This review contains spoilers for Better Call Saul.
“Is Better Call Saul better than Breaking Bad?” It’s not an easy question to answer, and on some level, questions like those are unproductive and merely serve to reduce pieces of art to a pros-and-cons list. However, it’s rare that a prequel garners the same level of critical acclaim and popularity as its predecessor, and it’s even more impressive when that predecessor is Breaking Bad. Although not the first prestige drama of its kind, it set the bar for what the TV medium could accomplish. TV has only gotten consistently better since, and Better Call Saul benefits enormously from the road that Breaking Bad paved. Perhaps I’m hesitant to make a strong claim because Better Call Saul only just finished airing, and I don’t want to insult its predecessor’s classic status, but: Better Call Saul just might be better.
There. I said it. The more I think about it, the truer it becomes. I don’t think it blows Breaking Bad out of the water or anything – it’s hard for a prequel series to do that when every aspect of the original operates at such a consistently high level. But Better Call Saul has had the luxury of hindsight and time and has used such to become its own beast, improving on its predecessor in almost every conceivable way. I think it’s a good thing that the “which show is better” argument is not one with a widely accepted answer. It allows the series to exist harmoniously and complement one another, and Better Call Saul’s final season embraces their shared universe to the fullest.
Season six, like Breaking Bad’s season five, aired in two parts. The first half takes place in the pre-Breaking Bad timeline, and the second half takes place largely post-Breaking Bad. The latter half of the season is filmed almost entirely in black-and-white, which is a bold creative choice, as previous black-and-white segments in the show were relatively brief. The show still manages to provide excellent cinematography despite the stripping away of its signature western hues, and its superb writing and characterization serve to “color in” the details.
When Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) appears in court one last time in the series finale “Saul Gone,” it’s almost disappointing that we don’t get to see his suit in all of its gaudy glory. But we know who Jimmy is, and we know the ugly sheen his jacket probably has, the garish, saturated color of his shirt, the vomit-inducing pattern on his tie. The black-and-white also makes the lives of Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) all the more depressing. We’ve already seen Gene’s (Jimmy’s new identity in Omaha) managerial position at Cinnabon suck the life out of him, but it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch Kim languish at a nondescript sprinkler company in Florida, living a dull social life with an even duller boyfriend. It’s by no means the worst fate she could meet after what she and Jimmy have done, but the stifling of her driven, self-possessed spirit is positively bleak, and the black-and-white emphasizes that dreariness.
It’s very fitting that one of the show’s best and final shots is of Jimmy and Kim in black-and-white as they reconcile during a prison visit. It’s so expertly composed, with the prison bars disrupting that shaft of light shining through the window that so often represents freedom. It’s a bittersweet shot for a bittersweet moment. Jimmy has resigned himself to a life in prison, and although Kim might not be a practicing lawyer, she seems to have regained her confidence. They’re like the characters that inhabit the noir films they love to watch together, with Kim looking every bit the femme fatale.
Unlike those characters, however, both Jimmy and Kim have managed to free themselves of the lives they were trapped in because they ultimately did the right thing. Jimmy confesses to actively helping Walter and driving his own brother to kill himself, and Kim confessed to her involvement in Howard’s death.
The duo’s character assassination of Howard (Patrick Fabian) is one of two major storylines that run throughout the first half of season six (and two episodes of the second half), the other being the conflict between Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). In a way, the beats of these storylines run opposite each other. The elaborate scheming of Jimmy and Kim to portray Howard as an unstable cocaine addict is devilishly fun until it all comes crashing down when Lalo unceremoniously murders Howard.
A big part of the experience of watching Better Call Saul is discovering what’s happening as it happens – there’s no heist movie explainer before a character pulls off a scheme. So for the entire duration of the campaign against Howard, the viewer is pulled into it and rooting for Jimmy and Kim to succeed in their plot without the slightest idea about their plan/finesse. When Howard arrives at their apartment after everything has happened, minutes before his untimely demise, you desperately want him to leave so that Jimmy and Kim will have finally gotten away with it. You know it’s wrong to see things that way, and not even Jimmy can make a convincing argument otherwise. When Huell (Lavell Crawford) questions why Jimmy is doing this, Jimmy offers up an unconvincing answer: “You’re not seeing the bigger picture…We’re making a real difference. Trust me.” And we, the viewer, do trust him! Because we think it’ll all be worth it to wipe the smirk off of Howard’s stupid face.
Conversely, the Gus-Lalo arc begins with tragedy as the intelligent, thoughtful, and grievously overburdened Nacho (Michael Mando) kills himself to ensure his father’s safety and ends with Gus’s victory over Lalo as he murders him in a showdown in the underground meth lab-to-be. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing and the actors themselves that such fleshed-out, well-realized characters and performances came from a throwaway reference in a Breaking Bad episode. Michael Mando’s quiet sense of loyalty to his loved ones always endeared his character to me, and I do think it’s a bit of a shame that he met his end so early in the season. I feel similarly about Lalo, who is my favorite character in the show. He shows up towards the end of season four, but for being in a relatively small portion of the show, he makes an incredible impact. He’s charming and funny, but never lets up on his ruthlessness. Tony Dalton steals every scene he’s in.
I don’t think that Nacho and Lalo’s deaths were poorly paced or that they occurred at the wrong point in the season. Any misgivings I have about that are purely based on me being a huge fan of the characters. However, I do think the two-part release of the season hurt its pacing by altering the perception of these events, as well as Howard’s death. I admire the episodic release model, and I think releasing the whole season at once on a streaming service would have diminished the final season’s cultural impact. However, season six is a normal length, so there was no need for a wait between the first and second half, and that’s what hurt its pacing.
By the end of the first half, Nacho and Howard have died, with the latter dying in the first half’s final episode. In the first episode of the second half, Lalo dies, and by episode two, the pre-Breaking Bad timeline is over. Because the rest of part two is almost wholly dedicated to the post-Breaking Bad timeline, it feels like a whole new season, and the viewing experience as a result feels lopsided without Lalo, Nacho, and Howard. The rest of the season is still great. It's a return to the slow burn of earlier seasons. However, the shift from the full-steam-ahead pace of the sixth season’s first half is slightly jarring. I admire how its slower pace lets the audience process what’s just happened in the pre-Breaking Bad timeline as we approach the end of the road for Jimmy, and how his newfound scam is his way of not running away from his past, but it also feels more like an extended denouement à la El Camino.
Better Call Saul, in terms of wholesale resolution, is better. As I reflected on the show’s ending and how it made me feel, I couldn’t help but compare it to Breaking Bad’s ending. Even though Breaking Bad has a cathartic ending, you don’t really feel for Walter the way you do for Jesse, and El Camino was what brought closure to his story. Breaking Bad ended well, and while some said that El Camino felt unnecessary (probably because it was released six years after Breaking Bad ended), I think the way it worked as an epilogue for the show was an ideal conclusion. Better Call Saul doesn’t need an El Camino. Its characters have made their peace with who they are and where they’ve ended up, and so has the show and its shared universe. A more perfect ending, you could not ask for.