You Better Be Watching Better Call Saul

“Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”

Newton’s First Law of Motion

Ok, as a starting point, I’ll cop to the fact that I was late to the party on Breaking Bad.  Sure, I had friends and co-workers telling me it was a great series,  but I was hesitant.  I mean, c’mon, the dad from Malcolm in the Middle?  Please.  I’m not the type who chases the latest trends and I’ve found that the cynical side of me always tries to avoid “what’s popular” at any given time.  I liked Friends as a diversion but found Everybody Loves Raymond to be funnier and more well-written.  Either way, I certainly didn’t obsess over it. 

My own tastes run to the incredible writing and performances in The West Wing (over which I still obsess) and that loveable doctor-genius-drug addict-curmudgeon House.  But as Breaking Bad was getting ready to wind down to a conclusion and the critical acclaim grew, I felt the pangs of wanting to be part of the hysteria around the series’ conclusion and bought the seasons I had missed.  I am happy to report that I did not regret the decision.

I think one of the seminal moments in the series occurred when Walt said to his class, “Chemistry is, well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”  It was the perfect metaphor – the depiction of a terminally-ill, under-employed middle-American chemistry teacher who, through equal parts ambition, intelligence and blind luck, would transform himself into a drug kingpin in the meth-soaked underworld of the American southwest mirroring the decline of the American middle class during the Bush years.

When series creator Vince Gilligan announced the sequel/prequel to the series would follow the exploits of Saul Goodman, the sham borderline criminal attorney who helped Walt launder his “ill-gotten gains,” Breaking Bad fans scratched their heads with curiosity.  A prequel?  About Saul?  What gives?  Opening with a modern setting in a Cinnabon in Omaha (an Easter egg Breaking Bad fans will love) in depressing black and white surveillance footage, we see the former Saul Goodman now leading the life of a man whose entire life consists of looking over his shoulder on the run.  And then the flashback to simpler times begins.

What has followed has been both just as amazing and just as addictive as the blue meth that was Breaking Bad.  Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan take us on a sharply different (yet familiar) variation of the “breaking bad” tale – how does a fairly respectable lawyer turn into a shadowy front of a criminal empire.  The now completed second season of Better Call Saul has just come to an end, and I am already depressed that it won’t be back until next year. In this writer’s opinion, Better Call Saul is not only a satisfying follow-up to Breaking Bad, it may currently be the best drama on television. Considering that we are living in the golden age of television dramas like Game of Thrones, The Americans, House of Cards and Mr. Robot, Better Call Saul hitting the bullseye with a combination of astounding writing, technical artistry, nuanced acting and the constant yin and yang of humor and dread is all the more impressive.

An object with a certain velocity maintains that velocity unless a force acts on it to cause an acceleration.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

In the first season of Better Call Saul, we time travel in and out of different critical moments in the life our hero, Saul, a.k.a. Jimmy McGill, a relatively amiable ne’er-do-well and sometime con artist who, despite the ongoing moralizing of his law partner brother Chuck (played by the stupendous Michael McKean), has managed to pass the bar exam himself and become a low paid public attorney who struggles to make enough to income to pay for his parking at the courthouse.  And who should work in that court house parking lot?  None other than our first Breaking Bad throw back, Mike Erhmantraut, who we last saw on the bank of that river.  Mike, as we learn in Better Call Saul, is a former police officer from Philadelphia who left police work for a number of varying moral and ethical reasons. Knowing that Mike and Jimmy/Saul will become a team one day is certainly part of the fun; to see their early interactions with each other is quite hilarious. And yet, the collision course these two are on is what makes the series special. If Breaking Bad was a study of chemistry (human and otherwise) than most certainly Better Call Saul is a study of physics and the inevitability of objects, or in this case characters, colliding. 

Better Call Saul blends our thirst for the introduction of characters created in the old series with introductions to new characters who are equally quirky and satisfying in their own way.  There haven’t been many television sequels that were anywhere near the quality of their predecessors.  For every Rhoda or Frasier, there are dozens of Joanie Loves Chachis and After M*A*S*Hes.  But the characters in Better Call Saul come gift-wrapped with their own delightful idiosyncrasies and compelling back stories. Jimmy’s part time lover and full time legal foil Kim Wexler is a perfect example of this. Employed by Chuck’s firm, Kim faces her own moral dilemma in her dealings with Jimmy but also with the glass ceiling for women in corporate law. Her attraction to Jimmy despite (or even because of) his less than ethical practices is one of those collisions we know will not end well. Rhea Seehorn is absolutely fantastic in this role, not only as Jimmy’s love interest but also as an ongoing counterpoint to Jimmy’s ethical and legal rationalizations.

At the heart of Better Call Saul is the performance of Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul, who has crafted a fully realized, three-dimensional character struggling with the ethical and moral issues that will come to define him.  Better Call Saul brilliantly sets Jimmy on a path of one morally ambiguous situation after another, each time upping the ante in tension and drama. 

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Newton’s Third Law of Motion

In the first season of Better Call Saul, we see Jimmy suppressing his knack for “creative” interpretations of the law as he molds himself to try to fit the unreachable expectations of Chuck. Season two spends quite a bit of time exploring this brotherly Cain and Abel relationship, using flashbacks to fill in the story of how Chuck came to look so unfavorably on his brother, and how the inevitable clash between them will play out. While Jimmy spends much of the first two seasons trying to please Chuck, season two puts Chuck in the strange position of watching Jimmy succeed as he strikes out on his own with the newly liberated Kim to eventually start a side-by-side practice. When Chuck convinces the executives of a bank to drop Kim as their attorney and switch to Chuck’s firm, the tension finally boils over. The actions Jimmy takes to embarrass Chuck and restore the bank’s legal representation to Kim map out the clash of destinies for all of them; the collision of Chuck’s righteousness, Kim’s wavering trust of Jimmy and Jimmy’s internal struggle with his demons are a truly dramatic, almost Shakespearean triangle of ambition, jealousy and revenge. The final scenes between Chuck and Jimmy are pure gold. Odenkirk and McKean are extraordinary together. As actor John Lithgow recently tweeted, scenes between them are like chamber music. 

And speaking of the inevitability of gravity and collisions, Mike’s escalating actions with (and against) the Mexican drug cartel and future wheelchair bound Hector Salamanca, will inevitably lead to a whole different level of violence and revenge-based bloodshed in season three and beyond. Mike’s aborted assassination attempt on Hector’s life by an ingeniously placed branch on a steering wheel horn left me knowing that, even without Gould and Gilligan’s cheeky episodic encryption spelling out what was to come, the ghosts of the future were materializing and sending the characters in Better Call Saul off on their paths to potential and inevitable destruction. 

Better Call Saul is must-watch television for viewers who are seeking something more than the weekly eye-opening carnage of the citizens of Westeros or the manufactured dramatic insanity of Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal.  Gould and Gilligan’s methodical plotting and incremental pacing build tensions in such a way that the eventual payoffs in Better Call Saul are far more satisfying than the hyperkinetic plot devices in those other series. Just as its characters are on collision courses of their own, Better Call Saul, with its phenomenal writing, technical wizardry and stunning performances will surely one day take its place in the pantheon of remarkable television.