SO I DON’T know if you’ve hard of a little show called Breaking Bad, well if you haven’t, spoilers may follow so go watch all of that and we’ll see you back at this review in a week. Assuming you have, here’s Rich with the lowdown on spin-off/follow-up Better Call Saul.
Breaking Bad wrapped in 2012 with the most conclusive ending it could have. While the fate of the surviving characters could be left up to speculation, we all knew that in the short term at least they would all be rebuilding their lives after the two-year rampage of Heisenberg. The story was over, but fans weren’t ready to say goodbye to the criminals of Albuquerque. Creator Vince Gilligan announced shortly after that instead of a continuation we would receive a prequel series starring Breaking Bad supporting player Saul Goodman. Saul’s role on Breaking Bad was, at first glance, primarily as comic relief in an ever-darkening show. However he was also a voice of reason and a major player in more than one crime empire. He had so many scene-stealing lines and introduced other key characters like Mike Ehrmantraut & Gustavo Fring, it’s hard to believe he didn’t appear until the fifteenth episode and wasn’t intended to be a leading cast member.
Actor Bob Odenkirk was mostly known for his comedic chops (I highly recommend Mr Show, his sketch show with Arrested Development’s David Cross) and had little confidence in his dramatic ability, but with each season he handled the heavier side of the decline of Walter White as well as anyone. Odenkirk is a capable leading man, as Vince Gilligan has repeatedly insisted, and Better Call Saul proves this beyond any expectations.
I was nervous about Better Call Saul at first, thinking it would either be a primarily comedic show lacking the gravitas of Breaking Bad, or possibly an attempt at heavy drama with a central character who couldn’t be taken seriously enough. It turns out that this experiment wasn’t the cash-grab many would expect: creator Vince Gilligan had a confident vision and faith in Odenkirk’s talent. Saul is the sort of character who warrants a spin-off, as he overflowed with untapped development and unanswered questions.
The show follows Saul Goodman before he was Saul Goodman, around six years before Walter White became Heisenberg. He is James McGill, the younger brother of esteemed lawyer Charles McGill (played by Michael McKean). Although we had heard the name James McGill before, and learned that Saul gained his degree from the University of American Samoa, they appeared to be off-hand jokes to lighten the mood on Breaking Bad which wouldn’t inform his character in any meaningful way. But even the smallest plot points can return years later. Even the classic zinger about Saul convincing a woman he was Kevin Costner (“she believed it because I believed it”) finally pays off.
It turns out that James was once a con-man nicknamed Slippin’ Jimmy who used “Saul Goodman” (‘sall good, man!) as an alias when hustling strangers. After leaving prison, Jimmy worked in the mailroom at his brother’s firm HHM and eventually passed the bar remotely. Jimmy expected to be taken on at HHM but was let go, and instead sustained himself by taking on hopeless defendants as a public defender.
While most legal shows tend to work on a one-case-per-episode formula, Better Call Saul is an erratic serial with several running threads. The first season revolves around two major cases; one a fraud case involving the delusional Kettlemans, who are way out of their depth, and one an exploitation case against a retirement home. Saul’s attempt to blackmail the Kettlemans in the first episode leads him, via a pair of deadbeat proto-Pinkman twins, into a collision with the original Breaking Bad archvillain Tuco Salamanca. Tuco and Saul’s tenures didn’t overlap in the first series, so seeing their shared history was a delight here.
As is the way with prequels, legitimate tension is difficult to maintain. We know where these people are going to end up. But what a prequel can do is delve deeper into how these characters ended up where they are. This can fail horribly, especially when the writers try to wrap too much into a single traumatic moment and cheapen the impact the character made before. In the case of Better Call Saul, two Breaking Bad favourites receive the best kind of backstories; the ones which will clearly fester over time rather than change their personality in one bad day.
Such is the case with Mike Ehrmantraut, reprised by Jonathan Banks in the second-billed role. Mike appears only once or twice an episode at first, raising his eyebrows at Jimmy while working as a disgruntled parking attendant, but just wait for the sixth episode. We already knew Mike was a retired cop who lost faith in the law and became a private investigator with cartel connections (I refer you to his magnificent “Half Measures” speech) but Banks had his own ideas of how Mike became the weary, caustic curmudgeon we know and love.
Banks’ ideas eventually became canon as we get an episode exploring his Chicago roots and his late son. Banks absolutely knocks it out of the park with a tour-de-force that totally deserved more awards attention. I cried like a bitch in the episode’s final scene; if you can’t spare ten hours to watch the whole season, at least spare an hour for “Five-O”, because Jonathan Banks gives the performance of his life.
Moving ahead, Better Call Saul has great potential and is yet to move all the pieces into place before Jimmy McGill becomes the Saul Goodman we know and love. Odenkirk’s performance in the first season was stellar and Jonathan Banks and Michael McKean bring the gravitas you’d expect. After Breaking Bad was such a runaway success (especially after the Netflix kick in its last season) they still managed to make a spin-off which blended into the established world while creating a whole new one. I can’t wait to see Saul encounter Hank, Gus or maybe even a high school-aged Jesse as the cameos keep coming, but his own star vehicle stands on its own feet as one of the year’s best new dramas.