Better Call Saul: watch it first?

There are No Spoilers in this section

Breaking Bad may be acknowledged as one of the best TV dramas of all time, but more and more viewers are now coming to the opinion that its prequel spin-off, Better Call Saul, is even better. As this debate rages among fans, it raises interesting ideas about the relationship between the two shows. The obvious question for newcomers is: should they watch Breaking Bad first, and then move on to Better Call Saul, as the rest of us did; or should they view it chronologically, starting with Better Call Saul and then progressing to Breaking Bad?

I wrote a postgraduate dissertation on the theme of moral responsibility in Breaking Bad and other TV shows; I also wrote a less serious article proving that Breaking Bad is vegan propaganda. I now absolutely love Better Call Saul, so I’ve given this question some thought. Should you watch Better Call Saul first? I’ve developed a theory.

Walter White and Saul Goodman

A quick overview for people who haven’t watched either show:

Breaking Bad ran for 62 episodes between 2008 and 2013. It is undeniably a masterpiece, breaking new ground in writing and cinematography, and won an extraordinary number of awards. The fast-paced show stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who gets involved in the lucrative business of cooking crystal meth after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unshackled from fear of death or prison, Walt’s suppressed criminal instincts come to the fore as he navigates the illegal drug trade. In 2019, a film – El Camino – was released on Netflix, set immediately after the Breaking Bad finale and serving as a sort of epilogue for some of the surviving characters.

Breaking Bad logo

In Season Two of Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk joined the cast as Saul Goodman, a crooked lawyer who becomes one of Walt’s closest associates in the underworld of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Saul Goodman became one of the show’s most enjoyable and popular characters. In 2015, less than eighteen months after the end of Breaking Bad, he returned as the eponymous protagonist of a prequel spin-off, Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul poster

Saul Goodman emerged into the Breaking Bad universe as a colourful, ruthless criminal operator, and the prequel serves primarily as his origin story. Set in the early naughties, several years before the events of Breaking Bad, we witness how Jimmy McGill, a kindhearted, irrepressible hustler with a law licence, transforms into Saul Goodman, a man entirely lacking a conscience or scruples. The fifth season of Better Call Saul aired between February and April 2020. and the sixth and final season will be produced when the pandemic allows development to resume.

Both shows are about a man’s descent into the darkness and what he finds there. Both protagonists poison themselves and those around them with an irreversible web of destruction that threatens to corrode their lives and the lives of those they love. For my money, the journey of Saul Goodman losing his soul is the more fascinating of the two; but Breaking Bad is the show with more heart-stopping momentum.

The two shows are different in feel, despite sharing an aesthetic and clearly inhabiting the same universe. They have several things in common. A remarkably deep, nuanced exploration of their characters’ psychologies and relationships, for one; a remorseless focus on the moral and practical consequences of every choice their characters make, for another. Their camerawork and brilliant montages are in a class of their own, and several visual signatures are shared by both shows. On a plot level, seemingly every loose end gets cleverly tied up, and both shows are full of ingenious schemes and explosive action sequences.

Better Call Saul still image
I nicked this picture from an excellent article called “Better Call Saul and the Pleasures of Patient TV

Well… perhaps it would be misleading to suggest that Better Call Saul is full of action sequences. It is slow-paced almost to the point of perversity, and it has a precision that verges on pedantry. But stay with it, because this slow, intricate storytelling is a taste well worth acquiring, and the payoffs are phenomenally good. With each passing season, it’s become clear that Better Call Saul is a world-class show. And while it hasn’t got the high-octane intensity of Breaking Bad, which manages a thrilling moment of high-stakes drama almost every episode, Better Call Saul certainly isn’t without action sequences of its own. One central storyline spans both shows: the wranglings of a lethal Mexican cartel, whose influence has crept over the border and into Albuquerque. Wherever the cartel goes, violence soon follows.

The Solution

And this leads to the heart of the paradox. If you watch Breaking Bad first, you know which cartel members are definitely going to survive Better Call Saul, and you know the ultimate fates of most of the characters. If you watch Better Call Saul first, you wouldn’t understand how great chunks of the show are setup for the devastating consequences of Saul Goodman’s alliance with Walter White. You’d be unable to appreciate the Breaking Bad callbacks, cameos and references which frequently make the show richer and more resonant.

Breaking Bad image

I think I’ve cracked it.

If you haven’t watched the shows yet, take the following piece of advice. If you’ve already seen them, I’ll explain my logic in a moment.

Start with Breaking Bad. Watch up to Season Three, Episode 10: “Fly.” It’s the thirtieth episode in the series, so it’s just short of halfway, and it’s the one with the fly. “The fly?” I hear you say. Yep, the one with the fly. You can’t miss it. (Be aware, that if you hate “Fly,” then Better Call Saul might not be the show for you, as they have certain… similarities. If, like me, you think “Fly” is genius, then you’re in for a treat with Better Call Saul.)

Then, when you’ve watched “Fly,” take a break from Breaking Bad. Watch the entirety of Better Call Saul. This way, you’ll catch all the Breaking Bad references, but you won’t yet know how it’s going to play out. When you’re up to speed with Better Call Saul, watch the second half of Breaking Bad. After that, you can finish off with El Camino. Got it?

Breaking Bad: Fly

If you haven’t watched the shows yet, go and do that now. I’m about to discuss spoilers.

Here Be Spoilers

Why “Fly”? Well, I’ll tell you.

“Fly” takes place at the quietest moment, plot-wise, in the whole of Breaking Bad. There is no antagonist, no threat, no feud. Some plotlines have just ended, while others are about to begin. The Salamanca twins have recently been killed, Hank is beginning to recover from their assassination attempt, and Walt is on reasonably good terms with Jesse, Gus and even Skyler.

At the end of the previous episode, Skyler crossed a terrible Rubicon: she offered to pay for Hank’s treatment with Walt’s money, thus becoming morally complicit in his crimes, but we haven’t yet begun to see what this will mean for her or for Walt. And it’s in the following episode, the eleventh episode of season three, that Jesse discovers Gus’s empire’s involvement in the death of Combo, which rapidly leads to the war between Walt and Gus: the show never gets a peaceful moment ever again. It could even be argued that “Fly” is the episode that shifts the viewer from identifying primarily with Walt to identifying primarily with Jesse: he grows from a sidekick to the emotional heart of the show. So “Fly” is a pivotal episode – a moment of stillness, a deep breath before moving forward to the relentless second half of Breaking Bad.

Skyler White

What is the experience of a first-time viewer, switching shows and watching Better Call Saul at this point? They discover that Saul Goodman will end up going into hiding; but that’s the only spoiler they get. They know who Mike is, but they don’t know much about him; Mike hasn’t yet told Walt that he works for Gus, and his skill as an enforcer is not yet apparent. They know about Gus’s operation, and that he is responsible for the death of his nominal chief, Juan Bolsa; but they don’t yet know the depths of his chess game against the cartel, and they don’t know how it will end. They know about Victor, Gale and the remarkable meth lab, enough to enjoy their introductions in Better Call Saul, but they do not yet know that both men, as well as the superlab, are doomed.

These viewers are familiar with the paralysed old man in the wheelchair, but they might not even initially realise that he and the chilling Hector Salamanca are one and the same. They know that Tuco, Krazy-8 and the Twins are going to die; but as they haven’t met all the later-season Breaking Bad characters yet, they have no guarantee which Better Call Saul characters (Nacho, Lalo, Tyrus, Don Eladio, Chuck, Kim, Huell, Lydia, Ziegler, Howard) will survive to pop up later in Breaking Bad. (Four do; six don’t.)

The stories of Jimmy/Saul, Mike and Gus will benefit from their original character introductions, in Breaking Bad; but in the second half of the show, they will also benefit enormously from the weight of backstory, motivation and characterisation that Better Call Saul gives all three of them. Take Mike. It would be a surprise when Mike pops up in Better Call Saul, for anyone who doesn’t know that he will be a central character of Breaking Bad’s later seasons. The viewer learns all about him; watches his association with Jimmy develop; and then feels Saul’s horror when – at the end of Breaking Bad season three – Mike threatens Saul with physical harm if he doesn’t give up Walt’s whereabouts. By the time Mike meets his cruel, unnecessary end, we know far more about his family relationships and inner turmoil, and we feel all the things that Walt has robbed him of.

Mike Erhmantraut

Which only leaves…

…Season Six. Better Call Saul will wind up being one episode longer than Breaking Bad, for a combination of 125 episodes. Perhaps something in Season Six will negatively affect the value of watching the Breaking Bad franchise in this order; after all, we don’t know how the black-and-white flash-forwards will be resolved. But for now, I stand by it; and if I re-watch both shows to prepare for the eventual release of Season Six, this is how I’ll do it.


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