When Better Call Saul premiered in 2015, there were two sides to being a Breaking Bad fan. On the one hand, you couldn’t be happier; on the other, you didn’t want it to be one of those sequels/prequel/spinoffs that exist for the sole purpose of cashing in on their predecessor’s popularity. There was a dichotomy to that fandom. You wanted more of the same brilliance, but not necessarily more of the same. Seven years, six seasons, and a pandemic later, I think it’s safe to say that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have pulled it off. They’ve made a show that satiates that craving without it ever resorting to fanservice.
Better Call Saul gives Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) – the shady, colourful criminal lawyer – a backstory. Naturally, it shares the same universe as Breaking Bad, including the setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It introduces – or rather, reintroduces – some of the characters (Mike, Gus, Hector Salamanca, even Hank). But its core conflicts are new, with new characters like Kim Wexler (Saul’s colleague, friend and lover), Saul’s brother Chuck, and the goings on in and around the law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Which is to say that Better Call Saul very much becomes its own thing despite its mighty predecessor and does so without its severing ties to it. Key to this is the show’s narrative framework, which puts us bang in the middle of a post Walter White future at the beginning of every season. It works like a ticking time bomb that the show is building up to. We see Saul in hiding as a Cinnabon store manager, hoping that nobody recognises him. These season openers are shot in black and white, a curious choice given how the medium is usually used to invoke the past. But it makes sense for a series that shows us the inevitable doom that lies at the end of the road for its protagonist before it takes us into his origin story.
In typical fashion, that points to the shared aesthetic of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad creators, we are immersed in a world of Cinnabon store minutiae
The stark monochrome lends these segments an almost apocalyptic air, matching the bleak extremity of those like Saul who survived the cataclysmic events of Breaking Bad, but are all the worse for it. Walter White was given a glorious death. Saul Goodman has been banished to purgatory. His paranoid visions provide the dramatic tension of these portions, which work as their own mini movie. He looks at a customer looking at him, only to find out that he was looking at someone else. He gets locked in the garbage dump basement of the store and stays locked in despite there being an emergency alarm, because hitting it will summon the cops, and he can’t risk that.
These segments are largely wordless, and by extension, cinematically rich. In typical fashion, which points at the shared aesthetic of the Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad creators, we are immersed in the world of Cinnabon store minutiae: dough swirling in slo mo set to a charming oldie, dishwashing rendered in fast-forward, a tracking shot revealing a tiny scrawl carved on a wall. It’s a symphony of film techniques, finding imaginative ways to get us into a scene. With their almost Coen Brothers-esque knack for bringing out the character of small town Americana, there’s an impeccable sense of place, and time. The songs provide their own commentary. It’s only gradually that the lyrics of Billy Walker’s ‘Funny, How Time Slips Away’ make sense in the season 2 segment, as Saul waits for the next shift to get over so that someone can unlock the door. Season 1 opens with ‘Address Unknown’, by The Ink Spots, alluding to his deliberate, nondescript hideout in a subzero Omaha, Nebraska. The radio has just declared a high alert, signalling a possible snow storm. Saul switches off the news and puts on reruns of his commercials from his heyday on the television. A fleck of colour appears on this monochrome existence as its reflection falls on his face.
Season 6 is where it all ends. It’s the closest the show has ever been to the timeline of the flash-forward teasers as it hurtles towards its inevitable end, perhaps overlapping with the events of Breaking Bad, and, as Gilligan and Gould have revealed, with the appearance of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.
The opening breaks a pattern that was getting predictable, particularly in the last two seasons, and instead puts us in a slightly different time and space. Ties unfurl in the air in the opening bravura shot, starting in black and white before quickly bursting into colour. We are at first a bit disoriented, as we see packers emptying a mansion like they are income tax officers in disguise. It’s set to a song – the melancholy and nostalgic ‘Days of Wine and Roses’, that gives the episode its name – but an instrumental version. There is no sign of Saul, although there are signs of him all over, most tellingly in the gold-plated toilet – that is, until a cardboard cutout comes floating on a swimming pool into the frame, and later on dumped in a garbage bin. The season 6 opener both upends the grammar of those of the earlier seasons and keeps up with the tradition. And if that’s anything to go by, it’s going to be full of surprises.