Not today. That’s the first thing I need to stress. I am not saying today is the day for this, or that tomorrow is, or even a day two or three years in the future. I’m saying someday, at a hypothetical point in the future, which could be tomorrow, or a day two or three years in the future. Or it could be today, actually. I’m flexible about it all, although I understand why others might be a little touchy. The important thing is that we all recognize there could eventually be a point where we need to ask ourselves — really, really ask ourselves — if Better Call Saul has surpassed Breaking Bad.
Again, it’s too soon right now, probably. Better Call Saul is only halfway through its third season and still has plenty of road to traverse. A lot could go wrong between this moment and whenever the series collides with the events from Breaking Bad. Chuck and Kim could fall in love and get married and move to Tahiti. I would hate that, even if it would explain their absence from the original series. (Kind of.) But Better Call Saul has been so good so far. So very good. Better than it had any right to be, probably, considering it’s giving us just the origin story of supporting characters from a beloved show with a passionate fan base. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are talented guys.
The case against Better Call Saul over Breaking Bad is pretty straightforward, and looks something like this: Breaking Bad was one of the best television shows of all time. It starred Bryan Cranston, who, all due respect to Bob Odenkirk (and please do stop here and think about the fact that one of the guys from Mr. Show is now anchoring one of TV’s best dramas), came into the series with a broader range of acting experience and turned in an iconic performance. The stakes were often higher, with lives hanging in the balance instead of careers, and everything was planned out without a known ending in sight. Unlike Better Call Saul, where we know people like Jimmy and Mike and Gus will survive because we’ve seen them years later in the franchise’s chronology, Breaking Bad had the tension you can only get from knowing a character could die at almost any moment. It was wholly original and brilliant. As much fun as the little nods to the future are on Better Call Saul (favorite characters popping up, trips to locations that will become important later), you could argue it’s as much of a crutch as anything else. If your favorite part of one show is all the things from another show, then, I mean, what does that say?
But on the other hand, who cares? I say that as respectfully as I can, but still. There are a number of people who consider The Godfather: Part II to be better than or equal to the original, and huge chunks of that movie dealt with similar issues. You knew going in that Vito and Clemenza would survive and you knew the Corleone family would rise to power. Prequels aren’t about the destination. They’re about the journey. In a way, it actually raises the level of difficulty because you need to keep viewers interested even after you tell them the ending. That’s some kind of challenge.
And the thing is, Better Call Saul has done that. (Again, so far.) By turning Saul Goodman into a plucky underdog named Jimmy McGill, the show created a whole new Walter-free world for itself, full of grifting and sibling rivalry and chicanery. And by bringing back Mike Ehrmantraut, it kept us rooted in the same universe, with Gus and Hector and the first steps toward the Albuquerque drug trade we are all now very familiar with. The fact that this one television show is juggling two different stories like that — two different entire shows, really — as well as it is has to count for something, especially when you think about the firm barriers put in place by future events. Some television shows do math. This show is doing calculus.
There are other points in Better Call Saul’s favor, too. Chuck has been a better “family member attempting to impede the main character’s progress” character than Skyler, or least a more interesting one, because it gets us away from the whole “prestige series about a troubled guy who does cool/badass/exciting stuff but his wife is so mad about it” trap. (For the record, Skyler was extremely justified for being upset at her chemistry teacher husband for deciding to become a notorious drug dealer without consulting her.) And by using Chuck in that way, as the “villain,” the show was able to develop a different kind of female character in Kim Wexler, who still has to deal with the consequences of Jimmy’s actions, but from a more supportive place. Instead of a relationship falling apart because of the events on the show, you have one coming together despite them.
That’s an important point, too. Things like that make Better Call Saul is a more enjoyable watch. Breaking Bad was so good, but man, sometimes it could wear you out with all the terrible things happening to everyone, constantly. I mean, Jesse Pinkman was living in hell before white supremacists locked him in a cage and forced him to cook meth. Better Call Saul has a different tone. It’s less of a stressful thriller, but it trades that for a deeper character study and exponentially more humor. (“Squat cobbler.“) It does more things in that way. It still has the drama because it makes you invest emotionally in these broken characters, but it also has, say, silly montages about Jimmy trying to get fired. Who doesn’t love a good silly montage?
This brings us to another important point, too. There is a reckoning coming on Better Call Saul. Some of it won’t happen until well into Breaking Bad, as we know Mike ends up dying and Jimmy/Saul ends up fleeing the Southwest and working in a Nebraska Cinnabon, but there’s short-term doom coming, too. We don’t know what happens to Kim, for example, but we know she doesn’t appear or get mentioned at all in Breaking Bad. It’s the flip side of the prequel coin. While it can suck the drama out of a show when you know how things work out, it can also build it up because you know for a fact something bad will happen to someone you care about, at some point.
All that said, again, for a third time, because I do not want to get yelled at by rabid Breaking Bad fans, I’m not saying that Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad right now. I’m saying it’s very good. I might even be saying it’s better than Breaking Bad through this point of their respective runs. I’ll have to go back and re-read this a few times to be sure. But the main thing I’m trying to get across is that if it keeps this up at this level, with episodes like the recent Jimmy/Chuck courtroom showdown and scenes like Mike’s “I broke my boy” in season one, we might need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some really hard questions. That’s all.