Early in the second episode of AMC's “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul!,” our hero Jimmy McGill – who will one day go by Saul Goodman – is taken out into the desert and threatened by someone who in the future will tangle with the man called Heisenberg.
“Saul” creators Vince Gilligan (the man responsible for “Breaking Bad” in the first place) and Peter Gould (who wrote the episode that introduced Saul Goodman) have been very candid about how long it took them to figure out exactly what this new show would be. Sequel or prequel? Comedy or drama? Half-hour or hour? Everything seemed a possibility, and watching Saul cower in the New Mexico sun before a familiar “Breaking Bad” villain, I wondered if Gilligan and Gould had simply taken the path of least resistance and decided to wedge actor Bob Odenkirk into a kind of “Young Walter White Chronicles,” giving us more of what we liked on the last series, only without that Bryan Cranston fellow at the center of all the mayhem.
Now, I admittedly approached the spin-off with some skepticism. Gilligan and Gould had earned a ton of trust from their work together on “Breaking Bad,” and yet… Given how well and definitively “BB” had concluded, did we need to see more in that universe? And, if so, was Saul – an amusing accent to the show, but a relatively two-dimensional character who, despite being primarily comic relief, wasn't as funny as either Jesse or Walt – the right choice to continue the franchise? (Might, for instance, “The Chicken Man Cometh,” about the rise to power of Gustavo Fring, have been a better choice?) Would the show be hamstrung by what we and the creators know about what happens to Saul and others down the line? And as Gilligan, Gould and others began talking about the possibility of seeing Walt, Jesse, Hank and others cross paths with these younger versions of Saul and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), would the whole thing turn out to be a really elaborate, gorgeously-shot piece of fan service?
So I began watching “Better Call Saul!” (which debuts on Sunday, February 8 at 10 p.m., after “The Walking Dead,” before moving to Mondays at 10 the following night) with eyes narrowed. At the TV critics press tour, when talking about when or if “Breaking Bad” characters might make cameos, Gould cautioned, “You also don”t want to have the detail in the background distract you from what”s going on in the foreground.” And sure enough, I found myself scanning each frame for a while, wondering if some old friends might be lurking on the edge. Hey, that guy getting wanded by the security guard looks like he could be Skinny Pete before he did too much meth! Can Skank and Spooge be far behind?
But if I began watching “Better Call Saul!” as a skeptic, the first three episodes have mostly made me a believer. There are nods to the parent show – and those are among the more emotionally affecting parts of this young series – but “Saul” quickly learns to function as its own thing, rather than taking the easy approach of being “Breaking Bad, Episode 1: The Phantom Ehrmantraut.”
After a prologue that you would be better off going into cold – the most I will say is that it, like the best of the “Breaking Bad” teasers, functions as a beautiful short film that could exist without the episode (or series) around it – we are back in Albuquerque, about six years before Walter White's cancer diagnosis, and Jimmy McGill is a young-ish(*) defense lawyer, hustling for every case he can get and developing the gift for gab that will get him out of a whole lot of trouble once he enters Heisenberg's orbit.
(*) There's only so much you can do to make Odenkirk look significantly younger (and the makeup people don't even bother with Jonathan Banks, which actually works for where Mike is emotionally when we first encounter him), but the wig he wears evokes how he looked circa “Mr. Show,” creating an illusion plausible enough for everything around it to work.
The Saul Goodman of “Breaking Bad” couldn't carry a series, and Gilligan and Gould have wisely humanized him to the point where Jimmy McGill (and Bob Odenkirk) can. He's no saint – one of the highlights of the first episode involves him hypnotizing a pair of young con men with rapturous tales of his days as a slip and fall artist known throughout Chicago as “Slippin' Jimmy” – but nor is he the completely cynical, amoral operator who will tell Walt and Jesse the easiest way out of a dilemma is to murder Jesse's friend Badger. At this stage, he still has vulnerability, and compassion, particularly when it comes to his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a respected Albuquerque lawyer sidelined by an illness. And when he tells someone, “I'm a lawyer, not a criminal” – a line evoking Jesse Pinkman's original reason for going to Saul: “When the going gets tough, you don't want a criminal lawyer; you want a criminal lawyer.” – you believe him. Saul Goodman is an unrepentant crook; Jimmy McGill is a shyster who might not have pawned his heart of gold just yet.
In that way, the broad arc of the series is similar to that of “Breaking Bad,” which Gilligan always pitched as “We're going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” Jimmy's journey isn't as extreme at either end – he's not Atticus Finch here, nor will he become Pacino in “The Devil's Advocate” by the time he acts as Walter White's consigliere – but it creates a parallel narrative, even as the new show does the best it can to establish itself as something different.
The first three episodes are all directed by “Breaking Bad” alums – Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren and Terry McDonough – and there's the same care placed into each and every frame, but the compositions often look very different. Walter White tended to live his most memorable moments in close-up, the better to take advantage of Bryan Cranston's expressive face, but also to illustrate how powerful this former weakling was rapidly becoming. Many of the most interesting shots on “Better Call Saul!” position its hero as barely more than a speck on a map – a little man caught up in larger forces he can barely comprehend, let alone talk his way around. “Saul” also tries to carve out its own territory within the familiar borders of Albuquerque; outside of that desert scene in episode 2, Jimmy tends to wind up in neighborhoods that are either much nicer than where Walt traveled, or much seedier. (He has an encyclopedic knowledge, for instance, of the city's remaining payphones, for whenever he needs to make a call that can't be traced back to him.)
The tone is also much closer to “The Rockford Files” (or, to cite a more modern reference, “Terriers”) than it is to “Breaking Bad.” The stories are relatively serialized – each of these early episodes involves a city official accused of embezzling a small fortune – yet with some kind of clear task for Jimmy to perform within each hour, and a kind of knockabout charm to the whole thing. He drives a beater, works in a dingy office and is looked on with contempt by nearly everyone whose path he crosses – a notable exception is Mike, but only because he would first have to care about Jimmy in the slightest before he could hate him – yet he keeps scratching, keeps working new angles, and demonstrates the work ethic, if not the talent, that will be on display in his Saul Goodman incarnation.
Like its predecessor in its earliest days, “Saul” is moving very slowly and methodically, revealing itself only a bit at a time – “Have patience,” Chuck (speaking on behalf of his creators) counsels Jimmy. “There are no shortcuts.” – but there's promise in these early movements.
And for all my concern of “Breaking Bad” Easter Eggs overwhelming “Saul” – Gould has since promised that Walt and Jesse won't be in season 1 (and that it may be hard for Jesse to ever appear, given how young he'd be at the time and how much older Aaron Paul is than when “BB” began) – I have to admit to feeling positively giddy at the first real hint of the working relationship Saul and Mike will one day have.
“Breaking Bad” is one of the greatest shows in the history of this medium. Brilliant, awful, or in between, “Better Call Saul!” can't tarnish that legacy any more than “After M*A*S*H” could for “M*A*S*H.” So far, it's fun to be back in that world, and to be getting a more fleshed-out version of Saul. In another meta line – as well as a tease for the future – Chuck suggests that Jimmy not use the family name in advertisements for his fledgling firm, asking, “Wouldn't you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else's coattails?”
We have a long way to go from Jimmy McGill at the start of this show to Saul Goodman in season 2 of “Breaking Bad,” but these early “Saul” episodes suggest it may actually be possible to ride coattails and build a new identity at the same time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org