If you think Breaking Bad was a great television show, its prequel, Better Call Saul, is even better. The spin-off series, also by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, takes place years before the birth of Heisenberg.
The creators love compelling character arcs as we’ve seen through the evolution of the quiet and unassuming Walter White into an ambitious and ruthless drug lord. Sure enough, Better Call Saul is centered on the transformation of Jimmy McGill into the shady criminal lawyer first introduced to us in Breaking Bad as Saul Goodman.
One of the things that made the spin-off an even more masterful piece of storytelling than its predecessor is its pacing. Whereas Breaking Bad was more of an edge-of-your-seat thriller, Better Call Saul is a slow-burn television show. It took its time in establishing backgrounds and motivations, which ultimately added up to more satisfying payoffs for viewers.
What really sets Better Call Saul apart from the original series is the deeper exploration it took of the central character’s personal connections. Relationships were built with extreme attention to detail — even if it required six seasons to truly understand why and how those connections mattered in the greater narrative the franchise wants to tell.
Saul Goodman was toxic to everyone around him, but as twisted as those relationships were, they were not exactly one-way streets.
4. Saul Goodman v. the Cartel
In Bob Odenkirk’s first appearance in Breaking Bad, he was already the smooth-talking and eccentric criminal lawyer. He had ties to the Mexican cartel that produced and distributed drugs across the border. He agreed to help Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in exchange for a stake in their growing meth business. He would provide the connections they needed to scale, while White and Pinkman would supply the drugs.
It wasn’t until Better Call Saul that audiences got an answer to how his relationship with the cartel developed. His first brush with the Salamancas, the highest-ranking crime family after Don Eladio, was purely out of dumb luck — or misfortune, depending on how you want to see it.
While he was on their radar, Jimmy and the cartel don’t have a lot of shared storylines for the better part of the series.
That is until the emergence of Lalo Salamanca as the town’s major drug kingpin, who in my opinion is the most terrifying villain in the entire franchise. He’s smart, charming, and clearly a sociopath, which puts him ahead of the calculating but stone-faced Gustavo Fring in terms of scary points in my book.
Lalo hires Jimmy to represent cartel members, including himself, when necessary. “Do you want to be a friend of the cartel,” he asks Jimmy as they discuss the kingpin’s legal options. “Time to get yourself a new motto: Just make money.” These words were the push he needed to finally break bad.
The jobs the cartel hires Saul Goodman for give him a taste of the bigger slice of the pie that he could be enjoying as a lawyer. He still wanted to protect Kim Wexler, his then-wife, from his shady dealings but Jimmy has always sought the fastest way to success. Lalo didn’t need to force Jimmy’s hand to be the cartel’s legal representation. All the cartel needed was to give him a price.
We see that his hesitation to perform dangerous jobs for the cartel no longer exists in Breaking Bad. He has completely abandoned all the principles he had as Jimmy at this point. The unscrupulous lawyer’s only allegiance is to the one who hands him a bigger paycheck, even if his betrayal constantly puts his life at risk.
3. Saul Goodman v. the Law
You can’t discuss Saul’s ties to the cartel without talking about his relationship with the law. After all, it is the law that Saul Goodman wants to protect the cartel from.
We learn in Better Call Saul that our anti-hero has always been on the wrong side of the law. Slippin’Jimmy, as he was called, was a professional conman who always needed his brother, Chuck McGill, to bail him out when he went too far.
His turning point was working in the mail room of HHM, his brother’s law firm. He finds inspiration in Kim Wexler, who had just recently passed the bar. This motivates Jimmy to become an attorney himself.
But you can’t take Slippin’ Jimmy out of the character. He continued to take shortcuts to establish his practice, to gain and close cases, and to get his clients the best results they could hope for.
“He has a way of doing the worst things for reasons that sound almost noble…and the way my brother treats the law—it breaks my heart,” Chuck says, summarizing his brother’s treatment of the legal system.
While Chuck put the law above all else, Jimmy put his self-interests first. Even when you think he was justifying working around the law as being in his client’s best interest, it quickly becomes clear that his ultimate goal was self-gain.
For instance, he didn’t really care whether his elderly clients received their settlement money from Sandpiper (which involved discrediting Howard Hamlin and led to the character’s death). He was merely fast-tracking the case so he could get his cut as soon as possible and establish a bigger practice.
At first, Jimmy might have wanted to become a lawyer to redeem his old ways and impress his brother. But the profession simply became his means to success and wealth in the end.
2. McGill v. McGill
Chuck was never mentioned in Breaking Bad so we didn’t know until Better Call Saul that the great Saul Goodman had a brother. To say that Chuck and Jimmy’s relationship was complicated is an understatement.
It was clear that Jimmy cared for and idolized Chuck, who had a self-diagnosed electromagnetic hypersensitivity. In truth, it was a mental illness that seemed to get worse the more alienated he became from people (his symptoms first appeared after his divorce).
Still, Jimmy brought him groceries, delivered case files from HHM to his home, and just generally tolerated Chuck’s condition.
Chuck, on the other hand, resented his little brother. Jimmy earned the adoration of people wherever he went in spite of his crooked ways. His ex-wife laughed at Jimmy’s jokes in a way that he couldn’t get her to do. Their mother called out his name on her deathbed and a deep-seated jealousy continued to grow inside of Chuck.
When Jimmy announced that he passed the bar, Chuck felt more threatened than surprised. Law was really the only thing that gave him superiority over Jimmy and he couldn’t let his crook of a brother take it away from him.
Because the law was more sacred than what little bond he had with Jimmy, Chuck denied his brother a career opportunity at HHM, and, with it, the chance to better himself.
But Jimmy wasn’t exactly the innocent brother in their complicated dynamic. He wanted the respect of his brother but lacked the willpower to let go of his dishonest nature. He eventually relies on the guile of Slippin’ Jimmy to push Chuck further into his mental illness.
Jimmy tampers with critical paperwork to make it appear that the once-brilliant lawyer Chuck has committed some major errors. He’s not so superior after all, or so Jimmy wanted him to think.
This is the same tactic that Jimmy and Kim eventually apply to discredit Howard later on in the show. He destroyed his brother’s career so he could further his own without considering that it would push Chuck into committing suicide. His first major con as a lawyer, and the main catalyst to creating Saul Goodman, was gaslighting his own brother.
His manner of suicide, kicking a gaslight that burns his house to the ground, couldn’t have been more symbolic.
1. McGill v. Wexler
Although romantic relationships were not the focus of Breaking Bad, we never doubted that they existed. We had Walter and Skyler, Hank and Marie, Jesse and Jane, Gale and his meth lab, to name a few.
Meanwhile, Better Call Saul viewers were left guessing if Kim and Jimmy were together. They were obviously friends but it sometimes appeared as if they were more than that. Even when they lived together, they rarely showed intimacy — the occasional hug and peck on the cheek are all audiences get as confirmation.
Even before they got married in the fifth season, it was obvious that the two were more than partners at law. They were like magnets that brought out the best and the worst in each other. The more involved they became in each other’s scams, the deeper their connection became.
Kim may have first appeared as a stickler for the law, perhaps the most moral out of all the Better Call Saul characters, but she was far from it. We learn in the latter seasons that a young Kim helped her mother pull off small-time cons in Nebraska.
She is a hustler herself and joins her husband in pulling off the occasional scam. However, those are nothing compared to the diabolical and elaborate plan that she comes up with to take down Howard.
Kim enabling Jimmy’s dishonest nature helped push him further into becoming Saul Goodman. After all, if she could be corrupted, what shot does Slippin’ Jimmy have at redemption?
Kim eventually does realize that they were bad for each other, but not until their callousness gets Howard killed. “Jimmy, I have had the time of my life with you. But we are bad for everyone around us. Other people suffer because of us. Apart we’re okay, but together we’re poison,” a guilt-ridden Kim explains to Jimmy.
Their breakup was the final straw for Jimmy McGill to completely transform into Saul Goodman. He had no more people in his life left to spare from the cruelty of the cartel. Without Kim to protect, he could shake all his morals loose and work for the people that could pay him more.
The finale does reveal that Kim is still alive albeit living a very different life from the one she had in New Mexico. Working for a sprinkler factory, having mundane conversations, and sleeping with the least exciting man in Florida is her penance for what she has done that led to Howard’s death. It’s also a way of cleansing herself of the criminal life she led with Jimmy.
There’s still love there. Kim risked her quiet life just by calling around and asking if Saul was alive after the events of Breaking Bad. But until Jimmy was ready to confess to everything they’ve done to hurt the people around them, the two of them can’t reconnect.
Better Call Saul took its time in defining the relationship between its two major characters and that made their fate all the more tragic.
Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul had a slow first season but it proved to be a more than worthy and essential viewing for fans of the franchise. The slow pacing was crucial to establishing some of the most complicated relationships I’ve ever had to pleasure to witness.
From Saul’s dangerous entanglement with the cartel and the legal system, to the more familial and personal connections that Jimmy struggles to maintain, these relationships make Better Call Saul a more immersive and powerful drama.