Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Michael McKean, Jeremy Shamos, Julie Ann Emery, Kerry Condon, Mel Rodriguez
Original Airdate: 2015
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad**
There's a scene in "Pimento," the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul's premiere season, in which there's a reveal that causes us to rethink everything we thought we knew about these characters up until then. It literally changes the trajectory of the entire series, forcing us to evaluate just how high the ceiling for this show can really get. While it's only a slight stretch to say underachieving public defender Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) enters this devastating conversation as a likeable screw-up, only to exit it as Saul Goodman, he's definitely well on his way. This just speeds up the process.
|Better Call Saul Title Card|
Would this be a half-hour comedy? An hour-long drama? Neither? How much would it resemble Breaking Bad, if at all? Expectations weren't exactly high, and no one quiet knew how to feel about the possibility of that show's sacred universe being tinkered with in any way. And yet somehow, someway the finished product manages to be reminiscent of the show that inspired it while still being nothing like it at all. It sure isn't perfect, nor necessarily as focused or consistent as it needs to be yet, but the potential moving forward is cause for legitimate excitement.
Any fears this character couldn't carry a show prove to be unfounded, as co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould far surpass expectations to deliver a first season that's not just as good as it could possibly be under challenging circumstances, but better. And it's doubtful anyone thought we'd be talking about Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean being a shoo-ins for an Emmys. In other words, it's mostly all good, man.
|Jimmy/Saul's future as Cinnabon manager, "Gene"|
The series then begins in 2002, before he was Saul and six years prior to when he takes the country's most famous chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin on as his client. He's Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defender in Albuquerque working out of the back of a nail salon while caring for his older brother, Chuck (McKean), a respected attorney who's now been left an emotionally crippled recluse from electromagnetic sensitivity. And Jimmy's battle with Chuck's law partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) to cash out his incapacitated brother's share in Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill has put best friend and HHM associate Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) in an impossibly difficult position, compromising her personal and professional loyalties.
Jimmy also manages to get under the skin of courthouse tollbooth attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), with whom he eventually forms an uneasy alliance to take down white collar criminal couple, The Kettlemans (Julie Ann Emery and Jeremy Shamus). Desperate to leave his con artist past behind and earn respectability as a lawyer, Jimmy struggles to to do the right thing, even as outside forces pull him in the other direction, inching him closer to a criminal future as shady attorney Saul Goodman.
|One of many visual callbacks to Breaking Bad|
Between the familiar locations and cold opens that categorized BrBa as a TV institution, it's clear this series will at least be to treading some of that common ground. It's hard not to compare Jimmy's ugly Suzuki Esteem to Walt's Pontiac Aztek or look at the entire Cinnabon flash-forward as the Walter Whitewashing of Saul/Jimmy, complete with cooking segments and a physical appearance that even resembles his depressed, loserish client in that show's pilot episode. Where it deviates sharpest is in tone, mainly because the flashier, more overtly comedic protagonist of this series calls for a different approach from Gilligan and Gould.. At times it more closely resembles FX's darkly comic miniseries Fargo in that the humor's so twisted it's always threatening to spill over into dramatic tragedy.
The least interesting material in this series often involves the heavier crime stuff, like the brief reemergence of BrBa's Tuco Salamanca (guest star Raymond Cruz), whose surprise appearance comes off as little more than fan service. While there's little doubt it's exciting to see him in his pre-meth king days, that's tempered by knowing no matter how intense it gets, no real harm can come to Jimmy on his way toward becoming the flamboyant, scheming Saul. Tuco's appearance is merely the catalyst for introducing him to the criminal world and opening the door for Nacho (Michael Mando), who's clearly being established as a major player. But it's Jimmy McGill's figurative death that this series hinges on, as a clearer picture is painted of how a guy seemingly so committed to getting on the straight and narrow, fell off the morality wagon.
|A flashback to Jimmy's con artist past|
Just as Gilligan utilized masterful cold opens from the past, present and future to convey valuable information and flesh out characters over Breaking Bad's five seasons, the same approach helps establish the dynamics of Jimmy and Chuck's relationship here. And it's a complicated one we think we understand until the wool is pulled over our eyes, causing us to question what we thought was true about their relationship.
We're also forced to rethink how much Odenkirk was capable of as an actor and whether he'd be able to carry an hour-long series requiring him to flex some of the same dramatic muscles Bryan Cranston did, albeit with a bit more comedy thrown in. And while no performer's work (on TV or otherwise) over the past decade compares with Cranston's, just the mere fact Odenkirk's opened up such a conversation in only ten episodes has to be viewed as a promising sign. He took what was previously an effective comedic sidekick and filled him with a depth and complexity that no only stands on its own in this series, but could potentially enrich minor elements of Breaking Bad on subsequent viewings.
|Chuck runs for cover in his space blanket.|
At first, Chuck's partner at the firm, Howard Hamlin, seems to be set up as a stock villain, seizing on his vulnerability and screwing Jimmy over at every turn. And watching what appears to be a one-note performance of sleaze from Patrick Fabian, there's no reason to think otherwise. Until there is, and you gain a greater appreciation for just how much he was doing with the character, causing a total reevaluation of his intentions throughout the ten episodes. Similarly, Jimmy's best friend (and maybe more) Kim would seem initially to be another throwaway, but over the course of the season she also gains resonance as the only person who actually believes in and supports his legal ambitions, even going so far as to put her own future at HHM on the line.
The more we get of Rhea Seehorn in the Kim role, the more she excels, and her scenes opposite Odenkirk are some of the most fun and playful of the series, even as she still manages to make the character both the toughest and most vulnerable in the series. Of all the similarities with Breaking Bad, Jimmy and Kim's relationship just might be the biggest, as its hard not to think of the flashback scenes of Walt with Gretchen, and how that damaged relationship served as the inciting incident that eventually led to his dark transformation. Already with more screen time than that sub-plot, you have to believe whatever causes Jimmy to become a "criminal lawyer" will somehow involve Kim.
|Mike Ehrmantraut's backstory is explored in "Five-O"|
The Mike-centric episode (1.6, "Five-O"), detailing the tragedy he suffered as a cop in Philly that drove him out west is the bleakest, comic-free of the season. It might also be the least interesting since you could easily guess most of what it entails. Thankfully, that doesn't make Banks' powerful performance any less impressive, even if most of its content confirms why Mike is strongest as a supporting character rather than the lead. As a one-off it's fine, but it's still a reminder that the last thing we'd want is a gritty cop prequel series centered on him. Starting off as a court parking attendant harassing (and being harassed by) Jimmy, it takes a little while before he gets out of the booth, but their interplay once he does is predictably satisfying.
The decision to show how Mike evolves from retired cop and ostracized grandfather to career criminal was always a no-brainer, but his biggest draw as a character was always how viewers never had to stop and question why this old man's such a bad ass. Doing that will be tricky, since he was the one Gilligan creation who specifically benefited from a lack of backstory. But it does but into clearer context the protectiveness he showed for Jesse in Breaking Bad, perhaps making those scenes and that relationship resonate stronger on repeated viewings. All this could also make Mike's eventual death at Walt's hands play more tragically if revisited with a better understanding of his past. It's cruelly ironic (and not at all coincidental) that Mike's first big job in this series involves a drug deal with a nerdier, more incompetent version of Walter White. It's little touches like that lift the series and convince us surprises are still possible within the confines of a prequel format.
|Slippin' Jimmy in action|
There's this possibility teased throughout that Jimmy turned over a new leaf and had the potential to be as great and respected a defense attorney, albeit in a far different style than his brother. In court, we see he has the skills, but the big surprise of the season is that his worst enemy doesn't end up being himself, but the one person he always trusted to have his back. We still don't know what happened to Chuck to cause his mental break, even if his actions speak to something deeper and more resentful. There's also a history between Jimmy and Kim that's yet to be fully explored.
The big question is what happens when Gould and Gilligan inch closer to the Breaking Bad timeline. Do they flash a title card on the screen telling us to watch that series and come back? There's also tons of speculation as to when the inevitable Walt and Jesse appearances take place, when Gus Fring enters the picture, and how much more of Cinnabon manager "Gene" we'll get to see. And it wouldn't take many leaps in logic for Jesse to show up in Nebraska, or for Saul, like Walt, to triumphantly return to Albuquerque to finish business as Jimmy. The possibilities really are endless.
|Kim and Jimmy share a smoke|