Understanding the greatness of 'Better Call Saul'

The gripping web series displays a daring grammar of storytelling through artefacts and vibrant montages
Last Updated 16 July 2022, 09:57 IST

As 'Better Call Saul' prepares for the end of its final season, it's interesting to see why this is hailed as one of the most gripping and engrossing TV shows of all time. Created by Vince Gilligan along with Peter Gould as a 'Breaking Bad' spin off, the show managed to carve out a new daring grammar of storytelling through the use of artefacts, unpredictable character development and vibrant montage sequences.

The show follows the journey of a go-getter named Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) who hustles his way into becoming an independent lawyer under the moniker ‘Saul Goodman’ in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jimmy’s struggle in becoming a successful lawyer involves handling complex relationships with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and many other characters that try to deter him from the righteous path. We often see Jimmy confiding in his significant other — Kim Wexler (Rhea Seahorn), about his views, ambitions and problems.

The show makes clever use of artefacts like objects and phrases for each character. They are provocations of memory and emotion, making the viewer face a déjà vu in subsequent episodes. Kim Wexler always keeps a Zafiro Añejo tequila bottle cap as a souvenir in her cupboard. The object makes frequent appearances throughout the show, reminding her of being a part of Saul’s playful and risky world of carefully orchestrated pranks.

Saul Goodman’s car is an old yellow Suzuki Esteem. This is a perfect metaphor for his street rat nature: clever, intelligent and always underplaying it. The adamant-yet-kind Vietnamese owner of the nail salon where Jimmy manages to rent an office space often remarks ‘cucumber water for customers only!’

The artefacts establish the traits of every character. Vince Gilligan revolutionised the use of outlandish opening sequences in every episode of 'Breaking Bad'. In 'Better Call Saul', the first few minutes of every episode begin with a sequence either in the past or in the distant future based on the colour grading of the scenes.

The show also makes use of habits to inform each character’s trait. Kim’s cigarette breaks remind us of her ambitious nature and her dissatisfaction of working in a corporate. Saul Goodman’s quirky colourful ties, gaudy suits and old-fashioned haircuts reflect his strong urge to shake off his history and burn the persona of ‘Jimmy McGill — the righteous employee’. His habit of making fresh orange juice everyday shows how adamant he is to want the good American life.

Dave Porter’s soundtrack is phenomenal in enhancing the slow-burn feel of the show. He uses contemplative yet highly percussive scores in crux scenes which act as narrative triggers in the show. The minimalist electronic score often blends in with environment noise during the flourish. Lalo Salamanca’s (Tony Dalton) exit from his house at the finale of Season 5 is one such scene.

The music in this action sequence begins with dirty arpeggiated sawtooth waves which slyly dissolve into the sound of ravaging thunder as Lalo’s walks out limping out of his house with a furious frown on his face. The show allows the characters to grow along with the story in steady conjunction. This is where montages bring respite as they are stylishly edited and an intense study in the interplay of macro, medium and long shots. Often paired with jazzy classical music, they uplift the narrative with a swift jerk.

Saul Goodman forms the main piece that moves this show but this character is just a fragment of what the show signifies. One of my favourite characters in the show, Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), is an ex-police officer who ends up working as a hitman for the drug cartel owing to his needs for fast money for his daughter-in-law. A fatherly responsibility takes a stranglehold of his inner conscience about right and wrong. Every character in this show goes through a turmoil of losing self control over their morals because they realise an external system has been trying to make them puppets all the while.

(Published 15 July 2022, 17:44 IST)

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