I keep telling anyone who will listen that Better Call Saul is the best show on television, and having seen the first three episodes of Season 4, guess what? Better Call Saul is even MORE the best show on television.
Detractors will say Better Call Saul can never live up to the show it spun off from, Breaking Bad, and that's a fair point considering that Breaking Bad is quite possibly the greatest television series of all time. And while I flirted with saying that Better Call Saul has actually surpassed Breaking Bad in quality (and I'm not alone), a coworker talked me down from that. They're different shows, and this isn't a competition. But it's time that we really consider that Better Call Saul is equalling the quality of Breaking Bad, and in some ways is doing things even better.
In Season 4, the series continues to push Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) toward his Vader-esque destiny of Saul Goodman, but has the luxury of doing it in Season 4 without some of the boundaries of previous seasons, thanks to the (spoiler alert for Season 3) fiery suicide of his brother Chuck (Emmy snub Michael McKean) and the freedom of funemployment after Jimmy was disbarred for fraud. That allows the series to fully open up to Jimmy's impending transformation with a relatively blank slate, and because the fear of Jimmy turning into Saul is Better Call Saul's engine, Season 4 is continually red-lining as Saul spends more time relapsing toward Slippin' Jimmy, the proto-Saul, than being a bingo master at an old folks' home. Yes, weighting ping-pong balls to rig the game was fun, but it was the weight of the Sandpiper case that kept Jimmy from any threat of becoming Saul in the excellent but rather safe, for Jimmy at least, third season. That's gone in Season 4, and the danger feels very real.
Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is going to end with predictable tragedy (though the future "Gene" timeline is free to give us a jaunt into the sunset, or at least a promotion to Cinnabons regional manager). But unlike Breaking Bad, the climax of Better Call Saul doesn't hinge around the unmasking of a secret identity, and in the early episodes of Season 4, Jimmy is practically announcing his intent to future Saul-itude. Walter White was an asshole doing the thing that made him feel good, Jimmy feels more like an addict trying to do good and be well but constantly backsliding. Don't get me wrong, Breaking Bad is the best-plotted drama ever, but Saul's focus on character out in the open is trickier to convincingly pull off. It's a more naked show baring the soul of a con man rather than a cat-and-mouse exercise in protecting the greed of a male fantasy. Everything is on the table in Better Call Saul for everyone to see, and that sets up what Better Call Saul does better than any other show: confrontation of all kinds.
Many will say Better Call Saul is too slow when compared to Breaking Bad, and, well, I'll give them that. However, it's those quiet moments of character soul-searching that make it great. We get lost in these moments trying to decipher what they mean; two of the first three episodes end with characters acting out without the audience truly knowing why, and it isn't until you relive everything that came before that you can form ideas about what's happening. Jimmy will be in the middle of doing one thing, then bulldoze everything down by intentionally f---ing it up. Yet it isn't confusing, it's challenging. That creaking inside your skull while watching Better Call Saul? That's your brain working, something that doesn't happen that often with television these days, and the open-ended storytelling is better than ever in Season 4.
But hey, if you are here for the violence of Breaking Bad, it sure looks like Season 4 will have that too. The storyline with the most juice and action is, unsurprisingly, everything dealing with Nacho (Michael Mando). Nacho's story has always felt like it was on the verge of erupting into violence — as is usually the case when dealing with ruthless cartels smuggling primo meth — but it's now coming to fruition in Season 4. And for Nacho it won't just be from one side as he puts himself in a very uncomfortable position, one that involves Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) at his most ferocious (rivaling that infamous scene from Breaking Bad's "Box Cutter"). When Vince Gilligan talks about scenes they've done that are as heavy as anything they did in Breaking Bad, he's mostly talking about Nacho's story. That'll keep you bloodthirsty mongrels happy.
Aside from the worlds of the two shows colliding, Better Call Saul continues to match Breaking Bad in its technical achievements. I don't know how else to put this other than hot damn this crew knows how to make television. The cinematography and directing — particularly Michelle MacLaren's turn in Episode 2 — is still the best on television and it's not just pastiche; the consistency is part of the larger universe these two shows live in and vitally connects Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad rather than apes the latter.
I've just written hundreds of words about Better Call Saul, but really, the show is better than all of them. Watch it, and remember what truly great television is.
Better Call Saul returns for Season 4 on Monday, Aug. 6 at 9/8c on AMC.