In Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan sustains tension across the 60 minutes of one episode solely through a series of encounters between two men and a fly in an enclosed indoor environment: ostensibly dull, but of nerve-pounding excitement when played out on screen. Three seasons in, and its prequel retains the same static suspense.
Although the primary arc follows the fallout of Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) recorded confession, Jonathan Banks’ gruff, stoic fixer Mike remains the standout. His efforts to find the individual responsible for his tracker and failed attempt to kill Hector might have felt cumbersome in the wrong screenwriter’s hands, but Gilligan’s minimalist dialogue coupled with the skill of Marshall Adams’s cinematography imbues each individual shot with intrigue and unease. Even though there is no clear enemy in sight, the claustrophobic close-ups as Mike inserts trackers to bait the perpetrator inexplicably increases the sense of dread and tension. Gilligan revels in slow pace; even though we know that Mike will survive, and that Jimmy will transform into the cult icon we all know and love, we’re more than happy to sit along for the slow yet exhilarating ride. The transformation of the mundane into something more exhilarating and enthralling is what sets Breaking Bad apart, and the same certainly applies to Better Call Saul.
Colour choices imbued with heavy symbolism is another central feature of both original and spin-off. We can trace the moral change of Walter White from the passive plum shirt during his cancer diagnosis in Season One right through to immorality and pitch black garments by the end of Season Five. The pigmentation of garments is also a central aspect of BCS: the colours chosen for Jimmy’s clothes in first two seasons reflects his vibrancy as an anti-hero. Yet as his wavering principles become more pronounced, we meet the lawyer increasingly in grey and black attire, with only the occasional glimpse of blue remaining under his jacket.
Contrary to the sleek, groomed figures of Don Draper or Josiah Bartlet, one of BCS’s many uncommon geniuses lies in the visible age of its characters. Jimmy, for all his whimsical eccentricities, is an individual living in the waning glories of his lifetime. Gilligan doesn’t rely on casting a well-groomed all-American heartthrob to develop his narrative or develop a character dichotomy within a romantic relationship, but chooses to focus primarily on two brothers. Whilst Micheal McKean may be known more for his comedic performances, his turn as Jimmy’s bitter and self-righteous older brother Chuck expertly reveals inherent human hypocrisies. By all rights, we should be rooting for Chuck’s hard-nosed sense of justice and law, but his deep-seated resentment robs us of any possible sympathy. He almost always maintains an astounding level of control towards clients and colleagues, versus the cold apathy he directs at Jimmy. Therefore, the moment when this balance begins to fail in the season’s latter half counter-intuitively elicits a glorious cry of triumph from the audience, though McKean’s ability to still evoke a sense of humanity from his struggles in each pained and contorted facial movement exemplifies his nuanced performance.
Rhea Seehorn also remains a highlight, and stands out as one of contemporary television’s rare examples of an engaging and forceful female lead. She deals with Jimmy’s grievances with measured restraint while continuing her independent work with Masa Verde with fiercely determined resolve. One of the episodes details a montage of Kim’s morning routine; instead of returning home to wash, she showers at the gym and then continues her work at the office. Although she eventually suffers a moral crisis over her actions, Gilligan does not depict her character in crying distress, but through more subtle acts; as she persistently checks over legal documents, she wavers between the use of a full stop, semi-colon or colon, and refuses Jimmy’s pleas to stop working overnight in order to complete documents for her new client. The dramatic irony that her character doesn’t make it onto the screens of Breaking Bad only increases our tension and regret at the absence of such a brilliant and slow-burning character.
Season Three remains at the same remarkable standard as previous entries, and remains one of the most compelling TV series of the decade so far. And with Season Four already in the works? S’aul good, man.