By Manik Sharma Mar. 21, 2020
Better Call Saul is incredibly ambitious – for 5 seasons now, it has operated without the traditional ruse of a finale. On the other hand, it has consistently dangled the far future, the grim monotonous limbo of a wildly colourful man all the while working in the shadow of some of his life displayed in Breaking Bad.
Just a couple of days ago, both Netflix and YouTube reduced their video quality across Europe to meet with unprecedented streaming demand. It is the times, really, that might drive people’s attention to things we have missed in recent years. One of them being the existence and persistent excellence of an underwatched spin-off, Better Call Saul. In the premiere episode of the fifth season of Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill (the incredible Bob Odenkirk) asks Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) to con her own client into taking a plea that he won’t out of misplaced optimism. “If this isn’t using our powers for good, I don’t know what is,” he says. In any of the previous seasons, McGill’s face might have developed a slight knot, the lightest contortion representing at least some hesitation in front of Kim, his righteous, inanimate partner who continues to see good in him. But this isn’t McGill talking anymore.
There is perhaps no beating the limits set for us, but is infinitely fascinating to see Saul Goodman animatedly try. Netflix
There is perhaps no beating the limits set for us, but is infinitely fascinating to see Saul Goodman animatedly try.
After his brother’s death and a year of being barred from practice, McGill returns to the courts of Albuquerque, finally, as the handsomely overdressed, dramatically verbose Saul Goodman. A moment we have known will come, yet been thoroughly entertained and intrigued in getting to. Which is why, through its five seasons, Better Call Saul has achieved the impossible, surpassing Breaking Bad – the series that spun it off – despite having already shown us both Saul Goodman’s future and destiny.
Better Call Saul is incredibly ambitious in that it has, for 5 seasons now, operated without the traditional ruse of a finale. On the other hand, it has consistently dangled the far future, the grim monotonous limbo of a wildly colourful man all the while working in the shadow of some of his life displayed in Breaking Bad. Season 5 of the series, like each season before, begins with a black-and-white flash forward to a time even after Breaking Bad. Saul, hiding in plain sight as a worker in a fast food joint in Nebraska is unexpectedly identified by a passerby. “I just got made,” Saul tells his enabler over the phone indicating he now needs a new getaway. Clearly, he is on the run. There is too much that we already know will happen. But Better Call Saul, still feels fascinating, infinitely entertaining and is testament to the gifted writing of its creators who have within a decade now, managed to push boundaries of storytelling they themselves set.
Even though there is so much that we already know about its world, including the presence of an array of familiar old characters from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul has a degree of uncertainty about it. Foremost of those is Kim, Goodman’s partner, who remains that obscure, unpeelable character amidst a family of familiar faces and motifs. Kim is a do-gooder, one who believes in the fight for justice, but her resolve has evidently waned over the years. What will happen to her, is a question the series continuously, yet deftly poses. The show’s greatest strength, however, is its ability to rewrite old characters in a way that makes us reinvest in them despite knowing their fates.
Mike, played with cold, staid precision by Jonathan Banks, must, like Saul, undergo the transformation that turns him into the laconic, straight-faced enforcer of Breaking Bad. In season 5 Mike internalises the loss of Werner Zeigler, the homesick German engineer building Gus Fring’s mammoth lab he had to kill on a rainy Albuquerque night, in one of the most beautiful sequences ever constructed on film. “You are my only friend,” Ziegler had said before being shot by Mike. It is a sight of the guilt Mike feels in this world before he steps into the shoes of Mike from Breaking Bad. In contrast, Saul has seemingly overcome any guilt he had for enabling the death of his older brother. In the world of Better Call Saul, men with pens and men with guns aren’t always what they are likely believed to be.
Unlike popular opinion, I believe, Better Call Saul shouldn’t even be binged.
The writing of the show of course, has never been in question. If anything the writing duo of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have unexpectedly raised the bar. Nobody likes spin-offs but currently Better Call Saul is so good it makes Breaking Bad feel like the spin-off. The former is more patient, almost like watching the slow-motion fall of a man. Saul Goodman wasn’t always all bad, he still isn’t and probably never will be. But unlike Walter White’s ascension to narcissism, Goodman’s is a tragicomic fall from modest, ever-compromised grace. Saul has always been a hustler, his morality underscored by the frequency and scale of his hustle rather than the methods he ends up choosing. In season 5 he erects a tent at a carnival to attract potential clients who are also small-time crooks. A carnival personality at a carnival to offer something as grimly plain as the law. It is poetic and in a way, Goodman’s confession about who he really is; a magic man who wants to con the crystal ball of worldly morality with earthly, petty tricks.
Better Call Saul isn’t just good, it is awe-inspiring. Unlike popular opinion, I believe, it shouldn’t even be binged. Its novelistic charms must be like a good book, enjoyed slowly, complemented by the patience of a fly watching everything unfold from a distance on the wall. Usually, you’d compliment a significant piece of art by calling it timeless, but in the case of Better Call Saul, that is not necessarily the case. It is perhaps still not as watched or as popular as its predecessor and that might be down to the surge of algorithms and binge-watching. But what the show is evidence of is that where imagination is mandated, and creativity rewarded, it is the algorithms of the human mind that continue to triumph. There is perhaps no beating the limits set for us, but is infinitely fascinating to see Saul Goodman animatedly try. Even if we know he will, inevitably, fail.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.
He tweets at @Manik1Sharma