This review contains spoilers for the Season 4 premiere of Better Call Saul.Â
It was inevitable that Better Call Saul would creep closer and closer to Breaking Bad territory. Better Call Saul is a prequel, after all, and that’s what prequels do.
What wasn’t a given, and what’s made Better Call Saul such a rewarding experience, is that at its best, it doesn’t just tell us what happens before Breaking Bad. Instead, it reframes its parent series in a tragic new light.Â
To be sure, it’s still possible to enjoy Better Call Saul without having seen Breaking Bad. In fact, some of Saul‘s strongest elements have the least to do with its predecessor â like Kim Wexler, who continues to be the beating heart of Better Call Saul but was never even mentioned in Breaking Bad.Â
But fans of both shows will notice more overlap than ever before â which makes it all the more impressive that Saul Season 4 manages not to feel like a mere retread. Well, mostly.
Jimmy’s more Saul than ever, and it’s sad
Jimmy mourns Chuck.
Image: Nicole Wilder / AMC / Sony Pictures TV
Although Breaking Bad wasn’t exactly cheery, there was a dark fantasy underpinning Walt’s story: He was a downtrodden man who rebuilt himself as a fearsome kingpin, and enjoyed vengeance and validation in the process. Sure, stuff sucked for Jesse and Hank and Skyler and even Walt himself sometimes â but didn’t you feel a vicarious thrill when Walt thundered that he was “the one who knocks”?
Better Call Saul is also the story of a basically decent man breaking bad, but Jimmy’s arc is more sad than seductive: It’s the story of a man who tried to go good and failed. Season 4 picks up right after that fiery Season 3 finale, with Jimmy learning of Chuck’s death. Initially, he reacts with shock and grief. His voice is thick as he tells Kim that Chuck seemed fine just days ago: “Something must have happened. Something made him relapse.”Â
What played as amusing in Breaking Bad feels shattering in Better Call Saul.Â
That’s not the gut-punch of the episode, though. That comes at the very end, when Howard confesses he blames himself for Chuck’s death because they’d fought over an insurance issue â one that Jimmy helped create, unbeknownst to either Howard or Chuck â and Jimmy reacts with cruel nonchalance.
It’s the closest Jimmy has come to Saul’s cockroach-like emotional resilience, but what played as amusing in Breaking Bad feels shattering in Better Call Saul.Â
Bad‘s ugly allure came from Walt’s fundamental selfishness â he did it all for himself, as he admits late in the series, even as he kept trotting out excuses about providing for his family. The difference, in Saul, is that Jimmy has built his life around the people he cares about â first Chuck, then Kim. And if the look on Kim’s face is any indication, she’s going to be the one to feel it when he falls.
Nacho is quickly becoming Saul‘s secret weapon
Nacho steps up.
Image: Nicole WIlder / AMC / SOny Pictures TV
At least Jimmy remains a stone’s throw away from the organized-crime underworld that’ll eventually become Walt’s stomping ground and Saul’s downfall. The same cannot be said for Nacho, who’s already ensnared in a high-stakes plot involving Gus Fring, Hector Salamanca, Don Eladio, and Victor.Â
It took a few seasons for Better Call Saul to bring Nacho into focus, but it’s been worth the wait. Like Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, he’s a young man who only wanted to get a little bit involved in the drug trade, and quickly found himself way in over his head; also like Jesse, he’s a sympathetic figure surrounded by cold-blooded snakes.Â
Nacho brings an unpredictable human element that’s been lacking in the cartel storylines, which largely revolve around characters whose fates were already sealed in Breaking Bad. And while Breaking Bad showed us this world outside-in, from Jesse and Walt’s perspective, Nacho provides an opportunity to see it inside-out, from the viewpoint of a disillusioned and desperate foot soldier.
If Nacho’s role in the story feels a bit reverse-engineered at times â like Saul needed an excuse to keep Gus and Hector around â Nacho himself is compelling enough to justify his prominent presence. The fact that he poisoned Hector isn’t what makes him interesting, it’s the who and the why and the how. In an unhappy echo of Jimmy’s storyline, Nacho’s life revolves around a familial relationship that’s since been destroyed by his inability to stay out of trouble.
Nacho may not get a ton of screentime in the season premiere, but he has more to do in the two additional episodes shown to critics. And since Breaking Bad never explains what happened to him, his fate throws an interesting wrench into an otherwise cut-and-dried battle between drug lords.Â
Mike is still just Mike
At least Mike gets out of the booth this season.
Image: Nicole Wilder / AMC / Sony Pictures TV
… Which brings us to what remains the weakest part of the show: Mike Ehrmentraut.Â
To be sure, Better Call Saul at its worst is still better than a great many shows at their best. Mike is never boring to watch, whether he’s meticulously dismantling a car or playing the doting grandpa to Kaylee.Â
Saul, like Bad before it, is a show obsessed with the minute details and intricate processes of smart people at work, whether it’s Jimmy plotting against Chuck or Kim trying to land a new client, and precise, professional Mike is the purest distillation of that impulse. That montage of Mike zipping around the Madrigal warehouse is a joy because you know he knows what he’s doing, even if you’re not quite sure.Â
With few other places left to turn, Better Call Saul could just be in for some of its most jaw-dropping twists yet.Â
But four seasons in, Mike feels like a character who’s barely grown since Season 1’s “Five-O” â which was less a step forward than it was a look back at his tragic history. More worryingly, it’s hard to see where there’s even any room for Mike to grow, since we already know what he’s up to in Breaking Bad. Â
While Jimmy transforms into another person (Saul), and Kim and Nacho face uncertain futures, Mike has always been Mike and will always be Mike. All that’s left for him is to carry out the motions that’ll put him in the places we know he’s gonna be.Â
Then again, if there’s one thing the writers of this show are good at, it’s painting themselves into impossible corners and then coming up with thrilling, unexpected ways back out of it.Â
By that logic, then, maybe it’s for the best that Bad is encroaching on Saul. With few other places left to go, Saul could just be in for some of its most jaw-dropping twists yet.Â