How 'Better Call Saul' Secretly Became One of TV's Best Dramas

The 'Breaking Bad' spin-off has done more than step out of its sibling series' shadow – it's officially become a canon-worthy show all its own

'Better Call Saul' started out as a good spin-off – after last night's finale, it's officially become a great show. Here's how it secretly happened. Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony

You can have too much of a good thing – if the saga of Walter White taught us nothing else, it surely taught us that. So when creator Vince Gilligan teamed up with writer Peter Gould to create a prequel to Breaking Bad – starring comedian Bob Odenkirk's sleazeball ambulance-chaser Saul Goodman – it was hard not to think they were aping their own creation. Wasn't returning to this world so soon, to tell the origin story of a drastically different kind of person, hubris on a Heisenbergian scale?

It's now safe to say that, after three seasons of Better Call Saul, Gilligan and Gould's confidence has paid off. They've somehow defied the odds and slowly, almost stealthily created a second canon-worthy drama, without attempting to recreate the glories of their previous smash hit – all this despite the increased presence of BB characters as the two shows' timeframes draw closer and closer together. That's a trick not even an experienced con man like "Slippin' Jimmy" McGill could pull off. How'd they do it?

Their success starts with the cast. Odenkirk's strengths in the starring role are obvious – that's why he got the spin-off, right? But Jimmy is a far cry from the Bad (il)legal eagle we came to know and love. He has yet to establish the unshakably confident glibness that made him such a criminal-empire asset, and so valuable to that hit series as comic relief. He's constantly struggling, fighting to win cases and win back the trust of his loved ones, elated when he succeeds and miserable when he fails. The actor's performance isn't showy; simply by adding high-pitched notes of glee or desperation to his voice, or turning it steely and cold, he reveals a startling emotional range.

The supporting players are just as strong, starting with Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, the aging ex-cop turned gangland fixer who's so prominent on the show that he functions as a co-protagonist. With his craggy, taciturn face and sepulchral voice, he just radiates world-weariness in the role – a perfect fit for the way Mike is written, as he painstakingly performs the tedious work of surveillance and sabotage with barely a word of dialogue for minutes at a time.

As Jimmy's girlfriend, business partner and conscience-slash-enabler Kim Wexler, Rhea Seehorn's role is anything but flashy – but she is such a marvel of restraint that it doesn't matter. Her drive, her skills, her frustration with being yoked to so many difficult men, her embrace of a savior complex that Jimmy's all too willing to fall back on: Seehorn sells it all with coiled-spring body language and painfully expressive eyes. The rest of the cast, from Patrick Fabian's suit-and-tie big shot/sparring partner Howard Hamlin to Michael Mando's mild-mannered mid-level drug dealer Nacho Varga, all make the most of their screen time. (And welcome back Gus Fring, Giancarlo Esposito's icy Breaking Bad druglord who finally made his long-awaited debut on the show after Gilligan and Gould had begun dropping some Season Two brain-teaser hints.)

But the big revelation here is Michael McKean, playing Jimmy's his older, smarter, mentally ill and implacably vindictive brother Chuck. His successful, ailing lawyer can frighteningly competent and ambitious one moment, helpless and crippled in the face of his psychosomatic condition the next. The scenes in which he and Jimmy really tear into each other – when Chuck reveals he's been sabotaging his kid brother's career, or when Jimmy pays him back by humiliating him on the stand – are the BCS equivalents of Walt-and-Skyler blowups. They convert personal pain into a fuel that both drives the story and threatens to burn it all down. Which, eventually, is exactly what happens – if you've seen the third season's finale, you know that the character's arc had already been creeping into self-destructive territory. It's the way McKean lets you see that gradual deterioration under the I'm-all-better-now! guise that makes the performance stunning. If he does not win an Emmy for this, there is no God.

Better Call Saul has also secretly morphed into one of the most visually accomplished shows on the air. Bad's riotous visuals echoed its chaotic plot, but this prequel has taken a more austere, slow-and-steady approach to its storytelling – and its cinematography follows suit. Directors of photography Arthur Albert (for Seasons One and Two) and Marshall Adams (his successor for Season Three) favor shot compositions that emphasize the geometry of the spaces that Jimmy & co. find themselves in: rectangular windows, square glass bricks, the diagonal slash of a staircase, the glowing arches of a conference table's lights. The result is an elegant claustrophobia, in which the characters look pinned to a grid or a game board, unable to control their own movements.

And during the show's third season, Adams adapted Albert's already impressive use of different lighting styles into a cleverly coded system, to the point where you could almost tell which character's story we'd be following before they appeared on screen. Jimmy's segments are brightly lit by the New Mexico sun or by the glare office-light fluorescents, casting a spotlight on his sins. Chuck exists in a shadowy world of his own making, silhouetted in the darkness of his house against a clean white haze of daylight from his windows or the glow of his indoor lantern. Mike's nocturnal prowlings are given an amber yellow cast – the color of caution, warning and ear, all subliminally signaling us to slow down and watch out.

It's a color that suits the whole show. Better Call Saul rarely indulges in the breakneck action-thriller pyrotechnics that has characterized most antihero-TV appointment viewing (including its sibling show). The pace is slow, deliberate, and in the case of Mike's scenes this season, almost meditative. But to think that just because the stakes are smaller that they aren't just as high is a mistake. Each decision these characters make – to take on a security job, to bamboozle old biddies, to undermine a brother, to go into business with a boyfriend – brings Jimmy McGill one step closer to becoming Saul Goodman, criminal attorney. That journey ends in an Omaha, Nebraska Cinnabon, where he's forced to spend the rest of his days in hiding, thousands of miles and hundreds of dead bodies between him and the people he once loved. We don't know what happens to Kim; after last night's stunning seasonal bow, we have a sneaking (and queasy) suspicion as to what Chuck's fate might be. We already know what eventually happens to Mike.

The result is that Saul does more than shake off the spin-off curse of contempt-breeding familiarity and diminishing returns – it becomes a singular, slow-motion tragedy, a car-wreck that takes its time getting to the inevitable carnage. The series' calmer, more even pace gives you the false hope that the descent of Jimmy and the rise of Saul can be avoided; the fact that you're made to care about this formerly peripheral MVP only makes its unfolding that much more painful to watch. That's the brilliance of BCS. It's the story of a bad man trying, desperately and futilely, to break good. Only there's no success like failure – and failure's no success at all.