There’s never been a television show quite like AMC’s Better Call Saul—which wrapped up its third season on Monday night—and I doubt there ever will be. No show has ever required such tremendous patience from its viewers while also rewarding that patience with such a compelling mix of character development, dark comedy, and morally fascinating drama. It’s a recipe that has made Better Call Saul not only a worthy heir to its parent series, Breaking Bad, but also the single best show on TV.
For those unfamiliar with Breaking Bad, it tells the story of a painfully overqualified high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque named Walter White who responds to a lung-cancer diagnosis by turning into a part-time, and eventually full-time, meth cook. Along the way, the teacher-cum-kingpin enlists a sleazy, wisecracking lawyer to help launder his vast sums of drug money. The lawyer’s real name is Jimmy McGill, but he goes by the pseudonym “Saul Goodman,” and his commercials and billboards proclaim: “Better Call Saul!”
When the Saul Goodman spinoff was first announced, many Breaking Bad fans thought it would be highly entertaining but not nearly as textured or philosophical as its predecessor. In fact, Better Call Saul has combined the irreverent humor that made Goodman such a terrific character on Breaking Bad with the novelistic depth that made Breaking Bad one of the greatest TV series of all time.
The show is, for the most part, a Breaking Bad prequel, though each of its three seasons has opened with black-and-white scenes depicting Saul Goodman’s post–Breaking Bad life in Omaha, where he works at a shopping-mall Cinnabon under the alias “Gene” to avoid getting arrested for his part in Walter White’s criminal empire. It’s unclear whether Better Call Saul will tell us what ultimately happens to Jimmy/Saul/Gene, but it’s hard to imagine that series co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould will let the show end without some kind of flash-forward revelation.
Their primary focus is explaining how Jimmy McGill turned into Saul Goodman—that is, explaining how he went from being a small-time con man, to being a good-hearted lawyer with mischievous impulses and insufficient personal discipline, to being a completely amoral huckster. We learn that, back in his hometown of Cicero, Illinois, Jimmy McGill was a scam artist known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” who enjoyed ripping people off (even his parents). We also learn that Jimmy idolizes his brother, a brilliant lawyer named Charles “Chuck” McGill, and that Chuck provided Jimmy with legal support following an arrest.
Attempting to go straight, Jimmy lands a job in the mailroom at Chuck’s Albuquerque law firm, HHM, and then receives a law degree of his own after completing online courses at the University of American Samoa. Having passed the bar exam, he hopes he can join HHM as an attorney. But the firm turns him down. Years later, he finds out that his brother was the one who refused to let him become an HHM lawyer.
Jimmy confronts Chuck and demands an explanation. “I know what you were, what you are,” Chuck replies. “People don’t change! You’re Slippin’ Jimmy! And Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine, but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!”
Their exchange highlights some of the central questions raised by the show. How does a moral transformation happen? Is it possible for a bad person to become a good person, and vice versa? To what extent does morality reflect uncontrollable circumstances, and to what extent does it reflect individual choices?
On Better Call Saul, characters have moral agency. And when they make a bad decision, it has significant consequences. “In reality people are often victims of circumstances,” series co-creator Peter Gould recently told The Atlantic. “On this show and on Breaking Bad, the fault is not in the circumstances but in the characters.”
Monday’s Season Three finale offers a great example of this, in a scene with Jimmy’s girlfriend, fellow lawyer, and office partner, Kim. After accidentally driving her car off the road due to physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion—along with a nagging sense of guilt—Kim reproaches herself for getting behind the wheel in such condition. “I could’ve killed someone,” she tells Jimmy. “I crossed three lanes of traffic, and I don’t remember any of it.”
Jimmy tries to make her feel better. “Look,” he says, “you were just doing what you thought you had to do, because of me.”
Kim takes a different view. “You didn’t make me get in that car,” she replies. “That was all me. I’m an adult, and I made a choice.”
In many ways, Jimmy’s feelings for Kim epitomize the conflict within his soul. He clearly adores Kim and wants to help her succeed and be happy; yet he also uses Kim’s success and happiness to justify an illegal act of sabotage against his brother.
Speaking of his brother, Jimmy reveals his underlying decency—or at least his capacity for decency—by caring for Chuck as he struggles with a form of mental illness. (Chuck believes he has “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”; in reality, his condition is psychological.) Jimmy shows his decent side once again in the Season Three finale, when he effectively sacrifices his elder-law business—and postpones a major payday—in order to atone for a misdeed and help an old lady regain her reputation and friendships.
Unfortunately, the episode ends in tragedy, as will the entire show. That’s inevitable when a series is framed around the title character’s moral descent. What makes Better Call Saul so remarkable is the way it combines the best elements of tragedy, comedy, and drama. Its plotlines may unfold slowly, but such pacing is necessary to ensure a nuanced and realistic depiction of moral transformation.
At its heart, the show is concerned with justice. As Better Call Saul co-creator Vince Gilligan, who also created Breaking Bad, told The Atlantic: “All of us feel a universal human desire that the universe be a just one. It’s important on this show that actions have consequences, and it was just as important on Breaking Bad.”
Back in 2011, when Breaking Bad was still on the air, the essayist Chuck Klosterman argued that the show’s greatness stems from its moral clarity. Breaking Bad is “built on the uncomfortable premise that there’s an irrefutable difference between what’s right and what’s wrong,” Klosterman wrote. Moreover, “it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice.”
The same can be said of Better Call Saul—which is one of the main reasons that it stands above all other series currently on television.