There’s been a bit of talk in the comments about how much better this show could be if it focused less on the characters we already knew in Breaking Bad. Let me be clear up front that I agree, but I think it might be worth discussing. (It’s also, coincidentally, a discussion that ties right into “Black and Blue.”)
For starters, I have had that exact same thought, going back as far as Tuco’s surprise appearance in the very first episode of this show. I don’t mean to dismiss it as a criticism. It’s a fair one.
However, there’s one thing worth pointing out before we dig in: This is what Better Call Saul is. The folks involved with determining the creative direction of Better Call Saul have decided that we will dig up some Breaking Bad characters and follow them — to varying degrees — through this show as well. We can disagree with that impulse, certainly, but it is the impulse, and if we are going to engage with Better Call Saul, we need to be able to accept that.
If we can’t accept it…well, that’s okay. But at that point, we’re focusing less on what Better Call Saul is doing and more on what we wish it were doing. Again, that’s okay — we can focus on anything we like! — but if the show is one thing, wishing it were a different thing can only get us so far, and doing so is not entirely fair to Better Call Saul.
I’ve said that I wish we’d spend more time with the unique characters and less time with the established ones, but I don’t get to make that decision. I get to decide whether or not I keep watching, but I don’t get to decide what Better Call Saul actually is.
So let’s take a look at the inherited characters from Breaking Bad. Cramming them into this show for no reason would be a poor decision, I think, and it’s sometimes easy to assume that they are crammed in here for no reason. (Other than, of course, recognizability and marketing.) I’ve wrestled with exactly the same suspicion. But how valid is it?
The two biggest ones are Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut. I still maintain my longtime confusion over this show covering two different protagonists in two different stories who only rarely interact with each other. Lest anyone think I’m too forgiving of Better Call Saul, I think that that is a fundamental problem that the show even now, as it nears its final chapters, has never managed to justify or correct. But, again, we don’t get to choose what Better Call Saul is. The show is good enough and engaging enough that I keep watching. That’s my choice, and that’s about as far as my choice goes.
But what about importing them from Breaking Bad? Was that necessary? Sure, it seems obvious that it was, but we need to start somewhere.
I think both of them belong here. Saul, for obvious reasons, has to be here. He’s the focal character, and we are exploring significant aspects of the character’s life that Breaking Bad never covered. We aren’t retreading old ground; we met the essentially brand-new character of Jimmy McGill and we are watching how that character’s story pans out. Easy.
Mike is a little more complicated. In one sense, of course, we are experiencing a part of Mike’s story that we’d never seen before, but is Mike all that much different here than he was in that show? I’d say no, but I’d also say that we are exploring a few of the formative experiences of that man’s life. Did we need to see them? No. Were we able to infer enough about who Mike was from Breaking Bad alone? Yes. But, as I’ve mentioned before, Saul and Mike were the two major characters on Breaking Bad who we never saw in flashback. We never got a peek into who they were before the events of that show kicked off. Exploring both of them here is a fair impulse. It probably should have been handled more smoothly from the start — they’ve crossed paths, what, five or six times in this entire show? — but the fact that they both appear in Better Call Saul is not the problem.
Now we run into some others whose presence here is less clearly justified but still, I’d argue, fair enough.
There’s Hector, about whom we learn little more than we already knew, and the story of how he became disabled isn’t one that needed to be told. However, the time we spent with pre-wheelchair Hector was worth exploring, I think. In many ways, that did feel like a different character. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t, but Hector was able to do and say so much more than he was able to do or say in Breaking Bad. Necessary? No, but certainly welcome, and his fate directly introduced Eduardo, a major and excellent character unique to this show. Hector, then, is justified.
There’s Tuco, who was pretty clearly just a character we already knew. However, he was the mechanism by which the show introduced us to Nacho. Tuco was some brief connective tissue, and while Nacho could have been introduced via any other means, yes, introducing him into a dynamic that we already thought we knew helped to define our new character right off the bat. We know how Tuco interacted with his cronies. To see Nacho occupying a very different space within that dynamic did a lot to characterize him for the purposes of this show. I know Tuco popped up again later, but his purpose in this show was to get us familiar with Nacho, and he accomplished that. Tuco is a large, distinct, memorable character; Nacho was defined by sheer contrast. I’m on board with that. In this case, Better Call Saul relied on our knowledge of Breaking Bad not just to tickle our fond familiarity, but to define a new character. That is the correct reason to bring back a familiar face.
If we keep going, we get to Gus, who doesn’t need to be here at all.
I’m okay with Gus being here — and let’s be totally clear that we may well still be building toward something important for the character — but, really, his presence is justified simply because of one of the stories it led to: Werner and the Germans digging the superlab. That in itself is the correct reason to bring back a familiar face. Gus showed up in order to kick off this tiny little unique Better Call Saul story, and it is still my favorite story that the show has told. Does Gus need to be in this show as frequently and as heavily as he is? Absolutely not but, again, we could well end up somewhere interesting. For now, however, the Werner stuff justifies Gus’ return…even though I concede that that return is pretty darned outsized.
Then we should probably look at Saul Goodman’s hangers-on from Breaking Bad: Francesca, Huell, and (I hope) Kuby. We don’t need to see any of these people (and we still may not see Kuby!), but the mere fact that they were big parts of Saul’s business coupled with the fact that we knew next to nothing about them outside of his business makes them fair game here. Huell is a fun presence, but Francesca has been absolutely wonderful to see again. These aren’t stories that need to be told, but we are already telling Saul’s story, and they are natural parts of it. Completely fair, and they haven’t been overused, so I think we’re still good.
Of course, that’s nowhere near all of the Breaking Bad characters. Even if it were, it might be tough to justify so many, and we have only scratched the surface.
We get Gus’ men, Tyrus and Victor. We might as well since we already have Gus but, again, if Gus often feels unnecessary, are these two necessary? Lydia popped up as well. It was brief and I like Lydia, but did we need to see her?
We’ve got the Salamanca cousins showing up, similarly “just because” we already have the Salamancas here. Not necessary to the story. We have Juan Bolsa as well, who had only a very tiny role in Breaking Bad before he was killed, but is there much reason to explore the character in greater depth? Perhaps, but I haven’t seen the reason yet, and we don’t seem to have made much of an attempt to explore him.
We’ve got Hank and Gomez. Again, briefly, but did they need to exist outside of the fact that we’d recognize them? Spooge showed up last week, seeking legal counsel. We also saw Wendy the prostitute. Gale popped up for a bit. Krazy-8 was here at some point. Walt and Jesse are rumored to show up. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of other familiar faces and cute winks that…well…we don’t need.
It’s fine to see these actors again. They’re all good. They remind us of another show that we like. All of that is fine. But there is a difference between a scattered few well-selected cameos and…what we’ve got here.
I understand the concern with Better Call Saul relying too heavily on Breaking Bad. I’m not dismissing that at all. When you add up all of the recurring characters, it seems ridiculous. When you’re spending time with Hank and Gomez that you could instead be spending with, say, Kim and Howard, that even gets frustrating. And that’s all without my bringing up yet again the fact that Better Call Saul has trouble keeping its own plot threads together most of the time. Maybe if the show used more of its own runtime to focus on its own characters, that wouldn’t be a problem.
But if that’s what Better Call Saul is, so be it. I love the show and I would change a lot about it. (Whether or not that would result in a better show, we can’t know…but it’s a pretty safe bet that whatever “good” I could bring to the creative process wouldn’t even come close to matching the amount of “good” that the current team brings to the creative process.) A lot of other viewers would change things, too, and I can’t disagree.
Also, however, I have to be able to let it go. I have to be able to just accept the fact that Better Call Saul keeps calling back to Breaking Bad and spending lots of time with characters we’ve already explored, because every second that I spend focusing on what I wish the show didn’t do is a second that I’m not focusing on what the show does really well.
Ultimately, I think that’s where a lot of the criticism is coming from, so it’s worth emphasizing: Better Call Saul is very good. If it sucked, it wouldn’t be as frustrating that it keeps relying on Breaking Bad. Instead, we like it. We like what it’s doing. We like its characters. We like watching a flawed man become a terrible person. We like all of that, and we just want to see more of it and spend more time with it. I love Breaking Bad, but I can also watch it any time I feel the need to check in with those characters. I don’t need Better Call Saul to pretend to be a loose collection of deleted scenes.
In the comments of a previous post, Casey Roberson said, “I also hope maybe one episode this season gives the majority of its running time to Saul.” The fact that that could even need to be hoped for speaks to a problem with the show. Saul is our main character. Can you imagine anyone ever having to have asked that an episode of Breaking Bad would focus on Walt?
With Better Call Saul, though, we have to hope for that, because the show isn’t just Saul’s story. It’s also the story of all the new characters in his orbit. It’s also the story of Mike. It’s also the story of Kim. It’s also the story of Gus. It’s also (or was, until recently) the story of Nacho. It’s also Breaking Bad Babies. It’s so many things that we don’t know if we’ll spend a full 10 minutes with Saul in a 50-minute episode of Better Call Saul.
The more time we spend catching up with old friends, the less time we can spend with the new friends we are destined to never see again.
I love Walt and Jesse. I don’t want to see them more than I want to spend a few final moments with Kim or Eduardo. This week, I loved Mike checking in with his men to make sure they’d had time to eat during their ’round-the-clock surveillance, and I wish I could have gotten to know these people and how they interact. When we can spend time exploring Mike’s relationships — as we did with Werner — we can find some truly excellent material. Did we need, instead, to spend time being reminded that Gus is worried that Eduardo will find him? Especially when we were told about it last week, and learned everything we need to know there?
I’m not picking on “Black and Blue.” In fact, I thought that this was an excellent episode but, again, its excellence sheds light on what often makes the rest of the show frustrating.
Eduardo picking old wounds with Werner’s widow was brilliant and tense and wonderful. Howard stepping down to Jimmy’s level to resolve their conflict, or at least try to resolve it, was great and very warranted. Kim continuing to dig herself deeper into unethical behavior is both sad and inevitable. Erin letting slip that the Sandpiper plaintiffs could indeed seek representation of their own led to a great Howard moment, and brought Cliff’s brewing suspicions to a head. And Saul having to win Francesca back over — and convince her to run his law firm from the middle of a room, too close to an abandoned toilet — was one of my favorite scenes this season.
Does that latter bit tie into Breaking Bad? Of course it does, but it isn’t treading familiar ground. That part of Saul’s story is unique to Better Call Saul. That stage of their relationship is unique to Better Call Saul. Hell, that entire part of Saul’s career is unique to Better Call Saul.
And the rest of the great stuff in “Black and Blue” has nothing to do with Breaking Bad. We are spending time with characters who exist in this universe alone, and who should therefore matter to this universe more.
This universe, however, can’t make up its mind. It keeps changing the channel to watch a little more of Breaking Bad. It remembers liking that show. So do I. But not enough that I don’t want to enjoy the time I have left with this one instead.