Why Does “Better Call Saul” Work as a “Breaking Bad” Prequel, Even if We Know What Happens?


During the Talking Saul (2016) after-show following Better Call Saul’s (2015) second season premiere, Chris Hardwick asked Saul co-creator and writer Peter Gould if it is dangerous creating a spin-off as a prequel, since the end of the story being told is already known to viewers. “It’s incredibly dangerous,” he responded. “It’s totally scary. But we have faith that the interesting thing is the journey, not the result, and it opens up more questions.” In essence, that mystery is what makes Better Call Saul’s drama real. It is what helps build the series’ characters, drives the narrative and keeps people intrigued: we’ve seen the end, and we’ve seen the beginning, and because the two are so vastly different we want to know what happens in between.

Better Call Saul opens its seasons with black-and-white scenes of the title character (Bob Odenkirk) using his third identity—Gene— and managing an Omaha, Nebraska, Cinnabon located within the depressing nucleus of a shopping mall food court. These scenes not only play on the conversation Saul has with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) during the character’s final appearance on Breaking Bad (2008), in which he claims that the “best case” scenario for his character’s future would be to become a Cinnabon manager in Omaha, but they provide a framework for the spin-off series. We know that no matter what Jimmy McGill does during Better Call Saul, and no matter how much we may root for his success through nefarious criminal antics, this is how things end up. The scenes form an instant morality play. We love Jimmy’s character, his personality, his conflicted sense of self and duty and the way they balance and contend with his passions and obligations, but the writers want to continually remind us we’ve seen this guy’s fate. We know that all the relationships he’s forming on Better Call Saul will end in destruction. We know all the success and money and notoriety he achieves will result in a cramped, bland, midwestern apartment where he sits alone after long days, drinking by himself, in the dark.

Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul’s future-forward season opener

One technique in Better Call Saul that adds suspense, despite the prequel format, is the addition of new supporting characters that draw our attention and affection. Anyone who watches Better Call Saul likely asks over and over, “I wonder what happens to him/her?” in reference to the series’ various characters critical to Jimmy’s life at the time. Their presence is an incredible catalyst for intrigue, since during his tenure on Breaking Bad, Saul never mentions the majority of the people we see on Better Call Saul. These people become so far gone in Jimmy’s life that they aren’t even a footnote in his conversations. Where do they go? Do they remove themselves from his life when they see what he is becoming? Are they killed or arrested because of their closeness to him? The structure keeps the mind wondering.

The first season sees Jimmy developing a bitterness towards his life as a straight-shooting lawyer, working hard to go nowhere, trying to impress those he respects, all just to be ridiculed and stunted. We understand the “why” which propels him down the criminal route and have seen the result, but the interim journey is a curiosity. Jimmy McGill is a decent, empathetic, relatable man. We the audience can put ourselves in his shoes—everyone has worked hard at something only to get little recognition and to be frustrated to the point of wondering what the easier path may be, even if that path requires moral flexibility. Saul Goodman isn’t a good person, but Jimmy McGill is—or was—and so we root for him, despite knowing things go down the chute. The series feeds an emotional curiosity and plays a game of conflicted morality in which we as the viewer take part, a process which underlines the core purpose of dramatic storytelling. Season Two’s premiere episode ends with Jimmy finding a “do not touch” light switch on the wall of his swanky new office. He, like us, wants to know why and wonders what could possibly happen if he flicks the switch. We share in his rule-breaking desires, allowing him to fictionally do the things we opt out of in reality, all while foreshadowing his greater life of crime to come.

The light switch is symbolic of the character we’re watching. The black and white “future” scene which kicks off that episode shows Jimmy (Gene) stuck in the maintenance hallway of the mall where he works, after hours, alone with the garbage dumpster. The only ways out are to wait for someone to unlock the door, or to use the emergency exit and draw attention to himself. As a fugitive in hiding, he won’t use the emergency exit and draw attention to himself. It shows the character’s de-evolution, as the Breaking Bad-era Saul would have opened it and talked himself out of the situation, but Jimmy has truly been defeated if his natural instinct to always push that button, open that emergency door, and flick that restricted light switch has been thwarted.

On a compositional level, Better Call Saul’s shifts in time and structure keep the pace interesting. The black-and-white introductions take us far into the future, post-Breaking Bad, while the active series jumps around in its own storytelling. The series throws in flashbacks to Jimmy’s early days as a lowly criminal in Chicago and Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) tenure as a police detective in Philadelphia. All the while, it plays with the composition of its “present-day” narrative. Consider the start of Season Two, wherein we see Jimmy turning down a prestigious job offer set up for him by his on-again-off-again girlfriend and peer Kim (Rhea Seehorn) before getting in his car and driving off, humming “Smoke on the Water.” We saw the same humming scene at the closure of Season One, but the preceding job offer became new information with the opening of Season Two. This calculated malleability of the timeline provides contextual depth to scenes we already thought we understood, ever richening an already interesting world. (Breaking Bad also played with time in similar ways, often showing us the result of something before it happened, though we never knew it. The plane crash rubble which began every episode of its second season is a prime example.)

The final scene of the season one finale.

It’s in this moment that the seeds of Saul Goodman are planted, and the way the first season comes to a close. When season two opens, we learn through the partially-repeated scene the reason Jimmy is leaving this building is because he just refused a job offer from Davis & Main. He decides doing the right thing isn’t going to stand in his way moving forward. We see this mentality prove true as season two progresses: The flipping of the light switch, the instance with the “pie” videos, the creation of a Sandpiper victim commercial without following due process—Jimmy turns his behavior towards productivity and effectiveness, not concerning himself with whether or not the rules are being followed. As Chuck points out later in the season, Jimmy begins to function with the belief that the end always justifies the means.

Better Call Saul takes us on a journey to a destination we’ve already seen, but through a new route. Its primary interest is how. The road to that destination is complex and constantly reveals new angles and layers to the story. Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul proves it is good storytelling by making us care about connecting the dots to conclusions that are already revealed. The series plays on our psychology of knowing what is coming yet wanting to understand how the emotional, moral and personal changes fill in the gaps along the way — and even hoping, against reason, that we can avoid the inevitable outcome.