Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Like many people, I had my doubts about Better Call Saul before it premiered last year. I wondered how this one joke character could carry his own series. I worried about the tone; would it be too much of a goof or would it try too hard to capture the tension of Breaking Bad? I worried that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would either be burned out or too focused on capturing lightning in a bottle for the second time. Also, would a prequel work? Thankfully, all of my worries were allayed as soon as I saw the pilot. It was a confident, funny, and surprisingly moving episode of TV that asserted its own identity right away. The entire first season was remarkably solid. Bob Odenkirk proved himself to be as skilled a dramatic actor as a comedic one and Jonathan Banks further cemented his place as one of the best supporting characters on TV. The second season is even better which brings me to a new question: is this spinoff eventually going to surpass its predecessor in terms of quality?
It’s looking very possible. First of all, the show is about on par with Breaking Bad in regards to how good it was at this point in its own second season. Breaking Bad was a good show from the outset, but it gradually got better by ramping up the suspense, delving deeper into the characters, and introducing a diverse supporting cast that included Saul himself. Better Call Saul is on a similar path. We know Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut a litter better now which allows the writers greater freedom when it comes to exploring them. The supporting cast is also getting more intriguing with Ed Begley Jr. as Jimmy’s guitar playing new boss and Mark Proksch as the most idiotic criminal in New Mexico. Rhea Seehorn and Michael McKean were strong last season but they’re both poised to become more interesting as Kim moves closer to Jimmy and Chuck moves further away. And let’s not forget Nacho! We know already from Breaking Bad that he and Saul will soon be up to no good.
Callbacks like that are only the icing on the cake though. This isn’t a show about about easter eggs or references (though they are fun). Better Call Saul works so well because of the way Gilligan and Gould subverted our expectations. We heard a show about the oily lawyer was coming down the pike and thought, “Oh fun! We’ll get to see him be sleazy and run game on tons of clients! It’ll be a riot!” And sure, the show is very funny. Jimmy’s made up ‘Squat Cobbler’ alibi for his idiotic client had me in tears. However, It’s far more interesting to watch Jimmy slip and slide between who he is now and who we know he will become. A common complaint some people had about the first season was that it was taking too long for him to become Saul Goodman. But now that we know Jimmy, we don’t want him to become Saul.
That’s an impressive feat for Gilligan, Gould, and Odenkirk to have pulled off. I don’t think anyone expected to feel so much empathy for poor Jimmy/Saul. As Walter White once observed, Saul Goodman is a “circus clown.” Jimmy McGill has his flaws to be sure but he’s far from the ‘criminal’ lawyer we know him as. He’s a funny, charming guy but one that people have a hard time taking seriously. His brother can’t see past the con man, known as ‘Slippin Jimmy, he used to be and his over the top antics can make him seem like a joke to the more serious minded lawyers and clients he’s trying to impress. Doing the ‘right thing’ has never really worked for him so he’s beginning to wonder why he should bother. Isn’t it more fun to con a hotel into giving him free service?
Chuck’s betrayal certainly pushed him down this path and his proclamation that “Slippin Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun” was as hurtful as it was prophetic. Since Jimmy is likable, It’s hard not to see Chuck as a villain but it’s important to remember that Chuck is correct. Jimmy will eventually use his law degree to nefarious ends. Would he have done so if Chuck had embraced his career and welcomed him with open arms? Might as well ask if the chicken or the egg came first.
Meanwhile, we’re getting more insight into Mike Ehrmantraut and Jonathan Banks steals every scene he’s in. Once again, knowing his eventual fate doesn’t change how interesting he is to watch. We learned more about him in last years superb episode, “Five-O”, than we did in five seasons of Breaking Bad. This is as much his show as Jimmy’s and it’ll be fun to see the two of them team up more and more. Jimmy and Mike are anti-heroes in a less traditional, more nuanced way than Walter White was. They’re both men who made some poor decisions that eventually led to allying themselves with a monster who destroyed everything in his path. Knowing their ultimate fates makes Better Call Saul a profoundly sadder show than Breaking Bad and potentially a more interesting one.
However, you don’t need to have watched Breaking Bad to appreciate Better Call Saul. We know from the first scene of the series where Saul is headed and the show more than stands on its own. The journey from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman is going to be more emotional than the journey from Walter White to Scarface. It’s also going to be a more gradual shift, as we see glimpses of Saul in Jimmy but they’re coming to the surface slowly. Walt was already a multiple murderer by this point in his series. Jimmy’s just making up stories about pie fetishes. The shifts in his personality are small but telling. And they will lead him to a Cinnabon storeroom as a broken shell of the man he once was. Still, we’re going to root for him anyway and this is the show’s biggest strength: it makes us hope for the better despite our knowledge of the future.
So yes, this could ultimately wind up as the better show. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a great piece of television any way you cut it. This neo-noir sandbox of crooked lawyers, dopey criminals, noble hit-men, and monstrous gangsters is a fun place for Gilligan and Gould to play in and one that I don’t ever want them to leave. Maybe when they’re done here, they can make a spin-off about that nerdy criminal who sold pills, bought a hummer that looked like a “school bus for six year old pimps”, and just wanted his baseball cards back. They could have him team up with Huell from Breaking Bad and chronicle the two of them running a hotel as front for drug trafficking. Think Fawlty Towers meets The Wire. I’d watch the shit out of that.