Rich character study? Black comedy? Better Call Saul!

By Ben LaRoche ’15

Bob Odenkirk stars as Saul Goodman in AMC's "Breaking Bad" spinoff, "Better Call Saul."

Bob Odenkirk stars as Saul Goodman in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”

For years, AMC’s flagship show “Breaking Bad”  dominated ratings, reviews, and coffee break conversations alike. It was undoubtably a smash hit and its enormous impact left many of us with a deep entertainment void. Would another show be able to fill the huge gap “Breaking Bad” left behind after its departure? Well, “Better Call Saul” is taking on the challenge.

“Better Call Saul” is a prequel series to “Breaking Bad” that focuses on fan-favorite character Saul Goodman, long before he was helping Walt launder money. Saul is still a struggling young(ish) lawyer who’s just trying to make a living using his half clever, half scummy (and almost lovable) tactics to win over the judge and jury.
Naturally, I was on the fence when the show was first announced. Spin-offs have the reputation of being money grabs, always trying to bank off the success of their predecessors, but I had a little more confidence in this one as the original “Breaking Bad” writers were coming back, along with head writer Vince Gilligan. Their work on “Breaking Bad” was more than enough to convince me that these people were seriously talented, and I was willing to give them a chance.

The first episode begins with a black and white scene that is presumably post-“Breaking Bad.” Saul can be seen, clad in a mustache, working at a Cinnabon in a mall. The somewhat depressed-looking Saul notices a customer staring at him from across the restaurant. The man starts to approach and Saul is getting noticeably more nervous as the man approaches. It turns out the man wasn’t even looking at him, just some people standing behind him. It then cuts to Saul in his home, watching his old television ads on a VHS tape that he had hidden in a crawl space. The events that occurred in Breaking Bad clearly have left him paranoid and scared, as they rightfully should.

The opening tune then plays and we get to see Jimmy McGill (he hasn’t adopted the name Saul Goodman yet) defending three college kids in court. After putting a pretty decent defense argument together, it’s completely shut down as the opponent shows a video of the three boys cutting the head off of a corpse and proceeding to, uh, do things to it (or at least we find that out later). Obviously, Jimmy lost the case. The kids went to prison and he only received a measly $700 for his work. It was a darkly comedic scene that did a good job of getting me hooked early on.

The next scene reintroduces other fan-favorite character, Mike Ehrmauntraut, who’s working his day job as a parking lot attendant. He gives Jimmy a hard time because he doesn’t have a ticket and its all around a funny scene, as Jimmy just blows up at Mike as he doesn’t want to pay a fee. I couldn’t help but think how jealous I was of Mike. Whenever people get mad at me when I’m working, they just swear and act like I’ve offended their mother. Watching Jimmy get mad was just straight up funny.

The following scenes are all character building for Jimmy and just how awful his life is. We get to see how his office is based in the tiny back room of a hair salon (he always tells people his real office is being painted), his car is an old yellow junker with an orange door, his fellow lawyers don’t take him seriously, the house he shares with his brother is out of power and has to use a cooler as a fridge, etc. He is truly down on his luck.

One scene that I thought was particularly great was the scene with the skateboarding twins. Jimmy hits one of the guys with his car and the other one runs up and asks him how he’s gonna fix his brother’s broken leg. Jimmy has little cash to pay for hospital bills and simply asks them what he should do. When the boys ask for $500, McGill wises up to their scam. He kicks the kid in the leg and gives them a whole speech about how stupid they are.
While lecturing the scam artists, Jimmy delivers what might be the best line in the entire pilot. “Does this screaming pile of crap scream payday for you? The only way this car is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it.”

After a barrage of various personal and professional insults, including getting his clients stolen out from under him by his colleagues and his sick brother going to another lawyer for help instead of Jimmy, McGill snaps and decides to—drumroll please— break bad with the two skateboard con artists from earlier by recruiting them to do a con with him.

The scam is meticulously planned by Jimmy but they have end up winging it anyway. After one of the boys pretends to be hit, the driver speeds away instead of stopping to see if the boy is all right. This is all the better for Jimmy and the boys, as a hit-and-run can yield just as much cash, if not more, than just scamming it off the person. The boys follow the senile old woman who hit them home and demand that she pay for his “broken leg.” She brings them inside so that her son can help her out.

Cut to Jimmy, who’s managed to make his way to the home of the old women and proceeds to bang on the door, asking to “Open up in the name of the law.” The door opens and before Jimmy can get a word in, a revolver is shoved in his face and a hand rips him inside the house. The assailant pokes his head out of the house and is revealed to be the infamous Tuco Salamanaka, the main villain of the first season of Breaking Bad. Then, the episode is over.

Episode one of Better Call Saul left a pretty fantastic first impression. It felt just like I was watching Breaking Bad again. It didn’t feel like it was mooching off of its big brother’s success at all. Everything felt very self-contained, like it was truly trying to find its own way.

My only complaint is that Jimmy seems to have adopted some Walter White-like qualities. His tendency to get irrationally angry and lose his temper in public, regardless of how silly he looks, is something Walt was almost famous for. For all I know, Jimmy may very well have been like this before and I just didn’t notice as he was only a side character.

From the unique camera angles, to the eccentric, short-tempered main character, to the believable and entertaining dialogue, “Better Call Saul” is fantastic character study so far. If Vince and his team keep this up, they may very well have another hit on their hands.

Episodes of “Better Call Saul” are available for free streaming on AMC’s website for up until a month after they are released. It’s also available for purchase on Amazon and the entire first season will be available on Netflix once it has finished airing.

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