Skip to main content

'Better Call Saul' might be the greatest of all time — if it can stick the landing

Better Call Saul, the AMC show which serves as both a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad, has been outstanding ever since it debuted in 2015 says TV critic David Bianculli. The final episodes of the final season begin streaming tonight.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on July 11, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 11, 2022: Interview with Christine Elkins; Review of 'Better Call Saul', review of Jacob Garchik CD.



This is FRESH AIR. Fourteen years ago, in 2008, Vince Gilligan created a drama series for AMC called "Breaking Bad." It lasted for five years. And our TV critic, David Bianculli, ended up calling it his favorite TV drama series of all time. But, he says, there's another currently running TV series that soon may unseat it. That show, also from AMC, is "Better Call Saul," which tonight begins presenting its final handful of episodes before calling it quits. Here's David's review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Better Call Saul" premiered in 2015 and tonight begins presenting the final episodes in its sixth and last season. Vince Gilligan is behind "Better Call Saul," too, along with co-creator Peter Gould. They and their creative team have designed "Better Call Saul" as both a prequel and a sequel to "Breaking Bad," following one of that earlier show's colorful supporting characters. Like "Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul" has been outstanding from the start and, depending on how well it sticks its landing in these final episodes, could end up as the best dramatic TV series ever made. And that fascinates me because "Better Call Saul" the series has been entirely reverse-engineered, designed and built from pieces of the earlier show.

Now that it's about to end, it's fun to look back at exactly how the character and story of Saul were crafted from the original seeds sown on "Breaking Bad." With that previous series, Vince Gilligan knew the journey he wanted his main character to take. Walter White, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, would go from meek high school science teacher to murderous, meth-manufacturing drug lord. But the path to get from that Point A to Point B was wide-open. With "Better Call Saul," it's different. Short, intermittent snippets are set in the future after "Breaking Bad," but most of the series is an origin story following the character of shifty lawyer Saul Goodman, whom we first met in Season 2 of "Breaking Bad." Saul was and is played by comedian Bob Odenkirk as the type of lawyer who talks loudly and carries a heavy shtick, especially in local TV spots advertising his services.


BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul) Hi. I'm Saul Goodman. Did you know that you have rights? The Constitution says you do, and so do I. I believe that until proven guilty, every man, woman and child in this country is innocent. And that's why I fight for you, Albuquerque.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Better call Saul.

BIANCULLI: Peter Gould wrote the episode of "Breaking Bad" that introduced Saul Goodman. When it came time to make a series out of better call Saul, the writing staff took its inspiration from ideas and lines of dialogue that Gould had intended as throwaways. For example, the series "Better Call Saul" presented Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, a low-rent lawyer who would take several seasons to adopt the persona of Saul Goodman. But the seeds were there from the start in the first "Breaking Bad" episode where Odenkirk's Saul meets Cranston's Walter White. Walter is pretending to be someone else, a man named Mayhew, which is when we learn that the name Saul Goodman is an alias as well.


ODENKIRK: (As Saul) Mayhew. Is that Irish or English?

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter) Irish.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul) Faith and begorrah, a fellow potato-eater. My real name's McGill. Yeah, the Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak. I digress.

BIANCULLI: "Better Call Saul" not only recalled that exchange but built upon it. The part of the spinoff series that was set in the past was all about Jimmy McGill and two other prominent characters, neither of whom had appeared in "Breaking Bad" at all. One was Jimmy's girlfriend, Kim Wexler, a fellow lawyer, and eventually fellow con artist, played so mysteriously by Rhea Seehorn. The other was Jimmy's older brother, Chuck, played by Michael McKean, whose character was a much more successful and respected attorney. These were great new additions.

Kim, like Jimmy McGill and Walter White, was a character we got to watch breaking bad over a very slow and sad downward spiral. And the sibling rivalry between Jimmy and Chuck was as wonderful to watch as the one between Frasier and his brother Niles on the sitcom "Frasier," which was a spinoff from another fabulous sitcom, "Cheers." Both those brothers, Niles and Chuck, were created for their respective spinoffs, and "Better Call Saul" benefited just as greatly from the addition.

But Gilligan and Gould weren't through pulling inspiration from "Breaking Bad." The short black-and-white scenes showing the current fate of Saul Goodman - let's call them the sequel scenes - have Saul adopting yet another name and about to return to Albuquerque after hiding undercover as a Cinnabon manager in Nebraska. That may seem random, but in Saul's last conversation with Walter White on "Breaking Bad," Saul rejected Walter's demand to continue working as his lawyer by saying he had other plans, very specific plans.


ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Hey. I'm a civilian. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm nobody's lawyer. The fun's over. From here on out, I'm Mr. Low Profile, just another douche bag with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I'm lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You're still part of this...

BIANCULLI: Nothing from "Breaking Bad," though, is as surprisingly precise as an early indicator of what "Better Call Saul" would become as another scene from the episode introducing Saul. Walter and his meth-producing partner, Aaron Paul as Jesse, are upset that Saul won't do what they've asked him to do. So they dig a grave-sized hole in the desert, put on ski masks and abduct Saul, covering his head with a hood. They tie his hands behind his back, drive him to the desert, drop him to his knees at gunpoint and remove his hood. And that's when Saul gets scared, but only until he realizes they aren't who he thinks they are.


ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) No, no, no. No, it wasn't me. It was Ignacio. He's the one. Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no. (Non-English language spoken).

AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Shut up...

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman, non-English language spoken).

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Shut up. All right, just speak English.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Lalo didn't send you? No Lalo?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Who?

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Oh, thank God. Oh, Christ. Oh. I thought - what can I do for you, gentlemen? Anything. Just tell me what you need.

BIANCULLI: Once Saul realizes his abductors weren't sent by Lalo Salamanca, he relaxes completely, even though he's still bound and at gunpoint. Whatever this threat is, it's less scary than Lalo. That's the only mention of Lalo in "Breaking Bad," but clearly, from Saul's perspective, he's someone really to be feared. That's why it's so astounding that in the most recent episodes of "Better Call Saul," the most menacing and deadly character has been none other than that same Lalo, played by Tony Dalton. The most recent episode of "Better Call Saul," back in May, had Lalo kill a major character so brutally and shockingly that I still haven't forgotten it.

What happens now? I have no idea, and AMC sent out no episodes to preview. We do know that for these final episodes, Carol Burnett appears as a newly introduced character, which is really intriguing. And we know that the fate of Rhea Seehorn's Kim, whatever it is, will be drastic enough to keep her from making even a single appearance on "Breaking Bad" and will complete Jimmy's transformation into the totally amoral Saul Goodman. It's how Gilligan, Gould and company connect the dots between these new sets of Point A and Point B that will determine just how great a show "Better Call Saul" ends up being. The devil is in the details and, on this show, so is the brilliance.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "Better Call Saul," which returns tonight on AMC. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by trombonist Jacob Garchik that Kevin describes as quintessential COVID-era jazz. This is FRESH AIR.


You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue