To watch Breaking Bad was to be complicit in one of the most stunning, startling transformations of a character on television, from a meek chemistry teacher to a conniving drug kingpin. In comparison, its spinoff series seems to be less about the narrative that Saul wants to spin to a crew of amateur university journalists – that he believed in the American Dream and worked to make it come true – than the same, status quo personality he retained over many years in the pursuit of beer money.
Saul began as a ruthless con artist and grew into a more ruthless con artist, although one with finesse, power and clients. “Hero” is the best hour of Better Call Saul yet, mostly because it strays very little from the Saul Goodman we love and (sort of) know. How fitting that as soon as Jimmy McGill starts trying on three-piece suits and requesting Tasmanian wool from this tailor that Odenkirk starts fitting right back into the slick, sly motor-mouth that we loved on Vince Gilligan’s earlier series.
Like its precursor, Better Call Saul is showing off some memorable cold opens that play with time. “Hero” begins several years earlier, as Slippin’ Jimmy and pal Stevie (Kevin Weisman) look for after hours drinks, find a wallet belonging to a passed out drunk in an alley and decide to make away with the cash and the man’s watch. It turns out the whole miraculous discovery of the wallet is a con, organized by the mysterious alley man – one whose frequent use of the word “butthole” was not as amusing as it was safe for AMC – and Jimmy. Stevie is the mark and Jimmy plays his part with just the right amount of nervousness and naivety to eventual con his greedy friend. Even though he pockets close to $600 from Stevie, Jimmy admits that the money is really going to temporarily support his substance abuse habits.
The opening sets up a few things that will show up during the rest of the episode, including the protagonist’s questionable spending habits and his smooth transition to playing a variety of different roles. Jimmy can start turning into the man that will be Saul Goodman – the cold open even blatantly explains the genesis for that name – due to a payday in the tens of thousands from the Kettlemans. In the New Mexico woods, though, Saul fails to get any traction with the husband and wife, since they believe he’s the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.
The Kettlemans’ bribe tempts him, unsurprisingly, and so he pockets a bit of the dough. Jimmy decides to use this gift to boost his credentials in a law market controlled mostly by the monopoly at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Jimmy tries to usurp some of his foe firm’s client base through a prominent billboard, featuring Mr. McGill wearing a sharp blue suit and Tony Bennett perm, looming over the highway. However, the font and presentation in the ad are a clear imitation of the posters for Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Despite his iconoclastic stature in the community, Jimmy wants to pander to clients who can pay him more reasonably, and piss off his rival.
Where Breaking Bad’s look was spare, Better Call Saul is sunnier. The exotic colors of everything from the deep orange dress shirts Jimmy eyes and the glowing neon and wallpaper from inside the nail salon that still houses his office speaks to the flamboyant tone of the series. (One could not imagine Bryan Cranston wearing the garish striped shirt that Odenkirk dons in the flashback.) Jimmy relishes his fancy way with words, more off-the-cuff than the precise Walter White, while Odenkirk’s rekindled panache makes “Hero” a much more enjoyable watch than many early hours of Breaking Bad. The episode is also filled with nifty visual-based humor; such as the identical suits Jimmy and Hamlin wear in their meeting with the attorney to deal with the billboard.