“Better Call Saul Review”
“Money is not beside the point, money is the point” James “Jimmy” McGill exclaims during a verbal altercation with his father Chuck McGill. Money drives the action throughout the first two episodes of AMC’s newest primetime drama, Better Call Saul. The pilot did not carry the same dramatic weight as creator Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad pilot where Walter White stands pantsless in the desert with a gas mask, but Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul brings its own brand of suspense and excitement to the table.
The Saul Goodman viewers came to know and love throughout 5 seasons of fast-talking and meth making appears to viewers as his former self: an Irish lawyer, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk.), in Albuquerque struggling to make ends meat. The audience first encounters Saul as a public defender representing 3 teenagers. It seems innocent enough, but like its predecessor, Better Call Saul does not shy away from the shocking and disturbing. These three unassuming teenagers sexually defiled the severed head of a cadaver in a private morgue. While this could seem over-the-top, it’s apropos for an audience that watched, glued to their screens, as the severed head of drug transporter “Tortuga” crawled across the desert strapped to a turtle shell.
Better Call Saul lures you in and tells you one thing is going to happen then completely reverses your expectations. This kept me engaged to an extent, but I must confess, I got bored in the middle of the pilot and felt as though I couldn’t identify or feel sympathy for Saul. He doesn’t have a family to care for the way Walter White did so his lust for money is just that: unsubstantiated lust. The stakes seem too low for Jimmy.
But the pilot serves to build up momentum for a significantly better second episode. Yes, the first episode is expository and a bit slow but all the information is pertinent to the plotline of the series. It is vital we know that Jimmy struggles to make money and that once upon a time in Illinois the kids on the block referred to him as “Slippin’ Jimmy” because he used to hustle passersby as he slipped on ice and threatened to sue. Money is Jimmy’s modus operandi, it always has been, it always will be. Anything Jimmy does, he does in pursuit of putting green presidents into his wallet. Luckily, Jimmy believes hustling is what he does best, despite his destitute circumstances, and in his quest for fortune and fame (as much fame as a lawyer can get in Albuquerque) he encounters two bone-headed twenty-somethings as he crashes into one with his car. As he pulls the surprisingly uninjured skateboarding ginger headed brothers into his plot to gain a high profile court case involving embezzlement, everything goes awry.
We begin the second episode with Raymond Cruz reprising his role as beloved Breaking Bad villain Tuco Salamanca. It is roughly 15 minutes before the previous episode ended, but now we see the action occur from Tuco’s point of view. This interesting framing device allows the audience to see into the everyday life of a drug kingpin and his adorable abuelita. As Saul walks into the scene all that’s left of his two fiery headed accomplices is a red stain on the floor. Saul pulls out his only weapon, his words, to prolong his life in the hands of Tuco but finds himself in the middle of the dessert tied up with the skating boarding brothers alive and also tied up. Under pressure and threat of death, Jimmy uses his words to become an FBI agent and then himself once again. Saul does not allow the pressure to affect his longevity. He sweet-talks himself and leaves the desert unscathed, convincing Tuco not to resort to violence because his goal as a drug kingpin should be “all about justice.” In his most successful negotiation yet, he says to the now broken skating duo “I just talked you down from a death sentence to 6 months probation. I am the best lawyer ever.” This is by far the best scene in the two episodes and I suspect there will be many more like it in episodes to come.
With appearances from Breaking Bad favorites like Jonathan Banks as Mike, Better Call Saul seems like it will fill the void that Breaking Bad left after its conclusion in 2013. The cinematography is stunning and the specificity in the images tantalizes viewers and keeps their hands away from the remotes. The acting is more honest than most shows on television right now. These actors are not playing characters: they’re becoming different people. Better Call Saul has big shoes to fill, but I believe it has the potential to. Though Jimmy says at the end of the episode when he is offered a large sum of money to do some dirty work, “I crossed a line…I’m not doing it again, ever” it’s inevitable that the line will be crossed, and I will be watching to see what happens when he does.