Man, it feels good to be back in Albuquerque.
I’m not a criminal…I’m a lawyer.
–Jimmy McGill, Better Call Saul
You don’t want a criminal lawyer…you want a CRIMINAL lawyer.
–Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad
Like many, I was highly skeptical of this series before it debuted on Sunday night. Breaking Bad was a masterpiece, a weather system with pressurized storytelling and gale-force performances; the kind of thing that should never, ever be revisited. How many hopeful spinoffs have we seen die on the vine? How many prequel stories have disappointed us of late? And yet, if there was one minor character who might have a shot at supporting their own show, it was fast-talking scumbag lawyer Saul Goodman, whose famously awful TV ads were only topped by his skills in self-preservation. Over the course of the original series, Bob Odenkirk was able to slowly turn a caricature into a real character, and showrunner Vince Gilligan (alongside co-pilot Peter Gould) believed there was potential for a lighter, less serialized show.
Gilligan also said that he felt guilty about taking all those jobs away from the ABQ when Breaking Bad ended, and wanted to give back to that city with another series. Which is hardly the most inspiring creative reason for Better Call Saul to exist; add in a handful of highly-publicized production delays, and it was with great trepidation that I tuned in for its premiere. But as Andy Greenwald succinctly put it, we forgot one thing: these guys are really, really good at making television. That crack writing staff? Almost all of them are back. That crew, that made Bad one of the most starkly beautiful shows on TV? They’re all back. Top-flight directors like the brilliant, brilliant Michelle MacLaren? They’re back, too.
So in the first two episodes of Better Call Saul, there’s a sensation of a well-calibrated machine slipping back into gear. But even more than that, I myself had forgotten how much fun it was to be submerged in Vince Gilligan’s warped version of Albuquerque: the flat, wide streets, familiar neighborhoods, and the sublimely complementary orange and blue of the New Mexico desert and its vivid sky — it’s not a perfunctory, AMC-encouraged vanity project, but something with real life and an actual story to tell.
At least, I hope so. Maybe it’ll fall apart, lose its energy, and suffer from the same “prequel-itis” that plagued FOX’s Gotham. But, to me, it was clear we were in safe hands from the opening sequence, an idiosyncratically-filmed flash-forward to a Cinnabon in Omaha Nebraska. In Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode “Granite State,” Saul said this was the best-case scenario for his new identity in a post-Heisenberg world, and he was right. He’s not even wearing a hairpiece anymore; as The Ink Spots’ “Address Unknown” plays on the soundtrack, Vince Gilligan (who directed the premiere himself) highlights the mundane tedium of Saul’s new life in a series of black-and-white extreme close-ups, and the palpable sweat on his brow when he thinks he’s been identified by a heavy. (He wasn’t.) The highlight of “Greg’s” day is the return to his tastefully-furnished home, where he pops in an old VHS tape and loses himself in an endless loop of Saul Goodman television ads.
But that’s all prologue (post-logue?) — the real series takes us back to the turn of the millennium, back before Saul was Saul. Or rather, Jimmy McGill, a two-bit lawyer who can only take on the cases of the most desperate. Exhibit A: three knuckleheads (“near honor students, all”) who did some pretty awful things with a body in the morgue. Jimmy hates his cases and he hates himself; he’s chasing ambulances and newspaper stories for a bigger payday, whether he wins the case or not.
If Breaking Bad was about Walter White’s ultimate descent into the darkness, Better Call Saul is about another man’s slow crawl towards the light. Jimmy has a brother, Chuck (played by the wonderful Michael McKean), who has been much more successful in starting his own firm, but is also suffering from a questionable condition called “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity,” though through their touching scenes, it’s fairly evident Jimmy thinks what Chuck really has is a mental illness. The home is lit by lanterns, they keep their food in a cooler, and Jimmy has to ground himself every time he enters. Jimmy’s also trying to get Chuck’s firm to cash him out to the tune of $17 million, but neither Chuck or the firm will budge, so it’s up to Jimmy to scrape together what they need every month. Jimmy’s own “office,” meanwhile, is the boiler room of a nail salon. His hilariously hideous car, he says, would be “only worth $500 if there was a $300 hooker in it.” You’d be pretty desperate, too.
Bob Odenkirk, who has shown his dramatic range in recent years (check him out in Fargo, if you haven’t already), surprisingly has little trouble holding the weight of the series on his shoulders. He gets to rebuild the character of Jimmy from the ground up, without confidence or much flair, but he’s still got that mouth. Even the little twitches in his face, whether he’s fabricating a narrative for a jury, or pleading to have the county commissioner (due to be charged with embezzlement) hire him, speak volumes. His frustration with current nemesis Mike Ehrmantraut, currently the parking lot attendant at the courthouse, is one of my favorite running gags, even as I see the pipe being laid for their partnership down the line.
In the second episode, “Mijo,” we get Jimmy at an early peak. He had enlisted two beardo skater brothers (who look so much like my old college bandmates, I found it distracting) to run their fake-car-accident schtick on the county commissioner’s wife, only to find they had ID’d the wrong car. Worse, the grandson of the sweet old woman driving the car was none other than Tuco Salamanca, every bit as ruthless and impulsive as when Walt and Jesse first encountered him. But Saul talks his way out of that jam in an incredible desert scene, where he first negotiates for his own life, than haggles Tuco down from straight-up murdering the idiot skaters to simply breaking their legs. (“Both legs?” “One leg…each.”) It’s important that Tuco be seen as “tough, but fair,” you see. This is an awfully long, talky scene to place in the middle of the second episode of a new series, but Better Call Saul is not lacking in confidence. And it pays off magnificently, locating that same pit-in-the-stomach dread of its predecessor, but under a layer of pitch-black comedy.
Now Jimmy — just as he was beginning to feel better about his life, and his work, as we see in one of those extended montages Breaking Bad did so well — is in Tuco’s debt, and in the debt of Nacho (Orphan Black‘s Michael Mando), Tuco’s more coolheaded lieutenant. Nacho, after hearing about the commissioner’s embezzlement that set this whole thing in motion, wants to just steal the money, and demands Jimmy help him figure out how. But Jimmy’s not ready to be a criminal…yet. (Alan Sepinwall smartly pointed out how the shot composition reflects this: on Breaking Bad, shots were dominated by closeups of Bryan Cranston’s craggy face. Here, Odenkirk is positioned in isolation, a small figure on the edge of the frame. We know him as a big shot, but on the inside, he’s still “Slippin’ Jimmy,” falling down on the ice for some quick sympathy cash.)
Vince Gilligan may have his ending predetermined, but there are a thousand ways to get there, and somewhere in their writers’ room is a whiteboard with the name of every Breaking Bad character in play. Hopefully, they won’t be using these cameos as a crutch — but we’re two for two so far, and as I mentioned above, these guys know how to make good TV. And Better Call Saul, with their team having the first series under their belts, is already a better-crafted, more assertive series than Breaking Bad was in its first season (not to say that it will be a better show, but it’s better faster.) The jokes land, the pacing is mesmerizing, it’s gorgeous to look at, and — above all — it’s just flat-out entertaining. I’m not only on board — I think I’m in love.