Reel Talk’s Lockdown Viewing: Guest Edition!

Written by Amhara Chamberlayne, Edited by Charlotte Ammirato

Today we are delighted to share a lockdown viewing recommendation from guest writer Amhara Chamberlayne, a third year English Literature student. Amhara recommends…

Better Call Saul (AMC, 2015– ), available on Netflix

Better Call Saul shows Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) transformation into crooked lawyer Saul Goodman. It comes surprisingly close to the unbeatable heights of its predecessor Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013), and is easily the best prequel I have seen. It builds on the latter’s best trait: strict attention to characterisation. The first two seasons centre on Jimmy’s fraught relationship with his brother Chuck and, although little “happens”, they are crucial in setting up the emotional intensity of later seasons.

Knowing Jimmy’s trajectory has put some people off, but that for me is what gives the story emotion. Each morality slip feels consequential because we know where it leads. Jimmy’s duality is brilliantly showcased by Odenkirk’s nuanced performance. He is empathetic and less overtly comic than he was in Breaking Bad. Some Breaking Bad fans have told me they don’t care about his turn, but I think this is because they still see him as Saul, and not Jimmy.

Jimmy is different. He has some of Saul’s deviousness, but is more rounded. You start to care about him, which makes his slow downfall impactful and tragic. Incidentally, when I return to Breaking Bad I find Saul far more sinister than before. Better Call Saul has made him a much better character. This is what a prequel should do; it should deepen the original characters without contradicting their trajectory. I also love that Jimmy’s turn is so gradual. He doesn’t have cancer; nothing desperately calls his soul into action. Instead, multiple factors slowly fuel his anger, which makes his turn feel natural.

My retort to the complaint that the show lacks stakes is the strength of its new characters. Nacho, Kim, and Lalo (a fantastic villain) are all crucial, and their absence from Breaking Bad is one of the primary sources of tension — you really worry about their fate, particularly Kim’s. Returning characters Mike and Gustavo are also given more depth, which benefits both the narrative and the world’s continuity.

Though slow, Better Call Saul uses its time for poignant effect. It stands on its own, whilst complementing Breaking Bad. Though the former was more explosive, this is told with arguably more skill and is just as impressive.

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