Why ‘Better Call Saul’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

MAIN CAST: Jonathan Banks, Tony Dalton, Giancarlo Esposito, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn
CASTING BY: Sharon Bialy, Russell Scott, Sherry Thomas
CREATED BY: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould

“When the going gets tough, you don’t want a criminal lawyer, all right? You want a criminal lawyer.”

This popular line from the second season of AMC’s beloved “Breaking Bad” introduced everyone’s favorite shady attorney, Saul Goodman, to the small screen. In the award-winning drama, Bob Odenkirk’s Saul was only a supporting character to help Bryan Cranston’s sinister Walter White and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman out of sticky situations; we had no insight into the guy. Who is he? Does he have a family? What does he do outside of helping Walt and Jesse? The character remained an enigma.

That was until several years later, when creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan decided that there was more to explore and created the hit prequel “Better Call Saul.” The series, now preparing for its sixth and final season, uses the origin story of this fast-talking lawyer as its jumping-off point; before he was Saul, he was Jimmy McGill. The first few seasons explored Jimmy’s precarious transformation from a lowly public defender to the grifter lawyer living the criminal life that we see on “Breaking Bad.” 

The series achieves its success through slick writing and Odenkirk’s convincing performance, which adds a level of vulnerability to the character that wasn’t seen in “Breaking Bad.” At heart, Jimmy is a con man, and a pretty damn good one at that. But there are moments of remorse and guilt that overtake the character and prevent him from fully crossing the line. His lawyer love interest, Kim Wexler, played by the superb Rhea Seehorn, tries to keep Jimmy grounded while cautiously navigating the world of law.

Anyone in need of confirmation that Seehorn is one of the best actors on television needs only to look at Season 5, Episode 6, “Wexler v. Goodman,” when Kim and Jimmy’s relationship reaches its boiling point. In the episode’s climax, there’s plenty of arguing, plenty of tears, and an unexpected proposition delivered so boldly by Seehorn that it leaves chills well into the episode’s credits. Watching Odenkirk and Seehorn bounce off each other in this show is like watching a well-choreographed waltz—the rhythm in their chemistry is unmatched.

LISTEN: ‘Better Call Saul’ Star Bob Odenkirk on How
He Constructs His Characters

The other half of the show explores the world of crime into which Jimmy eventually, inevitably, ventures. Enter fan favorite hit man Mike Ehrmantraut, a character from “Breaking Bad” once again brought to life by Jonathan Banks. We get to see Mike’s progressive involvement in the criminal underworld of Albuquerque play out and discover how he comes to work for Walter White’s greatest foe: the conniving and meticulous Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito. As with his portrayal on “Breaking Bad,” Gus has big plans and plays his cards close to the chest. Esposito’s delivery is as cold and mesmerizing as ever.

Then there’s Lalo Salamanca, played by Tony Dalton. Dalton’s performance is terrifying in that it’s impossible to predict where each of his scenes will go. With Lalo, you never know when to laugh or be scared, and that’s the way he wants it—creating much turbulence for his lieutenant, Michael Mando’s Nacho Varga. Mando’s performance incorporates a fine-tuned pathos that naturally endears him to us.

The tricky part of any prequel is that most fans already know how the story ends. “Better Call Saul” constantly keeps viewers on their toes by introducing both new characters and new aspects of the characters we already know and love. How this story will play out in the show’s upcoming final season is anyone’s guess.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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