Alex Casey recaps the first two episodes of Lightbox’s much anticipated Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul. //
“If I’m lucky, in a month from now, best case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.”
– Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad Episode 15 “Granite State”
Better Call Saul opens not with a bang, but with the most fittingly pathetic whisper. Although a prequel to Breaking Bad, the series opens as a monochrome sequel of sorts, checking in with a fake-moustached Saul in the grim depths of a post-Breaking–Bad-apocalyptic Cinnabon. It’s a great way to quench thirsty fans, as well as shadow the entire series with the fact that, ultimately, we know how it’s all going to end for our main man.
What we don’t know, though, is how James ‘Jimmy’ McGill came to be known as Saul Goodman. Soon enough we are hurtled back to the burnt beige, mustard yellows and open sky blues of New Mexico to find out.
The first episode is not action-packed with the grit and gore of Breaking Bad – because, like Jimmy, it’s not quite ready for that. Instead we meet McGill living at the back of a nail salon (a familiar scene for BB fans, presumably the same one he endlessly goads Walt to buy) in an office-bedroom hybrid. He spends his days storming the damp community courtroom with (nearly) all the manufactured chutzpah of his best billboard future self.
He’s just not quite there yet, though. We see him nervously psyching himself up in the toilets, practicing his killer lines and whipping out movie catchphrases because he doesn’t have anything else to say. His character obsessed with performance, as is the show itself.
Unlike Breaking Bad, the first episode is mostly driven by character rather than plot. We meet Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s older brother (played by Michael McKean). He’s on leave from his law firm for an illness that remains unknown to the viewer – all we know is that he refuses to use electricity. Although it’s useful to have an emotional anchor, McKean’s scenes do tend to slow the pace of the show down. The candlelight conversations can be too vague and too heavy after endless punchy scenes of bright yellows and blues.
Talking of characters, isn’t it great to see Mike again? If Saul is the Batman of this superhero origin story, then Mike is the Robin (except a lot cooler than that dork Chris O’Donnell). At this stage Mike is a parking-warden sticker-collector, working hard to antagonise Jimmy who never has enough stickers to be validated. Their interactions are so agitated and ironically inane – it’s gleeful viewing for those who know what’s coming.
The tempo of the episode is kept up with the introduction of ‘Slipping Jimmy’ – one of McGill’s presumably endless personae – who enters into a scam with some skateboarder twins. The plan is for them to fake being run over, and call their lawyer (guess who?) immediately to rinse the driver for all they’re worth. The target? A woman with a lot of money, of course.
The stunt is executed perfectly – except they hit the wrong car. Following the elderly Spanish woman behind the wheel, they arrive at her house and demand reparations. Cue the greatest cameo of the episode, just plausible enough that it pries open a whole can of other potential BB villain appearances.
But yeah, it’s a great first episode overall. We have an increasing sense of danger, lashings of dark humour and the welcome return of the twisted residents of the Albuquerque dust bowl onto our screens. I can’t wait to see what’s coming.
We open with an extremely visceral shot of a capsicum being chopped by our main man Tuco. It’s half Masterchef, half Dexter’s opening breakfast massacre. This is the most blood and guts we’ve had so far. There’s got be some bloodshed soon, you can just feel it.
The episode picks up a few minutes before the end of the last – back inside Grandma’s house with the two scammy skateboarders. They are continuing to ham it up for a deeply unimpressed and confused audience (her and us alike). Desperate, they call Tuco’s sweet grandmother a “Biznatch” and regret it instantly as Tuco proceeds to beat them up with her cane. Told you there’d be blood.
That has got to the best use of a granny walker in television history, reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s ATM or tortoise in terms of appropriating an everyday item into something of deeply horrific violence. There’s a knock at the door. Jimmy is the one who knocks, and we watch Tuco pull him in at gunpoint. Cute interjection: check out the little baby Tuco hanging up on the wall! It’s times like these we remember that this is not just Saul’s origin story: but everyone’s.
“Wow, you’ve got a mouth on you” Tuco says to Jimmy as he pleads, bargains and wisecracks his way into the world’s deepest ditch. Next thing you know, they end up tied up in the desert. Not like we’ve ever seen anything like that before…
Tuco and his crew (including the welcome resurrection of patron saint No Doze), clearly thinly-veiled criminals, suspect that Jimmy and the Twins targeted them for a season. They reckon Jimmy is FBI, and start to slowly secateur one of his off fingers for his troubles. Motormouth manages to get out of it, despite opting for an unsuccessful “Secret Agent Steel” persona at one point. I am keeping count of how many fake names McGill gives, we’re up to three already. The gang then turn their attention to the Twins (a goofier, blonder version of The Cousins by the way), with the intent to kill. Everything has gone from 0-100, as all things seem to in the vast deserts of Albuquerque.
This is where we see Jimmy become Saul, using his skillset far away from the courtroom to negotiate the best deal possible for the situation. In this case, the best deal is getting the Twins’ legs broken. It’s better than the both of them being murdered.
“You’re the worst lawyer I’ve ever seen”
“I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months, I’m the best lawyer”
After sitting through the harrowing broken leg foley effects that follow – we get some thankful relief in a completely blindsiding date scene. It’s done tauntingly but lovingly, a symphony of snapped breadsticks reminding Jimmy of the too recent horrors and distracting him from even the most ample of cleavage. Perhaps with Odenkirk at the helm and a more comic than tragic lead, Better Call Saul might be willing to poke a little bit more fun at it’s characters than Breaking Bad? Time will tell I suppose.
Time to check in with Chuck – he’s wrapped in an emergency blanket and screaming at Jimmy for bringing his cellphone inside. I think Chuck might be having some sort of mental episode, but it’s still not clear. At first I thought it was cancer, and he was just scared of the radiation or something. He looks like a glistening space slug, and watches as a drunken Jimmy sleeps off his breadstick hell.
Returning to his home, one of Tuco’s minions shows up unannounced. He wants to do a deal with Jimmy to finish the swindling job that he started, in exchange for the information he will get $100,000. We see the flicker of Saul behind Jimmy’s eyes, “I’m not in the game, I promise.”
Come on Jimmy, you aren’t that good of a lier…yet.