan and Gould had with many fans identifying with Walter White -- and against Skyler-- adding that Breaking Bad's "narrative could never overpower the allure of its protagonist. No matter how ugly Walt’s victories became, the show’s pleasure was always, at least a little bit, about living vicariously through his violent triumphs and awful freedoms. If he was a time bomb, we watched to see the fireworks. Better Call Saul has turned this formula on its head. We know that Jimmy McGill really will change and that, far from being Jimmy’s authentic self, Saul Goodman is his negation: to become Saul, Jimmy must effectively perish." That's why, says Bady, "Better Call Saul does not seem interested in giving its fans an ending that they can thrill to. All I feel for Jimmy is dread."


    • Season 6 belongs to Kim Wexler: "It’s thrilling to watch this side of Kim unfold, partially because it’s so deserved. No matter how much attention Seehorn has received for her portrayal of Kim, it’s never been enough," says Kayla Cobb. "Anyone starring alongside a performer as energetic as Bob Odenkirk is always in danger of disappearing into his shadow; that risk is tripled when you’re talking about Odenkirk in his best role to date. That has never been a risk for Seehorn, an actor who is able to infuse the smallest of smiles with the full weight of an emotional breakdown or a desperate scheme. From the first episode Jimmy and Kim have always felt like a team, her the behind-the-scenes manager and him the talent. It’s gratifying to see her finally take the lead."
    • Here are the five most likely scenarios for Kim Wexler, ranging from best case to worst case: "The biggest reason" why Better Call Saul is just as good as, or even better than, Breaking Bad is Rhea Seehorn’s role as Kim Wexler, says Will Leitch. "Kim Wexler is every overachiever you’ve ever known, a girl who grew up in nowhere Nebraska with an alcoholic mother and no real prospects," says Leitch. "But she was smart, and driven, and ended up making her way to Albuquerque, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear. She became a diligent, highly competent lawyer, but, for the first half of the series, she has one major flaw: She loves Slippin’ Jimmy McGill, a shady lawyer who, it seems inevitable, will drag the upstanding Wexler down with him. But as the show goes on, it become clear that Wexler actually loves Jimmy’s schemes, and may be particularly talented at pulling them off herself. It makes them a terrific team, but also a self-destructive one. Everyone knows Saul Goodman is shady, so if he gets caught in a scheme, people just shrug. But Kim Wexler is a superstar. Every scheme she’s involved in — including, eventually, scamming the Mexican drug cartel itself — could come crashing down at any moment, exploding everything she’s ever worked for in one felt swoop. It could also get her killed. And that’s the central question Better Call Saul has left to answer: What happens to Kim Wexler?"
    • Better Call Saul's slow pace has been dazzling yet frustrating: "People who respect the integrity of television as an art form tend to be horrified by the Netflix feature that lets viewers speed up what they’re watching," says Spencer Kornhaber. "Yet I recently found myself unable to resist the '1.5x' button as I caught up with one of the most acclaimed shows on TV. AMC’s Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spin-off that debuted to record cable viewership in 2015 and will begin airing its sixth and final season this spring, can be magnificent. It can also be tedious. Frequent-depictions-of-tooth-brushing tedious. Multiseason-subplot-about-retirement-home-billing tedious. Slow-and-repetitive-commentary-on-the-human-condition tedious. I-stopped-watching-after-three-years tedious." Kornhaber gave up on Saul because "by Season 4, the actual experience of watching the show had come to feel like a chore I no longer needed to perform." Yet Kornhaber admits "the excellence of Season 5 did benefit from years’ worth of slowly accreted details coming together," adding: "What Saul does now share with its contemporaries and predecessors—what makes it, at last, a great show—is an energetic embrace of TV’s promise: the room to experiment with the medium’s episodic format, to play with pace and create immersive, sustained, addictive stories. Future viewers of this dazzling and frustrating series shouldn’t think twice about speeding up when they feel the urge."
    • Season 6 feels hamstrung by Breaking Bad: "Better Call Saul is, at the start of its two-part final season, still twin shows — a riveting one and one that, even while well-made, can feel like yesterday’s news. The good news for viewers who are interested in the storyline about Jimmy McGill’s slippage into the amoral Saul Goodman, and his dragging of Kim Wexler with him, is that that half of the series is as strong as ever," says Daniel D'Addario. "It continues to make a case for itself as distinct from its predecessor series Breaking Bad, and more compellingly grounded in a believable reality. The more mixed result is that this series feels more bound up than ever in trying to draw out connections to Breaking Bad. The result is that even as the show moves toward its endgame, it can feel as if it’s looking over its shoulder."
    • Better Call Saul is firing in all cylinders at the start of Season 6, but its shortcomings remain its shortcomings: "One of Better Call Saul‘s most impressive qualities throughout its run has been its consistency, and that holds true in season six," says Angie Han. "The show’s pleasures are still its pleasures. Its performances haven’t missed a beat, and neither has its writing — if anything, these characters and the world they inhabit have only grown richer and more complex with time. (I’m begging you, Emmy voters: Stop sleeping on Rhea Seehorn.) The cast and writers (led by showrunner Peter Gould) maintain their gift for dancing between breathless tension, aching tragedy and genuine LOLs; the first two episodes have moments of all three." Han adds: "At the same time, its shortcomings are still its shortcomings. For most of its run, Better Call Saul has felt like two parallel series. One is a superb, often devastating character study set mostly in the legal world and tracing Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman. The other is a perfectly fine crime drama about the power moves and deadly conflicts within and around the Salamanca cartel. Occasionally these storylines intersect, and the final episodes of season five knit them together more closely than possibly before under the vast, looming threat of Lalo (Tony Dalton)."
    • Better Call Saul's split narrative makes more sense now: "All the looming drug stuff could feel like residual (Breaking Bad) vibes, even fan service, separate from the eccentric legal perambulations over in the McGill-Wexler corner," says Darren Franich. "In the two episodes I've seen, everything happening with Kim is totally fascinating. At one point, she performs an entirely heroic act that is somehow also the worst thing she's ever done. By comparison, some of the cartel stuff is… very solid! But not too surprising — which could be an inevitable prequel problem. There has always been a vague notion that Saul was going to slowly become the previous show, with greater focus on the Fring-adjacent underworld. But these early episodes confirm the prequel as its own unique entertainment. Co-creator Peter Gould has built out a fascinating corner of the Breaking Bad world originally conceived by co-creator Vince Gilligan."
    • How Better Call Saul perfected the art of the montage: "Whereas its predecessor largely worked overtime in the editing suite to document the dangerous lab-to-street journey of Walter White's crystal meth, Better Call Saul often does so to captivate viewers with more humdrum matters," says Jon O'Brien. "In what proves to be the catalyst for his brother's tragic downfall, the second season's most memorable sequence revolves around Jimmy fastidiously forging a number on a legal document. Another finds permanently sullen heavy Mike dismantling a car in its entirety to find a tracking device he eventually discovers in the first place he'd looked, just one of several glorious payoffs the series' show-not-tell approach delivers."
    • Tony Dalton explains what drives Lalo Salamanca: "I remember one of the things that Vince (Gilligan) and Peter (Gould) told me about Lalo is to think of him as a prince," he says. "Think of him as this sort of Prince of the Narcos. I have some very clear images of what Lalo is to me. I have a really good friend who’s an actor. He’s got a lot of charm. And I kind of a little bit based Lalo on him, his kind of persona. He’s one of those guys where you just want to be around him all the time. And, also, a little bit on Jules Winfield, Sam Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction. It was really those two guys. These guys that are just, if they leave the scene, you want to leave with them. If they’re on the scene, they light it up so much that you can’t take your eyes off of them. That kind of energy."
    • Dalton on his approach to Lalo: “These guys are very close to death all the time,” he says. “They could get whacked at any moment. So I figured his outlook towards life is a little more calm, enjoying life because it might go at any second.” Dalton adds: “It’s easier to spot the big, bad narco when he’s got a big accent and he looks like he’s going to kill somebody. But if you see a guy who’s a little more Americanized, a little more comfortable with the culture and with everything, you feel like he’s a little more fearless. You feel like he can get away with stuff that other guys couldn’t do. That’s something that adds tension to the story.” 
    • Rhea Seehorn is glad Better Call Saul is respecting Kim Wexler's autonomy: "If you think you know Kim, you don't know all of Kim," says Seehorn. "But probably the even harder thing to wrestle with is holding opposing thoughts about a person in your head at one time. She is everything you thought. It isn't just the side of Robin Hood do-gooding always, either, which I think people would like to assign her shenanigans to. There's quite a bit of ego and quite a bit of God complex happening." As for fan concern over her character, Seehorn says with a chuckle: "I have been told of the riot. I can't even articulate how grateful I feel about fans' perception of my character and my performance of this character. I feel the concern. I am stopped on the street with the concern."
    • Bob Odenkirk likes Jimmy McGill, but he never grew fond of Saul Goodman: "I did like Jimmy McGill, the character behind Saul Goodman. I still didn’t love the choices he made with his life energy,” he says. “He really let his resentments guide him and he let his feelings of hurt be the core driver of what he did. I just think that’s obviously a mistake. I can understand where people do it … but it isn’t gonna take you anywhere over a long period of time that’s good.”
    • Co-creator Peter Gould says Season 6 will take Better Call Saul fans by surprise: "It’s hard to put into words. Season 6 is suspenseful, it’s explosive, it’s funny and it takes a couple of turns that I don’t think anyone is going to expect," says the Better Call Saul showrunner. "Those are big words, because our fans are so, they’re kind of brilliant and they tend to see around corners. But I do think it’s going to take people by surprise, but in a good way because the seeds have all been planted and boy, I just couldn’t be prouder of the season."
    • Watch Bob Odenkirk's Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony from Monday, with tributes from Rhea Seehorn and David Cross

    TOPICS: Better Call Saul, AMC, Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould, Rhea Seehorn, Tony Dalton, Vince Gilligan