When I initially heard the announcement for “Better Call Saul” — a spinoff series of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s epic crime drama, “Breaking Bad” — I had a tidal wave of emotions crash through me. Part of me was fearful for my beloved series, one that had provided me with the single most rewarding television experience of my life; another part of me believed that this idea would be dead on arrival once production started. Despite this internal struggle, one thing was for sure: I was excited to make the trip back to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fast forward to two years later as I sat in my bed in absolute dismay — this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead” was a gut-punch to say the least — and I noticed the bump at the bottom of the closing credits; “Better Call Saul” was finally up next.
Let me be perfectly frank: I am probably the most biased reviewer for this series premier. I could not even tell you how many times I have proclaimed “Breaking Bad” to be single greatest show on cable television (“The Wire” and “Game of Thrones” are premium television shows, so do not get me started here people). Despite this caveat to my review, trust me when I make this statement: Gilligan and Gould have once again struck gold with this one. Many seem to expect this series to be pure fanfare; a last love letter to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman before their story dims down to sweet nostalgia and the countless awards begin to collect dust. This isn’t the case however; not only does “Better Call Saul” support itself with the DNA of its predecessor — you could also call it a sequel, as I’ll get to later on — but the first two episodes demonstrate the extent of the universe that Gilligan and Gould have carefully and expertly designed since 2008.
We begin the series with a familiar face in an unfamiliar setting. Soon enough, through a monochromatic montage of close-ups and static shots of food employees preparing pastry dough for a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, we realize where we are: Saul Goodman’s (played brilliantly by Bob Odenkirk) post-Walter White fate. Clad in an apron and wearing a nametag that reads “Gene,” this new Saul sulks throughout his shift at the chain restaurant, eventually ending his miserable day with a tumbler of Scotch as he watches reruns of his previous law firm back in New Mexico. Then, in a burst of color and energy, the title card “Better Call Saul” appears across the screen, sending us 15 years before the events that sealed Saul’s fate.
This opening scene and time transition struck me for a number of reasons that range from the technicality of the framing to the construction of cuts, but what floored me the most was the parallel narrative that Gilligan and Gould immediately teased for viewers. It’s like that feeling you get when a really good movie ends and all you can think during the credits is, “What happens next?” Although I could be entirely wrong to assume that future episodes will propel us to the “post-Bad” timeline — during which we can truly see if Saul accepts his new identity as a mundane Cinnabon employee — the potential for this once closed story arc leaves me spinning with expectation. A boy can dream, anyway.
Those who are completely new to the “Breaking Bad” universe (and this is an entirely possible position from which to view “Better Call Saul”) may not find the events of episode one particularly exciting. As a public defender, Saul, called “Jimmy McGill” back in his early days, does some lawyering with little to show for his efforts (you try defending the acts of the three college kids who defiled a biology class cadaver). Yet, it’s within these scenes of “inaction” where Bob Odenkirk shines as the wily McGill. Throughout the episode, Odenkirk’s energetic delivery takes center stage, a striking balance of comedy and drama that gives us the Saul we remember while revealing an entirely new character in Jimmy, who struggles to balance public service with a desire for fortune. It’s this character dynamic that literally steals the show, which becomes even more clear during episode two when Jimmy finds himself in a tense moral dilemma. Even though most of us know which path Jimmy elects to follow — let’s call it the “Saul” path — based on “Breaking Bad,” the friction of this dichotomy will undoubtedly take several twists and turns that will leave viewers in plenty of suspense.
Aside from Odenkirk’s performance, which will unquestionably land him with Emmy’s and Golden Globe awards for years to come, the surrounding cast and narrative of “Better Call Saul” teem with a range of riveting characters and the patented pacing that graced “Breaking Bad” for five seasons. Chief among the new faces to the series is Chuck McGill (played by Michael McKean): Jimmy’s older brother who has come down with a mysterious affliction that has forced him out of his law firm and into reclusion. The relationship between the brothers becomes the emotional focal point to Jimmy’s moral dilemma; as a straight arrow lawyer, Chuck pushes Jimmy to remain a public defender in order to help those without the means for proper defense before setting out to begin a firm of his own. Although Jimmy clearly respects the integrity of his brother — which becomes put to the test during a montage of Jimmy’s countless courtroom losses in episode two — we can sense the inner Saul lurking beneath the surface of Jimmy’s optimistic countenance.
Then, on the other side of the coin, Gilligan and Gould introduce a favorite villain from “Breaking Bad” in the final moment of episode one: Tuko Salamanca. In a scheme gone wrong, Jimmy literally comes face to face with his future endeavors as Saul Goodman. Chilling as ever, Tuko exhibits the sadistic volatility that pushes Jimmy to the brink of death and back, allowing the wit and quick thinking of inner-Saul to both save our hero and propel him further away from the path that Chuck has set for him. This quickened pace — an almost complete departure from episode one — was a brilliant touch by Gilligan and Gould, who will without question continue to raise the stakes next week as the first conflict of the show materializes.
Although I wish I had a full week to really tease out the many brilliant moments of each premiere episode, the promising beginning to “Better Call Saul” can speak for itself. As you have probably noticed from the many references throughout this article, it becomes difficult to perfectly distance this prequel/sequel from “Breaking Bad”; to do so would be a disservice to the series’ universe. Yet, this series also manages to avoid competing with its predecessor, allowing us to experience how a lowly public defender named Jimmy McGill becomes the ruthless yet comical “criminal” lawyer.
Check out “Better Call Saul” on AMC every Monday at 10 p.m.