The main difference between Better Call Saul, debuting Sunday, February 8, on AMC, and Breaking Bad — the show it spun off from and serves as a prequel to — isn't immediately obvious. The two shows share a filming location, Albuquerque, and a couple of characters. Saul's creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, were among the chief creative forces behind Breaking Bad. There are times when the new show skates perilously close to its parent, and the comparison is rarely to Better Call Saul's benefit.
Yet the differences are there, and they settle in over the show more and more over the course of the first three episodes. And they stem, mainly, from the two series' structural approaches to storytelling, which dig down to the very bedrock of why we tell stories.
Breaking Bad is, essentially, a Shakespearean tragedy, about a potentially great man undone and unraveled by his tragic flaw, which reduced him to his worst self. But Better Call Saul is, at heart, a Greek tragedy, about a powerless figure caught in the vise grip of fate, tossed about by the gods. Except the gods are television writers, who must mercilessly drag him to the place he will be in when we first meet him on Breaking Bad.
Mystery versus incident
Breaking Bad begins its entire story with one inciting incident, a singular choice. It begins with Walter White choosing to cook meth to raise money to provide for his family after he is diagnosed with cancer. It begins with a decision to, well, break bad, and literally everything that happens in the series (save a couple of flashbacks) is the direct result of that choice. It's a show about the ripple effects of evil, the way that modernity allows wickedness to go viral.
Better Call Saul begins with a mystery. It acknowledges that you know the character Bob Odenkirk is playing from the parent show. It acknowledges that this is a prequel, and you know where that character will end up. And it acknowledges that there's only so much it can do with dramatic tension while playing within these boundaries.
But it sets up so much you don't know. Who are all of these people in Saul Goodman's life pre-Walter? Why is he so protective of this man named Chuck (Michael McKean)? Why, for heaven's sake, is Saul not known as Saul yet, but, rather, as Jimmy McGill? In its first hour especially, Better Call Saul proceeds as a cascading series of questions, taking its sweet time in setting up dominos and neglecting to knock them down.
Mysteries are inherently less dramatically satisfying than decisions. On a gut level, we want to see characters making big choices and living with their consequences, not wondering just why they're motivated to do what they do.
Yet Better Call Saul gets around this fact by, essentially, playing around with the form of tragedy Breaking Bad didn't really get to. The Greeks were right. You can't escape your fate. No matter what Jimmy does, he is always going to become Saul.
There's no premise
You'll notice that I've said basically nothing about the premise of Better Call Saul. Some of this is practical: AMC has sent out a handful of restrictions that limit what I can tell you about the show so that you might enjoy it sans as many spoilers as possible. But much of it is driven by the thing that makes the series simultaneously thrilling and a little disappointing — it doesn't really have a premise.
It's a show about a low-rent, ambulance-chasing lawyer, who's not yet a low-rent, ambulance-chasing lawyer — you just know he will be someday. It's banking on your goodwill from five great seasons of Breaking Bad to carry the day until things get going.
This sounds like a complaint, but I don't mean it to be as much of one as I probably should. The best episode I've seen so far — the third — is a kind of scuzzy law caper that recalls Robert Altman's 1970s movie version of The Long Goodbye and TV's Rockford Files more than Breaking Bad. If that's the direction the show is heading in — a legal drama set amid a great armpit of humanity — more power to it.
But in most episodes, there are lots of winks, nods and nudges on the side to remind you where all of this is going. Not least of these is Breaking Bad tough guy Mike (Jonathan Banks) riding herd over the tiny kingdom that is the payment booth in a parking lot, rather than working as the consummate badass we'll know him to be on the later series. (Banks, a tremendous actor, gets precious little to do in the first three episodes.)
The series, therefore, gets by on texture, but because this is from the same people who gave you Breaking Bad, set in the same universe, that texture ends up being more than enough.
The direction, from Gilligan in the pilot and longtime Breaking Bad director-producer Michelle MacLaren in the second, is beautiful, bringing the same gorgeous eye to the seedier parts of Albuquerque that the parent show brought to the desert. The writing is hugely clever, making smart use of montage in the second episode to allow time to pass and winking at snapping breadsticks in a fashion that proves truly horrific. (You will see what I mean.)
And if nothing else were working, the acting would be. Odenkirk's portrayal of Saul on Breaking Bad took a potentially clichéd character and made him human. Here, however, as Jimmy, he's crafting something even more humane and delicate. Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian aren't always given much to do, but both make nimble work of employees of a firm Jimmy has an adversarial relationship with.
And McKean brings a depth and soul to a character who could be written off as a kook. He provides the show with a very real, darkly sorrowful set of emotional stakes.
Good versus evil
The most interesting thing about Better Call Saul is also the thing that might ultimately cause it to seem like a minor diversion for all involved. Put simply, if Breaking Bad was a show about a good man who chose to indulge his evil side, Better Call Saul is its thematic opposite. Jimmy McGill is a man who has been bad, who has hurt people, who has done wrong, and now, he's trying, desperately, to overcome that part of himself, to perform a kind of alchemy that will let him be good.
Trying to make this series the thematic inverse of its parent is a good impulse, and it's an ample reminder of why Gilligan and Gould are among the best TV writers today. Plus, after years and years of shows about men who choose to give in to their worst impulses, it's nice to have one that acknowledges goodness can have its own kind of seductive pull, that it can be really satisfying to help someone and feel as if you've benefited the species somehow.
But the problem is that we know how this ends, even if we don't know how Breaking Bad ends. Because this is a prequel, we know that Walter White is going to wander into the offices of Saul Goodman in a few years, and Saul is going to be the low-rent ambulance chaser we loved from the prior show.
If Breaking Bad gained dramatic tension from viewers feeling trapped between wanting Walter to redeem himself and wanting him to do even more horrible things, Saul can't really have that tension, because we know Saul's worst impulses will win out. His feint at goodness necessarily has to be just that. This is the sort of prequel problem that can prove most damning, because it rests at the very core of the series, in a place where most shows derive much of their thematic weight. And unless Gilligan and Gould can figure out a way to navigate it, the show could end up an enjoyable but minor riff on its parent, a familiar tune played in a slightly different key.
And yet there's so much about Better Call Saul that clicks, it's hard to hold too much of this against the program. There's a buzzy, snappy confidence to it that only comes from artists working at the height of their powers. Yes, goodness has its pleasures, Gilligan and Gould seem to say, but c'mon. Isn't being a little bad that much more fun?
Better Call Saul debuts Sunday, February 8, at 10 pm Eastern on AMC, before moving to its regular timeslot Monday, February 9, at 10 pm Eastern.