This kind of post might seem a little bit unusual compared to the stuff I usually write. Typically I try to write about interesting things happening in my life or fun ideas I have - not a review on one of the most popular shows on TV. Surely this has already been done to death right? Who needs another review for something that's already so critically acclaimed; any critic will readily provide you a great list of reasons why Better Call Saul deserves watching.
However, there's two reasons why I think this is worth writing. The first is to get my thoughts on this show off my chest. That is the biggest reason I write after all - I write for myself. Because I like recording what I'm thinking, and because writing allows you to come up with all sorts of thoughts you wouldn't otherwise have. By the end of this, I imagine my feelings towards Better Call Saul will not only be much more settled and easier to express, but also I'm sure I'll pick up some new ideas along the way. You can't force this process; the only way is to write.
The other reason is that I'm not a huge fan of how many typical reviews are written. I'm sure some people enjoy them, but they don't really make me want to watch or read something. Better Call Saul is a quirky, dark character study that manages to stand on its own without being overshadowed by the series that spawned it. I'm sure it is, but what does that actually mean? Character studies are cool I guess, but that doesn't tell me many details about what sets this apart.
Likewise, many of the reviews in comments often read as like An indisputable 10/10. Excellent acting, music, visuals, plot, and dialogue. Literally the best show of all time, I'm leaving my life savings to Vince Gilligan. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much (go check out some IMDB reviews and you'll see). Again, you have to remember that reviews are written for people who've never seen this so saying how much you love it is interesting but still doesn't tell you much about the show. For the record, I did really enjoy Better Call Saul but when recommending it to others I think it's better to discuss specific features of the show rather than how much I personally enjoyed it.
When it comes to media, I would typically rather see something that a small number of people loved than something a larger number of people merely liked. Even if a show is divisive and hard to love, the fact that some people do love it and feel passionate about it is a much stronger endorsement that thousands of 4/5s. Media like that often has something to say, something unique and interesting that makes it stand out, and that's what I'm really looking for in a show or a book (or a game or a movie or a song or a play).
So when reviewing something, like say Better Call Saul, I want to focus on the things that I personally loved about it. Sure, this isn't some sleeper indie loved by few but hated by many - it's broadly quite popular, but importantly people do love it. Instead of discussing the plot, acting, and visuals in isolation like a traditional review there are some specific things I really enjoyed that I would rather discuss. And of course Better Call Saul is exceptional at all of those criteria, but so are a dozen other shows that lack the special sauce of Better Call Saul. That uniqueness is what I'd like to pick apart.
Some disclaimers: I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but I will be discussing some of the basic aspects of the show like it's characters and its premise. I'll also make a few comparisons to Breaking Bad, which is necessary is Better Call Saul is really an evolution of everything the creators pioneered in their first show, but again I'll try not to spoil anything other than the basics. So, here goes.
Taking Life Slow
The first thing that struck me about Better Call Saul was the cinematography. Not just the fact that it is technically impressive, but the way the cinematography works with the pacing and the rhythm of the show. You see, it's not shot like a traditional thirty minute thriller or hour long drama. People describe it as a slow burn, but I think that's understating it. Better Call Saul is a show that knows how to take it's time, and how to revel in the subtle beauty of each moment.
You see, the slow pacing of the show is very deliberate. It can be one of the show's biggest strengths if you're willing to give it your time and attention span. Part of it may be due to its appreciation of the western genre, which often takes its time and lingers on shots of wide open expanses and big blue skies. It's hard to give you a taste of what this is like just through writing, but let me give it a try.
Imagine your own life as if it were a tv show or movie. Take an everyday scene of something you do every night, let's say making pasta for dinner. Really imagine it, picture what you're seeing through your mental camera as artistically framed as possible. How does it look?
Is it a tightly edited, snappy montage of you boiling the pasta, stirring the sauce, grating the cheese? Something like that might be right at home in a viral tiktok video perhaps. Or maybe, if you like taking your time with things, this little mental movie lingers on the small details. The lid of the pot slowly steaming up until a little droplet of water finally condenses, and then slowly meanders its way down to drip back into the pot. Your indecision while picking a knife as your hand slowly hovers over each one, and then as you take your chosen knife out of frame the camera pauses on the one that was left behind. That kind of describes the visual style of Better Call Saul, and is what I came to love.
Not only does the show exude style from the technical brilliance of each shot, but nothing else I've found on TV is willing to spend so much of its audience's time on these things; close ups of the actors as they slowly mull over an idea or on a lone car slowly driving down a road with the brilliant blue sky shining in the background. Some episodes might devote ten minutes to a character slowly and deliberately surveilling a target without a shred of dialogue. It makes sense that in today's busy world this might not have general appeal, but I loved seeing how the creators could dramatize and beautify little moments of everyday life.
I appreciate shows that reward the viewer for giving them their full attention, and this is another area where the slow pacing shines. Each of these long, deliberate scenes are not there just to pad out the episode length; they tell you little stories about the characters or the world. This is not a show you could listen to in the background while doing something else. It takes some thought and focus to put together what the creators mean, especially in the quiet scenes when all the best acting is happening in a few quick glances.
This focus on the artistic side of cinematography enables new and intricate ways of digging deep into the characters. Spending time on the subtleties of the actors' little moments and the tiniest expressions on their faces lets you get to know them and fleshes them out more than most other media I've seen. That helps contribute to one of Better Call Saul's greatest strengths: in addition to the extremely talented main character, each of the supporting actors are more complex and scene-stealing than the leads in some other pieces of media.
I sometimes like to imagine my life as a show - perhaps with days being episodes and years being seasons. Most days are pretty uneventful - I'll bike somewhere new or spend some time cooking dinner. There's not always a lot of action or drama, but does that make it uninteresting? Could the mundane, boring tasks I do everyday be framed in such a way as to draw out the beauty and drama inherent in everything in do? If the creators of Better Call Saul were in charge of doing so, I firmly believe they could. It's changed how I view the things I do, and for that I am grateful that I watched this show.
The Superpower of Talking
I think perhaps now it's time to discuss the main attraction. The titular Saul Goodman, sleazy lawyer running scams and defending the worst criminals in Albuquerque. All of the usual things about his performance apply: he's an excellent actor with incredible range, has great chemistry with the other leads, and nails the role. However there's one particular aspect of his I want to highlight, something that I think he does really well.
One way to describe the character of Saul might be as a con man. I think con magician might fit better, since watching him work is like magic. It takes an incredible actor with an huge amount of charisma to convincingly pull off what Saul is capable of. No matter what situation he is in, no matter how bad it is, he can almost always get out of it with his quick thinking and witty words. It's amazing to watch him feign sadness or anger, and he portrays it well enough that you can see the cunning layer of wit behind whatever facade he's putting up.
Sometimes I like to take my favorite superheros and drop them into the middle of other pieces of media, and imagine how they would do. What if Spiderman was in John Wick? How would Batman do in an Oceans 11 heist? It's fun because this typically highlights how strong these characters' powers are. That's what superpowers do, they make you greater than regular humans. They set you free of the fear and impotence that someone would typically have in a scary situation.
As I watched Better Call Saul, that's essentially how I started to think about Saul's ability to plan and trick and scheme. Sure, he's not all powerful and he'd probably lose in a regular fist fight with most people, but when his power shines it really is impressive. I started imagining dropping him into a John Wick movie or an Oceans 11 heist and I think, against all odds, if he had time to plan and people to talk to he'd do quite well. He has an uncanny ability to convince people, to wrap them around his finger and make the rules of a system work for him. It's really amazing to watch and it makes me wonder.
Unlike super strength or flight, Saul's 'power' is entirely possible if a little bit exaggerated. Surely there are very successful people out there like him; people who can talk their way into anything. Even I could get better at that with a little practice and some bits of charisma. It wouldn't quite be a superpower, but there's a lesson in there to take home. You can get surprisingly far if you know how to give people what they want. Even if he sometimes uses his powers for bad, at least his heart is (occasionally) in the right place.
Most superpowers aren't even remotely close to the realm of possibility. No matter how much you train and study, you'll never make a real iron man suit of armor or become as skilled as Batman. But, with practice, you could one day approach a social cunning and charisma similar to what he has. Because his story remains somewhat realistic, it's fun to watch him get out of the craziest situations nothing but his words and his sheer belief in himself and think "gee, I could probably do that too someday". Maybe it's because I always enjoyed debating and presenting but this aspect Saul really appealed to me.
A Flair for Showmanship
Saul is the kind of person who is always putting on a show. In the courthouse, he is playing the role of a respectable defense lawyer to the judge and the jury. On the streets, he's presenting himself as a tough, street smart individual who's not to be messed with. When running a con of some kind, he's someone else entirely, putting himself into the role of a waiter or millionaire or coin expert. And, most of all, the biggest show he puts on is the one he does for himself. The most emotionally painful moments in the show are where he is clearly covering up his own pain by putting on an act to himself and the world, and you start to wonder just how many layers does this character have?
Of course not only is he an incredible actor (both in and out of character) but he knows how to play to his audience. There are a number of incredible sequences in this show where you see Saul acting a little strange, or unusually emotional. You as the audience have to figure out if this is Saul, or if he's just playing a role for one of this cons, or even if he's overplaying a role to sell somebody else's con. Like I said above, I appreciate it when shows reward the viewer and respect their intelligence, and it's often a wonderful puzzle to try and figure out what exactly is going on when you're plopped right in the middle of a scheme.
This is something he builds on throughout the show as well. At the beginning he's still finding his feet when it comes to performing for a crowd but by the end he can play them like a fiddle and get people to think whatever he wants them to think. After all, that's what being a lawyer is about right? Plus, because of the deliberate pacing you get to see each meticulous and painstaking step he goes through to ensure each scheme of his is successful. When watching him plan and execute, you just can't tear your eyes away from the screen. He is so incredibly compelling.
I kind of like his approach not only because it's really entertaining to watch him change personas at the flip of a switch but it's similar to what I do. No, I'm not a stone cold charlatan who is always running a con, but I do tend to think of social encounters in terms of shows I put on. I have an interview, I better act like the best ever job candidate they've ever seen! I'm going on a hike, I must summon the version of myself that has forged rivers and scaled mountains! Importantly, I mainly put these shows on to myself. It's less of a con man thing and more of a mindset tool. For motivation, and to make life a little more fun.
I don't want to spoil too much so I'll keep this section short, but it's worth mentioning. Take the predecessor to Better Call Saul: Breaking Bad. As you may have guessed from the title it's about the opposite to redemption; a man slowly losing his soul. Meanwhile, I recently discovered (as I played Red Dead Redemption 2) that well done stories about redemption really resonate with me. Themes like discovering your place in life, making amends, looking to the future instead of the past.
Which of these better fits Better Call Saul? Well, I can't tell you. You'll have to watch it for yourself to find out. I will say, however, that there are strong elements of both themes throughout the entire story. Saul is always struggling to do the right thing, then slipping into criminality, then struggling again. Right up until the final episode you don't entirely know if Saul will end up as more of a good guy or bad guy. This tension is absolutely thrilling, and I can tell you that there are times I intensely hated Saul and other times where I felt nothing but pity for him.
A Masterclass in Showmaking
If I had to sum it up, I think Better Call Saul is the ultimate TV Show. Not because it's necessarily the best show of all time, but because it exemplifies the strengths of the medium to the fullest extent; it tells a story that another medium just couldn't equivalently convey. The visuals which can only shine due to the time and care that was put into them, unfeasible in a movie or a game. The way that the actors grew with their roles, and the way that the roles in turn grew with their actors. The way it built off of an already extremely successful property, which let the creators perfect their own formula over the span of a decade. All of it makes for a transcendant viewing experience.
Plus, there are so many things about that I haven't even mentioned here. The brilliant side characters, some of whom shine even more than Saul at times. The neo-Western themes, involving beautiful expansive shots and morally complex dilemmas. The absolutely intense arguments Saul has, booming with energy. I enjoy watching arguments and these are some of the best acted arguments in all media. I still go back and rewatch them sometimes. The excellent memes as well, spawned by an audience just as enthralled with the show as I was.
After finishing this show, I felt compelled to write this. I don't think it's anywhere close to my best work, but there's just nothing else out there like Better Call Saul. Nothing else I've seen, not even Breaking Bad, comes close to hitting on that perfect combination of factors that Better Call Saul mastered. I hope I can find more media as brilliant as this was, but until then at least I can always revisit it, and this post, to keep my favorite parts fresh.