[Review] - Better Call Saul, Season 1 Episode 1, "Uno"

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television.

So, let's get this out of the way: this is a prequel to the enormously popular Breaking Bad, which I adored. This is not Breaking Bad 2.0, or 0.5, or the Electric Boogaloo, or The Phantom Menace. This is Better Call Saul. That is has the same creative DNA, that it shares several characters, that it takes place in that most precarious of places: before established events, it's all secondary. Or tertiary. What matters is that this is it's own thing. At least, that is what should be important. I'll admit, I felt my sphincter clench a little when they started talking about a Saul spin-off, entirely because spin-offs nearly always are terrible. And when they started banding the word prequel around, I got real quiet and real still. Prequels are, by my estimation, the worst thing to happen to fiction since... I don't know. They are the definition of mediocrity, both creatively and narratively. It's a flimsy way of getting to keeping playing in a sandbox that you've been kicked out of. And most of the time, it ain't sand your holding in hands, it's cat piss.

OK, that metaphor went to weird place. My point, in this still introductory segment of the review, is that this episode of Saul at least, doesn't feel like a prequel. It helps that it isn't following the exploits of a young Walter White. It helps that Saul wasn't overly elaborated on in the series, existing entirely in the now of those events. He was the definition of a secondary character. And here, he is the definition of a title character. And all credit to Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk, for managing to take a one-off joke character and parlay him into someone I sudden am very interested in knowing the rest of his story.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which are only worth $500 with a $300 hooker sitting inside.

It won't be a statement of controversy to say that Gilligan's direction of this episode showed all the finesse and deliberation that his work on his former series did. Those opening moments, as "Gene's" life plays out in monochromatic tedium, were as deftly done as anything. That Gilligan's continued presence on Saul will depend entirely on the success of Battle Creek over on CBS shouldn't be too alarming, but maybe we shouldn't get too used to this level of quality. Not so fast, not so soon. We don't want Saul to be prom night, after all. But Gilligan brought all his weapons to bare for this premiere, drawing on his attention to detail, loading the episode with foreshadowing and tonal direction and the kind of later-that-night visual references. Gilligan is a great example of a writer and a director who is talented, but doesn't get too absorbed by understanding that talent. He doesn't chalk his own cue, I suppose.

Who is Jimmy McGill? I'm very interested to find that out. That we know who Saul Goodman was, and that we know where Gene will end up is effectively secondary. At no point in this first hour of the show did Breaking Bad's sequence of events linger on my mind. Perhaps that was because the show went out of its way not to slap the former series in my face, though how much that will remain true as Mike and Tuco take on larger roles remains to be seen. But I was one hundred percent in the moment with Jimmy, a guy down on his luck (and running a might bit close to cliche), trying to do right while fighting the urge to do slightly less than that.

But Jimmy hooked me. And that is all on Odenkirk, who pretty much had to hold this episode up on his own. First episode necessities and all, the primaries were all introduced, but it was Jimmy connecting the dots. Setting up is the hardest part, so we spend some time with the smarmy lawyers, and the crazy brother, and the loser con-men, and they all seem interesting, and I'm looking forward to meeting all of them. But you get the impression that Saul will be a one man up front, everyone else a step behind him, kind of show. No shared centre stage. This is Odenkirk's to make or break. So far, he's making it.

It seems like a lot was put forward in this episode, more than in Breaking Bad's pilot, where it was a pretty straight shot towards getting Walter to cook for the first time. But when you lay things out, this was only slightly more complex. Jimmy's brother, having had some kind of nervous break down, belonged to a law firm which Jimmy wants to bleed dry out of an equal balance need and 100% sincere love for his brother. He is genuinely concerned with Chuck's well being and his not being taken advantage of. On the other side, Jimmy is running dry. He's desperate, and obviously has it in him to play things less then altruistically. But he's a man struggling between what he knows is right and good, and how he knows he can make good quickly. We know he's eventually a man with a plan, but these are early days, and his plans aren't foolproof yet. So we get to see that same transformation that we saw Walter go through, except instead of a good man breaking bad for the right reasons, we'll see a mostly good man skate a fine line for all the wrong reasons.

Saul is, on the surface, a funnier show than Breaking Bad ever was. A lot about the premiere fell ore on the side of comedy than drama. Part of that will be the fact that, at his core, Saul is a jester character, and part of that is that Odenkirk's strengths lay in delivering the funny. Of course, he know he can do the drama, and it's foolish to think it'll be an unbroken string of laughs between here and the finish line. But more than that, I think the show has to be funny, because that opening scene set up the thesis of the show perfectly: it is a tragedy, more so even that the saga of Walter White. Jimmy's story is tragic because we know how it ends, how he looses everything, and how every decision we know he makes gets him closer to that horrible non-ending.

It has to be funny, to off set the fact that we're slouching towards Bethlehem. The highs and lows that the series will bring, which will be no doubt engaging and fulfilling and possibly worth while all end with a sad man sitting alone, watching a VHS of the past. It is a remarkably self-aware way of making use of the problem with prequels, in that we know how it ends. Few other prequels have the awareness, or the skill, to make that ending inform the story that the prequel is telling, to allow that ending to reverse set the tone for all that comes before it. Rather than have the preordained conclusion make the story meaningless, it forces the story to take on greater meaning, even if that meaning is one of ignorant self destruction.

Plus, it gave us what might well be the greatest fictional court proceeding in the history of legal dramas. Those knuckleheads.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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