Pop Culture

Breaking Bad vs Better Call Saul: Which Series Is Better?

Now that Saul is over, let’s settle the debate: did the spin-off overtake the original?

a collage of Bryan Cranston Aaron Paul Bob Odenkirk in breaking bad and better call saul

Photographs: AMC/Everett Collection; Collage: Gabe Conte

This week Better Call Saul came to an end, and with its series finale, closed the door on the Breaking Bad universe after two series and a standalone Netflix movie that spanned 15 years of TV. (Until Vince Gilligan thinks up another spin-off, that is.) A spin-off about Walter White’s crooked attorney initially seemed completely unnecessary: Nobody ever took the clownishly immoral character seriously, despite his ability to facilitate Team Heisenberg’s most dangerous crimes. But BCS improbably grew into a rich, multi-layered, visually dazzling and narratively engrossing drama as worthy of a spot in the TV Hall of Fame pantheon as its predecessor.

But as Saul found its footing, particularly when it found a way to seamlessly integrate the Greek tragedy of Jimmy McGill’s eroding soul with the cartel subplots anchored by Mike Ehrmantraut (who co-led the series from the beginning, providing a crime element that would keep asses in seats) and Gus Fring, the conversation grew to one of compare and contrast. Better Call Saul wasn’t just unexpectedly great—could it even be greater than Breaking Bad?

Now that both shows are concluded, we can finally have the debate in earnest. Which do you ultimately prefer: one con man’s journey of love, greed and redemption, or a science teacher’s fatal indulgence in greed, narcissism and pork pie hats? GQ polled a few of our Albuquerque-proficient writers to weigh in.

Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul.Courtesy of Greg Lewis for AMC via Everett Collection

Frazier Tharpe: It’s wild to me that this debate began in earnest before Saul even ended; I think I started seeing the question posed as early as season five or even four, which is ludicrous. Really, the season that Slippin’ Jimmy spent selling Razr phones is better than the series that gave us “One Minute,” “Crawl Space,” or “Dead Freight??”

I understand where it’s coming from: Saul represents one out of pop culture history’s rare instances that a prequel was actually worthy of our time. Spin-offs are always shaky, but prequels? They’re inherently corny, full of cringey callbacks and origin stories to things that didn’t need context and exposition, and usually inherently devoid of tension, because we know how the plot must play out. And yet, Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and their crew ingeniously turned that knowledge into a cruel game of water torture. Jimmy’s drive to be good, beat his brother’s prophecy, and be a man worthy of Kim and her power ponytail was so damn endearing it instead had us collectively rooting for the events of BB to just be a bad dream. (Hilariously, the Gus-and-Mike cartel stuff—ostensibly the subplot meant to give the show some actual action while Jimmy sold cell phones and ingratiated himself with old women—ended up falling victim to the prequel trap, pre-Lalo. A whole arc on the construction of Walt’s Super Lab sounds like a bad Twitter joke someone made when the series was first announced.)

Look, Breaking Bad is admittedly a tad overrated. (They were comparing this show to The Wire in its heyday, for Chrissakes.) It had its missteps: a lot of time dedicated to Marie the Klepto; that time the writers blatantly tried to recreate their “One who knocks” magic with “Say my name”; that rather rote series finale. But its operatic highs still amounted to more than Saul’s, and not just because there was more gunplay. (Though BB‘s emotional climax hinged on a trunk machine gun, while Saul ended with finger guns, the latter is the better finale). To put it in show terms: Better Call Saul, and the touching love story it evolved into, is Gale Boetticher pure—but Heisenberg is Heisenberg, more potent by a small but noticeable percentage. Saul is one of the best prequels ever made, let’s leave it at that.

Keith Phipps: This is pretty much an impossible choice: Both series are indisputable all-timers. Still, if I have to choose, I’m going to go with Better Call Saul. It may just be recency bias, but I’m still in awe of the way Saul ended, largely winding down several seasons worth of plot in a breathless stretch and then, with its final handful of episodes, training the focus squarely on the heart of the show: Jimmy and Kim—what they mean to each other, and how experiences they’ve been through will shape the way they spend the rest of their lives. It played like a long coda that elevated everything that had come before.

I think Saul gets some points for level of difficulty, too. As great as Bob Odenkirk was on Breaking Bad, and as entertaining as Saul was as a character, it never felt like this was a show that had to happen. And revisiting the Albuquereque of Breaking Bad again? Risky! Frankly, it seemed like a bad idea. But it turned out to be a bad idea in the same way that The Godfather: Part II was a bad idea, which is to say, not a bad idea at all, but a chance to go deeper into a rich, troubling world in the company of a peerless creative team and and a fearless cast.

Julian Kimble: I wouldn’t put Better Call Saul over Breaking Bad, because I believe the latter’s peaks were higher, even if the finale was too neat and granted Walter White heroic moments he didn’t deserve. However, I do think Better Call Saul is a more impressive accomplishment in terms of overall storytelling. Granted, it had the benefit of an exceptional foundation laid by Breaking Bad, but Better Call Saul was able to add new context to rich characters like Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut, then give much-needed depth to Saul Goodman by building out Jimmy McGill’s inferiority-complex-driven existence. On top of that, it created fantastic new characters in Nacho Varga, Lalo Salamanca, and, of course, Kim Wexler.

While Breaking Bad has the better overall grade, I’m more satisfied with Better Call Saul‘s finale than I am with BB‘s: James McGill (the identity he’s finally accepted) didn’t evade arrest or go out in a blaze of glory. He ultimately went from a small-time crook with a chip on his shoulder to a literal criminal lawyer who already appeared to be a legend in the feds. If Better Call Saul wondered whether certain people were capable of change, the final answer was a resounding “no.” He desperately wanted approval; he amassed and lost a fortune; he gained infamy in a supermax prison. It wasn’t too perfect—and that just landed better.

Tara Ariano: On Breaking Bad, Saul (Bob Odenkirk) was reliably fun, a little scary, and very skilled at his job: all key ingredients for a TV anti-hero. But given what Breaking Bad had been—violent, tense, bombastic—I was not prepared for how much more delicate Better Call Saul could be. It introduced a brother (Michael McKean) we’d never known about; it showed us how hard it was for then-Jimmy McGill to be good, knowing he could never be good enough to win his brother Chuck’s approval; it built out the backstory for how a very clever, nimble intellect could graduate from basically harmless short cons to well-organized villainy. Also: it brought us Kim (Rhea Seehorn)!

But as wonderful as Better Call Saul was—certainly much better than just about any other TV I’ve watched this year—I felt its power weaken whenever it had to pause its thoughtful character study and turn its attention to cartel business, and often wished we could have gone even further back in Jimmy’s life so that Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad never had to link up. For me, the elements that made Better Call Saul so special would have worked just as well if the show were about an entirely new character who wasn’t destined to meet Walter White: Sure, that entanglement is Saul’s tragedy, but Jimmy was a tragic figure all along.

Bryan Cranston in Better Call Saul.Courtesy of Greg Lewis for AMC via Everett Collection

Zack Handlen: There are plenty of arguments for Better Call Saul. It’s one of the greatest shows ever made, with incredible craft, a nuanced grasp of psychology, a complete confidence in the patience of its audience, and a fantastic ensemble; in addition to Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean at the height of their powers, you get Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, one of the best original characters on TV in twenty years, maybe ever.

But I gotta go with Breaking Bad. I love both series, and my opinion isn’t remotely objective; something about BB just clicked in my head when it aired and I’ve never been able to put it behind me. The sledgehammer to BCS’s chisel, BB is a pure expression of character as plot, a ferocious pulpy rush from beginning to end. And Walter White is still my guy. Biggest, whiniest disphit in the world. I love him so.

A.A. Dowd: Easy call. Breaking Bad was a gangbusters cliffhanger machine, forever passing its suburban kingpin anti-hero from frying pan to fire. But as a character study, this one-way race to moral ruin sometimes bordered on simplistic. In prequelizing hit AMC series, Vince Gilligan, along with Peter Gould, charted a superficially similar course for Walter White’s sketchy strip-mall counsel. But he also refined and complicated that trajectory: We may have known Jimmy McGill’s Cinnabon-peddling destination from the jump, but Better Call Saul turned the journey into an unpredictable zigzag of follies, all of them dovetailing with the nosedives of a richly-conceived ensemble of lawyers and law-breakers. Though it ended in literal black and white, Saul probed grey areas that Bad only grazed, while juggling competing tones (comic! tragic! horrific!) with the finesse of a shyster attorney setting an elaborate legal grift into motion.

Angel Diaz: I’m not sure why this is a debate. Breaking Bad is clearly the better show. Saul—while brilliant overall—takes a while to get going, and while it’s only longer than Breaking Bad by an episode, it felt considerably longer. In fact, those first couple Saul seasons felt like watching paint dry at times. (I’m being a little dramatic, but it’s kinda true.) There’s also the fact that Better Call Saul essentially turned into Breaking Bad once Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman: The show really got poppin’ once he put on the mask. Now, this isn’t to say those early BCS episodes weren’t good, as he tries to impress his older brother who himself was slowly descending into madness. It’s just that once Breaking Bad got going, there was nothing better on TV. The fifth and final season was perfect. Can we say the same for Saul? Did everyone fuck with that conclusion?

We were robbed of a potential classic courtroom showdown in “Saul Gone.” I thought we were gonna get Saul Goodman on his Matlock, instead we got to see him finally stop being the smarmy piece of shit we grew to love. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. The final act was as unsatisfying as the Sopranos finale (this is a shot at the editor, fyi.) Breaking Bad was and is the better show. Now: Can somebody get to work on figuring out a natural timeline so I can do a rewatch of Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, and El Camino in true chronological order?

Bryan Cranston and Bob Odenkirk in Breaking Bad.Courtesy of Gregory Peters for AMC via Everett Collection.

Carrie Wittmer: Better Call Saul is a better show than Breaking Bad. I would even go so far as to say that Better Call Saul is a much better show. I say this with the caveat that the shows are, for all their plot overlaps, polar opposites. Better Call Saul is an intimate legal drama/love story and Breaking Bad is a breakneck action-thriller/family drama. While Breaking Bad relied on Bryan Cranston and a rolling plot with twists and turns at every corner, Better Call Saul was patient and grounded, allowing its story and its rich cast of characters to develop at an intentionally glacial pace. The death of Gus Fring killed Breaking Bad’s momentum, and the series finale felt contradictory to the monster we watched Walter White become. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, never felt stuck or meandering after the deaths of major characters (Chuck, Nacho) or introductions to new ones (Lalo Salamanca). From pilot to finale, Better Call Saul remained true to Jimmy McGill’s mischievous, self-sabotaging, but ultimately loving nature, all while sticking to its overarching story and themes. In retrospect, Better Call Saul feels like Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould improving Breaking Bad’s weaknesses, from female characters to the sprawling meth empire to the endgame.

William Goodman: It’s hard to make a satisfying prequel—yet that’s not stopping a handful of major franchises from trying their hand at it. So it’s understandable that the deck was (largely) stacked against Better Call Saul from the get-go.

And yet, Better Call Saul—much like the character at its core—defied those odds repeatedly. Often, the lack of a compelling journey takes the air out of a prequel. It’s not a bad thing to know the destination, but it can be tedious if the roads you take to get there are boring. That was the strength of Saul. By introducing new characters like Lalo, Nacho, Howard, and, critically, Kim to be invested in, Jimmy’s journey to Saul took all kinds of twists and turns. Further diving into the backstories of Gus and Mike added depth and allowed their decisions in Breaking Bad to take on new layers of context. Then, critically, it jumped us forward, allowing us to see how the mistakes of Jimmy’s life continued to haunt him as he strived—but failed—to do better. Those elements, combined with incredibly nuanced visual storytelling, made the act of watching the show special. Saul also trusted its audience enough to have the space and pace to make something as tedious-seeming as doc review exhilarating.

But Saul’s real masterstroke is how it wonderfully established the Kim and Jimmy relationship in a way that feels real to life. By its conclusion, Breaking Bad felt pulpy and operatic in a way that was still entertaining, but often surreal. That’s not the case with Saul. It ends in a way emblematic of those two characters: in shared glances and quiet moments between two people who know all the worst parts of one another—and still find a way to love each other for them. That’s quite a humanistic turn for a man once thought of as a joker—and one masterful way to end a series.

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