Whenever anyone talks about the new golden age of TV, or the idea of peak TV, or the best of the best when it comes to drama shows in general, Breaking Bad has been in the conversation. The Vince Gilligan run show is perhaps one of the best-written, best-acted, and best-loved television shows of the 21st century. Breaking Bad told a complete story of the descent of Walter White that begun and ended satisfyingly. It has dominated conversations about how to create compelling and artistic stories in television.
Except now there’s another legendary show in the same conversation. Made by the same creative team, almost all the things you can say about Breaking Bad are also true of Better Call Saul. It is a wonderfully crafted story that chronicles the moral descent of a man who was betrayed by the system that has some of the most masterful scenes that have carved themselves into TV legend.
These two shows are in the same conversation, so naturally, the question arises: Which one did it better? Which one told the story of their anti-hero protagonist the best? On the one hand, you have the show which started it all, and on the other hand, you have a show tempered by the experience gained from the last show. In the end, which of the two shows is the better show?
Round 1: Story
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are both master-class examples of storytelling in television. In fact, their storylines are similar enough that it becomes hard to untangle them as separate stories. Both shows feed into each other, with Better Call Saul acting as a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad. With that in mind, it becomes hard to declare one as a winner over the other in terms of that storytelling, because they both complement each other so well.
However, Better Call Saul owes a lot more of its storytelling power to Breaking Bad than the other way around. While the character arcs of Better Call Saul differ greatly and take the series in a new direction, the basic storytelling and plot can come off as less tense than Breaking Bad, which consistently has you fearing for the lives of your favorite characters. Better Call Saul has excellent twists and turns, but most of that power comes from the arcs of its characters rather than independent of them. Breaking Bad has a lot more of those season-defining, shocking moments that really hit. Better Call Saul has a few of those, but it’s limited by the fact that it’s a prequel. It’s a close call, but Breaking Bad wins this round.
Winner: Breaking Bad
Round 2: Main Characters
In the Battle of Walt vs Jimmy, it’s a very close call. Both their stories are an arc of moral compromises that lead directly to them becoming monsters in their own right. The critical difference between the two comes down to their internal motivations. Walter is a bad person who pretends to be good, who pretends to be a family man, yet enjoys the power and excitement that being a drug lord gives him. Walter is an interesting character, but we’ve seen antiheroes like him before. Dexter Morgan, a classic TV anti-hero, functions under a similar principle of pretending to be a good person. There are plenty of characters who convinced themselves and others they’re doing the right thing while also being evil. Walter White is unique in the specific twists they take with that archetype, but it’s still familiar ground.
Jimmy McGill’s archetype is a lot harder to unpack. Jimmy fundamentally becomes Saul as a move of spite and bitterness towards the legal community and the world at large. Jimmy is a kind and thoughtful man who masks his own pain behind Saul, a caricature of a soulless lawyer he made, because it’s easier and more fun to be the bad guy than to try and fail to help people. Both Walter White and Jimmy McGill are nuanced, intricate characters, but Jimmy takes it to another level. The masterful Bob Odenkirk performance lets you see the cogs and gears whirring behind Jimmy’s decisions even as he tries to mask his true intentions. Jimmy McGill is a brilliantly layered character who takes everything the showrunners learned from Walter White and hones it to a perfect edge.
Winner: Better Call Saul
Round 3: Supporting Cast
While the other categories were close, this is no contest. That is not to say that the Better Call Saul characters are intrinsically better than Breaking Bad ones, but to say that the way those characters are used in Better Call Saul is generally much better. Breaking Bad characters mostly existed in the show to heighten the dramatic journey of Walter and Jesse. In Better Call Saul, the show delves deep into their lives and character arcs. It truly feels like almost every character in Better Call Saul gets a chance to have a full story.
This is where we get a lot of the unforgettable moments of Better Call Saul. The performances from incredible actors, great character monologues and heartwrenching scenes. This was true in Breaking Bad, but it’s been dialed up to eleven in Saul. This abundance of great side character writing benefits everyone, even returning Breaking Bad characters like Mike Ementraut or Gus. Breaking Bad was a great story, but Better Call Saul has done a lot to make this feel like a wider world, with people’s stories interwoven with one another.
Winner: Better Call Saul
Overall Winner: Better Call Saul
It’s almost a shame to declare a winner in this article because both shows feel so incomplete without each other. Better Call Saul has the advantage of all the experience gained from writing one of the best shows on television, so it only makes sense that it would try to take the series to new places it had never been before. If you want to get the best out of both these legendary shows, however, it’s better to treat them both as required reading. Better Call Saul is, whatever else it is, a continuation of Breaking Bad in spirit. These two shows shouldn’t be seen as two separate entities, but as integral parts of the same experience.
Better Call Saul may be the winner, but Breaking Bad is still excellent, can’t miss television. If you want stories about characters that feel real, then these two shows are both a must-watch.