Better Call Saul 1.1 – “Uno”

While the most obvious question was probably about how to spin a new series out of Breaking Bad, the more infrequent dilemma considered whether Better Call Saul even should be a new series. The idea of fidgeting with Bad at all is a tricky one. If you’re Bryan Cranston it’s probably a tough situation: on the one hand if you’re asked to step into Walt’s shoes again then of course you say yes, but on the other you maybe feel you’ve already done your job. You’ve done your job incredibly well, and a return might threaten to slide you into one-trick-pony status.

Though Cranston’s nowhere to be seen in the opening episode of Saul, Walt’s influence is still apparent. A nifty black-and-white intro is certainly set after the events of Breaking Bad, and we discover that Saul’s prediction about his future employment at a Cinnabon in Nebraska was prophetic. We also discover that the guy fears for his life as he pounds cinnamon into dough hour after hour, catching menacing glances from well-meaning customers. He’s miserable, and it’s both Walt’s fault and his own.

The real influence of Walt and Breaking Bad extends past the Cinnabon scene and into Better Call Saul proper, the story of how Bob Odenkirk’s public defender Jimmy McGill became that plaid-tied legal scoundrel in the first place. Bad is there in every meticulously planned shot, and the visual elements of the spinoff recall the original in the best possible way. The story, too, isn’t altogether unfamiliar: both Walt and Jimmy started as decent guys doing a decent job that simply wasn’t enough. Walt’s cancer gives him an excuse, more or less, to reach for higher heights. Time will tell if Jimmy needs an excuse to transform into Saul, or whether that will be a more gradual evolution.

And I don’t think that black-and-white Nebraska scene was placed there simply to help carry over viewers from Breaking Bad, even though that scene is a perfect little footnote to Saul’s arc in the original series. The important point is that he’s flat-out miserable, and that when we zoom all the way back to a Saul who’s not even Saul yet we find out this guy was pretty miserable to begin with. His office is a shithole, as is his car, as is his reputation, as are his half-cooked schemes. We know that the Saul from Bad is usually a pretty happy dude, for the most part, and so Better Call Saul might concern itself with Jimmy waking up to the potential in the sleazy Goodman persona.

That’s one way to look at it. The other way is just to simply forget any misgivings about a new show using a famous predecessor as a crutch — which is to say that this miserable Jimmy is still the same old Saul. Once he says “The only way that entire car is worth five hundred dollars is if there’s a three hundred dollar hooker sitting in it!” and “Discreet, like a stripper pole in a mosque,” it’s tough to pretend that we’d ever refuse a return to Vince Gilligan’s New Mexico.

There’s a moment where Jimmy glances at a beat-up trash can on his way into an elevator. When he comes back down the elevator after a particularly fruitless meeting he kicks the hell out of the bin, further damaging it as he’s clearly done before. It recalled the paper towel dispenser in the public restroom of Breaking Bad, the one that Walt beats to hell and then sees again years later, still deformed. More importantly, it recalled Bad‘s ability to tell a story without saying anything, and if Saul retains a fraction of that then we’re in for a good ride.

I hope to one day refer to Better Call Saul simply as Better Call Saul, instead of referring to it as the Braking Bad spinoff, but for now I’m content to enjoy it as an expansion on the story we already know. I’d also like everyone to know that I had a shirt that said “Better Call Saul!” long before the spinoff was even announced, but I can’t find it now.

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