Is it possible to strike televisual gold twice? Given Breaking Bad’s gradual transformation into a cultural behemoth, one could argue that even if Better Call Saul amounted to nothing more than (in this clumsy metaphor) a few bronze coins and a handful of bottlecaps, then that would be ok; just as long as it isn’t awful. Based on this opening episode, the future looks bright for everybody’s favourite shady criminal lawyer. This first episode works so well because it manages to establish the show’s relationship to its big brother whilst also breaking down the man we knew as Saul Goodman into the constituent Jimmy McGill sized parts.
Breaking Bad was notorious for its brilliant “cold-opens”, i.e. the short segment before the main titles, which were often bizarre and wonderful little episodes in their own right. Better Call Saul opens with a suitably enigmatic sequence that initially plays with the audience’s perception of the timeframe (are we watching a post or pre-Breaking Bad Saul) and confirms that the show will take place in the same timeline as Breaking Bad. This feels like a smart choice as it will provide a comforting continuity for fans of Breaking Bad, whilst also giving showrunners Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan the option of returning to the aftermath of Breaking Bad to provide Saul/Jimmy with a definitive ending.
Jumping back in time to 2002 (around 7 years before he met Walter White), we meet a man who isn’t yet Saul Goodman but in whom can be seen the makings of the man we know. Gould and Gilligan introduce Jimmy McGill by not just showing us who he is, but by using our knowledge of who he will become to twist our expectations. In the trial, Jimmy delivers an impassioned speech in defence of his clients and for a moment it looks like he has talked his clients out of a sticky situation, as we know Saul always did. Crucially however, we don’t know the exact nature of his clients’ crime, which is revealed in an almost blackly amusing sequence where the prosecuting lawyer plays an incriminating videotape of the incident for the jury. The crime itself isn’t funny, but rather the manner in which Jimmy attempted to win the case despite the insurmountable evidence against his clients.
Something that will work in Better Call Saul’s favour is the perceived genre change for this spinoff, from drama to comedy; going forward, this should limit comparisons with Breaking Bad as it won’t be held up to the same standards. When a spinoff show is trying and failing to achieve the same audience response as the main show (e.g. Joey and Friends), an audience’s patience will wane more quickly; a spinoff that’s trying to do something different may get an easier ride for a few episodes.
Another reason why Joey didn’t work was that Joey Tribbiani wasn’t the right character for a spin off; in fact, none of the main characters from Friends were right for a spin-off. His life was defined by his job, friends and … foosball, and there was nothing more to him that we hadn’t seen in Friends. Whilst Joey introduced new characters and situations, it was covering the same themes as Friends. Saul on the other hand is ripe for a spin off as his life outside his interactions with Walter and Jesse were only hinted at. Saul was often peripheral to a lot of the drama, despite being a prominent character, which leaves the door open for this spinoff.
Saul was perhaps the most comedic character on Breaking Bad but for Better Call Saul to work, there needs to something more dramatic and personal for the audience to invest in. It was endearing to see Jimmy’s attempt to win the trial, however misguided it was and the early glimpses of his relationship with his brother Chuck hint at another caring side of Jimmy. Chuck was/is a partner at a local law firm who has developed a fear of electromagnetism and has cut himself off from the outside world until he can conclude his ‘research’. It’s not exactly clear what Chuck’s condition is but we do get to see that Jimmy’s endeavours aren’t entirely selfish. He needs to provide for the both of them whilst Chuck is stuck between not working at the firm and insisting that he will eventually return.
This struggle for cash leads Jimmy to concocting a plan to swindle some from a disloyal client with the help of two skateboarding scammers. They had attempted to dupe Jimmy by jumping into his car as he turned a corner, but Jimmy was all too familiar with this scam to have fallen for it. However he sees that their scam could, with a few tweaks, work on his potential client. Again this feels like something we would associate with Saul, but Jimmy doesn’t yet have the experience to pull it off. Unsurprisingly the plan fails, but Jimmy inadvertently stumbles into a situation that could make his life a hell of a lot worse. The episode ends with the familiar face of Tuco Salamanca opening the door and dragging Jimmy inside. Time will tell how much Gould and Gilligan draw on the characters of Breaking Bad (a brief appearance from Mike Ehrmantraut and Jonathan Banks’ listing in the main cast suggest we’ll be seeing a lot more of him), but Tuco is certainly a good character to start with. His coked-up craziness should provide both humour and a legitimate threat to Jimmy’s livelihood.
I’ll be back in a few days time with some thoughts on the second episode and then every week after that for the remainder of this 10 episode run. If the rest of the episodes are as good as this opener, then we’ll be in for a treat.
Better Call Saul Episode 1 is available to stream via Netflix. New episodes uploaded weekly.