This Better Call Saul review contains spoilers.
Better Call Saul Season 2, Episode 1
Spinoff shows are tricky business. Often studios mistakenly believe that association can manufacture quality. Spinoffs, and even further than that, prequels, sometimes exist solely to chase the ghost of a beloved property, repackaging the spare parts that can be reassembled to keep the spirit alive. Telling good stories can be the secondary focus in making these things if good intentions are missing. And even if the spinoff turns out a quality product, can it ever really get out of the shadow of its parent show?
For Better Call Saul, the answer is no. Breaking Bad, its storylines, visuals, and legacy, still loom largely in the mind while watching the adventures of Jimmy McGill. “Switch,” the premiere of Better Call Saul season two, once again opens on Jimmy in Omaha, after the proceedings of the former program. Jimmy’s life after his run-in with drug kingpin Walter White is just as it had looked before and just as he predicted it would be – sad, anonymous and full of Cinnabon.
From what it appears, Jimmy’s interactions with other human beings are no more than workplace pleasantries and subtle nods of recognition to other solitary souls. He’s so low-key, unflashy, nothing like the guy in the commercials that are recorded on the secretive tapes he keeps hidden in his home. Jimmy can call no attention to himself, and that includes sending police officers to his location, even if it’s only for using an emergency door that happened to be his only means of escape from an alley.
The fact that this scene directly continues Breaking Bad’s story makes you anticipate Breaking Bad-style action. It sets up expectations and a sense of tension, you become instantly worried that something worse waits for Jimmy in that alley besides a goofy case of being locked out. That feeling never seems to leave Better Call Saul, but it’s not a bad thing, because fortunately, Better Call Saul has its own interesting story to tell. It uses the bells, whistles, and leftover aura from Breaking Bad tastefully and to its advantage. Take for instance the case of Pryce, anti-Heisenberg with the hummer; we’re trained to expect that Nacho is going to deploy some of that Breaking Bad violence on the nitwit, and the show easily earns the ability to subvert our preconceived notions of what might happen.
However, Better Call Saul shines in Breaking Bad’s shadow by the way it introduces its own tone and lowers the stakes. Better Call Saul’s seriocomic voice definitely excels in the lighter side of that equation. It may be helped by the ingenious cons that the writers cook up, like the one Jimmy ropes Kim into here, scamming a scummy Wall Street shark out of pricey tequila with a sibling act. Seeing Slippin’ Jimmy in action is just fun, reminiscent of the vibe you get from watching a charming heist film.
The seriousness underneath never gets smothered by the comedy though. It becomes quite clear that pulling cons, adopting different personas, is Jimmy’s way of working through an identity crisis now that he’s no longer seeking to impress his brother Chuck. After proving his merit as an attorney with the Sandpiper case, Jimmy resists taking a job with reputable firm Davis & Mane, no doubt still affected by his brother’s betrayal and the death of his former partner in crime, Marco. Jimmy feels like living a moral life as a lawyer was all for naught, and only feels fulfillment by bullshitting and manipulating.
He remains lost, adrift, just like his status with Kim. There’s so much sadness and desperate hope in Bob Odenkirk’s eyes as he asks Kim about where they stand, and there’s just a flash of painful pity expertly deployed by Rhea Seehorn as she gives him a non-answer. These scenes adeptly refurbish the themes of identity and ego from Breaking Bad in a more relatable way. I don’t know what it’s like to be dying of cancer or the thoughts that lead you to plan to bomb a rival drug dealer, but I do know what it’s like to question the path you’re on and your ambitions, and I know how difficult it is to put your pride on the line with someone you care about. At this time, the stakes are smaller and more recognizable, and Better Call Saul is better for it.
I like that Saul and Kim’s relationship will be expanded on, because they certainly share interesting chemistry, but I’m mildly irritated in the way that the episode served as a quasi-soft reboot, mirroring many moments from the season one premiere while introducing a new, bolder, jobless Jimmy, only to return him to work by the episodes end. I would have liked to see the freewheeling Jimmy for a little while longer. Regardless, I’m thrilled to have Better Call Saul back, a quality product, looking, sounding, and feeling like Breaking Bad, but carving out its own identity.
The Best of the Rest
- Ed Begley Jr. pops up as an attorney for Davis & Mane. His style seems like it totally suits Better Call Saul’s tone.
- Pryce’s interactions with Nacho and the police reminded me a lot of FX’s Fargo. Maybe it’s just his accent, but it felt eerily similar to that show.
- Jimmy’s overall insecurity can be highlighted by that voicemail he leaves for Kim, at first overly confident then awkwardly self-conscious.
- “I’m pretty low maintenance” coming from the future Saul Goodman got a pretty good chuckle out of me.
- Jimmy requests a Cocobolo desk. It’s a tropical hardwood from Central America. It is commonly used in knife handles and gun grips due to its ability to hold up to repeat use and wet conditions. John Mayer released a limited edition Martin guitar made of cocobolo in 2012.
- I enjoyed the final scene, with Jimmy being unable to resist the urge to flip the switch that says precisely not to do that. Jimmy quickly notices that there are no consequences for flipping the switch. Something tells me he’ll be flipping more figurative switches this season