Better Call Saul: A Beautiful, Sleazy Symphony

Two nights in a row of Bob Odenkirk’s fast-talking, litigious antics? Don’t mind if I do. Last night I voiced my thoughts on the series premier, but since the second episode aired the very next night, I had to weigh in just as quickly on how ‘Better Call Saul’ stands with less of that new show smell. So, despite the tremendous effort required to remember to refer to the protagonist as Jimmy McGill, I press on.

The Sounds of Saul

I can’t go another minute without talking about the soundtrack in this series. One of the greatest successes of ‘Breaking Bad’ was its widely varied musical selections that were always so perfectly paired to their scenes. That’s one holdover from the predecessor series I’ve been ecstatic to see in both episodes so far.

The cold open flash-forward was accompanied by the Ink Spots’ vintage ‘Address Unknown,’ which mournfully framed Saul’s despondency and faded sense of identity post-‘Breaking Bad.’ Another musical highlight of the premier was the jazz fusion playing during Jimmy and the skaters’ botched auto accident scam. The smoothness of the music only heightened the frantic hilarity of their failure to con the wife of a white-collar criminal.

Last night’s episode continued the skillful pairing of music and drama. Esquivel’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ gave a tune to Jimmy’s confidence boost, gained from surviving and compromising with the crazed Tuco. The vivacious song made even more stark the moment when his celebration was cut short by the unshakable memory of seeing and hearing two men have their legs broken.

McGill hits his stride more permanently performing a ballet of legal maneuvering to Vivaldi, the entire scene a direct reference to the 1979 film ‘All That Jazz.’ Despite the conventionality of the ‘hero getting stuff done’ montage, the story is once again enhanced through contrast with the music. We see that Jimmy finds his own capacity for skill and grace in the dingy courthouse halls, appealing to vanity, laziness, greed or any other vice in order to ease his clients’ sentences and further his career.

Is the Narrative….. Tight Tight Tight?

As joyous of a reunion as it was for viewers, Tuco’s sudden appearance at the end of the pilot one was my one major concern heading into episode two. Would his involvement contribute to Jimmy’s story or dominate the episode with a dramatic attempt to woo the ‘Breaking Bad’ faithful with nostalgia? Here’s where I would normally cite the positive aspects of the character’s role then hint at an insightful caveat to be elaborated on in a paragraph or two. But, by Jove, not one minute of Tuco’s screen time felt like filler or a distraction.

The Tuco Salamanca that we encountered over the past two evenings turned out to be much more than a cut-and-paste job. He showed a more reserved demeanor (by Tuco standards) without distorting the character. This was obviously important during the scene at his grandmother’s house, where he steadfastly maintained his composure around his beloved abuela. This built upon the caretaker role we have already seen him take and allowed us to stay grounded in the environment of the current episode.

Even when he eventually erupted into the familiar rage monster, it played perfectly against the building momentum of Jimmy’s smooth-talking. Even as their negotiations progressed, Raymond Cruz’s Tuco left enough room on-screen for Odenkirk to become the dominating presence. That is, until Tuco began gleefully snapping limbs, going about his business with his distinctive manic laugh. Still, this scene leaves the viewer mainly focused on Jimmy McGill’s moment of self-discovery. Thanks to Tuco complimenting, but not overshadowing, Jimmy’s pivotal experience, we are able to believe and connect with his becoming a more proactive agent for his own success.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Vince Gilligan and his team have given new meaning to the concepts of spin-offs, cameos and origin stories. ‘Better Call Saul’ has settled quite comfortably into a shared universe with ‘Breaking Bad,’ yet stands resolutely unique. Weaving between connections to the prior series and new territory, this show proves that adaptations and prequels can break free from the association with creative apathy and laziness. Admittedly, I jumped in to ‘Better Call Saul’ from the beginning with gusto, largely out of faith in its creators and lead actor. But now that my faith was rewarded in full, I’m in for the long haul. Even though I already know where parts of this story will end, I can’t wait to see how the entire story will lead us there.


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