By now, AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul owns its reputation independent of its much-praised predecessor. It took around two seasons before audiences and critics started to favorably compare it to the multiple Emmy winner. Now, many proclaim the intense, slow-burning drama the better of the two series. And certainly, if you’re watching television for an elegant exploration of morals peppered with damaged souls detailed in an exquisite character study, then your mind’s already made up.
But I am not one of those people. Yet.
To be fair, I have always been reluctant to compare Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad without first knowing the full arc of the series. Breaking Bad, in my opinion, didn’t become fully great until later in its run. It was always an entertaining show, largely driven by at least two brilliant lead performances. But the first handful of seasons always felt like setting the stage for a truly mind-blowing finale. And to me, that’s exactly what it achieved. I’m thinking Better Call Saul could pull the same slow-burn into a brilliant finale feat. Its pyrotechnics and thrills, though, should be of the emotional variety – less of Bad‘s shootouts and climatic deaths. I’ll hold my judgment on the Saul v. Bad case until all the evidence is in.
The Television Academy recognized both Vince Gillian-created series (Saul is co-created with Peter Gould) with dozens of nominations. However, they seem unwilling to embrace Saul as deeply as they did Bad. Bad received Emmy hardware out of the gate, winning a Lead Actor trophy for Bryan Cranston’s career-altering dramatic turn. Arguably, Saul star Bob Odenkirk should have received the same attention. He was also more well known for his comic chops, and on Bad, he often brought comic relief to the intense proceedings. But he started Saul with a hangdog intensity that allowed him to explore his deeper dramatic range as an actor. Perhaps we should have expected the Television Academy’s reluctance to reward him for Saul given that he never factored into the conversation for Bad. It’s an unfair comparison, admittedly, because Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, and obviously Aaron Paul all dominated the Supporting Actor races for the series.
But on his own, Odenkirk should have at least won something for his performance in Saul. He is tremendous in the role, transitioning from failing brother living in the shadow of his more prominent – albeit insane – brother into the morally vague Saul Goodman. His Season 5 performance is consistently great, better than consistent actually. He finds the drama, moments of poignancy, in the quiet moments of the series. In a beer shared with Kim Wexler (more on Rhea Seehorn later). In his illogical enthusiasm for this new identity. And in his persistence to pursue this new identity no matter whom he faces. His evolution into Saul Goodman isn’t the sole reason to enjoy the series, but it’s a pretty huge part of my respect for it.
Odenkirk should have ten wins for this role outside of critics awards. Yet, he can’t break into the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, or Emmy winners circle. His competition traditionally holds the bigger, louder, more emotional performance. Rami Malek. Sterling K. Brown. Billy Porter. Odenkirk’s best hope at an Emmy comes perhaps in the series’ final season as Jon Hamm won for his final turn in Mad Men. But even that’s not guaranteed. Mad Men already won Drama Series and other awards before finally rewarding an actor from the series.
Saul remains 0 for 32 at the Emmys.
Giving an equally shaded and nuanced performance, Rhea Seehorn still has yet to receive that luridly overdue nomination for Supporting Actress. If Odenkirk can’t manage a win because there’s always a buzzier performance ahead of him, then why can’t Seehorn break into the Supporting Actress race? There are two things at play here, I suspect. First, Seehorn wasn’t exactly a household name before she took the role of Kim Wexler. Previous high profile roles came in the short-lived sitcom Whitney and a brief stint on Franklin & Bash. Saul brings Seehorn uniformly excellent reviews with her nuanced performance as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman’s painfully observant girlfriend. Which leads me to my second thought as to why she’s never been nominated: her character is often muted, reserved, diligent, and hard-working. She’s not a flashy persona. She isn’t given to frequent emotional outbursts, the kind of attention-grabbing outbursts that awards bodies love to recognize. It’s a world-class subtle performance. And as such, Seehorn is regrettably the perennial nominee bridesmaid.
It also didn’t help that she had to compete with the ever-growing recognition given to the women of Game of Thrones. Last year alone, four of the six slots when to Thrones actresses. With that series out of the way, perhaps Seehorn finally gets her ludicrously overdue nomination this year. It all hinges on how deeply the Television Academy embraces the supporting women from Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale. With Helena Bonham Carter guaranteed for The Crown, the actresses from those two series could very easily fill out the remaining slots, leaving Seehorn adrift yet again. Which, given her incredible work in Season 5, would be a crying shame.
The supporting men of Better Call Saul don’t seem to face the same issues. Jonathan Banks has literally never not been nominated for, in my opinion, giving the same performance year after year. It’s a great performance, yes, but what’s changed? How is he shading it differently? You could argue the same about last year’s nominee Giancarlo Esposito, but I think he got in (and likely will again) because he never won for his astounding work in Breaking Bad. Another crying shame.
So, Better Call Saul – based on the four episodes provided for critics – will continue its Emmy nomination success. It remains a consistently strong, well written, interestingly directed, and brilliantly acted series. It’s too good to ignore. But the trick remains giving the Television Academy a reason to vote for it. It’s easy to respect Better Call Saul, but it’s a bigger stretch for the casual viewer to LOVE it. To put it at number one ahead of every other drama on television.
It’s damned by being so consistent in tone and merit that, I suspect, the Television Academy just never feels the need to take the final plunge. Perhaps its final season will be reason enough, but without a shocking shift in tone (which I think would ill advised) to give some kind of buzzy, water cooler talking point, it likely never becomes the kind of drama that receives the big trophies.
And that, my friends, is also a crying shame.