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What Can ‘Better Call Saul’ Tell Us About ‘El Camino’?

For one: We can trust Vince Gilligan to expand the ‘Breaking Bad’ universe past his original series

Netflix/AMC/Ringer illustration

There is an understandable fervor surrounding the release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, an event that never seemed possible—or arguably, necessary. At a time when Dexter Morgan became a sad lumberjack and Damon Lindelof had to go into hiding, Breaking Bad was the rare prestige drama with a series finale that yielded near-unanimous praise from viewers and critics alike, closing the chapter on chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White while offering a light at the end of the tunnel for the oft-tortured Jesse Pinkman. (Indeed, creator Vince Gilligan’s script for the finale wraps up Jesse’s driving off in Todd’s El Camino with, “From here on, it’s up to us to say where he’s headed. I like to call it ‘something better,’ and leave it at that.”)

Of course, it won’t be left at that. El Camino is, first and foremost, a movie sequel about Jesse’s post–Breaking Bad fate, as he evades authorities for a chance at freedom with the help of old pals Skinny Pete and Badger. (That’s pretty much all we can say; El Camino has been shrouded in secrecy.) But while every Breaking Bad fan in your life is no doubt stoked about this sequel, El Camino arrives with a twinge of apprehension. By extending the Breaking Bad universe beyond its stellar finale, does Gilligan risk tarnishing the legacy of an all-time-great series? It’s not not fair to ask—don’t mess with perfection, etc.

But even well-meaning fan anxiety seems to disregard the fact that Gilligan and Co. have already succeeded in expanding the Breaking Bad–verse. Which is to say, you oughta be tuning into Better Call Saul.

The AMC prequel series is four seasons strong, and with a fifth arriving in 2020, Better Call Saul will, at the very least, log as many seasons as its sister series. It’s also just as brilliant, by working as the inverse of Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad centered on its evolution of a terminally ill man with good(ish) intentions—using his skills as a chemist to make meth in order to leave money for his family upon his death—into a monster of unrepentant greed and ego. Yes, you could say that [Captain Obvious voice] Walt wound up breaking bad. But if you rewatch Breaking Bad, as I’ve done during bouts of #Funemployment, you’ll probably find Walt’s behavior despicable much, much sooner than you did the first time, since you’re not making excuses for a guy who you now understand to be morally reprehensible.

Conversely, Better Call Saul wields your built-in knowledge of Saul Goodman—a criminal lawyer, emphasis on the criminal—as its own narrative device. There are no assumptions that this character is going to forge a better path; the series is a prequel, after all. And yet there’s just enough humanity in the man first known as Jimmy McGill that you’re actively rooting against a predetermined fate. Better Call Saul isn’t as explosive as Breaking Bad; there’s no chance Jimmy ever will do anything along the lines of masterminding prison assassinations. But having its lead character cross steeper ethical boundaries—putting other characters at risk in the process—becomes just as devastating to watch.

I swear this isn’t just recency bias: I love Breaking Bad, but I think Better Call Saul might be an even better show. In lieu of loud, groundbreaking developments, Better Call Saul focuses on the minutiae of its characters and their lives and operates at a more leisurely pace. It’s telling that the series’ signatures montages thus far include Mike Ehrmantraut’s tediously inspecting his car for a bug and Jimmy’s slowly drifting away from his on-again, off-again love interest Kim Wexler. (Kim, for what it’s worth, might also be the most compelling character in this whole damn universe. It should be an actual criminal offense that Rhea Seehorn hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy yet.) The show deploys confident, richly detailed storytelling with just the right amount of Breaking Bad fan service, with the likes of Gus Fring and various members of the Salamanca family popping up in their pre-Heisenberg existences.

For the characters that do overlap between both shows—namely Saul, Mike, and Gus—that extra attention adds to our understanding of the characters. The Saul we meet on Breaking Bad—a quintessential sleazeball with wacky suits and even wackier ads—is effectively a caricature of himself. (At the time, Saul seemed like an odd choice to helm a follow-up series; many fans would’ve loved to have seen the Rise of Gus.) The character’s artifice, however, was the point—paradoxically, Saul is the kind of lawyer New Mexico’s criminal underbelly can trust because he lacks moral principles. Knowing what lies ahead on Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul luxuriates in Jimmy’s journey to monstrosity—as well as Mike’s descent into Gus Fring’s inescapable vortex.

The dimensions that Better Call Saul adds to its characters, however, are not the kind of things that should directly inform El Camino. Again, Better Call Saul is a prequel, so there’s more time for character development between it and Breaking Bad than there is between Breaking Bad and El Camino. Searching Better Call Saul for some El Camino breadcrumbs would probably be fruitless, with one potentially big exception: Cinnabon Gene. (Spoilers for Better Call Saul ahead.)

Throughout the four seasons of Better Call Saul, the series has sprinkled in black-and-white flash-forwards of Jimmy working as a Cinnabon employee in Omaha, Nebraska, under a new identity: Gene Takovic. The intention of these flash-forwards is not entirely clear, though it’s possible that the prequel will eventually stop being a prequel and make Saul-as-Gene its main story line to wrap up the series. The sequences have been sparse on details, but it’s clear that the specter of Heisenberg and New Mexico is hanging over Saul’s head. In one of the Omaha vignettes, he freaks out when his cab driver has Albuquerque memorabilia in his car. Is Saul’s paranoia over the cab driver unfounded? We don’t find out, and that’s the best part:

If Jesse were to escape authorities for good in El Camino, he would likely need a new identity, which would theoretically put him in the orbit of Robert Forster’s Ed, the man who created identities for Saul and Walt. How that would connect Jesse to Saul-as-Gene is unclear, but it’s the closest thing Better Call Saul and El Camino would have to a through line—even if the connection is as simple as Jesse being just as paranoid as Saul after the events of Breaking Bad. Alternatively, the Galaxy Brain take would be that all of this stuff becomes connected—Jesse’s journey in El Camino, which takes place directly after Breaking Bad, bleeds into Cinnabon Gene, which bleeds into the Omaha vignettes in the next season of Better Call Saul. It’s fun to speculate on, even if mulling all this over is akin to Charlie Day’s It’s Always Sunny vision board.

For the most part, though, the best thing Better Call Saul can do ahead of El Camino is provide reassurance that the expansion of the Breaking Bad universe isn’t an inherently bad thing, especially when it’s handled with nuance and care. Gilligan has insisted he’s continuing Jesse’s arc only because he found a great story to tell. Gilligan and the Breaking Bad brain trust don’t just deserve the benefit of the doubt after creating an exceptional series: They’re due even more. After all, they’ve created something just as great, and possibly even better, in its predecessor’s image before.