by: Michael Shields
Vince Gilligan is back at it, shining a light on the early days of Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman….
Admit it, you were nervous. When the news was announced that the team that brought us one of the (if not the!) finest shows to ever grace the small screen was returning with the origin story of everyone’s favorite ambulance-chasing lawyer, Saul Goodman, you had your reservations. It’s fine. Don’t be ashamed. You weren’t alone. The idea sounded fun, sure. But why mess with perfection? A misstep here could conceivably put a taint on that which is immaculate, the unblemished five seasons of Breaking Bad. It is possible of course that worrying about the reputation of a television show is a fool’s errand, but that is how I roll. I lay awake in bed terrified by these sort of ideas. My palms have been sweating since I heard that Harper Lee is releasing a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, and don’t even get me started on the rumors about a new Spaceballs. I, like you, was initially skeptical of a Breaking Bad spin-off.
For perceptions such as these matter to me. Legacy matters. And this is no simple television show, this is Breaking Bad, one of the greatest stories ever told. So, when word spread like wildfire about Vince Gilligan’s decision to fuel our insatiable appetite for all things Bad, devotees were of course, ecstatic. But many more were left to wonder: Does Breaking Bad really need a prequel? Could the tale of Saul Goodman and his rise from an impoverished public defender to a virtuosic criminal consultant live up to the rise and fall of Walter White? The answer, after the first two episodes, “Uno” (directed by Vince Gilligan) and “Mijo” (directed brilliantly by Michelle MacLaren), released back to back on Sunday and Monday, is a resounding Yes!
Spin-offs are a tricky game. You have to go back to Frasier to find one that was truly well regarded. But while extremely successful, as a die-hard Cheers fan I couldn’t stomach Frasier. His solo act just didn’t cut it for me. I yearned for the days of yore with the whole band: Sam, Woody (or Coach), Rebekah (or Diane), Norm, Cliff and Carla, all sitting around the bar and having a laugh. So Saul forging out into the world on his own, one could argue, is a mistake of Frasier proportions. But Saul is not alone. Calculating hustler that he is, he brought some back up. A younger Mike Ermentrout is in tow ((Mike can be seen wearing a shirt with the letters “SMQ” embroidered upon it, an homage to Steven Michael Quezada who plays Steve Gomez in Breaking Bad.)), serendipitously manning the parking lot at the County Courthouse – a true stickler for validation – as is nearly everyone previously involved in the production of Breaking Bad ((Arthur Albert (ER, The Blacklist) will be overseeing the show’s cinematography – he worked on two Breaking Bad episodes, “Confessions” and “Buried,” – and Dave Porter returns to contribute a sparse and often gentle score. Dave Porter scored all 62 Breaking Bad episodes and created its iconic soundscape.)). When Vince Gilligan, the mastermind behind Breaking Bad, and Peter Gould, Breaking Bad’s co-executive producer, writer, director, and the man who created Saul in the show’s second season ((In an episode aptly titled, “Better Call Saul.”)), resolved to linger in the world they so discerningly crafted, it was far from a business decision. Vince and Peter are genuinely excited about the potential for Saul’s origin story ((“If Peter and I are not excited about it then there is no point in doing it. The idea excited both of us, otherwise we wouldn’t have signed on.”)), and thus, what we have here is a passion project from two savants who have already showed us the product they are capable of when inspired about the subject matter. Better Call Saul functions as an opportunity to not only explore Saul’s backstory, but to ascertain what life was like for all the beloved characters of Breaking Bad before the fragmented pieces of Wayfarer flight 515 littered the streets of Albuquerque.
Better Call Saul is set six years before lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) first crossed paths with Breaking Bad’s Walter White. At this point in time Saul is known as Jimmy McGill (“The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak,” Saul would one day tell Walter.), a catchpenny defense attorney who isn’t even respected by the lowly criminals he represents. When when we first catch up with Saul in the opening moments of Better Call Saul, it is one year after Breaking Bad concluded, and we find him working at a Cinnabon in a mall in Omaha, Nebraska – true to the promise of Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode, “Granite State.” The idea of Saul’s Hell being a Midwestern mall job not only serves as a brassy jab at the heartland, but a telling manifestation of how the mighty have fallen. In an intriguing, artistic opening, unfolding without sound and in black and white, Saul lives out his post-”Felina” fate with the mournful notes of “Address Unknown” by the Ink Spots playing in the background, accentuating the realization of his self-imposed vanishing act. Grinding away at a fast-food pastry joint, disguised, and invariably on edge, Saul is lonely and morose, and can only find solace in thoughts of the good ol’ days. Popping in a video of his old ambulance-chasing ads, Saul – like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – is transported to a world of color six years in the past, Jimmy McGill’s world, where things veritably are not much better.
James “Jimmy” M. McGill is a man far removed from the slick-talking, resourceful lawyer who we all fell in love with. Jimmy is a low-level public defender who is forced to sleep on a pull-out couch in his dingy office in the back of a nail salon. On top of that, Jimmy tends to his brother Chuck (an impeccably cast Michael McKean), a former white-shoe lawyer rendered housebound by a phobia of electromagnetic radiation. Jimmy is an insecure, hapless underachiever who can be found psyching himself up in the bathroom mirror, exclaiming “It’s showtime, folks!” ((Like Roy Scheider in All That Jazz.)) and after two episodes, we are left to wonder how a man who can’t even get two teenagers to pay for a windshield they have broken on his car could possibly become Saul Goodman. But therein lies the fun!
“Uno,” the series premiere, finds Saul spinning around Albuquerque in his multi-colored Esteem (a car worth $500 only if there is a “$300 hooker sitting in it”), ineffectually chasing down potential clients, and butting heads with Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian, or as Jimmy refers to him, “Vader”) in search of a seventeen million dollar severance package on behalf of his brother Chuck. This uphill battle for his brother’s compensation whirls Jimmy into a frenzy, and he lets loose his frustration upon a hapless trash can in a scene reminiscent of Walt’s assault of a paper towel dispenser ((In Breaking Bad’s “4 Days Out.”)). This allows us a window into that which will motivate Jimmy, that which will propel him over the edge. And while many of the misfortunes Jimmy faces will come replete with whimsy, there is bound to be pain as well. Misery that you can see in Jimmy’s face when his brother tells him that “Howard would gladly pay for the cost of matchsticks and so on.” And the anguish that you experinece in Chuck’s pained expression when he proclaims to Jimmy, “I’m going to get better!” in a jittery tone that tells you that even he doesn’t wholly believe himself. But Jimmy, as we know all too well from Breaking Bad, is resilient. He’s nothing if not a fighter. And fight he does, as in the waning moments of the opening episode, we are taken on a delightful romp that was fast-paced and humorous, but then became scary as hell, with the reveal of one Tuco Salamanca, who forces Jimmy into his home at gunpoint.
“Mijo,” ((What Tuco’s Abuelita calls him.)) picks-up right there, with Jimmy and the Ginger Twins, a duo of skaters Jimmy enlists, in Tuco’s clutches. Dragged out into the desert, Jimmy sparks to life, appealing to Tuco’s demented sense of justice, helping him forget that two vexatious skate punks called his mother a “biznatch.” The first half of the episode is Jimmy’s pioneering wranglings with the brand of client who will, in time, become his bread and butter, while the second half of “Mijo” serves as a reality check, a reminder that we have a long way to go here. When Jimmy, defeated and desperate, returns to the courthouse in search of work, it is transparent that this type of work will never be enough for Jimmy. But where can he turn? He may have exhibited many of Saul’s most adroit characteristics when arguing successfully to get the twins death sentence reduced to “six months probation,” but he is conspicuously deficient in the volume of nerve required to let go and willingly turn to the dark side ((Leading Saul to drown his sorrows, as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Boulevard de Sueños Rotos)” by Juan García Esquivel guides us through the bar montage.)). Jimmy is fighting tooth and nail for his soul, a battle we are well aware that he will ultimately lose. But it’s the manner in which he loses it where the intrigue resides. In “Mijo,” Jimmy salvages the lives of two petty criminals (the original “Frick and Frack”), which acts as the genesis of his illegitimate dealings. “I’m not a criminal, I’m a lawyer,” Jimmy proclaims despondently, a paradoxical statement from everyone’s favorite criminal lawyer. Nacho (Michael Mando, the manic Vic from Orphan Black), one of Tuco’s henchman, assuredly will become Jimmy’s first felonious client (“I know where to find you James McGill!”), and this is where Jimmy will cut his teeth and garner the experience to become a true player. Brandishing the “James M. Mcgill – A Lawyer You Can Trust” matchbook, Nacho has a hold over Jimmy now, and we can be certain that he will be exploiting this influence as Better Call Saul forges ahead ((The song playing in the nail salon as Nacho is leaving (just before the episode ends) is “Everybody Ciao” by Daniele Benati and Fernando Paterlini.)).
Those in search of Breaking Bad Season 6 will have to continue holding their breath. The aim of Better Call Saul is not to continue Walter White’s story, but to tell a new one. The two programs have similarities of course, as many of the defining characteristics fortuitously are intact – as well as shared characters, locations, and cinematic style – but Better Call Saul is something different. The most applicable description of the show would be comic noir, as there is far more humor present than Breaking Bad, and the tone is far less austere. It’s a welcome reprieve from the asperity that encompassed Walter White’s unraveling in the final act of Breaking Bad.
There are those that assert that Saul was originally introduced to Breaking Bad with comic relief intentions. To allow a smattering of light to finally shine upon a world which had grown increasingly dark and distressing. And inarguably, he did just that. But I contest that Saul was essential to the show’s progress, allowing it to grow from the exploration of two antithetical souls and their low-rent meth dealings, into one about drug empires of such a scale they were domineering over the entire Southwest. It was this, Saul’s ability to open up alleyways into Albuquerque’s seedy, but organized, criminal underbelly, his connections, his know how, that completely opened up the world of Breaking Bad to the expansiveness it encompassed in its final three seasons. And in this light, Saul is the perfect man to perpetuate our continued journey through Gilligan’s and Gould’s Albuquerque. He isn’t the merely the logical choice, but the only possible choice.
What we have on our hands is another transformation story, and it is an extreme understatement to say that Gilligan and Co. absolutely nailed the metamorphosis of “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Like Walt, Saul wasn’t able to make a proper living honestly, something so many of us can relate to. Yet, unlike Walt, Saul isn’t a complete sociopath, a thrill-junkie immersing himself in a viperous drug empire because, as Walt put it, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really… I was alive.” Saul’s launching point is far different from Walt’s in that Jimmy’s moral compass is fractured from the outset. While both shows are animated by the inevitability of their characters breaking bad, Jimmy was already devious at heart. In this way the transformation will be far less dramatic than a mild-mannered chemistry teacher metamorphosizing into a megalomaniac meth kingpin, and because of this the clever subtleties will be more accessible. The edges will be smoother in Better Call Saul, thus allowing for a less tense journey, but one that is just as fascinating, and certainly more playful ((Although the crunch of the twins legs being broken is a sound that I just cannot escape today!)).
It’s beginning to become clear that Better Call Saul isn’t simply just a chance for the show’s creators to loiter in their contrivance, but an encore for their legions of adoring fans whose fanatical affection elevated Breaking Bad to the height of television royalty. For the reappearance of Tuco Salamanca at the close of “Uno” undoubtedly wouldn’t have had the impact that it did if you weren’t well-versed in Breaking Bad’s contentious history. Nor would have the interrogation of Saul before the backdrop of the picturesque desert of New Mexico, where Tuco was interrupted by the same low-level dealer (No-Doze!) who met his fate in Breaking Bad’s “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” for making that very same mistake. Of course, Breaking Bad fanatics would happily pass the time away listening to Saul wax poetically about his fruitful days as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” or watch as he cleverly describes puddles of blood as “salsa stains.” But it is these nods to Breaking Bad’s most cherished of moments, these reminders that the world we are exploring is the same that Walt and Jesse cooked their Baby Blue in, that acts as Better Call Saul’s ace in the hole. It is an opportunity to spend more time with Mike, with Tuco, and with whomever else Vince and Peter allow us to revisit. And if per chance these moments don’t resonate with because you decided to take on pass on Gilligan’s opus, then that is on you. And if that is indeed the case, I am not sure you deserve Better Call Saul anyways….