After Breaking Bad, a defining must-see show of this great era of cable dramas, comes Better Call Saul. (It comes Feb. 8 on AMC to be precise.) And what is it?
It's a spin-off. It's a prequel. It's about one of Breaking Bad's memorable characters, the seriously shady lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), and how he got from everyday lawyer to the colourful mess of a man who became entangled with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.
Yes, but … it turns out it's not exactly a prequel. It is, says Odenkirk, "a mix of prequel and sequel." And according to writer/producer Peter Gould, the man who dreamed up the Saul character, it has "a flexible timeline, giving the show more options," including, he notes, "the ability to bring back characters that were killed on Breaking Bad."
This twist has turned speculation about Better Call Saul into a frenzy, with fans of Breaking Bad anxious to hypothesize that, in a way, Breaking Bad is coming back.
This is a disservice to Better Call Saul. I can tell you that, having heard Vince Gilligan, the creator, talk about where the new show goes. Yes, he and Gould talked vaguely about connecting it to Breaking Bad through certain characters, but Gilligan's main point was to emphasize its theme: the moral fibre of people, how that fibre changes, and why.
Breaking Bad was about Walter White's journey – a downward spiral – from mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher to ruthless drug baron. He discovered how easy it is to sacrifice everything – family, colleagues and friends – when driven by the greed to succeed, to be at the top. No amount of money was enough for him.
Listen attentively to Gilligan and you will discover that Better Call Saul is, again, about ethics and moral fibre.
Gilligan said of Saul, whom we meet when he's named James (Jimmy) McGill, a different kind of man: "I think he wants to be good. But as you will see as the episodes progress, why does he want to be good?"
Gould then said, "Why be good? Usually in fiction, goodness always leads to a happy ending … behaving ethically always ends up having good results, and we all know in life sometimes being ethical lands you in the shitter, so to speak."
Gilligan then chimed in: "Back to the ethics. The point is not, should we be good or should we not? I guess the point is, it's sometimes very hard to be good. Sometimes it's not even in a particular person's nature, but nonetheless the struggle – it's just an examination. There's no Aesop's moral to it at all. But it's interesting for us, anyway. Speaking from the writer's point of view, it's just an interesting examination of why do we choose to be good or why are we good? I think we should be good, but we're not going to force-feed anybody that.
"I think Saul wants to be, but he also wants to cut corners when he can. You see that in the first episode. That's a lot of the fun for me in the writers' room. "
So there's what Gilligan calls "fun," a character's journey in which he faces moral dilemmas and learns about himself. That's Walter White's story. It will be Saul's journey too.
As so often happens with serious-minded, great TV drama, shows exist on several levels. One segment of fans might fixate on plot twists and develop a hate-on for certain characters . They will relish outrageous plot curves and flourishes, and long for more action involving a character to which they are emotionally attached.
At the same time, another portion of followers will ruminate on the texture and nuance of the serious issues being probed on the show. Breaking Bad was that kind of show in extremis, a hallucinatory pop-culture concoction grabbing the audience cleverly with speedy, swerving storytelling. And simultaneously a tale of what American capitalism does to the moral fibre and sinew of a good person.
I'll tell you that it's an intense, spectacularly made and layered drama, this Better Call Saul. We meet Saul before he was Saul (derived from "s'all good, man"), as a sharp but struggling guy. His life is unravelling, in part through his own actions and in part through forces that can derail anyone. There is humour and there is rage.
But to approach the show as a frothy concoction is wrong. This is going to be one dark, though entertaining, ride through many levels of moral crises.