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Spring 2015 Review: Better Call Saul

11 Feb

Better Call Saul

Following a show regarded as one of the best shows in television history is difficult to do. Expectations are inflated and every line, scene, and character will be compared to the original. Better Call Saul could have chosen to try to downplay its Breaking Bad connections and make it very clear that it is its own show by avoiding traces of anything Breaking Bad-like in its debut.

Instead, Better Call Saul proclaims its identity a different way. First, the creators know that every viewer is immediately connecting Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad and thus they choose to acknowledge the connections straight away rather than pretend to be unaware. Second, Better Call Saul leans into to its association, with Breaking Bad character Mike as a main cast member and with Breaking Bad antagonist Tuco appearing in the first two episodes. The opening scene picks up with Saul’s life after the events of Breaking Bad, reminding us of the end point in the journey we’re about to embark upon.

One scene in particular is emblematic of the way Better Call Saul declares its identity in relation to Breaking Bad. In the second episode of the two-day two-part premiere. Saul, now using his birth name Jimmy McGill, is in the desert. A serious of unfortunate events, some his fault, some not, has him and two idiot twins who he hired to run a con (ironically, with the intent of using it to generate legitimate business) at the mercy of a very scary, very stupid, and somewhat unhinged gangster. We know this gangster in fact; he’s Tuco, the first real scary drug trade character Jesse and Walt tangle with in Breaking Bad.

Here’s the crucial moment where Better Call Saul lays down its cards on the table. Here’s where we learn about the critical DNA ingredients that separate Better Call Saul from Breaking Bad. Walt has been in this scenario before, and now Saul’s in it. We see Saul in action, and he handles the problem in a totally different way than Walt would. He bargains, he cajoles, he goes on and on with his motor mouth, stammering, unwilling to stop talking, as if the criminals can’t take action until he runs out of words of his own volition. Walt, at least, as Heisenberg, would never bargain, would never admit his own failings. Walt would seek to intimidate, would seek to play his enemies in a game of chicken, calling their bluff and counting on the fact that he was simply too important to them in a realpolitik sense to ensure he made it out alive.  For Walt desperation was weakness; for Saul, it becomes a strength. He does his best lawyering in this scene, the highlight of the episode, bargaining Tuco down from killing the twins to breaking one leg for each.

Saul seemed like the smartest choice of any character to spin off out of the existing options on Breaking Bad and the pilot validates that initial opinion. Saul, has the advantage of not being fatally compromised character-wise by the events of Breaking Bad; there’s enough we don’t know about him to allow Gilligan and Gould plenty of room to paint.

Saul is everything Walt isn’t. Walt is unbridled ego, Saul is insecurity. Walt would never take a strategic loss. His ego wouldn’t allow it. One of Walt’s strengths, even early on, was a sheer competence; he was damn good, and he knew he was good, even when he didn’t get to show it. Walt was a teacher, a well-respected profession, living a respectable life with a wife and kid. His hunger, dormant initially, but always simmering underneath, was for what he could have had. Saul is a broken-down unsuccessful lawyer, a profession which is by nature scorned and ridiculed. He has nothing. The cruel joke is his far more successful mentally ill older brother, who to add insult to injury, sides against Saul, asking him to change the name of his law firm due to potential confusion with his brother’s former much larger firm.

One highlight of the premiere is Saul’s closing argument which comes very early in the episode, urging 12 bored Albuquerque jurors to remember what it was like to be 19, in the course of defending three idiots who sexually abused a corpse. Spending an hour a week listening to Saul, or Jimmy, or whatever name he chooses to go by, gesticulate is something I’ll sign up for gladly.         

Will I watch it again? Yes. I will. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but I think we have this year’s first for certain winner.