What We Learned About Breaking Bad From Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman. Photo: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

As a Breaking Bad fan, one of the joys of watching this season of Better Call Saul was seeing how it played off the show it came from. Personally, I don’t put too much stock in trawling every last scene for Easter eggs and find it a little "tinfoil hat" to do so, but as the season wore on, I found myself doing it naturally, in part because it seems like Gilligan et al. intended it. “We love rewarding the audience that pays strict, close attention,” he told The Hollywood Reporter before the season started.

Saul is a show that pays careful attention to itself and relishes in building a world so complete that it starts to take on the loose, natural quality of real life. As a viewer, though, I was less interested in the little things (like how Saul meets the Kettlemans at the same diner where Mike met Lydia in Breaking Bad) than in the bigger narrative and thematic threads that drew the shows together: Who are these people? How does the world they live in work? What do we learn in Breaking Bad that gets undermined by Better Call Saul, and how does Better Call Saul set us up to better understand Breaking Bad? Some thoughts, of varying sizes: 

Bigger Points:

Jimmy Tried
It’s easy to watch Breaking Bad and see Saul Goodman as a slimy, intractably corrupted guy with no interest in anything but the bottom line. The broadest story of Better Call Saul is learning that he didn’t start out that way. Set aside his petty con days as Slippin’ Jimmy; the interesting episode here is “RICO,” where we flash back to his days as a stooge in the Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill mailroom, pursuing a law degree in secret, too humble and excited to tell Chuck until he actually passes the bar. 

The relationship between Chuck and Jimmy was one of the most interesting facets of the season: In early episodes, it looked like Chuck was being protected by Jimmy, a doting younger brother bound by penance and familial obligation. (“Marco, I was done,” Jimmy explains to his friend during the opening flashback of “Marco.” “You understand? I didn’t beat the rap. Chuck flew in and saved my ass.”) The revelation of “RICO” is that it’s the other way around: Chuck, in his own backhanded, snobby way, has been holding Jimmy back — part of a sustained judgment that Jimmy has never been good enough and never will be. The moral being that good intentions don’t guarantee good results, a lesson that Walter White’s entire legend is staked on. The sad part is knowing that Saul — as we first met him on Breaking Bad — tried to live clean, and only succeeded when he gave up.  

The Past Never Leaves You
One of the biggest surprises of Saul was how much we learned about Mike Ehrmantraut, whom we meet on Breaking Bad as a stony henchman to Gus Fring, but who appears here as a humbler, conflicted ex-cop trying to outrun a past that proves surprisingly tenacious. Looking back on it, Breaking Bad tells us almost nothing about Mike’s personal life other than that he’s seriously dedicated to his granddaughter, Kaylee. The reasons for this become painfully clear in the Saul episode “Five-O,” one of the season’s best. It turns out that this isn’t just friendly grandpaternal affection, but the outgrowth of a deep, probably irrevocable guilt Mike feels for having led his son — Kaylee’s father — astray from his morals, which, in the end, gets him killed. 

In some ways, Mike’s story illustrates a moral logic of both Breaking Bad and Saul, namely, that all actions have consequences and that everything we do — especially the little things we know we’re not supposed to — leads us to where we end up. Though I don’t think anyone needs to have seen Breaking Bad in order to appreciate Saul, there’s something doubly poignant about seeing Mike’s story in retrospect: We think we knew him, but it turns out we had no idea. Suddenly, the line that connects his actions in Saul to his predicament in Breaking Bad seems less like chance and more like fate.

Davids and Goliaths, Squares and Outlaws
One of the lingering mysteries of Breaking Bad is how Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and Saul Goodman managed to occupy a room for more than four minutes without hurting each other. (A feat not always accomplished.) Watching Better Call Saul, though, you realize that no matter how successful Saul Goodman gets, he’s always going to see himself as a little guy, the Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill reject who struggled through the University of American Samoa only to get snubbed by his more powerful, pedigreed brother. You can see it from the season’s first episode, “Uno”: This is a guy with a chip on his shoulder so big he can barely walk. 

It makes sense, then, that he’d end up taking on clients like Walt and Jesse: Not only are the financial rewards considerable, but it’s probably in his nature to live on the side of he upstarts, the Davids to Gus Fring’s Goliaths. As for the question of living in or outside the law, refer to my first point: By the time we get to Breaking Bad, Jimmy has given up so thoroughly on the straight world that he takes on an entirely new name.

Tarantulas Won’t Hurt You, But There Is Something About the Desert …
Talking about New Mexico with a Philadelphia bartender during the long “Five-O” flashback, Mike gets warned about tarantulas. (“A big minus in my book,” the bartender says.) Later, in Breaking Bad, a tarantula becomes the central image for the killing of Drew Sharp, a teenager who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sharp’s murder is a huge turning point in the interior life of the show, a kind of moral Rubicon that illustrates Walter White’s final conversion into Heisenberg and helps shred what little sanity Jesse Pinkman has left.

In neither case does the tarantula actually harm anyone, but it does become a symbol of the desert — its quiet, its severity, its role as a place where people can disappear.

Name Games
Walter White becomes Heisenberg; Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, and eventually, as per the end of Breaking Bad and beginning of Better Call Saul, some guy named Gene who works at a Cinnabon in Nebraska. Gus Fring’s chicken chain in Breaking Bad — Los Pollos Hermanos — is just the front for a drug-smuggling operation; an empty name used to carry a secret, alternate identity. There’s the vacuum-repair guy in Breaking Bad who, in a poetic little flourish, sucks peoples’ identities off the map. Our first inkling of all this is during the Saul episode “Hero,” where Jimmy mimics the Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill billboard in an effort both to drum up business and bother Howard Hamlin — not a name change per se, but an indication of how slippery identity can be. 

Some Smaller Points, for Fun:

The Cadillac
In the season’s opening scenes, Jimmy walks through the courthouse parking lot toward his crummy Suzuki Esteem. Parked next to it is a white Cadillac DeVille — the same car Jimmy eventually manages to buy (and the one Marco assumes he’s already driving in “Marco”). Part of what makes Jimmy a sympathetic character is that he wants a more rewarding life than the one he has. Seeing the Cadillac is a reminder that the symbols of that life are right next to him, and yet impossibly out of reach.

The Nail Salon
On a couple of occasions in Breaking Bad, Saul suggests a nail salon as the perfect front for money-laundering, once to Jesse and Walt, once to Walt and Skyler. At the time, it seems like just another tacky idea from a guy in a kelly-green silk shirt, but now that we’ve seen his cramped little office in Saul, the suggestion seems more poignant — a reminder that the past is never that far away.

The Clothes (the clothes!)
One of Saul’s identifying traits in Breaking Bad is his wardrobe, itself a borderline-criminal offense. No doubt anyone who had watched BB remembered this as we watched Saul browse the suit shop in search of something that made him look like Howard Hamlin, momentarily brushing by the kind of orange number he’d buy when his budget grew. What’s interesting to me here isn’t just the literal foreshadowing, but the suggestion that Jimmy is someone who operates through appearance: He thinks dressing like Hamlin is enough to make him seem like Hamlin. (And then there’s the lawyerly occupation in general, a job where what actually happened is less important than the case you present.) Makes you wonder who Jimmy thinks he’s becoming when he finally restocks that closet. 

They seem to break a lot — a dangerous but slapstick scenario that allows both Saul and Breaking Bad to at least momentarily indulge in fare lighter than the moral health of men’s souls.

Tuco Salamanca Is an Extraordinarily Entertaining Individual
What a joy to get to see this lunatic answer his grandmother’s door during at the end of series premiere “Uno.” I guess we don’t really learn anything about him that we didn’t already know from Breaking Bad, but his genius bears repeating. Working title pitch: Tuco Play at That Game. I’ll wait in the lobby.