Recurring Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian
Depending on who you ask, Better Call Saul is either a terrific or disastrous idea on paper. The show takes the most loveable supporting character, from the wildly successful yet definitely finished show Breaking Bad, and takes him to his own show, where the hard-hitting yet amusing style of Breaking Bad could live on in Saul Goodman’s shoes. On the other hand, Breaking Bad is one of those perfect shows that feels sheltered in its little space of perfection. Needless spin-offs and cheap references could bring the whole thing down to its knees.
The reality is a bit of both. No, Better Call Saul is nowhere near the standard of Breaking Bad, but it hardly feels painful to watch. In fact, it surprisingly finds a nice average quality, which might only disappoint people who raised their bars far too high to feasibly meet. The big problem the show has is that Saul Goodman, or Jimmy McGill as we learn his real name is here, isn’t as interesting a character as the incredible Walter White. Sure, we like him and Bob Odenkirk commands a powerful screen presence, always watchable whether he is pleading for his life at gunpoint, crawling through a dumpster full of faeces or wooing a retirement home full of potential clients. We are never bored watching Saul Goodman do his thing. The problem is that there isn’t that drive to come back and tune into the next episode. Breaking Bad hit the money and Better Call Saul illustrates how creative a show its predecessor was. The style that Vince Gillian likes is leaving his audience in the dark for as long as possible and the joy comes in piecing what is going on together as the story unfolds. For example, an episode of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul will open with a random scene without context, like a boy out in the desert putting a tarantula in a jar, and that scene would make perfect sense by the end of the episode. The problem with that style is that, as brilliant as it often is, it requires a lot of patience to work. Breaking Bad earned that patience, because it was such an original and powerful story. A man is diagnosed with cancer and turns to crime to leave his family enough money to support themselves. That is an incredible premise, harnessing the family man in all of us and accessing the criminal world in a simplistic and real way that hadn’t really been done before. We didn’t mind the writers beating every plot point around the bush, because the pay-off was always worth it.
Better Call Saul doesn’t quite have that. This is Saul Goodman, before the crime. He starts his story as a low-ranking member of a law firm, who gets together enough funds to start his own lawyer agency and the show depicts him trying to get a career off the ground. With the greatest respects, that is a fairly dull prospect and without the prior knowledge of who the actors and writers are, not many people would have given this show a chance. And I must applaud everyone here for making this drama about lawyers in elder care (there are no meaty courtroom scenes, the law firm mainly dedicated to writing out wills for the infirm), as exciting as it is. Yes, we want to see what happens and it does muster up enough tension and thrills to be classed as decent entertainment. However, when Gillian tries to do his whole ‘wait until the bigger picture kicks in’, thing, it doesn’t work, because we already know the bigger picture. There isn’t some twisting, winding narrative to work through; it is, simply put, Saul Goodman’s origin story. The better Breaking Bad directional style that seeps through is the characterisation. The first two major clients we meet are the Kettlemans, who are fantastic as the money launderers who build a lie so powerful they fool themselves with it. Their scenes are dripping with hilarious satire. No character clings to stereotypes (Michael Mando is perhaps the one loose end, not quite fitting in anywhere yet), and it is fascinating to pick everyone apart. Better Call Saul works best as a character piece and we like Saul Goodman enough to let his story be told, even if it never quite matches Breaking Bad for excitement.
But then there is Mike Ehrmantraut. When he shows up, Better Call Saul improves dramatically. Jonathan Banks was always the dark horse of Breaking Bad, the endlessly resourceful criminal who does all of the dirty work without breaking composure. His origin story is twice as interesting as Saul’s, mainly because we never scratch the surface of it. He doesn’t do much for the first half of the show, merely cameoing from time to time and providing some good jokes, especially as we all know how Saul Goodman’s and Mike’s relationship grows. Then, halfway through, Saul is put on the backburner and Mike gets a whole episode as the lead star. It is the best of the season. Jonathan Banks acts as he has never acted before, allowing us a rare peek under his cool nature, as he unloads on his daughter-in-law (played by Kerry Condon, an actress who is slowly working her way onto my radar). From then on, Mike and Saul’s stories continue, isolated except for chance encounters and the series feels better for it. The lawyer stuff is fine, especially when a twist comes in at episode nine (the twist is easy to see coming, but the motive for it is the shocking part), but it is always nice to know that you will have a scene with Mike overseeing a drug deal just around the corner. No, Better Call Saul isn’t as great as we want it to be, and a finale which almost breaks entirely from the main plot is something that could have worked with Walter White, but not quite yet with Saul Goodman, but it isn’t as bad as we all expected it to be. The jury is out for the time being. No more questions, your honour.
Final Verdict: Bob Odenkirk keeps a fairly rote story surprisingly entertaining, although Jonathan Banks deserves a fair share of the success too.