In the history of popular TV, spin-off series have a reputation for not being successful. Shows that have come out of “backdoor pilots,” or when an existing show airs an episode designed to act as the first episode of a spin-off, tend to fizzle out before they can even be fully released — or just aren’t as successful as the original. But in its six seasons, “Better Call Saul” has proven to be an exception.
“Better Call Saul” is a spin-off series of “Breaking Bad,” which follows chemistry teacher Walter White and his ex-student turned partner Jesse Pinkman as he starts cooking and selling meth to pay for his cancer treatments. In the second season, lawyer Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, is introduced to help Walter and Jesse navigate their legal issues and other problems that arise throughout the show. “Better Call Saul” takes place a few years before the events of “Breaking Bad,” where we meet Jimmy McGill, Saul’s real name, before he became what Jesse best described as a criminal lawyer (a lawyer that is a criminal, not a lawyer for criminals.)
I started watching “Better Call Saul” after I had finished all five seasons of “Breaking Bad.” Throughout “Breaking Bad,” Saul’s character is more or less fully developed as a side character to the main actions of Walter and Jesse. Finishing the show and then going right to “Better Call Saul” made the show even more compelling because it took me back to when it was just Jimmy McGill. Despite knowing what will happen at the very end of the story, “Better Call Saul” is incredibly compelling for the way it shows his slow-burn transformation to the infamous “Breaking Bad” character.
For the first three seasons, one of Jimmy’s main conflicts is his struggle to gain the approval of his older brother, Chuck, with an incredible performance from actor Michael McKean. Jimmy has to fight to get out of his reputation for being “Slippin’ Jimmy,” his nickname from his con artist past. He goes to law school to be a lawyer just like Chuck, but is constantly undermined and belittled by him. This dynamic creates some of the most memorable and incredible scenes I have ever seen, with amazing performances from both of them.
Odenkirk is another actor that started in comedy and transitioned to more dramatic roles. He perfectly creates Jimmy’s balance between his desire to be a better person and the draw to a life of scamming and questionable morals. His comedic prowess also gets a chance to shine, providing his own comedic relief amongst the seriousness of the plot. As Jimmy slowly transforms, Odenkirk’s performance changes to show the nuances of how he blends with Saul to create the character we know from “Breaking Bad.”
His performance is complicated beautifully by the exceptionally talented actress Rhea Seehorn, playing Kim Wexler, a lawyer and Jimmy’s partner. Their relationship dynamic is unlike any other I’ve seen on TV, because although their relationship is definitely a part of the show, it doesn’t define either of them. The relationship is shown mainly through small gestures — tender moments shared between them. Kim is also one of the greatest examples I’ve seen in recent TV dramas, alongside Shiv Roy of “Succession,” of redefining female characters in the antihero genre. In the sixth and final season of the show, Kim is going through her own transformation on Jimmy’s path, and it is fascinating to see how her character is changing.
Even though I watched “Better Call Saul” after “Breaking Bad,” I would still recommend it as a stand-alone show. My dad caught up for the recent season six premiere without ever seeing “Breaking Bad” and still appreciated and loved it the way I do. Of course, having the experience of knowing specific references to things that happen in “Breaking Bad” and characters that appear can enhance the experience, but “Better Call Saul” is good enough to stand on its own.
Part of what makes “Better Call Saul” so great is the incredible writing and plot from the “Breaking Bad” team, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. The plots are thoroughly thought-out, and each conflict gets resolved in ways that are both unexpected and seamless. Jimmy’s increasingly clever scams to win his cases or protect the people he loves can be confusing at first, but they have an incredibly satisfying payoff each time.
If you aren’t already a fan of “Breaking Bad,” it’s possible that “Better Call Saul” has fallen off of your radar of new shows to watch. As it enters its sixth and final season, it is definitely worth watching to be a part of what I have no doubt will be an epic conclusion.
Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists. She is incredibly excited that “Barry” and “Better Call Saul” are back, and she is looking forward to having more time to catch up on shows over the summer.