AMC is so confident about its ‘Breaking Bad’ spin-off ‘Better Call Saul’ that the network officially renewed the show for a second season before a single episode even aired. Now that its two-night premiere ran this week, can the show live up to its promotional hype or its predecessor’s legend?
I have to admit that I approached this with a little skepticism. While Bob Odenkirk’s morally compromised lawyer Saul Goodman was a great supporting character on ‘Breaking Bad’, he was more comic relief foil than leading man material. I just wasn’t certain that he’d be interesting or sympathetic enough to carry a whole series on his own. I’m quite relieved, then, that the first two episodes are really good.
As fans of ‘Breaking Bad’ will recall, the Saul character was last seen fleeing New Mexico for his life. In an extended black-and-white prologue with almost no dialogue at all, we learn that he’s now living a sad existence under a new identity, hiding under the radar by working at a depressing mall Cinnabon in Omaha. (Did the Cinnabon corporation really license its name and logo for this?) He spends every day looking over his shoulder, paranoid that someone will find and whack him. At night, he drinks himself sedate and reminisces about the good old days by watching a reel of his “Better Call Saul” commercials on VHS.
The remainder of the first two episodes, and presumably the entire series, is set as a prequel that flashes back to before there even was a Saul Goodman. Prior to changing his name the first time, he was struggling attorney Jimmy McGill, who works out of a tiny office in the back room of a Korean nail salon and can’t make ends meet with the scraps of money he earns doing Public Defender cases.
In a hilarious courtroom trial, we see Jimmy/Saul working all his smarmy charms to defend three dipshit teens who trespassed into a morgue and performed unspeakable sexual acts with a dismembered corpse skull. For this, he’s paid the whopping sum of $700, which won’t make even the tiniest dent in his mountain of debt. Every day as he leaves the courthouse, he feuds with a parking attendant that fans will recognize as his future “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut, who’s an infuriating stickler for parking validation stickers.
Seeing a big payday ahead, Jimmy tries desperately to land as a client one Craig Kettleman, a county treasurer who has embezzled over $1 million in public funds, but he just can’t lock the deal. He later spots the man and his wife Betsy at the offices of big-time law firm Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill.
Yes, you’ll notice the name “McGill” on the wall there. That’s not for Jimmy, though. It’s for Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), a former named partner who has gone loony with an extreme phobia of electricity and now lives as a shut-in. It’s not explicitly stated whether Chuck is Jimmy’s father or some other relation, but Jimmy tries in vain to convince him to cash-out his partnership and collect a big windfall that will sustain the both of them. Unfortunately, Chuck won’t even consider it.
After a couple of moron skateboarders try to scam him by jumping in front of his car and staging a fake accident, Jimmy reveals that he’s a lawyer and regales them with the story of his early career as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” the king of slip-and-fall insurance scams. Later, he’ll recruit the skaters to pull the same stunt on Betsy Kettleman, so that he can race in and play hero, thus proving that he’s the lawyer she and her husband need.
Unfortunately, the idiots jump in front of the wrong car. When the driver speeds off, they chase an old Mexican woman to her house to harass her for money. Jimmy follows after them, only to be greeted at the door by a gun to his face, held by the woman’s grandson… and it’s Tuco the crazy meth kingpin, one of Walt and Jesse’s most unhinged foes on ‘Breaking Bad’!
Well shit, that can’t be good.
The second episode opens with Tuco dragging the trio out to the desert to dispose of them, and Jimmy furiously bargaining for their lives. At the end of some very darkly funny negotiations, he talks Tuco down to merely breaking the boys’ legs, while he walks away unscathed.
The rest of the episode is mainly dedicated to Jimmy trying to get back on the straight-and-narrow path, taking a lot more PD cases, and constantly fighting with Mike about stickers. However, his resolve to be a better lawyer is tested when Tuco’s lieutenant Nacho pays an unexpected visit to his office with a plan to use Jimmy to rip off the money that the Kettlemans embezzled.
Like any prequel story, ‘Better Call Saul’ suffers a little from the fact that we already know (or can guess) the ultimate fates of many of these characters. We know that Tuco won’t kill Jimmy. We know what will eventually become of Tuco. Because I don’t recall the character of Nacho being on ‘Breaking Bad’, I assume that he probably won’t last too long. For as much as Jimmy wrestles with his conscience, we know that he’s destined to become the comically corrupt Saul Goodman.
With that said, this new show has some great writing and great performances. Odenkirk is well aware that Saul Goodman is the role of a lifetime for him, and plays the hell out of it. So far, the series is already doing a great job of fleshing out his character and adding layers of depth and complexity.
I’m convinced that Saul deserves his own show now. I’m definitely on board to watch more.