Airdate: February 8, 2015
Directed by: Vince Gilligan
Showrunners: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould
Written by: Vince Gilligan (creator) & Peter Gould (creator); Vince Gilligan (written by) & Peter Gould (written by)
There was a fair degree of anticipation going into last night’s pilot episode of Better Call Saul, the latest outing by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, late of Breaking Bad success and adulation. Gilligan, who got his start with Chris Carter co-executive producing (and by 2000 executive producing) The X-Files, proved his chops beyond question with his masterful (and, according to many, best show of all time) turn creating and helming Walter White through his five years of transformation. One of the more interesting characters from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman [Bob Odenkirk], White’s slick, slimy, and ethically challenged lawyer, is now getting his own prequel series. So, how well did the pilot do to capture our attention in a post- (or, in this case, pre-) Walter White world?
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Better Call Saul Season 1, Episode 1 “Uno” will discuss events and plot points revealed in the episode – do not read through if you don’t want to be spoiled!>>
The pilot opens in stark black and white, at a Cinnabon in a desultory mall in Omaha, Nebraska – apparently, Goodman’s departing words from New Mexico were prescient. This is the post Walter White world, a world where Saul Goodman no longer exists. The caring focus on the little details – the nondescript name tag on his breast (“Gene” is his new name), Goodman’s sparse hair under his bankers hat, the slow mixing of dough in the back of the shop, the perky young female co-worker spreading frosting – all add to a quietly desperate sensibility to the show’s first five minutes. When we see him go home to a small apartment (it appears to be in a motel), and sit down in front of the TV to watch a VHS tape of his old Saul Goodman television spots, the sense that this man is completely lost hits home. It’s a great opening, and gives us (especially those that haven’t yet finished watching Breaking Bad) a chance to gain perspective on a little of what has come before.
We skip back to show-present, set in 2002. This is seven years before White meets him, allowing Gilligan and Gould an opportunity to really explore this character. In an unusual move, AMC has already committed to two full seasons for the show, so along with the ten episodes we’re going to get now, there’s another thirteen ordered for early 2016. This gives plenty of time and space for creative movement, and, one would think, slow character development; but the showrunners don’t take much time to pause here.
We quickly see how desperate Saul’s life is here, as well. He still has his birth name, Jimmy McGill, and he’s a struggling lawyer making peanuts working as a public defender. We open on a courtroom, with three young defendants sitting alone, their lawyer mysteriously absent. The court sheriff goes to the men’s room, where we see Jimmy gesticulating grandly and talking to the urinals, practicing his closing arguments. The shots are loving, and focus on the grittiness and ugliness of even the banal: a rumple in his suit, a urinal cake beside a puddle of urine on the floor. It’s these small details that show us we’re living in a less than perfect world, where things are kind of coming apart at the seams.
Turns out, these three young men, who Jimmy tries to characterize as misguided youth, are on trial for having sex with a corpse – and then, the corpse’s disembodied head. The prosecutor doesn’t even close – he merely shows the jury a video the young perps took themselves. On his way out, Jimmy collects his check – $700 – and then faces an implacable gate guard as he tries to leave the parking lot without enough stamps on his parking ticket. Jimmy yells at him, calling him “Employee of the month,” and then telling a couple of cops to calm down. Odenkirk’s delivery is that of a man on the verge, about to break down at any moment, but somehow just barely holding things together. Oh, and the gate guard? None other than Mike Ehrmantraut [Jonathon Banks].
The stressors keep piling on. The one good possible client (the Kettlemans) he has going gets kiboshed by the wife, who wants her husband to “sleep on it.” His office is in the back of a Korean beauty parlor, with a manager who is angry with him. The office itself is crammed in the back of the store, wrapped around the water heater and furnace. His mail consists of nothing but overdue and cut-off notices, except for one latter from a law firm named Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, which contains a check for $26,000 – a check that he immediately tears up into tiny pieces.
Turns out his brother Chuck (played by an absolutely brilliant Michael McKean), a partner at the firm, is ill, and they are forwarding money to keep him actively on the payroll. Jimmy styles this as an attempt to avoid a buyout situation, something he pushes for when he storms into a boardroom at the firm later that day. Jimmy’s attempts to channel Peter Finch’s Howard Beale from Network fall flat in the room, as the stony faced lawyers look at Jimmy much as one might look at a small insect under the microscope, but with much less interest. Hamlin [Patrick Fabian] is all urbane sensibility, calmly guiding Jimmy back out the door and never losing his temper with a man he obviously views as an ineffectual crackpot. The nail in Jimmy’s coffin happens when he looks down into the lobby as he’s about to leave, only to see Mr. and Mrs. Kettleman coming in to speak with Hamlin – he’s even stealing Jimmy’s clients.
Here, we again see Gilligan’s attention to the small details. When Jimmy arrived in the parking garage, there was a low shot of him from behind an aluminum garbage can with a dent in the side. Now, when we see a distance shot of him arriving back in the parking garage, Jimmy proceeds to kick the hell out of the can – we know he’s been here before, with similar results, and we also know how he reacts to failure. Standing next to the elevators is a woman smoking a cigarette, who, from the innuendo in their brief conversation, may be a former lover. She tidies up the trashcan, as though this is something she has done before. Again, there’s a real sense of this being a living world, where things have happened, and things will continue happening.
Jimmy’s visit to his brother Chuck is a high point of the episode. McKean’s neurotic older brother could be played merely as a set of quirks, but instead the veteran actor brings a solid, desperate humanity that counters Jimmy nicely. They’re both desperate in their own ways, but while Chuck’s fear of electro-magnetism, and undisclosed illness point to a deeper-seated mental illness, he actually seems to have things much more under control than his younger brother. Of course, this control leads to a willful blindness as to what’s happening with his partners at the firm, who are, I suspect, trying to screw him out of his share of the firm, just as Jimmy suspects. The real nail in the coffin for Jimmy is when, as he goes to leave, his own brother asks him to change the name of his law firm – he doesn’t even get to use his own name for his business, as it is confusing potential clients (in this case, the Kettlemans).
Things going from bad to worse, Jimmy makes a fateful decision (sound familiar, Walter White fans?). Earlier in the episode, two young skateboarders tried to scam Jimmy, one jumping out in front of his car and rolling off the hood, while the second filmed it. They try to hit him up for $500, but he calls their bluff, and threatens them in turn. Now desperate, and needing the money the Kettlemans represent, he goes to the local skatepark to find the brothers, Cal and Lars [played by twins Steven and Daniel Spenser Levine]. He makes them a proposition, offering to quadruple their best ever take. He tells them the story of Slippin’ Jimmy, who used to scam people by slipping on icy sidewalks. Of course, this is self-referential, and as with anything Jimmy says, should be taken with a large grain of salt. And, come on, Slippin’ Jimmy? Even Cal and Lars are skeptical.
They do, however, agree to help for $2000. The set-up is that they’ll fake an accident on Mrs. Kettleman’s car, Jimmy will show up, and voila, he’ll be the hero coming in to rescue her from the scammers, getting her as a client in the process.
Things, predictably, do not go as planned. Saul calls ahead to let the brothers know she’s on her way, and they stage the accident to perfection. However, the car, after pausing for a few seconds, squeals off. They call Jimmy, who gets excited – hit and run is a felony, and he can have his cake and eat it too. He asks them to follow her, which they do, and gets the address. The brothers, however, decide they don’t need Saul – they figure they can hit Kettleman up for a huge sum on their own. But when they arrive at the car’s destination, it isn’t Mrs. Kettleman at all. An elderly Hispanic lady gets out, and doesn’t understand anything they say except for dinero. She leads them inside.
Jimmy shows up a few moments later, and bangs on the door. “Officer of the court” he yells, and the door opens – and a massive handgun is pointed right in his face. As he comes inside, we see who holds the gun: Tuco Salamanca [Raymond Cruz]. Jimmy thought he had it bad before.
This was a helluva way to end the episode. Tuco is a huge reveal, and a very big surprise for the first episode. While we know where we’re going – the Saul we know from Breaking Bad has to be created – I was surprised to find him descending into criminality so quickly. His desperation is established early – much like the Episode 101 Breaking Bad scenes with White and the carwash business – and then boom, here’s Tuco. I loved this moment – I actually got chills when I saw who was holding the gun. Jimmy is in way, way over his head. And yet, this is really how Walter White started out as well.
Two men, desperate, unable to make ends meet, turning to criminality in order to survive. We know what this did to Walter White, and we kind of know what it does eventually to Jimmy/Saul as well – but the joy is in the journey. This was an excellent beginning to the show. My father, who has never watched Breaking Bad, was enthralled from opening shot to closing, and while he won’t get the in-jokes and references to the previous show, he tells me that it has immediately got him interested in dialing up BB on Netflix. This goes to show that, while it may be more meaningful for the already informed viewer, it will still be entertaining even for the newcomers out there. Well done.
Steve’s Grade: A-
Odenkirk’s quietly comedic desperation is slightly less dark than Walter White’s, but this should make for a quirkier show. Introducing Tuco right off the bat suggests that things do have the potential to get very dark, very quickly, but only time will tell as we watch one man’s journey from Jimmy to Saul to Gene.