You can have too much of a good thing – if the saga of Walter White taught us nothing else, it surely taught us that. So when creator Vince Gilligan teamed up with writer Peter Gould to create a prequel to Breaking Bad – starring comedian Bob Odenkirk’s sleazeball ambulance-chaser Saul Goodman – it was hard not to think they were aping their own creation. Wasn’t returning to this world so soon, to tell the origin story of a drastically different kind of person, hubris on a Heisenbergian scale?
It’s now safe to say that, after three seasons of Better Call Saul, Gilligan and Gould’s confidence has paid off. They’ve somehow defied the odds and slowly, almost stealthily created a second canon-worthy drama, without attempting to recreate the glories of their previous smash hit – all this despite the increased presence of BB characters as the two shows’ timeframes draw closer and closer together. That’s a trick not even an experienced con man like “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill could pull off. How’d they do it?
Their success starts with the cast. Odenkirk’s strengths in the starring role are obvious – that’s why he got the spin-off, right? But Jimmy is a far cry from the Bad (il)legal eagle we came to know and love. He has yet to establish the unshakably confident glibness that made him such a criminal-empire asset, and so valuable to that hit series as comic relief. He’s constantly struggling, fighting to win cases and win back the trust of his loved ones, elated when he succeeds and miserable when he fails. The actor’s performance isn’t showy; simply by adding high-pitched notes of glee or desperation to his voice, or turning it steely and cold, he reveals a startling emotional range.
The supporting players are just as strong, starting with Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, the aging ex-cop turned gangland fixer who’s so prominent on the show that he functions as a co-protagonist. With his craggy, taciturn face and sepulchral voice, he just radiates world-weariness in the role – a perfect fit for the way Mike is written, as he painstakingly performs the tedious work of surveillance and sabotage with barely a word of dialogue for minutes at a time.