“Wouldn’t you rather build your own identity?” a man asks struggling Albuquerque attorney Jimmy McGill. “Why ride on someone else’s coattails?” The same questions could be directed toward AMC, the network that decided to fill the Breaking Bad-sized hole in their schedule with a spin-off of their Emmy-winning series. However, from the opening minutes of Better Call Saul, what seemed at first like a wacky expansion option that could not possibly live up to its source could just be what the network needs to recover from Walter White’s exit.
This pilot is all about re-introducing a character we only thought we knew from his sly appearances as Walter White’s slimy attorney on Breaking Bad. The first hour of a special two-night premiere began with a stark, stunning cold open. It shows a tragic epilogue to the events of Gilligan’s prior series, as sad-sack manager Saul kneads dough underneath an unflattering moustache at a Cinnabon in an Omaha shopping mall. (Breaking Bad devotees likely smirked at the sight of the fast food chain, given Saul’s prediction at the end of that series.) As the lyrics of the song go during this melancholy, black-and-white opening, “I’ve searched only to find, address unknown.” The man who used to be Saul Goodman is still searching for something: an antidote for the humdrum rhythms of working-class life. The answer comes in the form of a videotape with a “Better Call Saul” advert on it.
Bob Odenkirk spends the first five minutes of this series in complete silence. He watches over his staff, returns to an empty home, tends to a drink, shuts his blinds and digs for the traces of his former self. As soon as that tape begins playing, Saul’s face dissolves into a look of wanting and regret, the glimmer of light from the screen a lone source of color in an otherwise grey existence. In an image that may not have the iconic stature or longevity as Walter White staring down the desert with a gun in tighty whities, but just as much resonance on the series that follows, Jimmy McGill slowly comes into focus as he revisits his Saul Goodman commercial. Breaking Bad’s run stayed with viewers for its stunning character transformation, and Better Call Saul makes a similar promise. Gilligan and Peter Gould promise to show how this man made a name for himself, in more ways than one.
From this initial flash-forward, we push back to the early 2000s, when Saul Goodman was the less legendary Jimmy McGill. Jimmy drives an ugly car (a banana yellow Suzuki Esteem), he really doesn’t like his job and can’t seem to make ends meet. However, he finds salvation and some possible business dealings with some unlikely, potentially not-so-obedient youth. (Remind you of any small-screen protagonists from the last few years?)
Jimmy McGill is not yet the man we know and love, but he clearly yearns to be a suave speaker on the courtroom floor and a man who pockets more than $700 for a trial involving trespassing (and some rather lurid promiscuity with a corpse). Juries have a hard time hearing his hollow argument, though, despite Jimmy’s verbal acumen. He is also living under the shadow of his brother, Chuck (a brilliantly cast Michael McKean), a lawyer with an illness related to some sort of electronic hyperactivity who has taken time off work.