Breaking Bad’s Relapse
For a spinoff of Breaking Bad that’s meant to be a prequel, Better Call Saul opens in a strange place: the kitchen of a Cinnabon in a Nebraska mall, some time after the closing credits rolled on five seasons of the show’s forebear. The man behind the counter, sporting a bushy mustache but missing his trademark hairpiece, is Saul Goodman, the crooked defense attorney who played a supporting role on Breaking Bad. He’s on the lam, selling buns while furtively watching a VHS tape of his defunct law firm’s TV ads.
Soon we’re pulled back into seedy, familiar Albuquerque, in the years before Walter White quit his job as a high school chemistry teacher to peddle crystal meth full time. We meet the young Jimmy McGill, Esq., who was Saul before he was Saul. (Fans of the first Vince Gilligan series on AMC will recall that Saul’s nom de law was invented so he could cater to criminals “who want a member of the tribe.”)
Since the days of Laverne & Shirley and Frasier, spinoffs have been a time-honored way for network executives to exploit an established audience. Thanks to Netflix and other online-video services, the audience for Breaking Bad increased over time, with average weekly viewers climbing to 5.4 million the last season, according to Nielsen. That’s rare: Dramas typically plateau or even decline as seasons grind on. “I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond Season 2 if not for streaming video on demand,” Gilligan told reporters after Breaking Bad won an Emmy for best drama in 2013. The final episode, which aired in September 2013, was the third-most-viewed cable finale ever, behind The Sopranos and Sex and the City.
Awful Carrie Bradshaw movies aside, cable showrunners haven’t tried to retain their audience once their hits go dark. But Better Call Saul makes no apologies about continuing the adventures of recognizable characters: In the first two episodes, which air on Feb. 8 and 9 at 10 p.m., you’ll see at least three people from the series that inspired it. There are almost certainly more to come.
Saul was given his own show because he was the most memorable recurring character on Breaking Bad. The setting of Saul is supposed to be a 2002 version of Gilligan’s capitalist New Mexico, but it looks exactly the same. You can imagine a bump on Netflix as fans go back to compare Saul’s version of the town with Walter’s.
Gilligan insists viewers could come in cold to Better Call Saul and it would make perfect sense. The destined-to-be-crooked star, played by the excellent comedian Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), starts out as a dogged, if far from idealistic public defender. He’s the type of attorney unafraid to use the passive voice on behalf of a doomed client: “OK,” he tells a jury in one rapid-fire montage, “a fire was started. We all know that.” In another scene, TV’s newest antihero talks an aggrieved party down from murder to maiming. He has a heart, and it’s not really in the right place.
Better Call Saul could’ve been a chance for the AMC network—which has also aired The Walking Dead and The Killing, among other macabre shows—to shift into comedy. The humor running through Breaking Bad always went underappreciated; when Saul appeared in Season 2, he quickly became the show’s dark-comedy masterstroke. And Odenkirk is a humorous impersonator, particularly in one scene of Saul, when he has to fake his own receptionist because, working from the back of a nail salon, he can’t afford one.
The character gets only a few of these light moments, though. His car is a wreck. His needy brother is chronically ill. He has to ignore ethics just to get ahead. Like Walt before him, Saul is a frustrated man who can’t catch a break. Gilligan has simply reset his depressing chessboard to show us the inevitable toppling of a different piece.