Arts, Featured Column, Column

Better Watch Saul

Thankfully, Vince Gilligan has plenty left to say.

What do people want from a spinoff to Breaking Bad? This was the question that I skeptically asked myself when I first heard that Better Call Saul, an origin story starring Walter White’s scummy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) was officially greenlit. Breaking Bad was that rare show that delivered on its initial premise, improved over time, and never overstayed its welcome. Creator Vince Gilligan perfectly fulfilled the basic mandate he envisioned from day one—turning Mr. Chips into Scarface—and delivered a widely acclaimed conclusion that wrapped everything up nicely. What more was there to say—especially about a comic supporting character like Saul?

Quite a lot, actually, judging from the first two episodes of Better Call Saul. It may be true that the story of Saul Goodman lacks the dramatic intensity of Walter White’s crystal descent into a meth kingpin, but Gilligan and company seem to understand that themselves. There’s plenty of Breaking Bad’s DNA in Better Call Saul, but the new show is not trying to be a clone. It’s a variation on a theme.

That theme is transformation, and the ways that seemingly good men can get dragged down into the murk of crime. When we first see Saul Goodman last Sunday, he’s living out his post-Walter White life in hiding as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha, just as he predicted at the end of Breaking Bad. As the show flashes back to 2002, though, we come to see Saul in a different light: not the anonymous sad sack of the prologue or the high-rolling criminal lawyer of Breaking Bad, but Jimmy McGill, a dirt-poor lawyer barely making ends meet with thankless public defender cases. (The first case we see involves a group of “near-honors students” who do rather nasty things to a decapitated head in a funeral home).

The hook of Better Call Saul, I think, is that it finds Saul in a different moral position than we are familiar with from Breaking Bad. Jimmy McGill may share the sardonic humor of his future alter ego, and his client list may be equally dubious, but unlike Saul, Jimmy stands for something other than money. Nowhere is that clearer than in his relationship with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who has been forced out of his own prestigious law firm because of an illness. In the series premiere, we see Jimmy storm into his brother’s office and deliver a tirade of righteous fury toward the partners, who have screwed his brother out of a just settlement. In the first two episodes, the Chuck storyline is slow going, but it also reveals surprising new facets to Jimmy’s personality: who could imagine that Saul Goodman cared about justice or even had a meaningful relationship with a fellow human?

Throughout the first two episodes, the writers mix surprises with familiar elements in perfect proportion. Saul’s future right-hand man Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) appears, but in 2002 he’s a disgruntled parking lot employee. At the end of episode one, an accident scam gone wrong brings Jimmy to the doorstep of Tuco (Raymond Cruz), the sociopathic drug lord from Breaking Bad. The sequence that follows, where Jimmy negotiates for the lives of his lowlife conspirators in the scorching Albuquerque desert, is an instant classic, recalling the “how-will-they-get-out-of-this” suspense scenarios of Breaking Bad while demonstrating Jimmy’s surprising moral compass.

One familiar element thankfully ported over from Breaking Bad is its visual style. Fans of the previous show will recognize many visual signatures: low-angle perspective shots, wide vistas of the Albuquerque skies, and the use of slow-motion and tight close-ups of objects to accentuate characters’ inner anxieties and fears. Like its predecessor, the new series likes to show off in the technical department, but some of the most striking shots are simple. My favorite is a distant shot of Jimmy furiously kicking a metal garbage can in the fluorescent-lit basement of a rival law firm, while a cool blond smokes a cigarette in the darkness outside. It’s a thoughtfully composed, film-noir image that perfectly describes Jimmy’s own feelings of futility in the face of an indifferent world.

Such weighty themes contrast with the overall tone of Better Call Saul, which is more comic than its predecessor. Whereas Breaking Bad was an intense drama with moments of humor, Better Call Saul seems to have the formula reversed: it’s a comedy with an underlying darkness. Finding the right balance between drama and comedy will be one of the trickier feats for the show to pull off.

The ultimate challenge, though, will be for Better Call Saul to stand on its own, apart from its illustrious inspiration. Callbacks to Breaking Bad have their charm, but they cannot sustain a new show in the long term. Based on the evidence of the first two episodes, though, I am ready to put aside my initial skepticism and place my trust in Vince Gilligan—and as Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, I am excited to see Better Call Saul find its own identity too.

Featured Image Courtesy of AMC

February 11, 2015