There’s no denying that Breaking Bad set the benchmark for TV shows and storytelling in general, back when it finished airing about 9 years ago. The show was created by Vince Gilligan, who proved his mastery over the pacing and tempo of a narrative. There was always an underlying issue left unresolved, even within a single episode, which left tension simmering throughout the course of its runtime. The show kept ticking familiar boxes of storytelling while upending one expectation after the next (while also making perfect use of wide-angle shots and a shallow depth of field during moments of heavy tension).
With its spinoff show, Better Call Saul, which also acts as a prequel, the creators have achieved something equally astounding. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould enhanced their already solid storytelling, resulting in a show that seems even more consistent, even if that consistency doesn’t reward us with the same amplitude of thrills as its predecessor. There’s a necessary stillness in a number of shots; there’s layering when the camera juxtaposes certain characters in relevant scenarios to constantly build the momentum. The makers embrace the wider universe’s thematic framework by creating tension out of low stake scenarios, turning your knowledge and context of where events are going to go on its own head. It adroitly uses the fact that the audience is inevitably going to root for Jimmy, no matter how dreadful his fate is going to look eventually, in order to take its time with setting up the premise.
It’s the quieter moments in both the shows that form the emotional groundwork for its cataclysmic eventful showdowns. ‘Underwhelming’ episodes from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have gained increasing importance and love from the fandom over the years as people understood how careful the creators were in balancing the slow-simmering tension brewing underneath. There’s distinct melancholy in the atmosphere of both the shows; these are clearly gloomy stories but an airy quality still permeates through the stillness in certain scenes. And of course, one cannot forget the shows’ use of soundtracks in further compounding that poignancy.
While rolling the only barrel of money Walter has been left with after Hank’s tragic death, The Limeliters’ Take My True Love by the Hand plays in the background. Another great example is the ending song Baby Blue by Badfinger which plays overhead as Walt succumbs to his injuries on the floor. Lyrics such as “Guess I got what I deserve” and “The special love I have for you, my Baby Blue” remind the audience of Walt’s journey towards self-acceptance. He takes his last breath truly content. There’s a certain feeling I had when I watched the series for the first time. I wish I could have that back, irrespective of how dreadful it was.
The stark monochrome openings to every Better Call Saul season give us an insight into what Jimmy’s life has become. Even though he was one of the few ones who managed to survive the intense events that led to his downfall, he’s now left with an even worse option — to forever get rid of his organic quick-witted enthusiasm and turn into a ghost that no one recognizes. He cannot call anyone when he’s stuck in a basement, because it’s too risky. In its opening scene, we hear The Ink Spots’ Address Unknown (‘address unknown, not even a trace of you‘) as we see what’s become of Saul’s life.
Both shows make us root for their protagonist’s actions in such a way that we start despising the characters who challenge them. Characters like Skyler and Chuck become the moral anchors to our antiheroes in their journeys towards breaking bad, keeping them from going awry. It’s interesting, then, how so many people downright hate these two characters, even when their points made logical sense. While Walt was driven by ego, Jimmy’s path was forged by his disillusionment of the ideal American dream, which was trampled upon by the system. The writers constantly balance these anti-hero traits, never going so far that we outright hate these characters. But there’s also some brilliant use of audience manipulation: for instance, for the majority of the episodes post Jane’s death, we expect Walt to confront Jesse. Instead, Walt tells Jesse about how he let her die after Hank’s death, almost as if he was trying to put the moral blame of his brother-in-law’s tragic death onto his surrogate son. It’s a crushing moment.
Unlike Walter, Jimmy always starts by doing things justly, but his gradual turn towards breaking bad comes out of the injustice he sees happening to the innocent — the first victim being his own father. And yet, we are expected to empathize with Walter because of how he’s looked down upon by the people around him; he is an everyday man who gets diagnosed with the most life-threatening disease. This makes the audience root for him even when he makes the most despicable choices. It also provided the viewers with a way of living vicariously through his megalomaniac persona.
The theme that remains central in both the shows is that of excess greed driving their protagonists down a slippery slope. While Breaking Bad reflects that through Walt’s catalytic drive towards becoming the drug kingpin and the way he’s drawn towards Gus — the very embodiment of corporation — Better Call Saul further expands upon it by showing the failed American dream. Saul’s journey seems grim to us, we worry about his choices even more than we did for Walter’s because unlike him, we already know what Saul’s fate is going to look like. There’s an increasing emphasis on the corrosive nature of what excesses of wealth can do to a person. Both Walt and Jimmy end up ruining their relationships with people around them, relations that took years to build.
The two shows have some of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen, in any format whatsoever. Better Call Saul isn’t just expanding on the Breaking Bad Universe; it’s creating history by giving us a second top-notch seemingly-perfect show within a decade of its predecessor’s end.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.