How 'Better Call Saul' keeps going from strength to strength

The 'Breaking Bad' spin-off has become every bit the equal of its acclaimed predecessor

How 'Better Call Saul' keeps going from strength to strength

Better Call Saul. Image: Netflix

Television history is dense with failed attempts at spin-offs of popular shows.

Occasionally, spin-offs strike gold - beloved series like Frasier, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Mork & Mindy very much became their own thing compared to the source material. Many more, though, have long-since been forgotten - you'd struggle to find many people who hold much affection for Joey.

Breaking Bad didn't seem like the sort of material that lent itself to a spin-off. Vince Gilligan's show about chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was a tremendously strong concept realised to its fullest.

It was packed with wonderfully realised characters - the likes of Mike, Gus and Hector 'dingdingding' Salamanca all becoming central to the show's identity. There was always the sense, though, that everything that worked about Breaking Bad worked because it was all operating in harmony.

Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring is one of television's great villains, but that was because he represented such a fresh, seemingly undefeatable obstacle for Walter and Jesse that the character worked so well (Esposito's deliciously menacing performance helped, of course).

With that in mind, there was plenty of reason to approach spin-off prequel Better Call Saul with caution. Crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) was Breaking Bad's main source of comic relief from season two onwards, but would that collapse when the character was removed from the ensemble? Early on it was revealed that fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) would also be returning - were the creators relying too much on what worked in Breaking Bad rather than doing something new?

Now several episodes into season three, it has long since become evident that any skepticism about Better Call Saul was thankfully unjustified. While the show has not had the same cultural impact as its predecessor - not remotely surprising, given the lack of the immediately attention-grabbing concept as Breaking Bad enjoyed - artistically it has continued to go from strength to strength.

(The rest of this article contains minor spoilers for Breaking Bad and the most recent episodes of Better Call Saul)

Image: Netflix

Attention to detail

As the narrative links with the original show intensify - the new season has made the risky move of reintroducing Gus Fring - the creators of Better Call Saul have impressively managed to keep the show feeling fresh and unique.

For all its criminal drama and life-or-death conflicts, Breaking Bad was taken to another level by the attention its creator and directors paid to the delivery. Most television - even very good television - suffers in contrast to the visual fluency seen in cinema. That was never a problem with Gilligan's show.

Not only were talented directors given the reigns for individual episodes - several of the show's most memorable episodes were, for example, directed by Rian Johnson, the man behind the camera for the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi - but visual themes were utilised across seasons to enhance the show's identity and cinematic impact.

Take the iconic 'pink bear' motif used across season two, the meaning of which only became apparent in the closing moments of the season's final episode. Different colour costumes, meanwhile, were used throughout the entire show's run to visually symoblise character's relationships or state-of-mind. 

The attention to form has continued and advanced with Better Call Saul. Each season has begun with a black-and-white 'cold open' that appears to show us a flash-forward to Saul's life after Breaking Bad - a stylistic choice that established a strong sense of continuity and identity right from the off, and helps frame the prequel drama that follows. Within episodes, prologues are often used to tease a revelation to come - a recent cold open featuring a pair of hanging shoes, for example, was a clever setup for something that happened 30 minutes later.

Individual scenes, meanwhile, often feel like short films in their own right. It is a show where lighting or setting can tell as much - if not more - of a story than what is explicitly said. For season two, the AV Club offered up fantastic visual analyses of episodes to show just how much thought was put into how scenes are framed. Here's one on a montage that captures the frustration and ambition of Kim (Rhea Seehorn) through thoughtful camera angles and colour choices:

Such details will often go over viewer's heads on a first viewing - I say that as someone guilty as charged. But even if you don't realise it, this attention to detail will have an impact and subtly reinforce what is happening in a scene beyond mere straightfoward plot development.

Short stories

It's important to note that such cinematic presentation can often lead to more immediate thrills. In the latest episode, Jimmy (i.e. the man who will - eventually - become Saul Goodman) hires Mike to covertly photograph his brother Chuck's (Michael McKean) house. I won't go into the details of how it got to this point - just watch the show if you haven't already, it's great. But a key character point throughout the show to date is that Chuck is terrified of electricity. Naturally, he freaks out when Mike pulls out a power drill to 'fix' a door.

It's a straightforward sequence, but perhaps the best scene of the season to date thanks to inspired direction from Thomas Schnauz. Soundtracked almost exclusively by the loud whirl of the drill, it's a tense yet comic encounter between two lead characters we haven't seen interact yet. Beautiful framing and editing emphasise the unfolding drama, while the performances of both actors are as delightful as ever. 

This scene isn't alone - every episode contains a couple like it. That very same episode contained an extended sequence in fried chicken restaurant Los Pollos Hermanos. It amplified a major conflict while also making a very strong case for being one of the series' best scenes to date.

Image: Netflix

Towards the end of Breaking Bad, the show's pacing became more patient and considered even as the stakes ramped up. Scenes were given ample space to breathe. Better Call Saul has gone even further, where every other scene feels almost like a self-contained story.

Obviously the overarching plot remains exciting and interesting. The escalating drug cartel drama has given season three an extra bit of genre oomph, and there are still cliffhangers a plenty when it comes to Jimmy and Chuck's ever more hostile feud. But the strength of the moment-to-moment drama in Better Call Saul means episodes feel uniquely satisfying even when you have to wait another week for the next chapter.

The core drama in Better Call Saul is consistently more understated and lower stakes than Breaking Bad ever was. And yet in terms of character development, that almost allows the ongoing show to feel more liberated - when the fates of many major characters already determined, the creators have been challenged to come up with novel situations for them to face. So far, it has worked wonders.

Taking its time

Unlike something like Game of Thrones - which often feels like a race to check-in on everyone before the episode (or even season) ends - Better Call Saul never feels like it's in a rush. That's the best thing about it.

Better Call Saul has a clear endpoint. Eventually, Jimmy's world must collapse. Something will force him to adopt a whole new identity. We already know that Gus will win the drug war, and Hector Salamanca will end up in a wheelchair. It's clear that Mike will survive whatever happens in the prequel. Anyone who has watched Breaking Bad will know all of this.

And yet, even when the destination is clear, what has allowed Better Call Saul to soar is that nobody seems in any particular hurry to get there. Everything is moving forward, but it's doing so at its own pace. It's a TV show that has only gotten better and better.

It can't last forever - its prequel status ensures that is the case. But as the third season continues to beguile, here's hoping it can do so for another season or two yet.