Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk, Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, Chuck McGill, Giancarlo Esposito, Gustavo Fring, Jimmy McGill, Jonathan Banks, Kerry Condon, Michael McKean, Mike Ehrmantraut, Netflix, Saul Goodman, Television, TV, Vince Gilligan, Walter White
This review contains slight spoilers for the first season of “Better Call Saul”.
“Better Call Saul” has been one of the biggest surprises of 2015 for me. I wasn’t expecting all that much when it first appeared on Netflix, particularly because it seemed to come out of nowhere! I’d heard that it was being made, but it arrived in a weird way – no hype really built around it as far as I could tell, but suddenly it was available to watch. However, I was sold after the first episode, because I remembered just what made Saul (Bob Odenkirk) such a loveable character; he was intelligent, manipulative and ultimately hilarious in a show that was devoid of joy by the end.
Obviously that’s not a criticism of “Breaking Bad”, I’m just saying that given all the tension surrounding Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his drug empire, Saul’s gags and punchlines were a breath of fresh air. As the first season of “Better Call Saul” progressed, the character we knew from “Breaking Bad” disappeared into the background, making way for Jimmy McGill, a very different character living in a Saul suit, until the titular character reared his ugly head again as the credits rolled on episode ten.
As you might expect, “Better Call Saul” is all about its titular character, Walter White’s morally ambiguous lawyer, and the brains behind his whole operation, Saul Goodman. However, the series begins six years before the events of “Breaking Bad” when Saul was known by another name. Jimmy isn’t always on the right side of the law, but he’s a long way off being the adviser of the biggest drug dealer in America! He’s a rehabilitated criminal desperately trying to get his life together, he wants to get away from being a petty crook and make his brother proud, and he’s in a constant struggle to fend off his true nature.
As the season unfolds we are provided with small insights into who Saul really was and why he became a “criminal” lawyer, through both the season’s overall narrative and supplementary flashbacks. These flashbacks are wonderfully woven into each episode, giving us more information about Saul’s past and explaining some of the motivations of the supporting cast, most often those of Chuck (Michael McKean), Jimmy’s clean-cut older brother. Chuck is a strange character, because he refuses to be around anything electrical due to what he believes to be a physical condition.
It’s clear to everyone but him that the condition is very much psychological and that actually Chuck is short of a few brain cells. I’d still like to know why Chuck came to believe that he should use his home as a sanctuary against electrical currents, because that hasn’t been fully explored yet, but I’m sure that this story will be revealed in time. What Chuck’s plight does for the show is that it demonstrates just how important he is to Jimmy, and also reveals a bit more about who Jimmy is in comparison to the man he will become. He visits his brother every day and brings him supplies, he provides much needed company for Chuck in a life otherwise devoid of human contact, and most importantly he puts up with Chuck’s judgemental nature and rises above any criticisms that come his way.
The funny thing about this is that Jimmy clearly looks up to his brother, he wants to be a lawyer just like him and he wants to surpass the expectations that Chuck has for him, but Chuck just doesn’t see it. As the season progresses it becomes clear that Chuck is the biggest villain on “Better Call Saul”, and he has more than one psychological impairment clouding his judgement. He can’t see that Jimmy is a good man, he won’t allow himself to see it, and he is destroying his brother as a result.
Chuck is the reason why Jimmy becomes Saul, pure and simple, maybe he doesn’t push him as far as he ends up falling, but he could’ve easily placed a net underneath Jimmy which wouldn’t have let him go too far down into the depths. By extension he’s also the cause of many of “Breaking Bad’s” tragic deaths, because without Saul, Walter White wouldn’t have stayed out of jail or survived his brushes with death. What makes this even more frustrating is that Jimmy really wants to change, and when it’s finally revealed what he did to upset Chuck so much, it turns out that it wasn’t even that abhorrent, it was just a simple mistake. It wasn’t Jimmy’s finest hour, but he didn’t exactly kill a man or rob a bank.
This first season has been extremely impressive. It’s brilliantly structured and well thought out, as each plot point feels fruitful and worthwhile. Some may think that this thoroughness leads to a pacing which is slightly too slow, because they want to know why exactly Jimmy became Saul, but people don’t transition from hero to villain in such a haphazard and swift way. The journey from Jimmy to Saul is paved with decision after decision, which makes it all the more tragic that Saul ends up where he does.
The season opens with Saul going about his daily routine after the events of “Breaking Bad”, and it couldn’t have been a more fitting way to start the series when you consider what has proceeded it. It reminds you of where Jimmy ultimately ends up, which makes each mistake all the more infuriating as you watch the show play out.
“Better Call Saul” has drawn on a similar premise to “Breaking Bad”, but it has felt significantly different due to a slightly more comedic tone and a slower pacing. Like “Breaking Bad”, this show is about one man becoming someone completely different, but while Walter White took pleasure from his descent into villainy, Saul is giving his all to avoid being the bad guy, fighting frantically to get his act together. These characters end up in the same place, but how they get there is a completely different story, and that’s why “Better Call Saul” is such a smart and enjoyable show. It never feels like a cash cow for Vince Gilligan – it feels like he’s telling a story that he knew all along, and that every time Saul gave Walt advice he was informed by what we’re seeing in this series. “Better Call Saul” is universe building, it’s adding to the brilliance of “Breaking Bad”, which is amazing when you consider how good that show was on its own.
Saul was the comic relief in “Breaking Bad”, he was a joker and a comedian but he got the job done when the time came. Here he’s a much more serious and emotional character, and it’s clear that he’s invested in something other than his own personal gain. There are people in his life that he wants to impress, people that he loves, which is why he refuses to use his considerable skill set to cheat people out of their money. What’s sad about this is that we know that he has to lose all of this in order to become Saul, but that keeps me tuning in every week, because I’m desperate to find out how that transition happens.
Not only has Saul been given an extra dimension over the course of this season, but we’ve also been afforded an inside look at what makes Mike (Jonathan Banks) tick, and why he became a hired gun for Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Mike is such a brilliant character, because he knows how it is and he’s seen it all before. He’s been a cop and he’s been a criminal, so he knows that neither of those life choices make the man.
In episode nine he says something along the lines of ‘there are bad cops and good criminals’, which just makes so much sense when you consider who Mike was in “Breaking Bad”. He was a killer, he was ruthless, and he wasn’t a good guy, but he knew that and whilst he was doing bad things he always got the job done without a lot of fuss. He hated Walter White and now we know why. Walt was a hypocrite, he wanted to be a criminal mastermind with a methamphetamine empire but he didn’t want to take moral responsibility for his actions. He didn’t think his wife and children should be repulsed by the man that he had become, and he always reverted to the claim that he was doing it for the family. He was a bad criminal, and he was destructive, which Mike could see through and looked upon with disgust; it’s taken “Better Call Saul” all of two episodes to make that abundantly clear.
Mike’s episode in this season was an outlier, because the show is named after Saul, yet he was absent for the majority of it. However, it was also one of the finest episodes of television that I have ever had the privilege to watch. The story made sense when you think back to “Breaking Bad”, because Mike believed that you shouldn’t take half measures, so he wasn’t going to leave it up to the police department to find his son’s killers when he knew that the department was corrupt and that they’d have to send down two of their own. It also showed everyone why Mike was involved with Gus in the first place, and why the money that he earned was going to his granddaughter in “Breaking Bad”. Not only that, but the acting was superb and the emotion that Banks generated when he finally told Stacey (Kerry Condon) what had happened was just astounding. I would recommend watching “Better Call Saul” for that episode alone.
All around the acting on this show is as good as you’re likely to see, and lives up to the lofty expectations set by “Breaking Bad”. Bob Odenkirk excels when playing his character and he gives the show a level of class that an opening season so desperately needs. Michael McKean is utterly hateable as Jimmy’s stubborn older brother, and makes for an excellent antagonist, while the rest of the supporting cast are perfectly acceptable in their roles.
The biggest problem with “Better Call Saul”, as far as I’m concerned, was actually the finale. It wasn’t bad, I want to stress that straightaway, but it lacked the bang that I was hoping for from a final episode, and the last scene was a bit unnecessary. The season did end with Jimmy finally expressing that he was going to change, and we know that that means he’s accepting his darker side; Saul is coming! However, this happened in a slightly too direct and transparent manner. In the end I’m not sure that his change of attitude was fully believable, given that he still had a lot to lose and is intelligent enough to recognise that his life had the potential to improve. Still, the series has tried its best to show that Jimmy makes split-second decisions that turn out to be idiotic, and I suppose that this is just another one of those.
The first season of “Better Call Saul” has completely surpassed my expectations, because it has breathed life into an already memorable character, and it’s been exciting to see the story progress from week to week. This first season stands alone as a great piece of television regardless of the material which it is building upon, but it also adds something significant to that material, whether you watch it as a precursor or a sequel. This is a must watch even if you’re yet to delve into “Breaking Bad” (although I still recommend watching that television milestone first), and now that it exists on Netflix in its entirety it’s more than worth binging on.