Better Call Saul… The New Breaking Bad?
Finally the day has arrived. The day that the hotly anticipated ‘Breaking Bad’ prequel hits our screens with its series premier. Vince Gilligan (creator of the show) and his cast and crew definitely had their work cut out to ensure they didn’t let down the die hard fans who’s whole life since the end of September 2013 (when the Breaking Bad finale aired) has revolved around catching any snippet of news surrounding the new prequel ‘Better Call Saul’. The success of the parent show didn’t necessarily guarantee the success of this spin-off however, as other successful shows in the past have proven; most notably the ‘Friends’ spin-off show ‘Joey’ which was a monumental disappointment to both fans and critics alike, and was even cancelled midway through its second series.
This series is set in 2002, six years prior to events featuring in its parent show, Breaking Bad. The series will likely reveal all on Saul (the title character) and his life before coming into contact with Chemistry teacher, turned Meth king-pin; Walter White. The series is set in a time before the identity of ‘Saul Goodman’ (a play on words of “It’s all Good Man”) was created, he still goes by his real name; Jimmy McGill at first. Now, down to that all important question, the question that everybody is dying to know… Was it worth the wait? With the incredibly high and ambitious bar set by Gilligan, seen throughout all of the work in his career, can we really expect anything other than perfection for this series? Gilligan has been quoted recently in giving all credit for the success of dramatic TV shows in recent years to David Chase (creator of the Sopranos), saying that “he paved the way for anti-heroes in TV”, this as well as Bryan Cranston’s own admission that without Tony Soprano, there’d be no Walter White, shows a definite influence and admiration of Chase throughout Gilligan’s work. I can gladly say that with Chase being one of, if not THE greatest writer of recent times, Gilligan certainly has been influenced by the right man! For this, I can say that it has definitely proven worth waiting for, well the 6.9 million viewers who tuned in for its series premiere certainly seem to think so, as do critics who’ve almost without exception given highly favourable reviews. Already months before airing, and even two months before filming for the first series begun, Gilligan had already been commissioned by AMC for a second series in April of 2014, set to be aired in 2016. In it’s first episode it broke the record for highest-rated series premiere for a scripted-series in US cable history, quite the achievement for Gilligan and co who started off working with little known actors and on low budget TV shows. Finally, after years of work, it really has been proven worth while with the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad, and now we’re witnesses to their latest success; Better Call Saul, and here’s the low-down on Monday’s episode, “Uno” to see if the hype was really warranted. I won’t go into excessive detail about the episode’s events, so as not to spoil it for anybody who’s not yet viewed it.
The show begins with Saul in the present day, after events which occurred in Breaking Bad, Saul has adopted yet another name, and now goes by ‘Gene’, we see him busy working as a Manager in a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. For a lot of people this may not have felt at all significant, however it did immediately please many fans of the show’s predecessor; myself included. This, was a homage to Breaking Bad. As some of you pop culture fanatics may recall, in the penultimate episode of the final series of Breaking Bad, Saul is on the run with Walt, and contemplating life in the aftermath of these terrible events, what the future will hold for someone like him. A life away from New Mexico, he talks about keeping a low profile, he quips “If I’m lucky, a month from now, best case scenario I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.” – this is exactly the scenario he’s living during the opening sequence of the episode. Another aspect to this beginning that fans of the shows predecessor are likely to appreciate is that Gilligan is once again employing and utilising his now-signature time jump techniques to tell his story, as is made clear from the get go with this initial scene depicting what is probably sometime between 2013 and 2015, despite the show being set for the most part in 2002.
With Bob Odenkirk reprising his much loved role as funny-man and sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, it’s clear from the offset that despite this being primarily a drama, they’d be largely missing a trick to not feature humour on some scale, especially with Odenkirk’s amazing comedic timing which his character is now synonymous with. Odenkirk being co-creator of the well known US sketch show, “Mr Show”, is clearly posed no challenge in acting through the tremendously funny scenes that Saul has had to offer. In the opening scenes during which Saul is in the present day, he’s balding and donning a pathetic Walter White-esque moustache and glasses. These aren’t however the only parallels with the pre-cancer-diagnosis Walter White, he’s also now got a menial job which he’s over qualified for, just trying to keep his head down and get by, on top of this, they also both start out driving terrible cars, with Saul (or Jimmy as he was then known) driving the dirty yellow coloured Suzuki Esteem (hugely contrasting to the executive 1997 Cadillac DeVille he’s later showing off during Breaking Bad), and Walter White of course driving his infamous Aztek. There’s no better way of saying it, they’re both a mess, at least initially anyway.
The bold choice of using a black and white filter in this dismal setting in the opening scene is by no means an accident or a coincidence. It emphasises the depressive state Saul is now left living in. He’s lost everything he once had, all he’s got now is a very mundane life, with nothing to live for and nothing to do but look back and reflect on what was, and what could have been. Of course this is all on top of his constant fear, and mind-set of always sleeping with one eye open. He will inevitably spend the remainder of his life constantly looking over his shoulder, as is implied by his worrisome glances at a man he deems suspicious in the Cinnabon where he works; the man is in fact of no threat whatsoever.
We see him living in a modest apartment watching old tapes of his tacky commercials from his time in Albuquerque. The once joker of the show, is now to be seen regretfully reminiscing this time in his life, with a sight tear in his eye. The Saul we see on our screens from a time shortly in the aftermath of his years served as Walter White’s lawyer, is not the same man we once knew. This man is broken. It’s interesting to see more dynamics to Saul as a character, I have high hopes for the series and despite being primarily based prior to his success in ABQ, hope it will in some way progress to also tell us a little more about the period in which he’s living, now in Nebraska.
Just as we get a short glimpse of Saul’s life, living in the depths of despair, the scene cuts to the title sequence to signal a reversal in time (back to 2002) to when Saul is a younger man, and a struggling lawyer named Jimmy, he’s out of luck – he’s out of everything. The only thing that he still possesses is a healthy head of hair, and even this is something we’ve already seen that he comes to lose eventually. The title sequence looks almost as if it could’ve been drawn up using a crayon; it’s simple, tacky and cheap, and pretty reflective of the time in which Better Call Saul is set (2002). To sum up the title sequence, it’s quintessentially a disaster; an intentionally bad sequence which Gilligan’s sole reason for inclusion is to mirror the life of Jimmy McGill during this time in his life.
Better Call Saul is successful in its first episode, in revealing more about Saul (or Jimmy as he is then known) than Breaking Bad ever does. We as an audience are shown that ‘Saul Goodman’ is just a persona. Jimmy is putting on a bit of an act. Perhaps to suggest Saul is the man he aims to be, rather than the man he is. Jimmy isn’t always the outspoken, flamboyant man with an air of flair and confidence about him, as much is made clear during a particular scene in a restroom at the court. He’s rehearsing his act into the mirror, almost as if he’s about to go onto stage to perform. This puts Better Call Saul aside from Breaking Bad. It makes Saul/Jimmy a separate entity outside of Breaking Bad; he’s a character in his own right. In Breaking Bad we assume that his always sleazy and often shady mannerisms are all there is to Saul, and we never learn of his back story, or get the pleasure of witnessing any depth to him as a character as we already do just in this first episode.
During this first episode we see Jimmy once again adopting an eccentric and ostentatious fashion sense. He’s dressed wearing a double breasted suit jacket with lapels so big he could be wearing a 40’s zoot suit. Despite his lack of cash at this period in his life, he’s still donning what’re seemingly a pricey pair of loafers. This is a guy who, when he walks into a room has a desire to be noticed. Due to an obvious cash-flow problem, his quirky and flamboyant dress sense hasn’t entirely taken off the ground up to now, he’s not yet the proud owner of any lurid shirts and ties (which never match), yet his attire is already questionable and certainly distinctive.
This first episode may have been primarily used as a platform for us to gain further access and knowledge of the character of Jimmy McGill, however it still features remarkable storytelling. It has quite a slow pacing, giving opportunity for even viewers not familiar with the character of Saul to get to grips with him. Odenkirk is centre of the entire show, giving us as an audience a chance to see the newfound depths and complexity of Jimmy as a character, helping us to care for him as we once did with his associate in Breaking Bad; Walter White. Jimmy works and lives out of his seedy office situated out the back of a nail salon, the same nail salon he eventually attempts to get Walt & Skyler to buy in order to launder their money during Breaking Bad – now we know why he puts so much faith in this cucumber-water selling salon. We slowly learn a little of Jimmy’s past, and then without warning in the final fatal moment suddenly a seemingly safe scenario involving a frail old lady gives the viewers a sudden sense of jeopardy and dread for Jimmy as we watch him in anticipation until… cut to credits… Ok, so it was not exactly the ‘Sopranos ending’ cliff-hanger fiasco, but breathtakingly shocking nonetheless. The climactic ending left us as viewers with an immense feeling of anxiety for Jimmy, fortunately with this two-night series premiere, we don’t have to wait a whole week to go to be made aware of his fate.
This episode as a whole shows that ‘Better Call Saul’ was certainly without question worthy of the hype! We’ve already seen more sides to Saul than ever before. Even if the series didn’t improve at all from this breath-taking episode, fans and critics alike would still have something to enjoy; the mere experience of being back in Vince Gilligan’s expertly crafted universe was enough to win most over. We saw new characters, and also felt the heart-warming relief when older faces made appearances too. The episode quite frankly did all that was possible for a series debut, because of this overall I rate this episode a massive 8 out of 10! This unmissable new series really could just be the new Breaking Bad!