Better Call Saul: Season 1

Better Call Saul was a show that I had little use for when it was initially announced. It seemed like a decision that was purely monetarily-driven and not creatively-driven. A sad attempt by AMC to keep capitalizing on the skyrocketing popularity of Breaking Bad in its final run. A rather ill-defined show about Saul Goodman --- a character that often worked best in small comic-relief doses --- didn’t inspire much confidence or interest from me. Whatever it turned out to be, I planned to give the thing a pass. But then they announced that the show would sort of be a Breaking Bad prequel and would include Jonathan Banks, reprising his role as Mike Ehrmantraut, the Fixer. “Well, crap. I loved Mike. Now I’m at least going to have to give it a try.”

As the Saul premiere approached, I still wasn’t terribly gung ho about it, Mike or no Mike. But it was going to be sandwiched between The Walking Dead premiere and The Talking Dead aftershow, and I’d be camped out on the couch with my cat anyway, so I may as well give it a whirl. I wasn’t overly impressed with the first hour. I liked the cold open, but the overall pacing was weird and I wasn’t overly engaged by the trials and tribulations of this pre-Saul character, Jimmy McGill. But the hour ended on a surprising cliffhanger that I couldn’t resist, so I was in for the second hour. And the second hour turned out to be a pretty great infusion of all that Breaking Bad goodness that I loved, so I was in for a few more at least.

Some Season 1 spoilers in the next few paragraphs.

Interestingly, the show evolved from that more Breaking Bad-esque second hour into something else entirely. I never really knew what to expect week-to-week. Would it be funny? Dramatic? Is it serialized? Episodic? Is Jimmy a criminal now? A small-time con man? An elder care lawyer? What the ...? Sometimes it was frustrating, with scenes that dragged on for far too long or episodes that felt rather amorphous. Yet, I still found myself getting completely sucked into the overall experience and this new version of the man who will one day become Saul. I started to really care about Jimmy McGill. To see him as a good man struggling to take care of his ailing brother and to stay on the straight and narrow. He wasn’t the slimy, sleezeball lawyer from Breaking Bad, but rather a decent guy trying to rise above his grifter past. Sure, he found himself flirting with ethical lines and helping out the occasional criminal, but on the whole, he was trying to put his legal skills and showmanship to use helping others. Trying to do “the right thing.” All while swimming upstream, because so many in his world refused to recognize his value and worthiness.

Despite some occasionally wonky pacing, the show became for me a beautiful character study, made rather tragic and heartbreaking because we already know much of Jimmy’s trajectory. In so many ways, I now find myself dreading Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman, but knowing it is inevitable. I’ve grown to care about Jimmy so much; seeing him fall that far from the decent, hardworking man he could have been --- and knowing it will be his own choices that take him down that path --- is going to hurt a lot.

I have to give major kudos to Bob Odenkirk, who has been absolutely tremendous showing us all the faces of Jimmy. He’s a brilliant comedian, of course, but it turns out he’s also an incredibly compelling dramatic actor. I doubt very much I would have grown to care about Jimmy as much as I have if Mr. Odenkirk wasn’t investing him with so much humanity and pathos. He is the reason I wanted to cry for Jimmy when he broke down in ‘Bingo,’ angrily mourning his dreams of respectability in the gorgeous corner office. He is the reason I felt absolutely gut-punched by Chuck’s betrayal at the end of ‘Pimento.’ He is the reason I will be coming back to watch Jimmy’s transformation into Saul, no matter how heartbreaking it may become.

End spoilers.

The rest of the creative team and the cast are great as well. The writing team’s focus on character and consequences is everything we’ve come to expect from the Breaking Bad crew. The direction, choreography, and editing are mostly fantastic, except for those scene pacing issues noted earlier (which are entirely intentional, but didn’t always work for me). Michael McKean is wonderful as Chuck, and I really adore Rhea Seehorn as Kim. I was also very intrigued by Michael Mando as Nacho. He commands the screen in a way I wouldn’t have expected from his work as Vic on Orphan Black, and I look forward to seeing more of him moving forward.

And, of course, Jonathan Banks is as marvelous as ever as Mike. He didn’t have much to do in the early going, but his showcase episode ‘Five-O’ was absolutely stellar and well worth the wait. (I highly recommend that anyone who loved Breaking Bad check out this one episode, which filled viewers in on Mike’s past and how he ended up in Albuquerque. Even if you aren’t interested in Saul as a whole, ‘Five-O’ is fairly stand-alone, so you can watch just the one!) I'm looking forward to seeing more of Mike's evolution and the changing Mike-Jimmy dynamic.

Overall, Season 1 of Better Call Saul turned out to be an unexpected treat: an engaging show, bringing depth and humanity to a character I wouldn’t have thought had so much potential, and making me truly invested in his journey, even knowing the depressing destination.

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.


Mark Greig said...

You summed exactly how I've felt about the show, Jess. I was excited about it at first, but I gave it a shot and, despite the flaws you listed, have really enjoyed the first season and hope they mange to iron out all of the creases for season 2 (there is season two, right?). ‘Five-O’ was the absolute standout episode and if there is any justice in this world Jonathan Banks won't be walking away empty handed when the Emmys come around.

Billie Doux said...

What Mark said, Jess. Your review is spot on. I adored the episode 'Five-O' (which I watched because you recommended it to me, Jess) and I can see the quality of the production and Bob Odenkirk's brilliance, but I'm having some issues with the fact that this is a prequel and we know what is going to happen to Jimmy and Mike.

Jess Lynde said...

Thanks, guys! I totally get what you mean, Billie. Knowing where it is going is certainly creating some issues for me, too, but so far it is mostly resulting in a satisfying (if not exactly uplifting) dramatic tension for me. I like being able to fully recognize the points at which they could have maybe avoided their fates, but instead chose the path to the known destination, and to understand the reasons for those choices. I guess I just "enjoy" a good tragedy sometimes. :)

Plus, I'm starting to hope that because we only know where Saul goes to a point (the Omaha Cinnabon), and they've been pretty free with shifting between multiple time frames, that maybe there is still the possibility of an upside or some kind of redemption down the line for Jimmy. (I may be forgetting something from BB that took him a bridge too far for redemption. I've got recency bias working against me.) Obviously, we won't get that for Mike, but I trust this team to make the long journey down rewarding. They've got a good track record. :)

OneOnOne1162 said...

Not to make this a handjob fest, but I too agree with this review on the whole.
I knew it wasn't about money for Gilligan, but it could've still been a bad decision, which is what I feared it would be. I liked Saul but I couldn't imagine him as a show's protagonist. But the approach they took of having the story be about his transformation much like Breaking Bad was about Walter White's was a stroke of genius, in my opinion.
I empathized with Walter White throughout his entire journey, but while I loved his journey, I think I never rooted so hard for Walter as I ended up rooting for Jimmy.