How to do a Spin-off Right: Better Call Saul

Briefly returning to what I was saying about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,you can hardly attack what is a great attempt at a spin-off because any spin-off media is a difficult task. It requires a delicate chemistry of known elements, and other, more dangerous yet daring elements that can elevate something that’s well loved; believed to have soared as high as it could, only to rise higher. And it’s a darn rare thing that one might come along and actually fulfill that kind of prophecy. A spin-off either works, or it doesn’t – the recipe for making one doesn’t really allow for any middle ground. That’s why, it’s always good to get talking about those brave few, that have expanded a universe, and have created something truly quite wonderful.

I don’t know whether it’s because it’s the most recent spin-off I’ve seen since Rogue One, or the fact that it’s a product of an original that’s just as big as Star Wars, or maybe it was just the reference to chemistry, but Better Call Saul is a great example of a spin-off done right. When you think about that concept, it sounds slightly odd. Star Wars, arguably one of the biggest franchises in the world, is out-done by a Netflix only TV show. But that’s exactly how it is, and while it’s inevitable that there will always be more people talking about Star Wars than people talking about Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I really think they deserve more attention.

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 To be honest, on paper, Star Wars seems like the more easy universe to adapt into spin-off media, as proven by the numerous comics, books, TV shows, etc dedicated to that very thing, because well, it has a large universe. There are god knows how many planets, creatures, races, people, all seen and referenced to in the original set-pieces – it already has a lot of building blocks to craft from. Breaking Bad on the other hand, is set on one planet, in pretty much one place, and doesn’t throw too many characters your way. It’s on a much smaller scale, and that is exactly the reason it beats Star Wars.

But, enough about Breaking Bad, because any self-respecting TV addict will have seen it – but not everyone has seen Better Call Saul, and that’s something I hope to change, even just a little. BCS is probably the most faithful spin-off I’ve seen ever, and while I haven’t seen many, that really is saying a lot. Like I said before, a spin-off takes a lot of care and attention, it needs to be a delicate blend of things old and new, neither one over-powering the other if it wants to avoid either being called a sequel or something different entirely. And that’s where BCS comes in.

Immediately, we have some familiarity in the form of Saul, or as you’ll get used to hearing in this series, Jimmy. Now, Saul is my favourite Breaking Bad character so I will admit with no shame that this spin-off is already in my good books, so that’s one box ticked. So we have Saul, and before long, we’re given a few more traits we know from Breaking Bad. We have the POV shots, the landscape shots showing off the beauty of New Mexico, and we get a few more characters. On top of that, we’re introduced to what feels like an entirely new part of Albuquerque, new characters and a new focus, so immediately we have that blend. So how is it put together?

Well, it slows and scales itself down in comparison to its source material which is what I think is much needed when it comes to a character like Saul. Walter White was by far, one of the best TV characters we’ve had in a long time. The idea of a humble, mostly quiet, slightly cowardly chemistry teacher evolving into a drug king-pin that’s feared throughout the criminal land is fantastic. But with Saul, the story needs to be much slower if it’s going to be anywhere near as effective, and that’s because Saul, by the time WW meets him, is already knee-deep in the criminal web.

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Chuck may be no Gus, but his sneaky double-crossing makes him a great villain for Better Call Saul

But, he’s not a traditional criminal – he’s an ally to criminals, and one who’s not ashamed of what he does. But, throughout BB we do see a slightly more straight cut edge to him and that wets our appetite slightly for our curiosity of the surrounding characters in BB. And it’s through these tiny glimpses into the deeper parts of Saul that makes him such an interesting character to follow in an origin story. Vince Gilligan has been very clever with his writing because throughout Breaking Bad, we’re asking questions like, how did Saul get like this? Is it for money? What tipped him over the edge? Because unlike Walt, Saul doesn’t have cancer.

And that’s where my love for this series really comes into play, the journey of Saul. Again, with an eagle eye for what makes good television, Gilligan starts us off with Saul as a not so brilliant, independent lawyer – one who everyone either seems to pity, or look down on. It’s clear he’s just trying to get by and make a name for himself just like his brother, but we can see tiny slithers of the wise-cracking, juvenile Saul we know and love – basically like Breaking Bad in reverse. But because there’s no huge catalyst like cancer, all we see are smaller catalysts to what could potentially merge Jimmy and Saul into one.

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Yeah, this makes the story slower, but shapes a character who has about 90% two-dimensional into a fully fleshed out human. And that’s the appeal of all good characters, that they’re relatable, if not understandable.

Jimmy is breaking bad, but he’s doing it in a much more profound and human way, maybe showing us all that we too, one day could tip over the edge.

Seriously, if you want to try a new, great show: Better Call Saul!

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Author: diagnosedcinephile

Film critique is love. Film critique is life.

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