'Saul' and 'Solo': How to Deliver What No One Asked For

Two prequels show us the origins of something we didn't need the backstory on. One of them does it right.

Mike Better Call Saul Season
AMC

With Solo: A Star Wars Story out on video this week, the usual criticisms about prequels are launching around the internet. One of the biggest complaints about a lot of the stuff featured in Solo is that no one asked for it. Well, some people surely did. And anyway, that’s not the right argument to be spouting in relation to even the reveal of how Han Solo got his last name.

No one asks for a lot of things. No one asked for Star Wars to begin with. The movie was a surprise that became a phenomenon for being so familiar yet new way back in 1977. We didn’t need any prequels to explain things, but obviously, some fans were curious. The issue isn’t that George Lucas gave us backstories. It’s that the backstories weren’t great.

This week, while rolling my eyes at all the videos and write-ups on everything wrong with Solo, which is clunky for sure but not half bad, I realized that the biggest issues being had with the movie are also being done currently on Better Call Saul, and there’s no complaint there because it’s done very well. The Breaking Bad prequel gets it right when answering questions no one ever asked.

Spoilers Below

The big example right now on Better Call Saul is the depiction of the origins of the meth superlab located underneath Lavanderia Brillante. No one asked for the backstory on how Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) had a secret laboratory underneath his industrial laundry service. It was just a location, where Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) created “Blue Sky” meth and sometimes battled flies.

But one of the main storylines of the current season of Better Call Saul follows the construction of the superlab we’d taken for granted in Breaking Bad. Apparently, its origins are a big deal, to Gus and to his new security agent Mike (Jonathan Banks) and to a bunch of German nationals flown in for the job. Maybe it’s not a big deal to viewers, but the series makes it interesting, for sure.

Even beyond what it sets up for Breaking Bad in terms of how Mike gets to become a significant part of Gus’ operations and in terms of its secrecy beneath the front of a laundry service that isn’t in any building plans that Hank (Dean Norris) and Steve (Steven Michael Quezada) could find to prove their suspicions about the space, the return of Lavanderia Brillante is again just a location for more great storytelling.

As part of Mike’s character development in Better Call Saul (regardless of its lead-in to what he’s like in Breaking Bad), the construction of the meth superlab is a tool for the former cop to go deeper into criminal activity and an even colder personality. This week, just as Mike started to go a little easier on his German guests and grow friendly with their leader, Werner (Rainer Bock), this leniency and camaraderie backfired and there seemed to be a possibility for a moment that maybe Mike would have to do something to Werner. Kill him perhaps. Go for the “full measure” resolution.

While prequels need to made nods to the previously released, later-set pieces of the narrative property (referring to Mike going “half measure” and “full measure” in his dealings with people would be that), they mostly need to establish a new foundation from which they move forward as their own stories. Solo is laughable with many of its references and tie-ins to the other Star Wars movies, but it does also establish intriguing new characters and their own unique goals.

Qira Solo Star Wars

Once a prequel has dug into answering what happened before the original story, the movie or show should, if it’s doing a decent job of foregoing narrative dependence, also have people asking what happens next. With Solo, one of the big questions left at the end is what becomes of Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Does she die before the events of A New Hope? Do she and Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) go their separate ways and she just exists in the background of the Skywalker Saga, insignificant to its story?

That’s as much a curiosity as the previously unanswered question of how Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) met and became partners. The curiosity could be fulfilled and the question of her fate answered, or it won’t be. Given we probably won’t see a Solo sequel, the mysteries of Qi’ra (her tie to Darth Maul in particular) may never be resolved, at least not on screen (perhaps a book will tell the fans who need to know). And that’s fine.

Better Call Saul has had a very similar curiosity that’s been ongoing since the start of the series. Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk) also has a serious love interest, Kim (Rhea Seehorn), whom we never saw in Breaking Bad. The immediate conclusion for viewers to draw is that she must be dead by the start of the events of the original series, or at least by the start of the events of Jimmy/Saul’s introduction on that show midway into its second season.

Kim is one of the most appealing and most important characters on Better Call Saul, maybe even the most, but unlike Qi’ra she’s not filled with so much mystery that her continued story requires any answers — we haven’t seen her sudden surprise secret association with the drug dealer Krazy-8 or anything. We don’t need to know her fate, but we also shouldn’t assume she dies. I’m sure she doesn’t, and her near-death car crash last season was fake out and hint that she’ll live through this.

Better Call Saul is never predictable, which is odd for a prequel. It’s one of the reasons that fans of the series (myself included have constantly referred to it as the best prequel of all time, or even the only great prequel ever produced. Just when you think Kim is being killed off, she’s just got some bruises and a broken arm. Just when you think she and Jimmy are going to break up and she’ll just head off to her own background story we never need to see, she’s ready to get deeper in with him romantically and criminally, as we saw in the most recent episode.

This week, Kim said she wants to do more legal cons, and that could be her downfall. Maybe she eventually does get caught, loses her license, goes to prison, or just finally realizes that she needs to get away with the negative influences of her morally corrupt boyfriend. But even that easy prediction has to be incorrect.

My theory stands that Kim never dies and never goes too far away. We never saw her in Breaking Bad because she wasn’t significant to that story, and we never saw Jimmy/Saul’s personal life, really. We just know Kim isn’t a part of his life by the time he’s on the run at the end of Breaking Bad and in the flashforwards of Better Call Saul.

Unlike Solo, Better Call Saul doesn’t bother with a ton of fanservice. The name Saul Goodman is introduced with little fanfare. So is the first meeting of Jimmy/Saul and Mike. You could watch Better Call Saul without having seen Breaking Bad and not feel like you’re watching a prequel series. Solo does set up the possibility of Han Solo’s adventures that have nothing or little to do with the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, but it spends too much time covering the connections.

Fanservice, as we use the term, really is fan disservice. Solo could have been much more special as its own exciting entity had it not catered to the answers that supposedly no one asked for yet everyone was believed to be curious about. Eventually, the makers of movie prequels are going to need to look at Better Call Saul for how to do prequels of any kind right.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.