This review contains spoilers.
One of the most interesting things about Better Call Saul is the fact that, seven episodes in, the title character has barely appeared. Oh sure, Jimmy McGill looks a lot like Saul Goodman and shares the same cutting wit, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two, and that difference is what makes Better Call Saul so fascinating and ultimately tragic. At its heart this is a show about a man trying to be a good person, even though we all know he will ultimately fail. The Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad is a shallow, unscrupulous character who had no qualms about suggesting Walter White ‘send someone to Belize’ if they became a problem. So just how the hell does insecure, good hearted Jimmy McGill become such a hollow reflection of the man he once was?
What differentiates Jimmy’s story from Walt’s, aside from lower stakes, is the fact that Walt never really tried to hold on to his morality. Granted, his was a slow erosion that he didn’t really notice until it was far too late; plus he always had the excuse that he was ‘doing this for the family’. Jimmy, as he so bluntly put it in Bingo, has nothing to lose. He has no reason to be a good person apart from the fact that he so desperately wants to be better than he used to be. It’s startling to see just how decent Jimmy can be; he helped to save Kim’s career even when he so badly wants her to come and work with him. So a single question is coming more into focus with every passing week; just what the hell happened to make him change?
At the moment it could be any number of things. Mike’s dark past and the crimes of the Kettlemans seem more or less resolved, at least for now. While it was great to see just how Jimmy decided to deal with the troublesome couple, it does leave a bit of a surfeit of ongoing plots. The conflict with HHM is still lingering, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that could break someone, unless somehow it leads to Chuck getting hurt. It’s telling that there’s no hint of Jimmy’s brother in Breaking Bad when he’s so clearly a major part of this time in his life. To be fair, we never saw much of Saul’s personal life in the older show, but it’s hard to imagine he could have gone so astray were Chuck still around.
Prequels are hard to get right; the only way to really create any dramatic tension is by using what is pre-established in your favour, something Better Call Saul has done brilliantly. It’s taken its time in building its protagonist into a person comfortably distinct from who he will become, and that was strongly consolidated by tonight’s episode. Even Jimmy’s breakdown in the office that would have been Kim’s was a surprise because it’s the first time we’ve seen the character so angry. By now it feels kind of redundant to comment on just how good Bob Odenkirk is, especially when you consider that the guy on our screens started out as comic relief. To make him a compelling leading man in his own right is no mean feat.
There was a moment toward the end of this episode where I found myself surprised to remember that Saul Goodman is a character in another show that I loved quite a lot. To me this feels like the first episode that wasn’t in some way supported by my adoration for Breaking Bad; the first episode where I was so caught up in the plot that it never even crossed my mind that one day Jimmy and Mike will become the supporting characters in someone else’s story. This is testament to the work of the actors and creative team and while I hesitate to say that Better Call Saul has yet caught fire in the same way its predecessor did, it’s starting to really take shape as its own distinct and compelling beast.
This was an excellent episode that managed to develop the unique concerns of the show as well as bring a major subplot to a satisfying climax (appreciating that there may be more left in the Kettlemans’ story). Coming on the heels of last week’s magnificent Mike hour, this represents a show entering something of a winning streak. I’ve never expected Better Call Saul to be Breaking Bad 2.0 and its never tried to be, but now it’s starting to feel like it really knows what it wants to be, and what it can become may yet stand almost equal with its predecessor.
Read Stefan’s review of the previous episode, Five-O, here.
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