Better Call Saul episode 1 review: Uno

The first episode of Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul starring Bob Odenkirk, is a real success...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Uno

Why Saul Goodman?

It’s fair to say that creating a spin-off of Breaking Bad, one of the most acclaimed, widely discussed, zeitgeist-trampling TV series of recent times, brings with it some intimidating baggage, and sky-high expectations. And of the many questions that occurred to me when I first heard about plans for Better Call Saul (after the initial, decidedly un-critical BREAKING BAD SPIN-OFF ERMAHGERD WOOPWOOP thought process, of course), most were variations on a theme of “why”. Why do a spin-off at all? Is there a story here that needs to be told? Or will viewers simply be happy to have the chance to spend more time in the Breaking Bad universe? Many were willing to forgive Peter Jackson for expanding The Hobbit into a trilogy, for example, because they were glad to be back in such a beloved fictional world, and it could certainly be argued that the films rely a little too much on that goodwill, and don’t necessarily justify such expanded length.

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My gut told me that Vince Gilligan et al were far too aware of Breaking Bad’s cultural cachet and possessed far too much creative integrity to coast in such a way, or to wander too far into the realm of self-indulgence. If they were planning a Breaking Bad spin-off, rather than a completely new series, then I trusted that it was a story they felt was worth telling.

So why Saul Goodman?

Well, of all the memorable characters that spun in and out of Walter White’s poisonous, destructive orbit, he really makes the most sense. Would you want to see five seasons of Walter as a hen-pecked family man, climaxing with a cancer diagnosis? Or to have the mystique and menace of Gus Fring spoiled by an in-depth origin story? Apart from being a great character, brilliantly played by Bob Odenkirk – who, needless to say, is excellent in this first episode – we knew little about Saul as a person beyond his interactions with Walt and Jesse, so there was plenty of scope for development. On the other hand, a brilliant supporting character does not necessarily make for a brilliant lead character, and I had my doubts about how well he would work as a main protagonist. The idea of seeing a younger, naïve version of Saul, and learning how he became the corrupt, self-serving scumbag we came to know and love, or how he got bitten by a radioactive skeevy lawyer or whatever, wasn’t necessarily that appealing. His skeeviness is his appeal, and too much background information and explanations can often end up diluting a good character.

I needn’t have worried, because Gilligan et al play it smart. After a very effective, practically dialogue-free opening, in which we see that an anxious and melancholy Goodman has indeed ended up working at a Cinnabon in Omaha, we flash back to the early 2000s to see what Saul – or, as he was known back then, Jimmy McGill – was up to then. Turns out that he was pretty much doing what we’re used to him doing in Breaking Bad, i.e. wheeling and dealing, representing unsavoury folks and generally being pretty dodgy, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s a good move to show that the character is already fairly unscrupulous – it makes for tighter, more focused drama, and maintains the humour that characterised Saul in his parent series, and it’ll be interesting to see how fate conspires to iron out whatever scruples he has remaining.

These scruples are largely personified by his brother Chuck, on whose behalf Jimmy is attempting to ‘negotiate’ a pay-out from the law firm that bears his surname. While there is clearly genuine familial concern in the well-played, subtly surreal interactions between the two (Chuck seems to be suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and their scene together is conducted entirely by lantern light), Jimmy is also clearly driven by less than charitable instincts; the contrast between the big, bright, professional offices of Hamlin Hamlin & McGill and the tiny, grimy cupboard of an office that Jimmy keeps in the boiler room of a beauty salon is stark, and the bitterness that he feels  is palpable. The Saul we’re used to was always a mercenary individual, and we rarely saw him getting properly emotionally involved in anything, so it’s very effective when Better Call Saul gives us a wider range of emotions and motivations to buy into, rather than pure and simple profit.

Profit, however, is still very much on Jimmy’s mind, and we see that he was always willing to sink fairly low in order to to get paid – defending three young men who cut the head off a corpse and had sex with it, for example, or teaming up with a pair of not-especially-bright would-be scammers so that the three of them can then scam the woman who refused Jimmy’s offer of representation earlier in the episode. These scenes all work nicely from a comic perspective, but the way the latter segues into drama, with Jimmy coming face to face with a familiar (and very dangerous) character, makes for a highly impactful cliffhanger ending. Vince Gilligan has said that Better Call Saul will be a much lighter series than Breaking Bad, and it would definitely be a mistake for the new series to try to match its predecessor’s palpitation-inducing intensity, but it’s still good to see that Breaking Bad’s penchant for thrilling tonal shifts is evident here.

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Any first episode of a new series has a tough job to do, establishing a premise, a setting and characters while also trying to tell a worthwhile story, and Gilligan confidently and un-showily serves these multiple masters, making sure all the necessary exposition (and there is quite a bit) comes up naturally, rather than via clunky info-dumps. It’s also as well-shot as you’d expect (Gilligan directs as well as writes this first episode) – for example, the black and white colouring and snow in the opening, contrasted with the brightness and yellower palette used in the rest of the episode (Albuquerque is instantly recognisable, and weirdly iconic), are as effective an indication of Saul’s inevitable trajectory as any expository diaologue.

Ultimately, even though Better Call Saul doesn’t yet make a truly compelling case for its own existence, beyond seeing this universe and these characters again – and there’s certainly a real thrill in seeing Jimmy’s first meeting with the wonderfully world-weary Mike Ehrmantraut – there’s enough here to suggest that the series can develop into something special. It’s a curious thing – on the one hand, I know that as a viewer I should try to avoid letting my memories of Breaking Bad interfere with my reactions to Better Call Saul, as the new series is quite emphatically NOT Breaking Bad 2.0, but on the other hand, with all these familiar faces sharing the screen again, it’s tricky to disentangle the two. I have faith, however, that this show will distinguish itself on its own terms. And hey – even if it doesn’t, how can I really say no to the weekly misadventures of such a fun character?

Why Saul Goodman?

Well, why not?

Read our review of the Breaking Bad finale, Felina, here.

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