Critics’ Conversation: Was ‘Better Call Saul’ Better Than ‘Breaking Bad’?

Critics’ Conversation: Was ‘Better Call Saul’ Better Than ‘Breaking Bad’?

[This conversation contains spoilers for the full run of AMC’s Better Call Saul, including the series finale, “Saul Gone.”]

DANIEL FIENBERG: So we’ve taken some time to let the Better Call Saul finale marinate in our brains (and for readers to watch and process), so let’s start, naturally enough, at the end of things.

Finale writer-director Peter Gould and the Better Call Saul team left Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in a prison, and not the cushy one where he initially wanted to do seven years taking golf lessons. Instead, he’s got 86 years, which sounds very bad, except when you compare his fate to Walter White in the Breaking Bad finale or to Patrick Fabian’s Howard or Michael Mando’s Nacho. Saul has a cushy kitchen job making bread — those Gene Takovic skills from Cinnabon coming in handy — and, more importantly, he has reclaimed his identity as Jimmy McGill. He achieved that goal by doing the right thing and sacrificing himself to protect Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), to clear the memory of Howard Hamlin and even to acknowledge his poor brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Plus, he got a visit from Kim and they shared a few words, a cigarette and a few series callbacks. Not a bad reward for telling the truth, or at least lying selflessly.

Angie, did Jimmy/Saul/Gene get off too easy? Did he get what he deserved? Did the end of the finale feel right to you?

ANGIE HAN: Better Call Saul has been the story of the struggle between the two sides of Jimmy McGill’s nature — on one side a basically nice dude who sincerely cares about people like Chuck and Kim and his elder law clients, and on the other the born swindler who can’t help trying to get one over on everyone around him. The tragedy was that because of Breaking Bad, we always knew the latter would ultimately beat out the former.

Or so we thought. Initially, the Gene arc looks like it’s once again steering the character into choosing greed and resentment at the expense of others: He’s successfully negotiated the prosecutors down to seven years‘ jail time by painting himself as Walter White’s victim rather than his accomplice, to the horror of true innocent bystanders like Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt). Instead, it becomes the story of how his better nature, finally, won out. I don’t necessarily believe it’s the only way for the show to have ended, but the reversal puts a nice bow on the internal battle the character’s been fighting the whole time.

The idea of a time machine (which, as Walter White snidely points out, is just a roundabout way of talking about regrets) comes up again and again in “Saul Gone,” often as a way of emphasizing what Jimmy/Saul/Gene can’t undo. He can’t change what he did to Chuck, or with Mike and Gus, or with Walter, or to Kim, and Better Call Saul knows that all of it matters, that even the stuff he’s gotten away with legally has taken a toll on his soul. But in that final twist, it allows him to start trying to repair something that had seemed irreparably broken. You can’t go back. But you can choose how to reckon with your past as you move forward.

What about you, Dan? If you had a time machine, would you change anything about the Better Call Saul finale, or do you think it’s perfect just as it is?

DF: If I had a time machine, I would probably go back and trim maybe 15 percent of the time machine references that apparently were littered through the season and then were troweled into the finale. This is a show that always had the ability to be very, very subtle — my gracious, the emotions that played out across Odenkirk and Seehorn’s faces wordlessly in the finale — and then sometimes not the least bit subtle. Like that Walter White cameo — accentuating once again the most annoying and imperious aspects of the character from his Breaking Bad days, he twists the knife by mocking Saul’s time machine hypothetical and then he LITERALLY twists the [butter] knife as part of the amateur repair work he was doing. And even if I felt a beat like that was maybe too on-the-nose, I absolutely adored the trademark Better Call Saul oddball POV shot through the courtroom guardrail that put poor Kim in literal and metaphorical crosshairs. Turns out that I’m completely fine with obviousness when it’s done with panache and sincerity, something Better Call Saul always had in spades.

And I adore that the finale is exactly as sincere as you want it to be. Better Call Saul truly found its heart and soul in the second season when it became less of a thriller-comedy and more of a romance-thriller-comedy. The finale had some funny bits, like Jimmy negotiating for ice cream, but it was much more about the idea of the redemptive power of truth and love and how those things bloom if you believe in them and wither under the glare of cynicism. 

Has Jimmy turned a permanent corner, won the battle with his inner demons and embraced his better nature? Has Kim found a way to be satisfied with using her legal skills for altruism, and will the erotic charge she got from scamming people become a thing of the past? Will she periodically visit Jimmy in prison and, when he gets released in five years on some technicality, will she be waiting for him with a single, shared cigarette? Sure! 

Or will prison push Jimmy into a corner and will Saul come out as a defense mechanism, helping him build a business/protection empire in the hoosegow while at the same time sticking a shiv in his better nature? We’ve seen him reform before and we’ve seen him backslide. He was able to be unassuming, anonymous Gene for a matter of months, and what drew Saul back out wasn’t really the money. It was self-defense and compulsion. Same with Kim! Will Kim realize that legal aid is only satisfying part of her, and will she seek out fellow con artists and low-level scoundrels, piddly reprobates who are in no short supply in Florida? Who can say?

So is that “perfect”? Nah. But it’s appropriate to the show.

AH: Jimmy and Kim’s endings are a little unusual for this universe in that they’re left ambiguous, by which I really just mean that they don’t die. And you’re right: Since so much of what Jimmy (and Kim, to a lesser extent) is battling is his own demons, there’s every chance that that means he could revert back to old patterns in prison. But that, too, seems apt for a series that’s been all about the choices Jimmy made to get here. One of the finale’s more obvious moments of irony comes when Walter listens to Saul’s anecdote about a scam-gone-wrong in his youth, and sneers, “So you were always like this.” Saul’s face falls a little in response, and I winced myself to hear his journey dismissed so carelessly. It seems to me an act of grace to keep Jimmy alive to continue fighting that fight, even after we’ve stopped watching.

You brought up the redemptive power of love. It’s been a throughline across all of Better Call Saul‘s six seasons, with Chuck as well as with Kim, and the choice to conclude the series on a meeting between Jimmy and Kim (which, ugh, those bittersweet final shots of them separated by a road and yards of chain-link fence — I’ll miss the care this show puts into its compositions) cements that. But I think it works so well precisely because the series has taken the time to explore the limitations of love as well as its strengths. It was only a few episodes ago that Kim was responding to Jimmy’s pleading “I love you” with an utterly wrenching “I love you, too. But so what?” And it was only a few seasons before that that Jimmy and Chuck’s love for each other turned fatally toxic. Better Call Saul‘s vision of love is unsentimental: It can bring out the worst in people as well as the best, and it’s not always enough. That makes it all the more poignant that Jimmy embraced it in the end.

But I notice we’ve been talking almost exclusively about Jimmy and Kim so far, because notably, the cartel stuff barely factors into the final few episodes at all. What do you make of the choice to steer away from Mike and Gus in the last hours of the series?

DF:  With the flashback to “Bagman,” they at least got Mike into the finale, while Gus probably had the best imaginable send-off in “Fun and Games,” especially with the scene with guest star Reed Diamond at the bar. I think the show succeeded in coloring how we’ll view both characters in the Breaking Bad universe without needing to address the cartel stuff anymore in the finale.

Let’s talk a bit about the Breaking Bad of it all in the finale and the finale season. What did the return of Jesse and Walt in the second half add for you? Personally, I enjoyed Jesse’s scene with Kim — two former sidekicks who became the hearts of their respective shows — but the first appearance in the RV felt like a, “We know fans want to see the other side of that first Saul appearance in Breaking Bad, so … here!” rather than narrative necessity. I did think Betsy Brandt brought some real gravity to the finale, as well as the strange “Hey, remember that one time Hank and Gomez appeared in Saul?” memory. And then they kinda had to include Blanca, Gomez’s widow, just because it would have been mean not to.

AH: I suppose we needed something to bridge the gap between Jimmy and Gene. I’m fine with a brief recreation of the RV scene serving as our reminder of just what Saul Goodman got up to in those in-between, Breaking Bad years, even if it did feel a little fan service-y. Jesse was probably better used in his scene with Kim, though, as you described, and likewise I thought Walt served as a good foil to Saul in the final minutes of the series. Not only did his contempt for Saul serve as a good reminder of where this all started — I know I’m not the only viewer who was skeptical of a Saul Goodman prequel at first! — but his lingering resentment over Grey Matter stood in stark contrast to Jimmy’s decision to own up to his past and mend fences with his ex.

I don’t want to spend too much time comparing Better Call Saul to its predecessor when both are superb shows in their own right, but I do think we’re meant to notice the contrast between them. From a distance, they have roughly similar arcs: Both are about seemingly unassuming, ordinary men turning increasingly toward the dark side. Where they differ is in what each journey seems to say about each man, and how we, as the audience, are encouraged to respond to it. If Breaking Bad was a hallmark of the aughts-era antihero craze, Better Call Saul, especially in the beginning, felt like a response to it. Walt breaking bad was a dark fantasy; Jimmy becoming Saul was a tragedy. Both got their own version of a happy ending, or at least as happy an ending as these writers could give them within the logic of these shows. Walt got to go out in a blaze of glory — dead, but victorious in his way since he’d accomplished most everything he set out to. Saul got to go back to being the best version of Jimmy (at least as far as we’re allowed to see).

DF: Sorry, but we’re contractually obligated to pit the two shows against each other to the death, if only so that people can claim it’s a “hot take” to say that Saul is better than Breaking Bad, even if countless people have been saying the same thing for four or five years. To me, I think it’s illustrative to compare them — as you so excellently did — only because it proves how distinctive and separate the shows were, from their tones to their exceptional-but-different senses of visual composition. I don’t think Better Call Saul, as breathlessly suspenseful as it often was, was ever on the same level as much of season four of Breaking Bad or certainly something like “Ozymandias,” but I don’t think Breaking Bad ever had a relationship that I cared about on the same level as Jimmy and Kim’s. That makes Breaking Bad a more exciting and rewatchable show, perhaps, but not a show that ever stuck with me with the character-driven potency that Better Call Saul did. Breaking Bad was a genre show executed with expert craftsmanship. Better Call Saul was a human melodramedy executed with expert craftsmanship. 

Put them together, and that’s 120 episodes of masterful television — and in our era, where shows are lucky to run four or five seasons and you’re as likely to get eight episodes in a season as 13, we may not see anything like this again for a long time.

That then brings me to my last and closing question: Are you already for a different show in this universe? Do you have a different story that you need to have told, a different mystery explained? My own feeling is that I don’t need anything else in this Albuquerque-centric sphere, but I also didn’t need a show about Saul Goodman. I trust Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan. I trust Thomas Schnauz and Gordon Smith and Gennifer Hutchison and Alison Tatlock and Ann Cherkis. If they say, “Yup! We’ve got something!” I’m there. I know that’s a wishy-washy answer.

AH: I couldn’t even begin to speculate about what other spinoffs I might or might not “need” from this universe, because I was so dead wrong about how compelling a Saul Goodman prequel could possibly be. Therefore, I’ll just say that at this point, that whole team has more than earned my trust and my appreciation, whether that means they decide to go back to the Bad/Saul well a dozen more times, or opt to never return again. So for now, I guess we’re Kim: Taking in one last long, lingering look at the man who was once Jimmy McGill and has become Jimmy McGill again, before stepping out the gate to move on with the rest of our lives.

Read More