How ‘Better Call Saul’ Brilliantly Killed the Thrills of ‘Breaking Bad’

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I don’t want “Better Call Saul” to catch up with “Breaking Bad”. It will, of course. We know where the story ends. But a big part of the brilliance of the Bob Odenkirk-directed prequel, which kicks off its sixth and final season on Monday, is how reluctantly it seems to get where it’s going. By the end of the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” lowly chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had already started cooking meth and committed his first murder, albeit in self-defense. “Better Call Saul” is also based on the lineage of its hero, Jimmy McGill, who by the time of “Breaking Bad” has become the sociopathic “criminal prosecutor” Saul Goodman. “Breaking Bad” took place between 2008 and 2010 and, according to scrupulous online timekeepers, “Better Call Saul” has so far only brought its characters to June 2004. By this point, Jimmy has proven adept at bending the law and running the occasional scam. But there’s still a great psychic distance between the sweet protagonist of “Better Call Saul” and the despicable character who, in his first episode of “Breaking Bad,” doesn’t understand why Walter doesn’t just kill a compromised friend. At the start of Season 6, Jimmy has begun using his new name, in his commercials and his law practice, and he’s rationalizing how he defends (and abets) cartel criminals in court. But “Saul” is still just a character he plays. He hasn’t lost himself in the role yet.

Odenkirk was originally cast in “Breaking Bad” as comic relief, for a three-episode arc. (The character was written by Peter Gould, who co-created “Better Call Saul” with “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan. mullet comb and his multicolored suits, Saul Goodman was a caricature of shamelessness and an embodiment of the anti-Semitic trope of “shyster.” (“Jewish stuff I do just for homeboys,” he told Walter during their first encounter. “They all want a pipe-banging tribesman, so to speak.”) But the character would return every season, and the idea of ​​a spin-off focused on “Saul” became a a running joke on set. When such a sight arrived, in 2015, the cartoon cutout of “Breaking Bad” had transformed into a fully fleshed out and surprisingly likable person. The Jimmy McGill we meet in Season 1 is defined by the people he cares for, including his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and his misfortunes their clients, an assortment of penniless criminals and forgotten old people. While ‘Breaking Bad’ Saul would sell his proverbial grandmother for a buck, Jimmy, in ‘Better Call Saul’ Season 4, devises a humiliating scheme – and defers his million dollar windfall from a lawsuit settlement collective – just to reconcile his elderly client Irene with her friends. Above all, Jimmy cares about his partner, Kim Wexler, and the life (and law practice) he hopes to build with her.

Walter White’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), was one of the the most (unfairly) hated characters in modern television. She had the audacity to speak out against her husband’s murderous midlife crisis, which for many fans made her a buzzkill. Like other reviewers pointed out, the writers of “Better Call Saul” seemed determined to avoid a repeat of the Skyler problem when they wrote the character of Kim. Played by seductively opaque Rhea Seehorn, Kim is Jimmy’s accomplice in crime; the pair even run counter together, scamming hard knocks for free drinks and checks they don’t bother to cash. While Skyler was an uncomfortable reminder of all the responsibilities Walter shunned, Kim is Jimmy’s staunch ally and enabler. But Kim’s character never appears in “Breaking Bad,” and the question that hangs over “Better Call Saul” is: why? Each season opens with a black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s fate after the end of “Breaking Bad,” a numbing purgatory in Nebraska, where he hides under the alias Gene Takovic. He works silently in a hopeless, joyless, Kim-less Omaha Cinnabon, watching old commercials of himself as Saul on degrading VHS tapes. If Kim doesn’t die by the end of the final season, then something even worse could happen: the prospect that she — the show’s most fundamentally decent character — also deteriorates. In the Season 6 opening montage, which takes place after “Breaking Bad” ends, we see a tequila cap that Kim saved from her first date with Jimmy, a token of their relationship, lying lost in a gutter.

Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), a mid-level cartel lieutenant trying to get out of the game and keep his family from being dragged in, is also absent from “Breaking Bad”, to get more deeply involved. Nacho’s fate intertwined with that of “Better Call Saul’s” parallel second protagonist, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), a former cop whose descent into crime mirrors and facilitates Jimmy’s. On “Breaking Bad”, Mike performed the same limited narrative function as Saul. (In fact, it was first written into the series because Odenkirk had a scheduling conflict.) Like Saul, Mike taught Walter the soulless and efficient craft of being a criminal. He also demonstrated the solitary endpoint of this path. During “Better Call Saul”, we learn how Mike got to this point. Driven by guilt over the death of his son, who was murdered at the hands of other corrupt cops, Mike tends to his stepdaughter to keep his self-loathing at bay. In Season 2, Nacho identifies Mike as “the guy who won’t pull the trigger”, and he increasingly calls on Mike to help him escape his employers. For Mike, Nacho seems to offer a chance at redemption, a surrogate son figure who can still be saved. But then Mike kills his friend Werner Ziegler, and it becomes clear that he has given in to a sense of fatalism. The choices “put you on a road,” he tells Jimmy, “and nothing can be done about it.” If this road leads to Mike murdering Nacho – as I suspect – their story will have its perfect and terrible ending.

The air of proleptic regret in “Better Call Saul” is perhaps the best measure of what its creators learned from “Breaking Bad.” The original show was ostensibly about transformation, as it reminded us through heavy shots of chemistry paraphernalia and more than a few soliloquies on the nose. But the revelation of the final season was that Walter never really changed at all. A terminal cancer diagnosis only freed him to be the sociopath he had always secretly wanted to be. “You’re a ticking time bomb,” Mike tells her, in season 5. The reagents have all been measured and assembled; Walt was just waiting for a catalyst to trigger him. In this sense, the show was dormitory Nietzscheism, a parable about cathartic self-realization through violence. Freed from fear through the inevitability of his own death, Walter breaks free from the emasculating shackles of conventional morality and is finally able to live free and die. In the finale, he tells Skyler the truth: “I did it for me. I liked it,” he explains, adding, “I was alive.

The worst thing about “Breaking Bad” is that we loved it too. Showrunners grew increasingly uncomfortable with how the show’s “bad fans” rooted for its hero – and against Skyler – and made increasingly explicit efforts to convey the depths evil of Walter. We saw him associate with Nazis, ruin his family, and destroy everything he claimed to build. But the narrative could never overpower its protagonist’s appeal. No matter how ugly Walt’s victories have gotten, the show’s fun has always been, at least a little, living vicariously through his violent triumphs and terrible freedoms. If it was a ticking time bomb, we watched to see the fireworks.

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“Better Call Saul” turned that formula on its head. We know that Jimmy McGill has really will be change and that, far from being Jimmy’s authentic self, Saul Goodman is his negation: to become Saul, Jimmy must actually perish. The transformation seems to have started in season 1, when Jimmy discovered, just like Skyler, that the person he loved most in the world, his brother Chuck, had not only lied to him and betrayed him, but had despised. Before Chuck dies, in an ambiguous and suicidal house fire in season 3, he berates his eternally failed brother not only for hurting people (“again and again and again… everyone around you”) but for what he considers Jimmy’s hypocritical show. of remorse. “Stop apologizing and accept it, embrace it . . . I’d have more respect for you if you did,” he says. Jimmy’s tragedy is that he believes Chuck’s diagnosis and tries to earn his posthumous respect by living without regrets. In doing so, Jimmy becomes something much closer to what his brother really was: a lonely, resentful man, too proud to be helped.

There’s a weird aspect to doing a prequel series more than a decade after the original. The characters are supposed to be years younger than when we first met them, but the actors have visibly aged. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will be would have making appearances in the final season of “Better Call Saul,” which could mean forty-two-year-old Paul playing a teenage version of his character, Jesse Pinkman. In 2009, Saul and Mike’s faces were still as smooth and empty as their stories. Now, like memento mori, the lines on their eyebrows add to the sense of inevitability that haunts the show. Both series share a fondness for photomontages that follow the protagonists over months or years, whether reviewing documents or brushing their teeth, and for time-lapse photography of the dusty landscape of New Mexico. . But, if the purpose of these techniques in “Breaking Bad” was to underline the Ozymandian hubris of Walter’s colossal ego, in “Better Call Saul” they convey the pathos of the individual lost in time – somewhat like the ice cream cone that Jimmy drops on the sidewalk in season 5, and which returns in the following episode, eaten away by ants. Do we want to see the characters reach their final destination? I will look; I have come so far, of course, I will look. But “Better Call Saul” doesn’t seem interested in giving its fans an ending they can delight in. All I feel for Jimmy is fear.

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