Better Call Saul, the AMC drama that is both a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad, has been consistently excellent since its premiere in 2015. It might wind up being the finest dramatic TV series ever filmed, depending on how well it sticks the landing in the closing episodes of its sixth and final season.
And this interests me since the series was completely reverse-engineered — developed and built from scraps of the previous program. Now that it’s concluding, it’s interesting to reflect on how the character and tale of Saul evolved from the seeds placed on Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul is also co-created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the creators of Breaking Bad. In the previous series, Gilligan knew exactly what path he wanted his main character, Walter White, to take: from meek high-school science teacher to a murderous meth-manufacturing drug lord. However, the route from Point A to Point B was clear.
It’s different with Better Call Saul. Some fragments are set in the future after Breaking Bad, but most of the series is an origin narrative, following the character of shady lawyer Saul Goodman, who we first met in season 2 of Breaking Bad. Saul, played by comedian Bob Odenkirk, was and still is the sort of lawyer that speaks loudly and has a strong schtick, particularly in local TV commercials selling his services.
Gould authored the episode of Breaking Bad that introduced Goodman, and when it came time to create Better Call Saul into a series, the writing crew drew inspiration from concepts and lines of dialogue that Gould had intended to be throwaways. Better Call Saul, for example, cast Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, a low-rent lawyer who took several seasons to assume the character of Saul Goodman. The seeds were sown, however, in a Breaking Bad episode in which Odenkirk’s character meets Walter and explains that he chose the Jewish-sounding name because he felt it would be good for business.
The segment of the spinoff series set in the past was solely about Jimmy and two other key characters who had never featured in Breaking Bad. One was Jimmy’s lover, Kim Wexler, a fellow lawyer — and, subsequently, fellow con artist — played by Rhea Seehorn in a mystery role. The other character was Jimmy’s older brother Chuck, who was played by Michael McKean and was a much more successful and respected attorney.
These were wonderful new additions. Kim, like Jimmy and Walter, was a character we got to witness fall apart slowly and tragically. And the sibling rivalry between Jimmy and Chuck was as entertaining to watch as the one between Frasier and his brother Niles on Frasier, a spinoff of another fantastic comedy, Cheers. Niles and Chuck were both developed for their spinoffs, and Better Call Saul profited just as much from their inclusion.
But Gilligan and Gould weren’t done with Breaking Bad inspiration. The brief black-and-white pictures depicting Saul’s present situation show him assuming yet another identity and preparing to return to Albuquerque after hiding secretly in Nebraska. That may sound odd, but in Saul’s final chat with Walter on Breaking Bad, he refused Walter’s wish to continue working as his lawyer by claiming his objective was to become “Mr. Low Profile,” who may end up managing a Cinnabon in Omaha in the “best-case scenario.”
Nothing from Breaking Bad, however, is as unexpectedly exact as another sequence from the episode introducing Saul as an early hint of what Better Call Saul would become. Walter and his meth-producing partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), are irritated that Saul is refusing to do what they’ve requested of him. So they build a grave-sized hole in the desert, don ski masks, and kidnap Saul while wearing a hood over his head. Saul suspects they’ve been dispatched by someone named Lalo as they bind his hands behind his back, drive him to the desert, and drop him to his knees at gunpoint.
Lalo is only mentioned once in Breaking Bad, but from Saul’s point of view, he’s someone to be dreaded. That’s why it’s so surprising that the most terrifying and dangerous character in the most recent episodes of Better Call Saul has been none other than that same Lalo, played by Tony Dalton. Better Call Saul’s most recent episode, which aired in May, had Lalo murdering a significant character in such a horrific and disturbing manner that I haven’t forgotten it.
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What will happen now? I have no idea, and AMC did not send out any preview episodes. We do know that Carol Burnett will return as a new character in these last episodes, which is fascinating. And we know that whatever happens to Seehorn’s Kim will be bad enough to prevent her from appearing in Breaking Bad at all, and will complete Jimmy’s transition into the completely amoral Saul Goodman. The way Gilligan, Gould, and colleagues draw the links between those fresh sets of Point A and Point B will define how good Better Call Saul becomes. The devil is in the particulars. And so is the genius of this program.