I was nervous for Better Call Saul. How could the show ever live up to the gargantuan heights of its parent series, Breaking Bad? The idea of a spin-off reeked of desperation by a network that’s clinging to its final hit, The Walking Dead, and looking to cash in on familiarity and fan service to add a sure-fire hit to its line up. Not executed correctly, Better Call Saul could tarnish Breaking Bad’s near spotless legacy.
Thankfully, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is on the Saul team, as well as Bad producer Peter Gould. Having those two around to steer the ship bodes well, but they’re captaining a different vessel altogether. Breaking Bad was the journey of one man’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, and Better Call Saul doesn’t promise that sort of transformation. When we meet Saul, he’s going by his real name Jimmy McGill, but he’s already schmoozing, hatching schemes, and over playing his hand, even if he isn’t that successful at it. Jimmy McGill is a con man, and he’ll stay a con man, so his journey seems less radical or shocking: Jimmy McGill will go from loser to winner.
Well, he’ll be a winner for a little while, because I wouldn’t call the manager of a Cinnabon a winner. Yes, the episode beings post-Breaking Bad, in black and white, as we join Saul in his new life in Omaha, Nebraska. Seeing Saul stripped of his flashy suits, somberly shelling out pastry with a ridiculous mustache to conceal his identity may have been the episode’s most fascinating moment, both funny and tragic, which adds to my worries. As a downtrodden Saul watched his old commercials like a private collection of his own greatest hits, it made me wonder whether I was doing the same thing. Was I watching Better Call Saul to recapture the feeling Breaking Bad gave me? Would the show hold up on its own if I had never seen an episode of Breaking Bad? Was Better Call Saul only going to shine when it was tipping its hat to the source material?
Fortunately, the answer in this pilot seems to be no. Gilligan’s penchant for inspired camera work and incredibly inventive forms of criminal mischief (what exactly were those boys going to do with that severed head?) adds that sense of familiarity, but the tone is much lighter, definitely more akin to the zaniness of Breaking Bad’s early days. And right out of the gate, the show’s most intriguing character isn’t our protagonist or any other Bad refugee, but Chuck, Jimmy’s brother played by a right at home Michael McKean. Jimmy is tasked with looking after Chuck after Chuck is afflicted with a peculiar illness that isn’t quite revealed in this episode, but has the character forcing others to “ground themselves” and leave all electronics at the door before entering his home.
Chuck was a successful lawyer that helped start a law firm, Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, and believing his brother to be permanently out of action, Jimmy wants the firm to buy-out Chuck’s stake, which would help Jimmy support his brother and also help with his own monetary woes. Chuck insists he’ll beat his affliction and encourages Jimmy to keep grinding away as a court appointed defense attorney until he can earn a reputation as good lawyer. But we all know the future Saul Goodman is a man who likes to cut corners.
After almost getting duped by two skateboarding brothers that hurl themselves into cars to get cash, Jimmy decides to use the two slackers to help court the business of a woman who’s husband is a treasurer accused of stealing money. Of course the plan doesn’t take shape as planned, and it leads the two kids and Jimmy right to the door of none other than Tuco, the insane drug dealer who goes on to be Walter White’s first true adversary. The reveal should have excited me, but it felt almost too much like fan service too fully enjoy, though I guess we should see where it heads in the second part of this premiere tomorrow night.
Overall, this first outing goes down pretty easy, thanks to Gilligan’s signature direction and a lead that’s already fully in tune with his character. I’m excited to watch Bob Odenkirk really unravel Jimmy McGill. In Bad’s world, he was little more than just comic relief; here he can be a more complex sad clown. The show’s pilot might actually be better than Breaking Bad’s, but it has the unfair advantage of having a crew that’s already comfortable, confident and full of practice.
It’s great fun bumping into Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, as measured and sarcastic as ever) and listening to idiosyncratic soundtrack choices while cruising through the New Mexico landscape, staples of Breaking Bad, but Better Call Saul’s best moments are the new additions, like the mysterious woman smoking in the garage, the hilarious setting of Jimmy’s office in the back of a nail salon, and the general squalor that we find the future Goodman in. Most of all, it is the show’s ability to keep things light and fun. There are no cancer diagnoses in this pilot or bodies in the back of the RV, just some unpaid bills and dreams of flashy purple suits. The further away Better Call Saul distances itself from the shadow of Breaking Bad, the better it will become.