The critically acclaimed TV series ‘Better Call Saul’ returned this week for the second half of its final season. After seven years and nearly six seasons, what exactly makes the prequel about the goofy ‘Breaking Bad’ lawyer so successful? Simply put, it’s the writers’ decision to embrace the prequel format and experiment with creating something new.
These days, audiences are inundated with reboots and prequels. Just look at the recently-confirmed ‘Joker’ sequel – a sequel to a film that was pretty much a reboot and a prequel in one. Looking at the state of pop culture in this regard, it becomes clear why ‘Better Call Saul’ is the rare prequel that succeeds: it chooses to do something new with its story. For the most part, it’s not concerned with retelling ‘Breaking Bad’, but with adding context and background to its source material. Co-creator Peter Gould told Entertainment Weekly in April that in its final season, ‘Better Call Saul’ would change how we watch ‘Breaking Bad’ – which it already has. Now, when we return to ‘Breaking Bad’, we see Saul as a broken man who has lost so much, rather than the eccentric, carefree one we originally understood him as.
And for as much as ‘Better Call Saul’ does enjoy surprising its audience with character-defining events that we never knew about, the fact that it’s a prequel means we mostly know how it ends. A major factor in the show’s success is that instead of viewing this as a burden, the writers use it to their advantage. Our knowledge of ‘Breaking Bad’s Saul, Mike, and Gus and what happens to them, and our lack of knowledge of what happens to characters such as Kim and Nacho, adds an underlying layer of tragedy to the show.
Because the writers are so skilled at making us care about the versions of the characters that we meet in ‘Better Call Saul’, we almost don’t want the events of ‘Breaking Bad’ to occur. We don’t want Jimmy to lose all his emotionality and humanity and become the “criminal lawyer” who’ll ruin his own life by associating with Walter White. We don’t want Mike to continue down his path (or, as he calls it, “bad choice road”), where he too will be brought down by Walter. While we’re invested in the show, we’re also ten steps ahead, realizing how the decisions the characters make now will set them on their path to the events of ‘Breaking Bad’.
But this underlying tragedy works so well because of the balance the writers strike between it and the humanity and hopefulness of the show. The writers add heart to the show through Kim and Jimmy’s love story and Nacho’s enduring love for his father against all odds. They give viewers something to root for, which in turn exacerbates the tragedy when these storylines take a turn for the worse. They understand that the show can’t be completely bleak – we need the light to realize quite how dark the darkness is.
And of course, one of the most successful elements of ‘Better Call Saul’ has been the show’s breakout star: Kim Wexler. From Season 1, Kim is captivating. Her vaguely-defined relationship with Jimmy is a simple way in for the audience to the character who ends up being the most complex and mysterious in the show. But creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan didn’t always imagine it this way. It was Rhea Seehorn’s fascinating, multi-dimensional performance that inspired them to expand Kim’s role in the show. Which is another major reason ‘Better Call Saul’ works – the writers’ willingness to experiment and adapt to changing situations. Their flexibility around the character of Kim led to the mystery that has haunted viewers for seven years now: what will happen to Kim Wexler?
As star Bob Odenkirk has explained, ‘Better Call Saul’ was originally seen as an ‘experiment’. And perhaps one of the reasons this show is so successful is because of just that: the audience’s experience of watching an experiment unfold in real-time, and the exhilaration of realizing that a story can still be exciting and entertaining even when you know how it ends. Or at least one by these writers can be.