How do you possibly follow up one of the greatest shows of all time on television and make it seem like it’s not just a cash grab. That greatest show of all time is Breaking Bad and certainly, a strong argument can be made for that distinctive honor. And while that story came to a satisfying conclusion in 2013 after 5 outstanding seasons, creator Vince Gilligan finds a way to continuously tell more story by way of a spin-off prequel with one of the more popular, flashy characters that was introduced early on in Breaking Bad – Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk).
“It’s all good, man” as the character uses the cliché to create the fake name in his former life.
In this scenario, the only one who could re-visit the franchise is Vince Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould, giving the same genuine care that the two gave to Saul’s predecessor and the timeline of events’ successor. Better Call Saul like those cheaply thrown together commercials would say, follows Saul before he is the crooked lawyer we knew him as after Walter and Jesse get involved and make him a partner in their scheme. His birth name is James M. McGill, Jimmy for short, and he’s from Cicero, Illinois following in his older brother Chuck’s (Michael McKean) footsteps in becoming a lawyer. Jimmy has a past in Cicero where his was a con artist but with the assistance of Chuck, Jimmy is turning straight, leaving that life behind for the warm weather of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Quickly, Gilligan wastes no time connecting the two series to one another. The opening sequence in episode 1, aptly titled ‘Uno’ depicts Saul in his post Breaking Bad life – Saul is now in Omaha, Nebraska, managing a Cinnabon under the alias Gene Takavic. From there, the flashback comes into focus on Jimmy as a public defender, getting his start after passing the bar exam.
In the first case we see Jimmy defending, the nature of what his 3 knuckleheaded clients are on trial for fits the former con-artist like a glove. But what is fascinating about the character in this moment of time starts with the lack of confidence in his abilities as a lawyer. This isn’t the same sure-footed, talk a mile a minute character we know. Jimmy still talks twice as fast as lightning and can paint vivid pictures with his speech but his constant doubt of being a legitimate lawyer is something he struggles with. Jimmy is at a crossroad, having an identity crisis before our very eyes.
Stepping back into the role after a 2 year gap is Odenkirk who hasn’t missed a beat nor has slowed down in his scheming ways. Odenkirk is just as charming, determined to prove himself, mixed with an enigmatic energy behind his hardened gaze. He fits the role perfectly, bringing a dry and sarcastic comedic flare to the dramatic role. You can take the con away from the man, but you can’t take the man away from the con. All you need is a few gullible participants and a clean getaway and Slipping’ Jimmy can make magic out of thin air.
Paired with the scheme, Better Call Saul is first and foremost a courtroom drama steering the ship along with the politics that come with the larger firms. Jimmy, thanks to Chuck’s highest recommendation got a job in his firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill’s mailroom, working his way through law school (University of American Samoa). It’s in this environment that Gilligan creates the villain to Jimmy’s hero in Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). At least the visible villain, the man Jimmy thinks is stopping all of his career progressions with the firm. However, Gilligan’s strength in this series as it was in Breaking Bad is the ability to use smoke and mirrors to throw the viewer off the scent of the real villain.
Better Call Saul has two major conflicts among the many subplots through this first season, much is set up with exposition in flashbacks to the Cicero days. The first conflict is individualistic – Jimmy is in a constant battle with himself to grow as a person and as a lawyer. Luckily he has fellow lawyer, flame, friend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) to keep him grounded. Kim is Jimmy’s conscious – pulling him back down to earth when his mind is taking him to mars. Bob and Rhea have strong chemistry together that shines through to their characters connection on screen. Almost like an unwritten understanding between the two that no words are actually necessary to be spoken. Rhea can pierce through the hardest exteriors with just a look.
The second major conflict is between Jimmy and Chuck. The two have a symbiotic relationship when we are introduced to them. Chuck in episode uno is suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity in which Chuck cannot be exposed to any sort of technology or electricity. Despite his commitment to help his brother with food, water, daily needs, Chuck resents Jimmy, becoming the silent villain in Jimmy’s life. When all signs point to Howard, Gilligan’s strength in storytelling will keep anyone guessing who the puppet master is – the one pulling the strings.
Odenkirk and McKean are fantastic as the brothers McGill. Harsh tension is built in these moments after a ‘Slippin’ relapse or Jimmy is able to put 2 and 2 together. Their relationship serves as the show’s backbone, everything the two men do, can all be traced back to their relationship.
Saul/Jimmy isn’t the only character returning from Breaking Bad. Fan favorite Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) makes his return and is given a richer backstory than being just a henchman. Banks proves he is just as sharp with his cold, expressionless stare, and willingness to get his hands dirty. Making a brief but effectively terrifying appearance is Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). Tuco’s erratic behavior is balanced by new character, the levelheaded but equally dangerous Nacho (Michael Mando). Again, it bodes well to Gilligan’s strength in character dynamics/ writing.
Season one of Better Call Saul sets the tone for the series to move at a steady pace and stays in-line with the drama and awareness of the classic original series this is based off. Just when it looked like the story was over, Gilligan drags us right back into the world without the heavy reliance of what came before – new characters like Kim, Chuck and Howard stand on their own two feet, never once giving the sense of longing for a Walt or Jesse to make an appearance. The story of Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill is dark and tragic, and this first season is a reminder of the moving parts that are executed well to tell this level of story.
Created By: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould
Episodes Directed By: Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Terry McDonough, Colin Bucksey, Nicole Kassell, Adam Bernstein, Larysa Kondracki, Thomas Schnauz & Peter Gould
Music By: Little Barrie (Theme), Dave Porter
Cinematography: Arthur Albert
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Michael McKean
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: February 8, 2015
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%