A lot can happen in seven years. In 2001 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, no one had heard of Walter White or Jessie Pinkman. No one had yet uttered the name “Saul Goodman.” That man instead went by his birth name, Jimmy McGill.
“Better Call Saul” is Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s prequel/sequel to the smash hit “Breaking Bad.” It centers, as the name would suggest, on the shady lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) who was a consistently entertaining secondary player in Walter White’s meth empire. Saul was often a welcome comic presence, and thus “Saul” enters funnier territory than its predecessor. However, it is no less dark, and Saul/McGill must endure much more dramatic subject matter than he does in “Breaking Bad.”
It takes a lot to make a comedic supporting character a dramatic lead of a show, but Odenkirk pulls it off with elegance. We’ve currently witnessed Saul at three different points at his life, and while the makeup department doesn’t exactly indicate how time has aged the character, Odenkirk certainly does. For an actor who revels in sketch comedy and brilliant delivery one-liners, here Odenkirk is at his best during silent, lingering shots. There was an implied sadness to the nearly-pitiful Saul in “Breaking Bad,” but as we witness McGill’s slow rise to power, the tragedy is much more explicit. McGill, while rarely on the right side of the law, starts the show with a stronger sense of moral integrity. “I’m a lawyer, not a criminal,” he says at the end of the pilot. My, how times change.
There is a pratfall to many prequel stories: we know how they end, and thus there is less suspense. “Saul” circumvents this in two ways. The first is in the show’s opening: We see Saul shortly after the events of “Breaking Bad.” The final ending to his story has not yet been written. Second, Saul’s character starts off so far away from expectations that it’s not entirely clear how he will grow into the character fans know and love. The Saul of 2008 is inevitable but the journey to him is murky, which is territory Gilligan knows and loves.
While a great deal of “Breaking Bad” personnel have returned for “Saul,” the show is more of a cousin than a sibling. The cinematography and setting hint at the old world, but at the same time this is something fresh. A few returning characters from “Breaking Bad” are approached from new angles while showing glimpses of what they will later become. Fan favorite Mike (Jonathan Banks), for instance, is currently a disgruntled parking attendant who for now mainly exists to offer laughs in his exchanges with McGill. There were rumors of having some of the larger names of “Breaking Bad” return for cameos (especially Aaron Paul), and it’s for the best that “Saul” has avoided this, at least for now. While Mike’s inclusion feels natural, other cameos could feel forced, and the show still needs to establish itself as its own entity first.
Perhaps the real interest lies with the new cast, as their fates have not yet been set in stone. Rhea Seehorn shows promise as McGill’s friend, rival, and quasi-romantic interest, while Michael McKean offers something new to the world as McGill’s ailing brother. Their significance to the overall story has yet to be determined, but both show promise. For McKean, the potential lies more in flashbacks than in the 2001 plot. His current situation provides more development for Saul’s character than his own.
So far, the bulk of the storyline has occurred during 2001, and the show has only teased glimpses of Saul in other eras. There is a lot to play with here. Perhaps each season will focus on a particular portion of Saul’s life, both before and after his encounters with Walt. Perhaps the timelines will weave together more as the show continues. Perhaps the glimpses are all they will be: glimpses. In any case, it’s the most exciting trick the show has up its sleeve that “Breaking Bad” did not.
enjoyable in its own right, and it has put a very strong foot forward.not a bad thing at all, because I feel like every year my style has changed, from freshman year, at Wesleyan, and high school.
It would be a disservice to compare this show entirely to “Breaking Bad,” but it is impossible to not do so to some extent. “Saul’s” opening is certainly stronger than its predecessor’s (if also far from the strength of its closing), and it will be interesting to see if it stays on that course. The show has begun to prove that it has its own narrative, but it has yet to prove that it can offer anything other than being an exciting continuation of the “Breaking Bad” universe. So far “Saul” has enjoyed a much slower pace. It will delve into Gilligan’s brand of wonderful upbeat montages, but more often than not it will linger on its scenes, and this has been, for the most part, successful. But this is not yet enough to distance “Saul” from the immense shadow “Breaking Bad” has cast upon it. Perhaps this new show has no intention of leaving it, but “Saul” seems to have more ambition than that, and I’m anxious for it to truly prove itself. Until then, “Better Call Saul” is highly enjoyable in its own right, and it has put a very strong foot forward.