Voices: Prequels usually disappoint – so what’s the secret to Better Call Saul’s success?

Voices: Prequels usually disappoint – so what’s the secret to Better Call Saul’s success?
·5 min read

When Vince Gilligan first announced that his next project after Breaking Bad would be Better Call Saul, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, it was nice while it lasted.” The hubris of trying to make a follow-up to what is easily one of the most perfect TV shows ever made is bad enough, but a prequel set before any of the interesting parts of the show even existed? And not just a prequel, but a prequel about a comic-relief side character?

It really felt like Gilligan was trying to win some Brewster’s Millions-style bet, except with his reputation instead of money.

Flash forward nine years, and I’m somehow more invested in the fate of the quirky lawyer played by the Mr Show guy than I ever was in the meth kingpin of ABQ. Will they Game of Thrones the ending and make me regret ever caring in the first place? Short of Peter Gould looking down the barrel of the camera and saying “It was all a dream, you idiot,” I don’t really see how they could.

It’s rare for any TV show to reach that level of prestige, but Better Call Saul had the deck stacked against it from the beginning. It’s hard enough getting people to care about a relatively minor character from a show that so heavily revolved around its protagonist, but to make that show a prequel, as well, is a losing game.

Prequels are by definition one of the trickiest beasts in fiction to get right, because it’s so easy for them to throw out any sense of intrigue from the beginning. It’s why Star Wars is in such a holding pattern right now; because the sequel trilogy didn’t do well, Disney is terrified to advance the timeline beyond a particular 40-year period, so keeps giving us stories about characters whose fate we already saw play out years – or in some cases, even decades – ago.

It doesn’t matter how many cool fight scenes you put in your Obi-Wan Kenobi show, I’m still going to have a hard time caring about a character we already saw die in the 1970s.

There’s also the danger of over-explaining the situations and motivations of the original, giving us new contexts that actually dilute stories instead of adding depth to them. I don’t care how many Reddit memes you make trying to rehabilitate Attack of the Clones: for me, witnessing Darth Vader’s awkward teenage years turned him from a goth space samurai into late-career Tom DeLonge, and I’ll never forgive George Lucas for it.

Better Call Saul somehow skirts around both of these problems, providing a backstory to the events of Breaking Bad that manages to add crucial dimensions to the story without undermining what made it great in the first place. By the final episodes of season six, it’s clear that Bob Odenkirk’s polyonymous lawyer is the linchpin that holds Walter White’s entire world together, as a series of relatively minor transgressions begin to cascade into an avalanche of culpability for a character to whom we probably didn’t give much thought while watching the original show.

Similarly, the show takes a risk by allowing us to spend more time with enigmatic characters like Gus and Mike, whose intrigue in Breaking Bad is largely born of the sense of mystery that surrounds them. The show at times almost feels like a rebuttal to the type of fan who bought an “I am the one who knocks” T-shirt in 2011, placing the characters in situations that allow them to show that they have dimensions beyond a couple of cool one-liners and a stoic expression.

However, those events aren’t crucial to an understanding of Breaking Bad. You never feel like you were missing something on the first go-around that’s suddenly been revealed to you. Rather, Better Call Saul is more like a seasoning that brings out a depth of flavour in a dish that was already pretty great to begin with.

Another big problem with prequels is that they tend to introduce a bunch of new characters who we know aren’t in the stories that take place in the future of that world, which either tells us that they aren’t all that important to the story, or gives us an idea of where they’ll end up. If you make a Harry Potter prequel about Dumbledore’s childhood friend Steve, knowing full well that nobody ever talks about Steve in books one through Cursed Child, it’s difficult to take Steve seriously as a vital part of Harry Potter lore.

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Better Call Saul uses this to its advantage, creating narrative tension by making us care about characters we know full well will be gone by the time Heisenberg rolls into town. “You like Kim Wexler?” it asks us. “She seems pretty important to Saul, right? Something terrible must happen to her for him to never mention her name again.” It’s a brutal and effective way to make use of the audience’s knowledge of future events.

Perhaps the bravest thing the show does is allow everything time to breathe. In contrast to the fast-talking Saul Goodman, everything else moves at a snail’s pace, with shots lingering on nothing in particular for what feels like for ever, as though it was directed by Tarkovsky on Quaaludes.

In a world that’s moving towards bite-sized media and frenzied content creation, it’s kind of mind-blowing that a show with this little conventional action has managed to do so well. I’m going to miss it, mostly because I’m pretty sure there’s never going to be another one like it. I’m tempted to skip the finale, just so I’ll always have it to look forward to. But I don’t think that’ll happen.

I’m an addict for Gilligan’s product, and I can’t wait for that one final hit. Unless it sucks. Oh God, please don’t let it suck.