Catching up with 'Better Call Saul' like a con artist would
(Caution: this piece contains Better Call Saul spoilers.)
I absolutely loved Breaking Bad. If you think about consistency, quality, freshness, direction, acting, everything — I could easily argue for it as my personal best show ever. I wrote about it quite a bit, but when it ended, I was relieved, as I said close to the end of its run. It had been a brutal story to watch. So when Better Call Saul premiered about a year and a half later as the prequel spin-off tale of Walt's corrupt lawyer — played so brilliantly by Bob Odenkirk — I didn't stay with it. I didn't feel the need to be in that world again, regardless of my admiration for the personnel.
Fast forward to the show's current tear toward its finale as it doles out the last six episodes of its sixth and final season. I'd seen a bit of it here and there and knew how critically revered it was by people whose tastes are often similar to mine. But I was woefully behind on all but about the first half of the first season. It was a daunting idea trying to process a show as intricate as this in a way that would let me catch up quickly; I was about 45 episodes behind and really wanted to catch up in about ... ten days. Certainly not undoable, but with a show that contains this many detailed machinations and business dealings and people plotting against each other, I felt doubt. I wanted to try to experience the finale with everybody else, but could I?
And then I remembered: It's a show about a con artist. Just take some shortcuts. He would encourage it.
Four tricks to watch six seasons
First, it helped that I had already kept up, loosely, with the direction of the show. I knew about some big deaths, and I knew about the way the story was intersecting with the events of Breaking Bad. And obviously, Breaking Bad's very existence gives you a lot of hints about certain things that are or are not going to happen. Besides, it's been almost impossible to live in the pop-culture world (and the pop-culture social media timeline) without knowing quite a bit about what happens. So in a way, my first con was leaked intelligence.
My second con was cheat sheets. I read — or I should say I skimmed — summaries of every episode of the entire series before I caught up. This is heresy, you say. This is wrong. You snuffed out the surprises for yourself! To this I say that most of the surprises were already pre-snuffed, and I cannot tell you how much easier it is to keep up with the fine points and appreciate the execution when you know the basic outline. If you have ever watched an adaptation of a book you've already read, you've had a similar experience.
And remember, I never said I wasn't cheating.
My third con was working with a mole. A shout-out here to my great pal Alan Sepinwall, who has faithfully written about Saul in real time all along, and who was available for me to text with my questions. Usually, this took the form of double-checking when I lost my confidence that I was understanding what's going on. An actual text from me to Alan: "Okay this is what I mean when I say I lose track of who is doing what. So [person] was attacked while carrying [person's] bail money because ... the larger cartel didn't want him to get out on bail?" I was right, by the way, I just wanted to make sure I was right, because Alan (who also followed The Sopranos so faithfully) is candidly much better at keeping score on mafia/cartel/criminal-operation stuff than I am. It's hard to be a solo criminal — it's much easier with an accomplice.
The fourth con? A little skimming. Don't misunderstand, I watched the vast majority of the 45 episodes I had missed. But here and there, where I knew what was happening and I was not going to enjoy it, as is often the case with brutal murders and certain kinds of slow burns, I did some skipping forward. I embezzled back a little of my own time, in other words. I am not, as I have told Alan and others, particularly a cartel person. I find those parts of the story a little less fresh and even a little uncomfortably stereotypical sometimes, so I don't need to watch every showdown between two scary dudes, and I definitely don't need to watch every killing. I almost quit on Breaking Bad when they started dissolving bodies in the first couple of episodes. I know myself.
Side note: When you are watching a show not in real time, sometimes you can also skip because you are immune to the kind of suspense they are using slow pacing to create, for reasons external to the story. An example: There is a section that I found interminably drawn-out and a little bit boring, which I eventually realized was probably because back when it was airing, it was the lead-up to the introduction of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), an iconic Breaking Bad character. What, people had every reason to wonder, would this be like? But I knew what Gus was like when he came back; I had already seen him on Saul. So the tease, tease, tease of when we were going to see Gus wasn't relevant to my experience, and the slow reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign, which would have delighted me at the time, had less punch.
Is cheating really so terrible?
There are those among you saying, "You didn't have the full experience!" and I agree. I couldn't, though; I didn't make room in the crowded landscape of everything to keep up with it. I didn't have access to the same experience I'd have had as a week-to-week or even season-binging viewer. But there are also those of you who know that out there, there is a show you have been dying to catch up on that you just find too daunting. You feel like you can't give that much mental energy to details for long enough to hang on. You feel like you don't necessarily really want to watch 45, or 60, or 100 episodes of whatever it is, but you are curious. Is it a sin, this con?
I encourage you to remember that we used to watch television very differently. Back in the earlier days of many dramatic shows like Hill Street Blues or soaps like Dallas, it worked like this: You saw the episode or you didn't. You watched it or you missed it. If you missed it, the next time you would get a chance to see it was in summer reruns. We watched serialized stories with holes in them, and we filled the holes as best we could, because life is messy. Because sometimes back then, we were stuck at work or at a kid's recital or on a date and didn't see an episode — just like sometimes now, we are watching six other things or we're not in the mood for a murder show and we just let a terrific show get away from us. I encourage you not to stand on ceremony.
Cheat, cheat, cheat, if it's that or nothing at all. It's what Jimmy McGill would do. Four episodes to go. I can't wait.
This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.