“Better Call Saul” is finally here. I already published my initial review and interviews with creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and with Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, and now I have thoughts on the first episode coming up just as soon as I translate this review into Finnish…
“Have patience. There are no shortcuts.” -Chuck
Those words by the older brother of Jimmy “The Man Who Will Be Saul” McGill are so important to Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and all the other “Breaking Bad” alums who have continued onto the new show that I hope they all wear bracelets with that phrasing on them, like how the “Justified” staff has “WWED” (What Would Elmore Do) jewelry. Those words formed the fundamental rules of “Breaking Bad,” and the reason for so much of its greatness. That show took its damn time in showing us the journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface, which made things so much more powerful than if Walt had become Albuquerque's meth kingpin by episode 4.
Almost from the start, “Saul” has different aims than its parent show: it's lighter in tone, closer to an overt comedy (though we know “Breaking Bad” could be incredibly funny), and the transformation Jimmy's going to go through between now and when he meets Walter White isn't nearly as drastic. But it's made by many of the same people, and their core storytelling principles haven't changed, starting with their incredible patience.
Start with the teaser, which is a self-contained marvel in the way that so many of the best “Breaking Bad” teasers were. I don't know if it's the only glimpse we're ever going to get of the time period after “Breaking Bad” – Gilligan and Gould have been understandably cagey about this – but as an introduction to the new show, it's perfect. It's a tragic opera in miniature: the slick operator reduced to a quiet corporate drone (managing, as he predicted the last time he saw Walt, a Cinnabon in Omaha, with our first glimpses of the product being made resembling Heisenberg and Cap'n Cook at work), hiding behind glasses and a mustache that's in many ways even sadder than the one once sported by the man responsible for his current predicament. (He's also stopped trying to disguise his baldness, since it only adds to his new anonymity.) His life is simultaneously depressing and terrifying – like Jesse in Civic Plaza at the end of “Rabid Dog,” he briefly mistakes a shady-looking character for a threat to his life, and you get the sense that this is a regular occurrence, creating a constant Tony Soprano-eating-onion-rings level of paranoia – and those six and a half minutes, scored to The Ink Spots' “Address Unknown,” tells us all we need to know without asking “Gene” to say a damn word. The first time we hear Odenkirk's voice, it's on a videotape of one of his Saul Goodman commercials, taken out of a hiding place as a painful but necessary reminder of what he used to be: a tiny hint of color in a life that has otherwise gone all grey.
And then, having sated our curiosity about what happened to Saul after he drove off with Robert Forster, Gilligan and Gould take their sweet time introducing us to Jimmy McGill.
It's another marvelously elongated sequence, where you can literally hear a ticking clock, while the judge checks his watch in impatience over Jimmy's absence. And Jimmy's fast-talking, long-winded closing argument – in which you can see early signs of the more assured Saul Goodman persona – is just an elaborate set-up for the punchline where the prosecutor plays the video showing what the defendants actually did. The whole thing is a little wink at the audience: a way for the storytellers to tell us that they, like their new main character, are going to take their sweet time getting to the point of the story, and they hope you're entertained along the way.
Because AMC gave them extra time to play with (without commercials, the episode runs about 53 minutes), Gilligan and Gould let every scene play out a little longer than you might expect, and almost always get added value out of it. I've been so conditioned to expect drivers being filmed at length to get into some kind of auto accident (there's a certain visual vocabulary for that kind of scene that's become every bit as much of a cliche as a cop stopping his partner from killing a suspect by saying, “He's not worth it, man!”) that I shouldn't have been surprised at all when the skater crashed into Jimmy's windshield. But because the sequence ran several beats longer than an ordinary scene might have, I just got absorbed in watching Jimmy work the phones and try to hustle the business, and as a result I literally jumped a few inches out of my chair when the crash came.
The introduction of the skater con artist twins, meanwhile, eventually sets up the most entertaining scene of the Albuquerque portion of the pilot (and the first “Saul” scene filmed, period), in which Jimmy gives them his origin story as Slippin' Jimmy, the most famous slip-and-fall artist Cicero had ever seen. It's just Bob Odenkirk talking under the bright NM sun, and it suggests that our hero's verbal dexterity may just be enough to carry this spin-off forward.
Jimmy's not Walter White, but as he began laying out his scheme to the twins, I started to wonder if his elaborate plan would actually go to plan, or if, like so many Walt brainstorms, would get bungled almost immediately. It of course turned out to be the latter, as the twins jumped the wrong station wagon, driven not by their white housewife target, but an elderly Latina woman whose house is occupied by a very familiar face in Tuco Salamanca.
We knew Gilligan and Gould intended to use other “Breaking Bad” characters beyond Saul and Mike, and Tuco seems like a good one to start with, not only because he was a relatively early Walt opponent (albeit not the first), but because he was killed off quickly, so there's less fidelity to the original text required. Had it been Gus Fring, or perhaps an able-bodied Hector Salamanca, behind that door, it would have felt like too much, too soon – on top of whatever contortions would be required to have their activities conform to what we already knew about them and Saul – but when Tuco poked his stupid face out the door to look around for cops or witnesses, I laughed appreciatively and thought, “Yeah, that seems about right.”
That we only get a brief glimpse of Tuco, and that Mike appears in only one brief scene, working as a parking attendant at the Albuquerque courthouse – and refusing Jimmy the half-measures of getting out while being one sticker short – are other signs that the show intends to be at least as patient as its parent series. If Gilligan and Gould were in pure fan-service mode, the episode would've been wall-to-wall Mike Ehrmantraut, and he certainly wouldn't be in such a neutered position. But it's more important to the larger story to show the low place he's in when he and Jimmy first meet, and to focus primarily on establishing who Saul Goodman used to be than on letting Jonathan Banks growl and crack wise.
And even with the Jimmy backstory, the show doesn't lay too many cards on the table at once. We get a glimpse of the firm where Chuck worked, but only the vaguest hints of Jimmy's relationship with slick partner Howard Hamlin, or with Kim Wexler, the blonde smoking in the parking garage while Jimmy vents his fury on the trash can(*). We meet Chuck, and see that he believes he's suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity – a condition that's not acknowledged as an official diagnosis by the medical establishment, even if the assorted symptoms felt by people like Chuck can be real – that's leading him to live a blacked-out existence, with anything electrical kept outside his home. He comes across as simultaneously wise – especially next to his impetuous “kid” brother – and delusional, but because we don't have all the information about his condition and his departure from the firm, we have to wait and see.
(*) That it was dented on Jimmy's way into the office – and that Kim so calmly and casually set it back aright after he left – suggests this is not the first time Jimmy has used that thing for target practice.
That Jimmy is so concerned for his brother's well-being is perhaps the most important thing the pilot does, because it tells us that once upon a time, Saul Goodman was a human being who cared about something beyond acquiring money and sexually harassing his receptionist. He needs to be a person for the show to work.
And this hour, at least, works very well. It's not “Breaking Bad,” but it's fun, and that's a start.
Some other thoughts:
* I'm sure the impulse to scan the background for “Breaking Bad” cameos will go away at some point, but I spent several minutes rewatching the scene where Jimmy storms out of the courthouse after getting one fee for three clients, convinced that the guy getting wanded by the security guard was a clean-cut Skinny Pete.
* Here's the scene from “Network” that Jimmy was quoting when he crashed the Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill conference room.
* AMC asked critics to not reveal three things from the pilot in advance: 1)The return of Tuco, 2)The nature of Chuck's illness, and 3)Where Saul's office is located. This isn't the same nail salon where Saul tried to teach Jesse about money laundering, but I was amused to see that the once and future con artist is literally working out of a boiler room.
* For what it's worth, I've seen two episodes beyond this one, and the main title sequence is different in all three, though there's a stylistic throughline to them. Still, it's an interesting way to differentiate this show from the last one, which stuck with the periodic table title card through all 62 episodes.
* How many other terrible accents do you figure Jimmy can do when he has to pretend to be his own secretary?
Finally, don't forget that the Sunday airing was a one-time thing, and there's another new episode tomorrow night at 10. I'll have a review of that one up after it ends.
What did everybody else think? Did “Saul” live up to your biggest hopes, or down to your worst fears?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org