By Sy Mukherjee
WARNING: There are SPOILERS abound for both “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad” in this review. So don’t yell at me.
“Better Call Saul’s” premiere last night (part one of a two-parter which continues this evening) was good. In fact, it was really, really good.
But for “Better Call Saul,” an unlikely spinoff to a recent cultural milestone and critical darling like “Breaking Bad,” “good” may not be, well, good enough for some viewers. The minute that creator Vince Gilligan and fellow “Bad” writer-director Peter Gould announced that everybody’s favorite criminal lawyer would be getting his own show, there’s been an implicit (and quite unfair) assumption among fans that the harrowing, brilliant, mad-dash creative momentum of “Bad’s” final seasons would immediately catapult “Saul” into the stratosphere of small screen programming.
Of course, this expectation (perhaps a bit more like wishful thinking) ignores the reality that “Bad” wasn’t always the beyond-reproach critical darling that it eventually became. While the pilot episode (which began and ended with us staring down the barrel of Walter White’s gun) was rightly hailed as one of the most exciting and in-your-face premieres for a contemporary drama, consistent praise for “Bad” only began building towards a crescendo around its third season, when the writers and directors (armed with growing confidence) really began flexing their creative and narrative muscles.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying: Don’t expect perfection from the get-go. “Uno,” the first episode of “Saul,” doesn’t come with the knock-‘em, sock-‘em gusto of either the “Bad” pilot or that show’s breathless final season. And Gilligan’s self-professed love of the “slow burn” ensures that it will probably take several episodes, or maybe even several seasons, before we can fairly discern the full contours of “Saul’s” merits. But there’s already hints of greatness here, and the pilot somehow manages to pay homage to the technical and narrative minutiae that made “Bad” so good without coming across as some poor man’s comedic pastiche of Walter White’s journey.
There’s plenty for “Bad” fans to squeal over in the first episode. First, there’s the masterful, and surprisingly sad, cold open, which (again, SPOILERS) acts as both epilogue to Saul’s original “Bad” storyline and prologue to the extended flashback which will ostensibly form “Saul’s” central narrative. In the wake of Walter White’s moral and mortal demise, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is working as a manager at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Neb. (a delightful nod to his own prediction about his fate in the penultimate episode of “Bad”). Gilligan’s love affair with “Bad’s” iconic long-range shots still burns bright, and each frame is saturated with the same sense of dread that infused “Bad’s” more intense sequences. Is that man in the food court watching Saul? Are there hit men posted in dark sedans outside his dingy little suburban home?
The main show sounds off on, of all things, a nostalgic note, with Saul watching VHS recordings of his delightfully awful infomercials from the good old Goodman days in Albuquerque, N.M. This is as good a time as any to note that Odenkirk, often relegated to a comedic relief role on “Bad” (I mean that in the best way possible), is an excellent facial actor who can emote on a scale that would make Bryan Cranston proud.
Flashback to 2002 Albuquerque, N.M., where Saul, at the time going by the name Jimmy McGill (which is what we’ll refer to him as from this point forward), is working as a broke public defender who hates his job almost as much as he hates his clients. There’s a lot of plot to get through in a short hour and fifteen minutes. The gist: Jimmy has no money; he’s still relatively straight-laced, although he clearly knows his way around scams; he’s struggling to pick up high-paying clients like a (probably) corrupt county treasurer; fan favorite Mike Ehrmantraut is currently a parking attendant at the police station; and Jimmy’s brother Chuck, a former lawyer, has become a recluse who refuses to use any electronic devices (and who his former big-time firm is trying to unceremoniously push out with a severance package that Jimmy finds lacking).
This last plot point lends itself to the pilot’s most heartfelt sequence, wherein Chuck refuses to be bought out—and tells Jimmy to heed the firm’s request and change his law firm’s name so as to avoid any association with him. There’s a lot of anguish in this scene, and I imagine this relationship will be a heartbreaker in the long-run.
Everything comes to a head in a final ten minutes when, in true “Bad” fashion, Gilligan and crew really crank up the pace. A frustrated and financially desperate Jimmy enlists the help of two young skateboarding scam artists who had tried to bilk him out of money earlier in the episode (by pretending to get hit by Jimmy’s car), telling them to pull the same trick on the aforementioned corrupt country treasurer’s wife. But they target the wrong car, and after the driver rushes off in a hit-and-run, they follow her to her residence.
Jimmy isn’t far behind. He knocks on the door—which is opened by a man brandishing a gun, the hit-and-run driver’s “mijo.” A man whom we see, in the pilot’s final shot and the first true Oh, shit! moment of the show, is none other than “Bad” baddie Tuco Salamanca.
— Melanie March (@Melanie_March) February 9, 2015
Part 2 of the premiere, titled “Mijo,” premieres tonight. We’ll have plenty more thoughts on the show’s promising start, and what we’re looking forward to learning in the coming episodes, soon enough.