How Better Call Saul Became One Of TV's Greatest Spinoffs

Tensions were high among Breaking Bad fans when Vince Gilligan announced lawyer Saul Goodman would be getting his own show. Thankfully the results have been more Frasier than Joey.
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Lets face it, spinoffs are rarely any good. One of the certainties in entertainment is that once an acclaimed movie or television franchise concludes, fans will be craving more. The additional content spawned usually sprouts up in the form of related shows, with the results usually mixed at best. For every Frasier you get a Joey, a car crash that so desperately sucks the life out of a once popular character, you react to them in a similar fashion to that mate of yours who nicked your Pokemon cards at school - you still have time for him, but he’s lost your respect.

Breaking Bad was a show that, although slow in picking up mass awareness, attracted an ardent and passionate fanbase. The show’s finale was greeted with a sense of sadness, like the death of a fond relative. So when director Vince Gilligan muted his intention to a make prequel focussing on speculative lawyer Saul Goodman, the overriding feeling amongst critics and fans was skepticism. Did viewers actually want to see a show primarily centred around a humorous but relatively minor character? And did Gilligan have the energy to channel the creativity that eked out previously wonderful work?

The beauty of BCS is that we know the destination yet the journey is still unfolding before our eyes with fresh angles and twists by the week. It borrows the core elements of its predecessor, but encompasses a world of its own at the same time.

BCS meanders along at a deliberate pace, quietly establishing background stories for the lawyer formerly known as James McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his future enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), as well as introducing Jimmy’s older brother Charles ‘Chuck’ McGill (Michael McClean) and his co-worker/close friend/love interest Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) as pivotal pieces on the metaphorical chess board.

Season two further joins up the dots as well as elevating the bond between the protagonist and the woman of his affection. Characters who were previously peripheral in Breaking Bad have taken on more prominence. Deranged drug pusher Tuco Salamanca, who is as fond of snorting the white powder as he is selling it, is as menacing as ever, but the major development is the emergence of Salamanca’s family members and fellow BB alumni. Uncle Hector, along with cousins Leonel and Marco, interact mostly with Mike, planting the seeds for future anarchy that ensues.

With BCS, Gilligan has masterfully achieved flipping our pre-conceived perceptions of the two chief characters, Saul/Jimmy and Mike. We become aware of what drives Mike to his cold-bloodedness - his sole motivation is providing and caring for his granddaughter Kayley and daughter in law Stacey.

If Saul was a primarily a slapstick clown figure, Gilligan has taken him and turned him into a multi-dimensional protagonist, empathetic and cunning, charming and self-defeating in equal measure. We learn that Jimmy has good intentions, despite nearly always tripping himself up in some dodgy scenario in the process of attaining his goals.

Most siblings can relate to the competitiveness at the heart of Jimmy and Chuck’s brotherhood. In the second series, his relationship with Wexler becomes more prominent and illustrates what drove him to dabble with the darker side of life. He is so consumed by earning Chuck’s admiration and respect, as well as Kim’s love and trust, he is willing to sabotage all of the above in the process of gaining a happy medium.

The most impressive aspect of BCS is that we are almost twenty episodes in and so much has happened, yet there are still so many avenues to explore. As he did with Walter White (“turning Mr Chips into Scarface”), Gilligan uses a carrot on the stick approach to detailing Jimmy’s gradual morphing from upwardly mobile lawyer in a well respected firm to shady plea peddler with fingers in various rotten pies. We are drip-fed information, such as when Jimmy buys the collection of coloured suits that Goodman later wears with regularity in BB.

The opening scenes are a work of art in themselves and often bear little relation to the events that transpire in an episode, presented as either a flashback or, as the initial sequence of season two in which Saul appears to be running a fast food joint, a gaze into the future. As a viewer, you are left in suspense, even when little is happening. You get the impression that Gilligan could continue adding characters, reference points, story arcs and new facets to this world he has created in Albuquerque, New Mexico, such is the level of detail undertaken.

Breaking Bad was such a successful piece of art and so beloved by its core audience, the fear was that any spinoff would be a pale imitation to the original. Gilligan himself expressed similar sentiments, questioning whether or not fans of BB would enjoy the follow up. "I am worried ... it may turn out it was a mistake to do this.” It’s safe to say his pessimism has proved unfounded. Better Call Saul is an outlier in a sense - a show that takes the best parts from its precursor but isn't a slave to it. Gradually the plot is taking shape and the picture is becoming clearer. Once again, Gilligan is surprising even himself.