More Breaking Bad. That’s what we wanted, and that’s mostly what they’ve blessed us with. Better Call Saul has the same dark sense of humor, the same pacing, the same wide-angle-heavy shooting style, and the same witty sound design (interrupted occasionally by the same musical montages). It assumes the audience knows Breaking Bad’s characters and endgame from the very first scene. Sometimes it feels like a different season of the same show instead of a true spinoff, but that’s not to say Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are treading water. The new story and characters are already letting the show’s creators take risks that nobody without their pedigree could get away with.
We first meet a post-Breaking Bad Saul working at a Cinnabon in Omaha. It’s a hellish life. The one thing that lights up Saul’s world is the sound of his own voice, and now that he’s in Robert Forster’s underworld witness protection program, he can’t get a word in. He’s stuck with drinking cocktails by himself and rewatching his old TV ads; these trip the flashback switch to when Saul was just Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer in New Mexico taking court-appointed public defender cases for pocket change. He’s living with his older brother Chuck, who has recently come down with an as-of-yet undefined illness—whether it’s something called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity or plain old OCD is something waiting to be spelled out.
The scenes between Jimmy and Chuck in their blacked-out, de-electromagnetized house are a far cry from Walter White’s 50th birthday breakfast, and they get to the key risk that makes Saul its own story. Walt had a support system and ditched it out of buried pride; Jimmy’s habit of wearing his pride on his sleeve has deprived him of any support system before the show starts. There aren’t any sympathetic side characters yet in Saul—no Jesse, Skylar, Walter Jr., Hank, or Marie. Besides Chuck, everyone who Jimmy comes into contact with is a threat or a source of income.
Behind Saul’s humor and ranting monologues is a sense of loneliness that’s pretty extreme for TV, where week-to-week drama between people who know each other well is usually a basic necessity for a greenlight. Jimmy’s isolation reminds me of the recent Coen brothers movies A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis more than any TV protagonist I can think of, and that level of discomfort is probably why some people are responding to the first few episodes with disappointment. As horrible and intense as Breaking Bad could be, it always rewarded the viewer with Walt and Jesse’s small victories. You’re less sure you’ll get those here.
So what do we get instead? For one, we get some great courtroom scenes, which are usually impossible to pull off (I’m watching this show with my parents, both of whom are former public defenders. This week: thumbs up on the “petty with a prior” montage, thumbs down on having the same lawyer represent three codefendents, not that legal reality is why my parents or anyone else watches TV). We get a fun developing story between Jimmy, Tuco Salamanca (his presence alone would make the show worth watching), a cunning associate of Tuco’s named Nacho Varga, and an Albuquerque country treasurer accused of embezzling $1.5 million. We get some great Saul monologues, like in a scene where Jimmy talks Tuco down from killing two low-grade con artists (their plea deal gets them a couple of broken legs instead). Jimmy isn’t to law what Walter White was to chemistry, but his uncanny ability to negotiate his way out of tricky situations promises to be a regular source of entertainment.
Most importantly, we get hints at what Saul will become. “I’m a lawyer, not a criminal,” he says at the end of the second episode, after we’ve already seen him do plenty of legally/ethically questionable stuff. The difference between Jimmy and Breaking Bad’s Saul isn’t as pronounced as Walt’s descent into evil, but watching Jimmy’s dubious code of honor fall apart still feels like a strong enough reason to watch.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510