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Better Call Saul Premiere Review – “Uno”

A young, enthusiastic, and apprehensive young lawyer sits opposite two potential clients in a mundane coffee shop. He’s willing to represent them, but they’re not sure they want him. The lawyer is desperate to put pen to paper as he hands them a contract and pen. They look at each other. The lawyer watches with wide eyes as the pen hovers over the dotted line, but they pull away – saying they need to think about – he says its fine, but the long face and slumped shoulders suggest otherwise.

This lawyer doesn’t have the look of a man who will become the smooth talking, endlessly quotable “criminal” lawyer from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman. We see a softer, more desperate side to Goodman – in one of the most confident and well structured pilots I have seen in a long time.

Better Call Saul is the spin off to the much heralded Breaking Bad, where our favourite sleazy lawyer shows us who he was before the events of Breaking Bad, and even before he was called Saul Goodman. Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill. Jimmy is ambitious and naïve, he works as a public defender – something which he feels he’s too good for, but he needs to do it to pay his bills.  He works out of the back of a beauty parlor- gone is the Roman-esque office with its glossy interiors and leather sofas; he now barely has a nickel to buy a coffee. All that isn’t helped by his paranoid brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whose illness results in him banishing anything electromagnetic in his house, thus living in the dark with an oil lamp and a typewriter. McGill tries to help Chuck, who is a co-founder of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, but is on an extended leave of absence. Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) a successful, smooth talker, rubs Jimmy the wrong way when Jimmy offers Hamlin the chance to cash Chuck out. There are lots of plot threads dangling in the premiere, but it’s the one thread that Gilligan and Gould latch onto that makes the first episode so satisfying and self assured.

For the first three quarters of the premiere, the show runners, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, manage to tease both Breaking Bad fans and newcomer’s then sweep the rug out from underneath us, by deliberately taking time to explore McGill’s struggles before he was Saul Goodman, and even the struggle with Breaking Bad’s Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who is working as a parking attendant. They show us McGill isn’t quite the popular late night television lawyer yet, because when he comes across people at his brother’s firm, they just brush him off like a crumb on their sleeves.

It’s smart writing because you build empathy for McGill who we now realize had to struggle to get to where he ended up, and these character building scenes really pay off by the time the final act comes around. It kicks into a burst of energy (and great music to go with it. Here’s a link) from the slower, more deliberate pace that came before it. The final act has McGill hire a couple of twin scamming skateboarders – who ride into people’s cars to claim damages – and he wants them to scam a rich woman he knows. However, this is Albuquerque and things never go smoothly in this neck of the woods, or desert. Things escalate for McGill from bad to worse, leaving us on the edge of our seat for the next episode.

The pilot’s three act structure is a simple yet effective device that suites the episode. You really feel a sense of tension and shock by the time the credits roll, like you’ve just watched a first rate thriller, and that’s also down to the familiar face that pops in at the end. Nevertheless, newcomers should find plenty to enjoy as well.

As Breaking Bad fans, we know where the show could go, but for newcomers, Gilligan and Gould don’t give too much away as to Jimmy’s backstory, meaning the show is accessible to both.

The show’s legacy though, will hinge on Bob Odenkirk’s acting, and I have to say, it’s faultless. Saul/McGill portrays lots of different sides in the premiere that make him a feel like a three dimensional character even if he hasn’t got the moral conscience of Walter White. He has got the manipulative get-out-of-any-situation approach that he switches on when he is in danger, as Odenkirk becomes a confident operator when he senses that he can convince someone to go with his way of dealing with a tough situation. It’s a remarkable transformation from a man who was once a stand up comedian.

I think the series also hinge on Odenkirk’s ability to balance comedy with drama, especially in the premiere, which he’s in almost every frame of. Gilligan and Gould make a very bold decision with that. It’s like they were saying “you’re either with this, or you’re not.” Because if you were never a fan of Saul Goodman, then the premiere will drive you away as hardly any other character has a big role to play apart from McGill. A choice that I believe worked, because it set up his character and laid the foundation for bigger things so well that by the time the second episode comes around there won’t be any need for any exposition, or ‘padding’.

As always, the cinematography is beautiful and unique, even though there are a few stark similarities with Breaking Bad, like the off kilter leaning shots of rooms, and gritty interiors, even though there is a kind of lighter more bleached color in the exterior shots.

However, you still can’t help but look at it at times like you’re watching an episode of Breaking Bad. Still, there’s no problem with looking like Breaking Bad, as long as Better Call Saul doesn’t sound like it. Only time will tell if Better Call Saul can deliver something truly original, as right now it seems to be running quite parallel with the theme of literally ‘breaking bad’ because that’s effectively what McGill does in the third act, however the plot threads of McGill’s conflict with Howard Hamlin could truly separate it from Breaking Bad, as it tackles the world of law instead of Mexican cartels.

Better Call Saul takes the best of both worlds. It uses the soul trading and underworld deals to the same menacing and affect as Breaking Bad, but still manages to end up as a confident approach that takes a look at how far you want to go for success and respect, and parking stickers.

Check out the next episode when it airs in its regular time slot on Monday 9th.

Episode 2 – “Mijo” will see Jimmy’s troubles escalate, leaving him in dire straits, while carelessness puts Chuck at risk.