Take a drive with me, buddy. Let’s go all the way back.
Nostalgia is the watchword of Better Call Saul, a really intriguing piece of TV that’s currently tiptoeing into our homes in the too-large shoes of its big brother. Saul is a rewind, a retcon, a strange kinda memory. In this prequel, we get to spend all of our time with Breaking Bad‘s beloved comic relief: the slippery lawyer Saul Goodman, who was once Jimmy McGill. Watching Saul is like seeing your weird uncle in an old family photo, frozen in time and seeming so much more human. It’s also like a comic-book origin story – not about the superhero, but the sidekick.
Better Call Saul is an experiment. It has to be satisfying for Breaking Bad fans, but also stand on its own two feet. It’s got to fabricate an entire history starting in 2002, while remaining steady on a temporal track towards the events of BB, which begin in 2008. This is a really complicated and ambitious conceit for any spinoff, let alone a spinoff of a show with such deep cultural impact and hysterical audience loyalty.
Based on the first of the two-part premiere – “Uno” – I think it’s all gonna work out just fine.
Part I: “Uno”
First and foremost, “Uno” was an aesthetic statement. This episode reminded me that creators/writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have vision. This episode was striking, both visually and narratively, with a bravely economical script.
You don’t need to look any further than the first quarter of the episode to see what I mean. For the first twenty minutes of the show, there is no dialogue. We open with a very long black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s post-Breaking Bad existence as a Cinnabon store manager in Omaha*. He wears nondescript eyeglasses and a sad wiry mustache. He kneads dough and stares jumpily at his customers. It’s a colorless life, depicted in noirish high-contrast.
At night, he drinks a strong, nonsensical cocktail (Dewars and lime juice?) and watches Saul Goodman’s old commercials. It’s a sad image paired with sad sounds: the first person who we hear speaking is effectively dead and exists only on a VHS tape. This is how the show begins: at the end. It’s almost practicing a reverse Breaking Bad: set the stage with tragedy, in order for the comedy to shine brighter.
Which it does.
“Oh, to be 19 again. You with me, ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember 19? Let me tell you. The juices are flowing, the red corpuscles are corpuscling. The grass is green, and it’s soft, and summer’s gonna last forever.”
Those are the first actual words spoken by our protagonist, Jimmy McGill, back in ’02 when Saul begins. He’s attempting to defend, with romantic poetry, three kids who fucked the head of a human cadaver. That’s how someone like Saul Goodman started out. And that makes perfect sense.
It’s so cool to watch Bob Odenkirk work. He was so larger-than-life as Saul, but as Jimmy, he’s tentative and high-strung. The character hits many of the same neurotic, blustery, salesman-ish notes, but he hits them softer. He’s still trying on his shark suit. Jimmy doesn’t have a secretary – he’s got a fake British accent that he uses to schedule Mr. McGill’s appointments. He doesn’t rumble into his office parking lot in a white Cadillac DeVille – he parks on the street in an incredibly shitty Suzuki Esteem and works in a closet behind a nail salon*. Early on, we watch him try to win a client at a coffee shop, and his anxious face says it all as he watches the guy almost sign the dotted line. Jimmy McGill is a nobody, who’s in the beginning stages of building the persona of a somebody.
I really enjoyed the storyline involving Jimmy and two scam-artist skateboarder brothers, who he meets when they choose him as their mark. Their scheme is this: one guy videotapes while the other deliberately jumps in front of cars and artfully takes a hit. They then extort the driver. Great scene in which the brothers unsuccessfully try to shake Jimmy down:
This plotline offers us our first small glimmer of Saul Goodman.
In the scammers, Jimmy sees an opportunity for the kind of hybrid criminal/legal partnership which will eventually become his bread and butter. He attempts to inspire his accomplices with a rambling autobiography, puffing himself up as a legal mastermind. He takes them on a drive to test their skill at remembering crime-scene details.* He’s making clients, fabricating advantageous situations out of nothing, which will eventually become Saul’s number one survival skill. It’s a fun way to introduce the methodology of the character, with his first small-time racket.
I’m also really excited to learn so much more about Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill. Much of “Uno” focused on Jimmy’s efforts to force Chuck’s legal practice to buy him out, since Chuck’s dying of cancer. The two brothers live together in Jimmy’s squalid apartment, eating uncooked bacon from a watery cooler and having conversations by the light of portable lanterns. Chuck is played with great aplomb by the timeless Michael McKean, who effortlessly parries with Odenkirk (“That’s correct, minus the sarcasm”). We get some valuable insight into their relationship in their scenes together: Jimmy is protective of Chuck, but also seems a little jealous of his older brother’s success as a partner in a legitimate multi-million-dollar practice.
Wonderful scenes at that business as well, in which Jimmy grandstands in front of Chuck’s partners. I plan to walk into every room shouting “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, AND YOU! WILL! ATONE!” It is so Jimmy/Saul to quote Network and then feel the need to explain that he’s quoting Network. A tic right out of Michael Scott’s playbook.
Also have to mention the beautifully staged moment outside Chuck’s practice, in which Jimmy shares a cigarette with a woman who appears to be a sometime-girlfriend. The shot is dramatically lit and lingers long, allowing us to see subtle changes in the actors’ faces. Great cinematography, which is again unsurprising considering Better Call Saul‘s pedigree. This team has always been amazing at breathing life into bland industrial spaces.
Anyway, back to the plot. “Uno” ends with a giant bang, as Saul follows his witless skater accomplices into a home that belongs to none other than TUCO SALAMANCA. Tight tight tight tight tight! As a BB fanatic, I was so excited to see Tuco, but we shall see in Part II how gimmicky his inclusion proves to be.
Lastly, I just have to say that I’m so consistently impressed with this team’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to costuming, hairstyle, even the attractiveness of the extras. Everything about Saul screams early 2000s, and it really makes it easier to accept the show as a prequel when the actors have noticeably aged (I’m looking at you, Mike Ehrmantraut).
A review of Part II: “Mijo” – up tomorrow!
- * I starred every Breaking Bad nod (excluding Saul’s paycheck, which says he lives on Gale’s street: Juan Tabo). It is a running mental list I am compelled to keep.
- Obsessed with the Back to the Future tribute, in which the skaters cling to the back of a pickup truck! Was this a reference to the 2015 premiere date? A meta wink to the time travel back to Saul’s beginnings? So brilliant.
- Wondering if anyone caught Bryan Cranston’s charming Mad Men promo spot during the commercial break.
- The title card was so very chintzy and analog:
- Seriously, that long introduction was so fucking beautiful. I’d almost like to see the whole series in black and white. It would be amazing to see a show someday that’s unafraid to embrace the B&W palette.