I remember when Saul Goodman was introduced on Breaking Bad; Walter White seeks him out when one of his dealers is arrested. Jesse talks him into it by pointing out they don’t need a criminal lawyer, they need a criminal lawyer. Saul initially looks like just cheap shyster with a ridiculous office and shady clients. However, when Walt and Jesse later kidnap him at gunpoint, he proves himself to be a cool, extremely capable attorney. Walt and Jesse try to bribe Saul to keep a client quiet, and Saul suggests simply killing his client instead. On Breaking Bad, Saul was smart, dark, and entertaining flamboyant, which made him a welcome presence on a show that dark. We were excited that he was getting his own show to fill in his backstory; then, with the promise of Jonathan Banks as his wingman, Better Call Saul looked like a knockout.
After two seasons, we’re ready to throw in the towel. We know that Breaking Bad writers can fill episodes with low-key events and then provide a surprising payoff and we hoped the second season of Better Call Saul might provide some reward for patient viewing. Nope. All we had was Saul’s brother recording him saying something unethical; how will Saul get out of this one? This is a tough bind, unless he’s willing to lie about it and/or destroy the tape (we’re a long way from Walter watching Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death at the end of Breaking Bad’s second season). Meanwhile Mike decided not to kill a guy at the bequest of a mysterious letter suggesting that yet another character from Breaking Bad will appear on Better Call Saul. Who’s next? Jesse? Badger? Skylar? Seriously, at this point they may as well have Bryan Cranston show up and just be done with it.
This is my problem with this show; the show seemingly has no interest in building its own identity and seems entirely content to simply serve as a lesser prequel to Breaking Bad. The show has never rivaled Breaking Bad in terms of exciting plotlines or interesting characters and, instead, simply pilfers characters from Breaking Bad. For two full seasons, we’ve watched Saul (now Jimmy McGill) as a low-rent attorney who flirts with mainstream success but can’t seem to stop hustling people out of free drinks. He has a fairly mundane existence that he is mildly unsatisfied with. Meanwhile, Mike Ehrmantraut is seemingly on an entirely separate show where he faces off with some Breaking Bad villains, which is interesting but completely unrelated to Saul’s life. The show has become a Phantom Menace of sorts, seemingly unable to produce any original interesting characters or plotlines of its own. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this show who hadn’t watched Breaking Bad, and I did watch Breaking Bad and I’m getting sick of this show.
It’s clear why Better Call Saul continually reintroduces characters from Breaking Bad, the show really can’t stand on its own. The central conflicts aren’t terribly interesting. In this season, Saul took a job at a prestigious law firm and then left it to start his own firm, events which were almost as exciting as my description of them. Saul also engaged in a slow-moving struggle with his brother over an important client, events that would have consumed maybe half an episode of The Good Wife or even Suits. Mike, who had the most engaging scenes this season (but nothing compared to his action scenes in Breaking Bad) started a feud with a local drug lord but ultimately decided not to kill him, which makes sense, as this drug lord has to survive so he can appear in Breaking Bad. Between knowing who has to survive to appear on Breaking Bad and the sheer pointlessness of Saul’s conflict with his brother, the stakes on this show couldn’t be lower.
I probably wouldn’t mind Better Call Saul as much if it didn’t win such inexplicable praise from critics, many of whom insist that the show is better than Breaking Bad. I even agree with many observations these critics make but disagree with their opinions of them. For example, I totally agree that Better Call Saul has “understated, methodical, and deliberate plotting,” (i.e., is boring), that “the stakes are not life or death,”(really they’re about as low as they can get), and certainly there’s no other more interesting plotline the show could have used for its cliffhanger (but I really wish there had been). It’s even crazier to me that some critics we enjoy like Matt Zoller Seitz are seriously blaming themselves for wanting something to happen on the show. Dude, it’s not you, it’s this show. Heck, Seitz even suggests he’s been conditioned by TV to expect something to happen. Yes, you’ve been conditioned by Breaking Bad, by these same characters and by these same writers. You expect something to happen because last time you saw these characters, things would happen.
I’d also be a lot more open to the argument that Better Call Saul is a very different show than Breaking Bad if the show didn’t undercut that argument by tying itself so tightly to Breaking Bad. The show can’t have it both ways. If it wants to be a different show than Breaking Bad, then we need to stop seeing all of the same familiar faces (and the show needs to stop relying on the introduction of a Breaking Bad character to heighten suspense). If it wants to be an extension of Breaking Bad, then we need something interesting to happen. The show can’t just be a reunion party for Breaking Bad characters, particularly when the two stars of Breaking Bad are the only two who can’t be invited.
Don’t get me wrong, Better Call Saul does some things really well. Better Call Saul looks a lot like Breaking Bad, with great camera work and an ability to make Albuquerque look beautiful. The acting is uniformly pretty good and Bob Odenkirk is a surprisingly capable leading man. So if I had a chance to speak to the writers of Better Call Saul, I’d ask them to give their cast some material worthy of their talents. I’d ask them to commit to either being the prequel to Breaking Bad or being something new, and if they choose prequel, then interesting things need to happen. And, yeah, in season three, it would be cool to finally see Jimmy call himself Saul. Meanwhile, I’m gonna catch up on Aaron Paul’s new show The Path (it’s really good!) and look forward to Bryan Cranston as LBJ. Those two guys took their success on Breaking Bad and went on to do new things that are also really, really good, maybe season three of Better Call Saul could try to do the same.