Jimmy is trying to make a name for himself, but he is not quite at the point where he can seal the deal with potential clients. He has Saul’s shrewd confidence for selling his services to those who may be interested, but he doesn’t quite have the reputation (or the resolve) to complete the sale. Odenkirk has a hard time suppressing a grin when a potential client clicks his pen with intention to sign, but that soon fades when the client’s wife, Betsy, explains that they will need more time to think it over.
Holding all of the mayhem together is Odenkirk, given the chance to expand his dramatic range in more quiet, contemplative moments, like the aforementioned scene in the cold open, as well as during a smoke break outside of his brother’s firm. The only vulnerability he showed on Breaking Bad was in opposition to the mad demands of his kingpin client. Here, as a man trying to get his career in order, his character also happens to be someone we can root for.
If we can glean anything from this strong opening episode, it is how the Odenkirk’s gravitas should make this series work, driving deeper than an offbeat comedy with the same character could. When trying to recruit two con artist skateboarders (also twins) to help him make some money – they will fake injuries and he will split the earnings from the impending lawsuit – he even tells them a story about a man who grew up in a small town in Illinois named ‘Slippin’ Jimmy.’ “Everybody wanted to be his friend,” he explains. What could have been delivered with gusto feels more grounded as Odenkirk makes the viewer peer into Jimmy’s broken soul. (Unlike Walter White, his plan with the con artist twins is quickly bungled. The kids hit the wrong car with their boards – and it belongs to someone related to a very familiar face from Gilligan’s prior series.)
Some of Saul’s quirks that audiences know and love are present within Jimmy, such as his pop culture callbacks – here, it’s a reference to the boastful Ned Beatty in Network’s boardroom scene. As much as he would prefer to talk over the head honchos at Chuck’s firm in that scene, as Saul would try to do wholeheartedly, Jimmy knows his place at Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill. Unlike the blowhard we met on AMC’s previous Emmy winner, Jimmy is also cheap enough to try to avoid paying a $3 toll while leaving the courthouse. (The phantom in that tollbooth, meanwhile, is a certain Mike Ehrmantraut.)
Meanwhile, much of “Uno” gets its discomfiting chuckles from just the detail to setting. Jimmy’s office, located at the back of a nail nook, is stuffed with icky furniture, and doesn’t have space, lighting or much of a ceiling. The set decoration expresses the dire straits the character is in just as much as the actor’s peeved expression. The cozy courtroom near the start, with creaking wood, whirring air-conditioning and terrible acoustics – not to mention the poorly-lit bathroom where Jimmy practices his closing argument – shows the squalor of justice than McGill must contend with at this stage in his career.
Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul aspires to be a show about how a sad-sack transforms into a man of power and control. The decision to give the character his own series – and one featuring his now-iconic catchphrase – was met with some trepidation, considering Odenkirk has had more prowess as a character actor more than as a leading man. Regardless, the pilot does a remarkable job bringing insight and emotional nuance to a man we only thought we knew. Filled with the ethos of a character we love but with a harder emotional impact than expected, Better Call Saul begins with a very promising first hour.