Better Call Saul has never been better. This unlikely prequel spin-off to historic drama Breaking Bad continues to transcend steep structural obstacles to build its own legacy as a first-rate entertainment, consistently wrestling with meaty themes in a riveting way.
The sibling rivalry between shifty lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his straight-arrow older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) escalates to a new level when Chuck leverages his suspicions of Jimmy’s slippery ethics toward setting a devious legal trap. But Jimmy fights back, enlisting his diligent, ultra-competent partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) to help, leading to explosive family drama. Meanwhile, stone-faced ex-cop Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks) continues his efforts to balance noble motivations with corner-cutting criminal behavior, a struggle that takes on a new dimension as his clandestine war with local drug pushers thrusts him into the orbit of a formidable new player on the local crime scene: restaurateur Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
My early impressions of Better Call Saul were heavily colored by memories of its progenitor. Indeed, it seemed initially that the show, for all its strengths, was destined to live forever in Breaking Bad’s shadow. But my fears that it would be handcuffed by a necessarily predictable trajectory were unfounded, and in fact, now I’m convinced Better Call Saul is the more mature and interesting series. Breaking Bad’s brilliant, powerful narrative relied heavily on shock and surprise to compel the viewer. Better Call Saul is more restrained and internal, presenting relatable characters whose reactions to their sticky dilemmas are more nuanced and thematically consistent. Jimmy struggles to succeed on the straight-and-narrow, but constantly butts up against the fact that modern society does not necessarily reward lawfulness. Chuck sees himself as a paragon of virtue, but descends to his own form of devious scheming to keep his less powerful brother “in his place.” Indeed, every major character on the show inhabits a similar moral gray area, regardless of which side of the law they’re on. The result is a series with a thought-provoking thematic focus, a smart, symbolic critique of modern American systems of power and justice, two concepts which have never seemed more at odds than right now.
Intelligent social commentary is a major draw, then, but it’s not Better Call Saul’s only weapon. It possesses emotional range, managing to be dark, funny, sad, suspenseful, and heartfelt in each hour. The cast is uniformly superb, especially Odenkirk and McKean in the crucial roles. The visual story-telling techniques are mesmerizing. Viewers susceptible to competence porn will get sucked into Mike’s inhumanly patient tradecraft and Kim’s steely-eyed competence and determination. While it may not possess Breaking Bad’s groundbreaking techniques or intensity, Better Call Saul has evolved into a truly great show in its own right, taking an even deeper dive into the moral complexities of our society than its parent show.