“Better Call Saul” kicks off the show strong and shows once again that Vince Gillian and Peter Gould know what they’re doing. This was a show that I was a little worried about going in, especially when there was early talk about it being a comedy. Gillian can do comedy well but he is so much better at drama and tackling the shades of grey or moral decisions and choices. This is a huge part of why “Breaking Bad” is one of my favorite shows, besides how well the character arcs are handled and the beautiful writing and cinematography…all of which “Better Call Saul” has, though it is much more focused in it’s narrative than “Breaking Bad” was.
Before I go into more detail, this review does contain SPOILERS for both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” since for me they shows inform each other, and not just because “Better Call Saul” is a prequel spin-off. There are some of the same characters and we get their backstories and also very similar themes too, though they are handled differently than the Fall of Walter White as Jim McGill (Saul before he was Saul Goodman) is a very different person. Also, as a side note I will eventually be reviewing “Breaking Bad” in full here on the blog.
The story is that of James “Jimmy” McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) and begins after “Breaking Bad” where he now works at a Cinnebun and has a whole new persona and identity. He is sad and you see him watching his old “Saul Goodman” commercials before we get a flashback to before to 6 years before “Breaking Bad” began. It is here Jimmy is a small town lawyer and ex-con artist who is trying to make his way in the world while dealing with the shame of his brother Chuck (Michael McKean)who is paranoid and successful, his brother’s firm “Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill” where his friend Kim works and where he wants to be a part of, as he worked in the Mail Room when he left the scam artist track and now cares about law. From here things unfold as secrets are revealed and Jimmy must choose what type of lawyer and man he wants to be.
The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is once again beautiful. The wasteland of the desert and isolation of the characters (especially Jimmy) is presented really well. I’d expect nothing less from the creators of “Breaking Bad” though. “Breaking Bad” always looked great and cinematography was used to present the themes of falling and brokenness really well, which “Better Call Saul” does in it’s own way too. Whether it’s Chuck’s fear when he goes outside and making the camera be from his point of view where everything is loud and bright or everything is in darkness, which is how Season 1 was filmed.
The Soundtrack – The country western theme is worked into it really well but there are also some great instrumentals too. The use of “Smoke on the Water” at the end of the series was great as well to show the choice that Jimmy makes. Dave Porter did a fantastic job.
The Writing – The dialogue is witty (again Gillian so wouldn’t expect any less) and there are great back and forths with anyone who Jimmy interacts with. Be it the nail salon owner, Kim, Chuck or his Old Testament like speeches to the law firm “Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill.” The script is also subtle too. When Churck admits that he’s ashamed of Jimmy and thinks he’ll always be a con, Jimmy silently leaves. It’s a powerful scene and the most you see is that he’s about to cry, but never fully does. It’s beautifully done and we see quite a few scenes like this where no dialogue needed because it was written and directed so well.
The Characters – The characters are all 3-Dimensional, with the exception of the gangsters who we haven’t really got to know. But the people at the law firm, the friends of Jimmy…none of them are simple. There are conflicts in the choices they make and it defines them in really interesting ways.
Mike Ehrmantraut – Mike is back from “Breaking Bad” and we get his backstory in this. In this we see that he’s a cop killer who killed the cops who were going to kill him and who had killed his son because after he’d convince his son to be corrupt his son had questioned, and that was enough for the cops to end hi. This leads to an investigation and he tells his Daughter-in-Law about what happens, as well as getting help from Jimmy against the Philadelphia detectives. In the end we see more of his road to Gus as he takes jobs as a bodyguard for people trying to stay under the radar and uses the money he has to care for his Grandkids. He’s a great character and has the defining quote of the series:
“I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other, but if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.”
Jonathan Banks continues to bring such depth to this complicated character.
Kim Wexler – Jimmy’s friend in the law firm and the person who he helps and who helps him a lot as he is getting on his feet as a lawyer. They’ve known each other a long time and she’s always celebrated his successes. Her choice is that between ambition (the partner track on the firm) and working directly with people the way Jimmy does. She chooses the partner track, at least for now and she wants to work with Jimmy as equals and has since he passed the bar. Rhea Seehorn is great in this role. She is Jimmy’s moral compass a lot of the time.
Chuck McGill – Jimmy’s paranoid brother who is a “Do it yourself” conservative type who looks down on those he sees as lazy, while not fully accepting that he is living on handouts from Jimmy and the company because of his paranoia of light and electricity. His character is tragic in this way as we see him working directly with Jimmy on a few cases, but we soon learn it was all for his own end as after he got Jimmy out of jail he never saw Jimmy as anything other than a crook. He’s a powerful character and much of what Jimmy does is a reaction to him or his firm. His character’s change is getting used to light again, or trying too, before retreating back indoors right around the time that he admits he is ashamed that Jimmy is a lawyer and doesn’t believe is a real lawyer at all. Michael McKean does a wonderful job in the role.
Jimmy McGill – Bob Odenkirk owns this role. Jimmy is complicated. He starts out as the man who loves the joy of the con and wants easy and fast money but soon finds himself becoming a hard worker as he’s trying to make his own success and join his brother’s law firm on his own terms. He makes a lot of tough choices but is shown to have a good moral core as returns the stolen money that he was bribed with by clients and he saves the life of two other cons from Tuco at one point too. He has an awareness of others which makes a good lawyer and con artist. So much of his motivation initially is to do the right thing, impress his brother and become a lawyer in his brother’s firm. It is after he realizes it was never option and his con friend dies during their lost con together that he decides he will make his own path and get money whenever it’s offered after he rejected the chance for wealth tied to firm connected to his brother’s firm. His character is conflict over every decision he makes as he knows easy ways and how to connect with people but continues to be screwed by those closest to him making him resent the ones who have shaped him into the good person he was. What type of crook he will be remains to be seen but Mike’s quote applies to Jimmy big time.
Themes – Isolation (the McGills), betrayal (Jimmy on a few occasions as a con and when he does the right thing with the money, as well as Mike’s backstory), darkness and and light (extremes) and ambition (the McGills and Kim). Were the major ones I noticed.
The Message – The message is in Mike’s quote. You can be a good person whether you are a criminal or with the law, the important thing is will you choose to be? In the end Jimmy is shown to have a greater moral character than Chuck who could not forgive and looked down upon the person who was doing the most for him. This leads to Chuck being further isolated, just like when Jimmy lashes out he gets isolated from his friends too. There is also the warning that easy paths have greater trials later. The issue surrounding the stolen money leads to an episode arc where they have to steal the money from the family to force them to take the deal with Kim’s firm which will save more of them rather than them (The Family and Jimmy) going to jail. This happens a few other times too. The fast money of the underworld can lead to great rewards but very large falls which I think is something Jimmy may have forgotten at the end because he is reacting so strongly to his brother’s betrayal. These themes of goodness not defined by role and the danger of the fast track were the major messages of Season 1.
Okay: Nacho Varga – A criminal who works with Tuco but is trying to go his own way. We see this when he saves Jimmy’s life and wants the money from the family Jimmy was trying to con and we later see him keep his deal when the client Mike is protecting delivers him the pills. He’s smart but I haven’t seen kindness. Tuco cares for his family but what does Nacho care about? This is why he isn’t a pro.
Hamlin – Hamlin is presented as a tool and as the character we are supposed to hate as he is the will of Chuck we learn. He always like Jimmy but because of Chuck could never express it or show it as Chuck didn’t want his brother to be a lawyer. He’s very distant from everyone until he opens up about how much he respects Jimmy. I’m still putting him as okay because I would have liked to see more of that and I don’t know his motivations or why he likes Jimmy.
If you liked “Breaking Bad” you will probably love “Better Call Saul.” Season 1 was much more solid than early “Breaking Bad” and was defined by drama that didn’t often involve life and death situations. This gave time for the show to be introspective in ways “Breaking Bad” early on wasn’t able to be. This is one thing I love about this show and if it can sustain this and Gillian and Gould know where they are taking the show, this could possibly surpass “Breaking Bad” in story and quality. It is still the beginning though, which means the arc could go in any direction. We are afterall, still 6 years before the events of that show, which gives us a lot of ground to cover.
Final Score: 9.6 / 10.