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A Phone Call That Went Better Than Expected: Season One of Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk in AMC's Better Call Saul (Image  ©  AMC). 

Bob Odenkirk in AMC's Better Call Saul (Image © AMC). 

“You don’t want me? Why in Christ not?” -Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman

When the announcement came down a spinoff of Breaking Bad was coming, I hoped I’d be watching the early adventures of Gus Fring. Gus’ character took Breaking Bad by storm, with season four starring him as much as it did Walter White, and when Gus’ character left the show there still felt like there was much to tell. So when Vince Gilligan said the spinoff would be a prequel with Saul Goodman as the lead, I was a little letdown, wondering at the direction this spinoff could take. I liked Saul a lot, but a whole show about him led me to think it’d be a comedy, one that really only had one note. I’m here to say I was dead wrong. And I’m quite happy to be.

The best decision Vince Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould made was to make Better Call Saul different from Breaking Bad in genre and to veer away from the more absurdist tone Breaking Bad used whenever Saul Goodman was on the screen. This isn’t to say the character of Saul Goodman was reinvented, but that Better Call Saul wanted to add layers to him instead of simply sticking with what was offered in Breaking Bad.

In the first two episodes, the most obvious link to Breaking Bad is the appearance of Tuco Salamanca, a villain from the original show who tormented Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Similar to his actions with Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad, Tuco ends up in the desert with “Saul,” here known by his birth name as Jimmy since he has yet to take on his alias.

Jimmy’s confrontation with Tuco doesn’t end with him trying to kill Tuco, as Walter does. Jimmy instead deals with Tuco as if he’s a jury that he’s trying to convince. This scene tells the audience Better Call Saul will not be as interested in violent set pieces as its predecessor; it’s more interested in the way its lead character learns to use his silver tongue and intelligence to maneuver his way up in a world that does not particularly care for him.

I have no doubt that some Breaking Bad fans tuned out when they realized Better Call Saul would not be mimicking the previous show’s use of sustained tension, violence, and rapid plot twists. It’s an understandable decision, especially since the slow pace of Better Call Saul might have seemed like a letdown from the pedal-to-the-metal approach of the last season of Breaking Bad (although, the pace of the first two seasons of Breaking Bad was considerably slower). But the fans who stayed around found a show that is unpredictable in its own way and has pleasures distinct from Breaking Bad, but ones that are just as rewarding.

A recent article in Entertainment Weekly argued that Better Call Saul seemed to have no clear purpose. This is an opinion I have seen crop up a number of times over the course of the season. This might come from Better Call Saul’s lack of formula. Breaking Bad didn’t have an exact formula, but it was easy to guess the overall narrative each season. Walt would continue to make meth, continue to combat the local drug dealers, continue to quarrel with Jesse, and continue to have an uncomfortable relationship with his wife, Skylar. There’d be violent business with cartels and close calls with the DEA. I don’t mean this as a knock on Breaking Bad, far from it. It’s just that Better Call Saul does not operate this way. The audience knows Saul Goodman will end up as a crooked lawyer, yes, but Gilligan and Gould are taking their sweet time getting there, dabbling in other areas, often without warning. The season has veered from story to story, first with Saul’s encounter with Tuco, then to his brief alliance with the sleazy middle class family the Kettlemans, and most recently has settled into a plot about a retirement home stealing money from its clients. 

Jimmy and Chuck McGill (Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean). Image  ©  AMC 

Jimmy and Chuck McGill (Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean). Image © AMC 

To some, this might look like a show that is all over the place, but the various stories reflect Jimmy’s life. He wants to make it big and is flailing from one scheme to the next, trying to make something, anything, work for him so he can become a respectable lawyer, especially in the eyes of his brother, Chuck, a man who appears to be suffering from a psychosomatic allergy to electromagnetism. Jimmy’s love for his brother Chuck has given Better Call Saul a heart that I would not have expected and the show is more than happy to put story aside in order to focus on this relationship. One of the best character moments in the pilot episode came out of this relationship when Chuck angrily told Jimmy, “I’m going to get better!” The pain in Chuck’s voice was clear, thanks to a great performance by Michael McKean, who is managing a role which could come across as silly in lesser hands.

Better Call Saul is not limited only to the escapades of Jimmy, though. A mid-season episode, “Five-O,” revolved almost entirely around the character of Mike Ehrmantraut, who was also featured in Breaking Bad. The episode told a mostly self-contained tale about Mike’s past, dealing with the tragic murder of his son by corrupt cops and Mike’s subsequent killing of the cops. Actor Jonathan Banks’ performance all but assured him a nomination for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy. What makes this episode remarkable in the evolution of Better Call Saul is Jimmy, the character the audience has been following in almost every scene up to that point, appears in only one scene. It takes a lot of confidence to take a detour this far off course so early on. Up to that point, Better Call Saul had not presented itself as an ensemble, nor has it become one since. “Five-O” felt like a short story inserted into a novel, yet it fit in perfectly.

This strange structure has been a boon to the show, especially as it reaches the end of the first season. With the upcoming finale’s events still unknown, I marvel at the fact that I have no clue whatsoever as to what the episode will be about. The season’s penultimate episode ended with a shock, but one unlike Breaking Bad’s shocks. The episode, “Pimento,” ended with the revelation that Chuck has been sabotaging Jimmy’s career for years because he feels he is “not a real lawyer”, adding that “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!” After watching Jimmy help his brother episode after episode with his illness and so obviously yearn for his approval, the revelation is as much a slap to the face to the audience as it is to Jimmy. The last time I can recall a character giving a monologue which resulted in such a sharp change in a drama, or perhaps even a reinvention of the series, is Don Draper’s monologue to the Hershey executives in the Mad Men episode, “In Care Of.”

With Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship severed, and the case they were working on dissolved, the events of the finale are unpredictable. Will Mike bring Nacho, the drug dealer, into Jimmy’s circle, starting Jimmy down the path to becoming a criminal lawyer? Will Jimmy try to get revenge on Chuck? I have no idea. The episode could revolve around none of the above, and insert a plot out of left field. And that’s a thrilling idea.

Thematically, Better Call Saul has some ties to Breaking Bad. Both shows revolve around a protagonist who the audience knows is going to become increasingly corrupt. The difference is that much of Walter White’s corruption was already inside of him. Early on, he turns down money for his cancer treatment out of pride, and chooses instead to make and sell meth. Walter’s ego, pride, and cruel streak were there from the beginning (just witness his early treatment of Jesse). Jimmy doesn’t have a soul as compromised as Walter White. He’s done cons in the past, but nothing serious, certainly none involving bodily harm. Unlike Walter, Jimmy genuinely wants to improve his life. The people in Jimmy’s life, though, don’t want him to succeed. His brother sees him as a screw up, because that’s how Jimmy was when he was young and his brother refuses to change his opinion of him. Life itself doesn’t seem to treat Jimmy much better. Every effort he makes to better himself and his professional life falls flat, from having clients stolen to being forced to give up his clients when he realizes he simply doesn’t have the manpower to represent them.

Jimmy is a man who is ready to embrace the American Dream, but he’s quickly figuring out that it’s as ephemeral as the dreams one has while sleeping. The system he lives in is not a forgiving or charitable one, and Jimmy is quickly finding out that luck and connections play a huge part in success. The world and the people who surround him don’t particularly care if Jimmy succeeds. That’s a dark take on life--one that a viewer might not suspect would come out of a show about a character who was primarily used as comic relief.

I’d be remiss to focus solely on plot and character, though. To do so would be to deny one of Better Call Saul’s best pleasures: its visuals. Take the ending scene of “RICO”, where Chuck leaves his house without realizing it. When Jimmy points this out, Chuck drops the box he was carrying and the camera cuts to a wide shot of Chuck, Jimmy, and the scenery around them. There is a large, beautiful tree, its branches reaching outwards, as if wrapping around the shot. The blue sky is especially sharp and bright. Cinematographer Arthur Albert and episode director Colin Bucksey went to great lengths to make the image as marvelous as possible in order to portray the way Chuck feels as he realizes he is outside of the house and is not being harmed by the electromagnetism. The start of the next episode, directed by Thomas Schnauz, keeps this sense of beauty when it opens with a shot of Chuck and Jimmy sitting on a bench. The shot is from behind them and the clear blue sky is as riveting as it can be on film. Chuck is, for the first time in a long while, able to enjoy being outside and the scene gives us the most beautiful view of the outside it can manage. This marriage between visual and storytelling is still rare in television and it is an achievement that Better Call Saul has mastered it so early in its run.

Television is better than it’s ever been, few would argue that, but talk of a Golden Age of Television has always seemed a little off to me. There’s still a mountain of garbage on television (as there is in any venue, be it theater, film, or novels), much of it revolving around routine plots, formula (especially in regards to procedural shows), and flat, archetypal characters. Many of the more daring shows, such as True Detective or The Americans, still rely on heavily used tropes, even if they end up reversing many of them, and the novel format pioneered by The Sopranos and The Wire where each season has the structure of a book.

To be fair, Better Call Saul is able to do its own approach because of the built in goodwill from Breaking Bad, a fact that gives Better Call Saul an advantage over other dramas. AMC renewed Better Call Saul for a second season before it even aired. For a drama to truly break away from previous formats, there usually needs to be unique circumstances. The Sopranos could start a new path for television because HBO was small and willing to take risks. The X-Files could embrace the strange and bizarre since FOX was so low in the ratings that they had nothing else to offer and could afford to wait a year or two for The X-Files to take off. Mad Men could take a literary approach to the television drama because AMC needed a new drama to make its mark on television. Netflix wanted to differentiate itself by showing it could do all sorts of shows and ended up with the diverse Orange is the New Black.

Networks are too afraid to lose cash to take risks when they’re succeeding. Better Call Saul is an anomaly in that respect. AMC wanted some more of that sweet Breaking Bad cash and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were willing to create a drama to do that, but on their own terms. It’s difficult to imagine another situation where a program like Better Call Saul could make it to air. Thankfully, the stars aligned long enough.