“Better Call Saul” episodes 1-4 review

When Better Call Saul was first announced, my memory is that it was announced as a comedy spin-off of Breaking Bad. Apparently there was talk along the way that the show had morphed into more of a drama, but I avoided news about the show so that I wouldn’t go in with any preconceived notions, so I wasn’t aware of that. Needless to say, I was surprised to find a show that feels increasingly like a continuation of Breaking Bad more than a separate entity.

Spin-off shows are often difficult because they are, at heart, serving two masters. They want to please fans of the older show enough to keep them interested–otherwise, why bother with spinning off instead of just starting anew? But they also want to interest more than just that core audience, because otherwise the show might just as well be an extra episode a week of the original show. The last major successful spin-off was Frasier, which  shared little with its predecessor Cheers apart from using a little-defined character from the original series as its lead. It was willing to admit its past, making references to Cheers, having nearly every cast member from that earlier series make a guest appearance, and even making occasional jokes that relied on knowledge of the previous series. But its humor, its storytelling, its performances, and its overall sensibilities were so far removed from Cheers that it’s difficult to imagine that the audience was that heavily overlapping. (Indeed, I do not like Cheers at all, but I think Frasier is the best comedy show ever.) Better Call Saul has gone in the opposite direction.

It’s easy to see why Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would run from their past. With Breaking Bad casting a shadow over it, it would seem nearly inevitable for the new series to be a letdown. However, they haven’t run. Indeed, they have so much confidence that the new series opened with a long sequence of Saul’s current life, managing a Cinnabon in Omaha (Side note: Omaha looked far more upscale and stylish than it’s ever looked to me–this is one of the rare occasions when a TV show besides Supernatural had something set in a place I’ve been numerous times.) and settling down to watch a tape (How did he find a VCR??!!) of his old commercials from his glory days in Albuquerque. It’s in black and white, making it clear that the sequence is somehow not a part of what we will see later, and it’s tense, heartbreaking, and funny–and it all depends on us knowing Breaking Bad beforehand. It’s confronting the shadow of the greatest show of all time head-on with a confidence that seems to border on lunacy, but it tells us a lot about the series. It tells us that this show really is going to be a piece of the Breaking Bad universe. It’s going to be a show that actually adds to Breaking Bad more than creates its own legacy. And then the show has followed through on that.

The opening sequence also really shows us just how good and subtle Bob Odenkirk can be as Jimmy McGill. He’s not the flamboyant, over-the-top comic relief that he was back when Breaking Bad introduced him in the “Better Call Saul” episode–he’s a full-fledged person, one living with regrets, intense fear, and a longing for a past that he can never reclaim. He never breaks down crying in front of us, but his sadness is palpable, and that is a triumph of acting and subtlety.

However, that same sequence tells us what we will miss most from Breaking Bad: cinematographer Michael Slovis. I’ve said many times that Breaking Bad was the only visually interesting television show in history, and that’s still true with Better Call Saul around. This sequence is black and white to set it apart from the rest of the series, which is a good enough idea, but it could easily have been a totally noir-ish sequence filled with high-contrast lighting that would have fit the feelings of suspicion and worry that permeate Saul’s world. It would have emphasized the confusion and danger of his world and would have connected the opening with the weltanschauung that so permeated both this sequence and the noir world. What we got isn’t bad, but it’s not what Slovis would have done, and that’s an unfortunate loss.

As the series has continued, we have seen that it is, indeed, a continuation of Breaking Bad, just following a different character in a different timeframe. The darkly comic mix of excruciating reality and unscientific fantasy that defined the earlier series, the pain and economic difficulty that was always so well portrayed in the White family, and the way people are always struggling to find how to reconcile their material wants and needs with their moral and ethical structures are all so exactly copied from Breaking Bad that it often doesn’t feel like this is even a different show.

Interestingly, it’s even following Breaking Bad‘s pattern of telegraphing where it will go and then getting there in such surprising ways that it doesn’t matter. We all know a lot of what will happen with Jimmy McGill, but we have no idea how he will get there. When he accidentally winds up trapped in Tuco’s living room, we know he’s going to get out, but we don’t know if he’s going to offer services in return for his own life, become indebted to Tuco as the witness of his murder of the two skateboarders, or something else, and seeing the series revisit the scene of Saul on his knees in the desert from “Better Call Saul” is a satisfying result.  When we see the billboard worker fall off the billboard behind him, we know it’s a set-up (the teaser told us), but we can still revel in his cleverness and success at skirting ethics, just like so many reveled in Heisenberg’s badassery before.

The acting throughout the series has been superb, with Michael Mando deserving special credit for how much better he has been in this role than he ever was in his role on Orphan Black. Nacho is a very self-confident criminal who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is (Saul’s speech about how he did him a favor is entirely accurate.) but is definitely smarter than those around him, and he absolutely oozes ego and the quiet strength of someone who doesn’t have to show off how tough he is. Jonathan Banks has somewhat strangely become the series’ comic relief, continuing to play the world-weary Mike Ehrmantraut with all of the same baggage and deadpan that he ever did. Michael McKean is rather under-utilized to this point,* but he has still done an excellent job with what he’s been given in his role as Jimmy’s brother who is too afraid of electricity to leave his home, giving up an extremely successful law career to take what he calls a sabbatical and Jimmy thinks is more like retirement.

*It does seem clear that the Chuck storyline is going to get more fleshed out as we go–the last episode really seemed to suggest it was coming soon.

All told, Better Call Saul isn’t quite Breaking Bad, but it’s willing to try to be, and damn if it doesn’t get as close as anyone could reasonably expect. It’s a great series already, and there’s no reason it can’t continue to improve now that its world is so fully fleshed out.

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