AMC has a shot at reminding us who brought the new golden age of television to basic cable. With ‘Mad Men’ winding down, the network will need something far more interesting and well-written than ‘The Walking Dead’ to stay relevant. Honestly, if I ever get curious about how the aimless zombie drama is progressing, I’ll stick to the parody Twitter accounts.
My focus tonight is the premier of ‘Better Call Saul,’ which will take us back to the world of ‘Breaking Bad,’ riddled with violence, drugs, and pork pie hats. Hiding my excitement is a lost cause because, like any true disciple of Heisenberg, I’ve dearly missed receiving the weekly devotional at the alter of Vince Gilligan.
High hopes aside, I’ve been surprisingly at-ease leading up to this debut when I should have been racked with apprehension. After all, how many times have spin-offs and prequels turned out to be shameless cash grabs that taint the memory of beloved works? Thankfully, none of the buzz surrounding ‘Better Call Saul’ has indicated the type of disinterest or cynicism that hints at disaster. Vince Gilligan and his writing team, mostly comprised of ‘Breaking Bad’ alums, seem to genuinely believe they have a new story worth telling. Nevertheless, some concern is warranted when the stakes are this high for a fan base. Will this series grow the universe of ‘Breaking Bad’ in a new direction or just rest on its predecessor’s laurels? Is there enough meat to the character of Saul Goodman to justify multiple seasons in the spotlight?
The Man, the Myth, the McGill
Alright, that second question doesn’t really need to be asked. Bob Odenkirk certainly put a lot of shtick into his portrayal, but as we’ve seen, there’s an underlying desperation and cowardice to the character that makes for a highly unusual protagonist. That said, I can’t pretend I didn’t also want to see the flashy persona. Fortunately, if the pilot says anything about the character, it’s that he was always the slimy Saul Goodman we know and love, even when he went by Jimmy McGill. It was immensely liberating to realize that this character arc will not just be a decent man’s fall from grace. That counts twofold in favor of ‘Better Call Saul;’ it indicates a unique and nuanced journey for our sort-of-hero and kills any notion of retreading the story of Walter White.
The progression that I can’t wait to see is how McGill/Goodman’s motivations for being this character within a character change throughout the story. Viewers are mostly familiar with a blindly amoral lawyer constantly chasing his next paycheck. Yet we start this journey seeing him place high value on family ties. Money, which he still pursues voraciously and unscrupulously, is the means to the end of caring for his infirmed older brother. This unexpected bond sets up the potential for an interesting and unique tragedy. If Saul loses the person closest to him, will he have anything left but the hunger for wealth and prosperity?
Homage or Hindrance?
I could wax philosophical about sleazy characters with bizarre comb overs all day, but we should address the elephant in the episode. Do the inevitable ‘Breaking Bad’ references and additional tie-ins serve as clever mementos to fans or prevent this series from finding its own groove?
Jonathan Banks’ cameo as Mike Ehrmantraut was impressively benign. He spends a few seconds giving Jimmy a hard time from his parking lot booth, and that’s that. The show didn’t even shoehorn his name or a story from his policing days into the conversation. Given his association with Saul in ‘Breaking Bad,’ we will obviously see more of him sooner or later, but I praise Gilligan et al. for giving Mike’s incorporation into the story a slow build.
The nail salon was a fantastic little reward for the ‘Breaking Bad’ faithful. It was always perplexing why Saul had pushed such an establishment so heavily on Walt. Now we must wonder no more, as nail salons are a vital part of Saul Goodman legal career.
Finally, we have Tuco. I emitted such a gasp of joyous disbelief when I saw that festive sleeve leading to the gun pointed at Jimmy’s face. Who else could it possibly have been? And what better way to convey how over his head Jimmy is with his skateboarder scam? The bad news is the character’s reveal was also the episode’s cliffhanger, both for the plot and for the question of how well ‘Better Call Saul’ stands on its own. Tuco’s role in episode two will be the litmus test to see if the ‘Breaking Bad’ fan favorite will bring something new to the table or just remind us where the whole story eventually leads. The good news is we only have to wait until Monday evening to find out.
Like I said, it didn’t take much for me to be sold on the idea of this show. Everyone involved, from the creator to the star, seemed excited to be on board. This pilot demonstrated that earnestness. So while my critique will continue following the premier of tomorrow’s followup episode, I’m ready to invest in ‘Better Call Saul,’ both as a fan of ‘Breaking Bad’ and a supporter of good television.