It’s a tough time to be making great television. If the aughts marked the dawn of the medium’s golden age—when a few ambitious shows, like The Sopranos and Mad Men, reached new aesthetic heights and got big audiences chattering—we now seem on the brink of an upcoming collapse. We’re living in an era of grotesque abundance. Every amazing show is just one of countless amazing shows we could be watching. Even the most devoted viewers miss something amazing each week. Which means that it’s very difficult for even the best shows of the current moment to attain the buzzy cultural electricity of their predecessors, the charge that comes from being a common object of obsession.
Into this landscape sidles Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spinoff whose second-season finale airs Monday night. The show sounded shticky when announced—it would tell the backstory of Saul Goodman, the sleazeball lawyer played by comic Bob Odenkirk—and when the first season aired, the largely positive reviews were marked by a sense of relief that Saul hadn’t tarnished Walter White’s legacy. Since then, the show has drawn good notices, solid ratings, and praise for the subtlety and pathos of Odenkirk’s central performance as Jimmy McGill, the man who will become Saul. It got picked up for a third season. It’s doing fine.
But Better Call Saul should be doing more than fine, because it is already better than Breaking Bad, and thus has a shot—if it stays this good—at being one of the best television shows ever made. Better Call Saul takes the style that made Breaking Bad distinctive—the astonishing cinematography, dark comedy, and brashly confident pacing—and elevates it by applying it with more beauty, subtlety, and moral sophistication. And yet the spinoff has less buzz than the original. That’s criminal. No matter how glutted their DVRs, the American television-viewing public should be collectively freaking out that a show as great as Better Call Saul exists.
Perversely, Better Call Saul aims higher than its progenitor by lowering the stakes. Through its first two seasons, the show has concerned itself not with murderers and kingpins but with the mundane dilemmas of Jimmy McGill, a silver-tongued man with a gift for conning people who is trying not to use it. The show’s emotional core lies in his relationship with his older brother, Chuck, a brilliant lawyer who doesn’t believe that no-good Jimmy can play it straight for long. Jimmy aspires to please Chuck and go legit even though his talents offer tempting shortcuts. The result is a fascinating portrait of an underestimated man figuring out who—and how—to be. The show could be called Breaking Good.
Of course, we know where Jimmy ends up, and that crookedness will continue to beckon. But his struggle is powerful because it is human. Breaking Bad was, at its core, about a monster: Walter White is a thwarted milquetoast who gets a taste of power and goes mad for it. The show tells a story of inexorable descent. But Jimmy is a much more complicated figure, one who wants to help those around him but whose oddball ideas about how to do right have bad results as often as good ones. The forces he encounters—an undermining brother, a lurching love affair, disappointment at the office, his own underutilized talents—are sketched not with the chiaroscuro darkness of Walter White’s temptations but with subtler shadings that feel more like everyday life. It’s thrilling to see the storytelling bravado of Breaking Bad applied to these familiar but rich concerns.
And about that bravado: Saul is run jointly by Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, and Peter Gould, the Breaking Bad producer who wrote the episode that introduced Saul. One of the most remarkable things about Breaking Bad’s run was the way it ratcheted up the tension through its finale; it didn’t waste our time with wobbly late seasons or a flabby denouement. What that means, though, is that Vince Gilligan and his team dropped the mic at the top of their game. He and Gould have very swiftly picked it up again for their work on Better Call Saul. The whole show is operating at the same level of chutzpah and brio as Breaking Bad when it wrapped.
This is clear in Saul’s understated, methodical, and deliberate plotting, and the suspense the show creates with each subtle turn. Why is Mike Ehrmantraut, the beloved Breaking Bad heavy, drilling holes in a garden hose with his granddaughter? Why does Nacho, a savvy drug-world apparatchik, pause to check out the leather seats in that Hummer? Why does Kim Wexler (Jimmy’s friend, colleague, advocate, and love) rip a business card with his name on it in half? Every modest moment in the show builds to a fascinating payoff. It’s also notable that the characters the show has introduced—including meticulous Nacho (Michael Mando), loyal and ambitious Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and conniving Chuck (Michael McKean, who like Odenkirk is a comic actor giving an authoritative dramatic turn)—are as compelling as the two we’ve watched for years.
Saul is also so casually visually stunning that its pedestrian beauty feels like grace. Gilligan has retained his eye for the warm geometries of Albuquerque, and he and the other directors who’ve worked on the series (including Gould) find elegant compositions for every gritty tableau. In the second-season opener, one establishing shot reveals the deserted industrial parking lot where a drug deal is about to go down, and then—for a brief, improbable instant—a hummingbird flits into the frame, pauses to look at the camera, and flits away. The shot was a lucky accident (especially so since the scene that follows features a brightly bedecked Hummer as a key plot point), but the choice to leave it in and make a moment of it is characteristic of the show’s confidence and charm.
Indeed, Saul’s pacing is so assured it’s like watching a glossy thoroughbred take a few powerful turns around the oval. Many scenes start early and go long, allowing the characters to make slow approaches, size each other up, react, rally, and breathe. The show skips forward and backward in time with nimbleness and purpose, revealing incidents as they shed light on key players without undue deference to chronology. All of this is done without pretense or self-regard, although Saul isn’t above a little showboating: One recent episode began with a four-minute tracking shot at the U.S.-Mexico border, a taut, kinetic homage to Orson Welles’ famous opening sequence of Touch of Evil. This time, though, the sensitive cargo is not a ticking bomb but a melting popsicle, a delicious little visual joke.
It’s a joy to watch Saul nail these and other details—from the cobwebs in a baseboard hidey-hole to the tinny sound of rap emanating from a small boombox while lawyers toil at late-night document review—as it methodically lays the groundwork for what will hopefully be many seasons to come. It may be early to declare Better Call Saul an all-time great TV show, but the necessary ingredients are there. The Season 2 finale airing Monday may reveal just how far astray Jimmy’s pinwheeling moral compass can lead him; events foreshadowed last week may push him more decisively toward Sauldom and the end of his relationship with Kim. Or perhaps that journey will take a few more laps. No matter how Saul gets where he’s going, though, you’d be a fool not to join him on the road.