You don’t have to have watched Breaking Bad to appreciate Better Call Saul. But you have to have watched Breaking Bad to appreciate it fully.
A lot of Better Call Saul is wondering who’s doing what, how it’s going to work, and to whom it’s being done. Tennis shoes slung over a phone wire, putting a note with a single word on someone’s car, legal fussing over a cassette tape that may or may not be destroyed, names of home repair companies crossed out of a phone book.
(Like the flip phones, the phone book dates Better Call Saul. And is that Windows 98 on Kim’s desktop?)
The show patiently unfolds the answers as you watch. Anyone can appreciate that. But there’s a dramatic weight you can only appreciate if you’ve seen Breaking Bad. How else can you feel the gravity that comes from knowing who will and won’t be in the picture when the timeline segues into Breaking Bad. What happened to Chuck? To Kim? To Ehrmantraut’s daughter-in-law? Their presences are powerful for those of us who’ve seen Breaking Bad, because we know their absences are impending.
We also understand scenes uniquely. Two older men stand face to face in a parking lot, late at night, each stoic and fastidious in his own way. One of them suggests the other come work for him. Those of us who’ve watched Breaking Bad know why a deep stringed tremolo builds, almost like an undercurrent, and then fades while Johnathan Banks looks off to screen left, considering the empty parking lot. He swallows. He pauses. He makes a decision that Gus Fring never had the luxury of making.
“Could be,” Ehrmantraut offers. His granddaughter has lost her father. Now she will lose her grandfather to a slow death from a single gunshot in the gut, by the side of the Rio Grande, while the conflicted meth cook who shot him lingers helplessly.