Often times in entertainment the things we love don’t get celebrated for their brilliance as much as we would like. It’s that classic rom-com formula. The things we love are the girl next door who are these obscure wallflowers because they wear glasses and clips in their hair and the only reason that they aren’t celebrated is that they haven’t removed their glasses or the clips in their hair and remained true to themselves. Literally, everyone else notices how amazing these things are except the “cool” kids. The ones with all the decision making power. I have long given up on the majority of voting academies, in this case, the Emmys because even in a pandemic I don’t have time to explore my issues with the Oscars, and their ability in making the correct choices. Far too many times these academies choose the obvious or vanilla product overlooking some truly fantastic works. I have lived in a world where John Noble received zero nominations for his brilliant performance as Walter Bishop in Fringe. I live in a world where BoJack Horseman never won for Best Animated Series despite masterfully and emotionally weaving a narrative that deeply explores the human psyche. A world where Community went awardless perhaps because it was too meta or too layered to be fully appreciated by the academy. A world that allowed HBO to submit the final season of True Detective as a Drama and not a Mini-Series. A world where Rhea Seehorn has yet to receive a nomination for her brilliant work on Better Call Saul. The Emmy nomination committee thinks themselves as with it but we see them as the group that can’t get past glasses and hair clips and it grows more and more frustrating year after year.
Let’s linger on Rhea Seehorn for just a moment. While her lack of nominations is not only asinine and borderline criminal, she has clearly shined above the academy’s short-sightedness. Seehorn’s Kim Wexler has become the heart and backbone of a series that deserves its own moment in the spotlight. A series that has been overshadowed by the Game of Thrones and Handmaid’s Tales. A series that gets invited to the dance but is never truly given the appreciation or moment it rightly deserves. Much like Rhea Seehorn, all of Better Call Saul has frustratingly gone unrecognized by the academy. But things could finally be about to change.
Better Call Saul should be an impossibility. Spin-offs hardly ever work and some of the biggest shows in the world have tried and failed. Friends, MASH, Happy Days, and The X-Files have all dipped their proverbial toes in spin-off waters and all have floated to the surface dead on arrival. The Office had the good fortune of canceling its spin-off, The Farm before it even got off the ground. They were able to re-package the pilot into a regular episode that final season and thus were able to protect Dwight Shrute. Not everyone can be that lucky. While all these shows spawned from massive hits and critical darlings they couldn’t survive in a world that only orbited around the original.
Saul’s success seems even more improbable. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest shows in television history. That’s not me waxing poetic, that’s just stating facts. Take the time to search the internet and you’ll see Breaking Bad either on the top or top three of most lists. It’s on the Mount Rushmore of television shows and damn near perfect. Risking the show’s legacy with a spin-off seemed reckless and possibly an opportunity to cash in. Did the world really need a mostly prequel, with dashes of sequel, about Walter White’s shady lawyer?
The answer to that question turns out to be a resounding, yes.
On Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman was a one-sided character who didn’t share the complexities of Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler, or Hank. He was a man out for himself and out for money. He brought comic relief and flashy colors to Gilligans’ color scheme but outside of that, he probably wouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice for spin-off character. Jesse Pinkman after fleeing the compound or maybe even Marie and her pursuit to find Hank. Those would’ve been the top picks but Saul Goodman had more to him than just flashy suits, cheesy commercials, and great comedic timing. There was depth to be explored here and Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and Bob Odenkirk saw that depth and provided us with something quite astonishing. Something that should never have been possible.
We know where Saul Goodman’s story takes him. We know where he ends up because of his relationship with Walter White. The magic of Saul is how the show makes you forget that. Take a most recent episode, “Bagman”, which plays as Saul’s equivalent to Breaking Bad’s “4 Days Out”. Saul and Mike are stuck in the desert without water, without food, while being chased by an angry cartel member who needs to tie up loose ends. We know because of Breaking Bad that both Saul and Mike survive this ordeal. We know this but somehow it doesn’t take away from the tension in storytelling. Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan are such master storytellers that they make us forget we know the outcome. We are emotionally invested in what happens to these characters to the point where we ignore what came before it. It’s special and unlike anything, I’ve ever watched before. “Bagman” touches so many little notes that further expand this universe in such large and impactful ways. Whether it’s Mike’s speech on why he keeps going making his death at Walter’s hands all the more tragic. Or maybe it’s Saul sleeping in the space blanket like his brother before him as he tries to push those emotions away. The storytelling in Better Call Saul is at its highest peak and the show has surpassed spin-off or prequel titles. Better Call Saul exists on its own.
That’s not to say that the DNA of Breaking Bad isn’t there. We’ve seen how Gus’s super meth lab is built. We know how Don Hector ended up ringing bells in that wheelchair. We’ve seen how Crazy 8 gets his name and we’ve watched Hank get in on the drug game from the ground floor. We’ve got to see The Cousins in action and they’re just as terrifying. And all of that has been incredibly crafted and carefully woven throughout the narrative, but what makes it so impactful is that these moments aren’t the reason why Better Call Saul exists. These moments are the icing on a cake that is stuffed with cake goodness. We’re talking red velvet, cream cheese filling here.
At the core of this story is Jimmy McGill or as we know him now Saul Goodman. When the series begins we’re introduced to Jimmy McGill a man who lives in the shadow of his brother, can’t get out of his own way, and often times will take the easy way even if that means bending the law a little. This is the man that will become Saul Goodman and the problem here is… we love Jimmy. Jimmy McGill is an actual person with feelings and a heart. Yeah, he’s a screwup but he’s human. Saul Goodman is a caricature of a B move lawyer. The type of guy who chases ambulances or has you sue a parking lot because you tripped on a rock. The master note of Better Call Saul is that it tricks the audience by manipulating our emotions. We enter this show waiting to see Saul Goodman and when he finally arrives… we wish he had never shown his face at all. The figurative death of Jimmy McGill, while still not complete, is one of the saddest moments in the entire Breaking Bad universe. It’s soul-crushing and much like Thanos it was always inevitable. We just got so caught up with the storytelling that we chose not to see it. We choose to ignore the fact that it’s coming. And once it happens, we know there’s no going back. That’s the true tragedy of Better Call Saul. Watching Jimmy McGill make this full transformation into this one-dimensional creep. When I re-watch Breaking Bad now my heart breaks whenever Saul Goodman is on screen. That’s powerful storytelling to redirect your emotions toward a character that was already pretty well established.
At the core of Better Call Saul is Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler. Throughout these five seasons, we’ve met and cared for a number of characters who don’t turn up in Breaking Bad. Nacho for instance, is a reluctant gangster who is working undercover against the Salmancas with Gus Fring. He wants out but Gus has him on a leash. Michael Mando is fantastic in this role and makes you really care for Nacho and believe that he wants to protect his father, but I don’t think things will end well for Nacho but based off of recent conversations with Mike and Gus. Nacho’s possible death will be the foundation of the Gus Fring we know in Breaking Bad. The one that doesn’t believe in exploiting connections through fear.
Then you have someone like Lalo Salamanca who not only has a strange wrap around ying-yang tattoo and an excellent mustache, but is probably one of the scariest villains on the show. With Gus Fring, you have this stoic, calculating, deliberate nature but Lalo plays as a wild card. A charismatic villain who charms you right before he circles back from the Mexican border to ask you why your car was in a ditch with a bullet hole in it. Lalo is terrifying and Tony Dalton’s scene-stealing performance just lights up the screen but Lalo is another character who falls into the category of those who don’t make it to Breaking Bad. Here though we can gather enough info to figure out that Lalo won’t only be a foe that evolves Gus into super meth producer but also transforms Jimmy further into Saul. This is his foot in the door to dealing with Mike on the regular. To forming a relationship with the Chicken Man’s product and activities. Lalo is essential to Breaking Bad even though we haven’t seen him until now.
Yet, it’s Kim Wexler who is the most important of all. I said before that the true tragedy of Better Call Saul is watching Jimmy McGill turn into Saul Goodman and while this fifth season has seen the colorful suits, the shady lawyer work, pictures of horses doing unspeakable things, it has not given us the full Saul Goodman. As long as Kim Wexler is alive we can’t have Saul Goodman. Jimmy McGill is still there. Hell, he’s still responding when people call him Jimmy. What has to happen to push Jimmy into the full Saul? Kim has often played a confidant, a companion, and mostly an anchor to a man always on the brink of falling off. The one reason why Jimmy doesn’t fully break bad is because of Kim. There’s respect there. There’s love there. Jimmy needs Kim but Kim also needs Jimmy. These are two people who at times couldn’t be further apart but yet also bring out the best and worst out of each other respectively. Better Call Saul fans have long worried about the fate of Kim Wexler and episodes like “Bad Choice Road” instill the fear of her outcome. Just dangling the prospect of Lalo killing her to get at Jimmy is enough to make a viewer, like myself, stop breathing for twenty minutes as the scene plays out. Kim is a tremendously strong character who will stand up for Jimmy/Saul despite what it means for herself, and she has the unfair burden of being the one piece on the board that dictates when we get Breaking Bad Saul. She deserves better than that and whatever her outcome may be, Rhea Seehorn has played the character with tremendous grace, strength, and brilliance. Better Call Saul does not work without Kim Wexler. She’s what drives the show forward.
Which brings us to today. A world where Game of Thrones is finished. Where The Handmaid’s Tale has seemingly fallen from grace. A world where the Drama category for the Emmys is perfectly suited to finally celebrate Better Call Saul. But why stop there. Bob Odenkirk has been transformative as Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman. Whenever he’s onscreen he is Jimmy. He is Saul. It’s about time he got his statue too. It’s about time that Rhea Seehorn got her nomination/statue. If you watched “Bagman” then you know that Jonathan Banks is due not only for another nomination but maybe for an actual award. Sure, it’s wishful thinking that Saul can show up come award season and sweep across the board, but is it really out of the realm of possibilities? It’s predecessor, Breaking Bad did… more than once. The time for Better Call Saul is now. The show, and its cast, have been neglected long enough. Time for that to change. We owe it to the power of storytelling.
Much like Jimmy, Saul has laid in the shadow of what came before it. But I think we’ve come to a point where Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad can be connected and exist on their own. There’s an argument to be made for Saul and whether it’s better than Breaking Bad or not. Today is not the day for that though. Today is the day that we understand the excellence that is before us. Better Call Saul isn’t just a spin-off. Better Call Saul is tremendous television that doesn’t need to be validated by awards but that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t deserve all of them. And what better time than now.