Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spinoff, whose first two episodes aired on AMC last week, opens to a strange world we know nothing about. The setting seems unfamiliar — a bakery named Cinnabon somewhere in the U.S. — but what’s really strange about that world is its central character: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). He’s not the Goodman we knew — a smart aleck buffoon, who was the answer to depraved, helpless Albuquerquians. In the first five minutes of Better Call Saul, we see a Goodman who looks so jaded and dejected that he can’t even help himself, let alone someone else. Goodman has fallen. And what a fall has that been. From being a rambunctious, know-it-all lawyer to a reserved, timid restaurant manager, Goodman has not merely become a different person, he’s switched lives. And that shouldn’t be very surprising, because the last time we saw Goodman in Breaking Bad, he had packed his bags, ready to go to Omaha, Nebraska.
Better Call Saul, then, comments on Goodman’s past and present in an understated ironic manner: the present is listless and dull, even sombre, which is why it’s presented to us in black and white frames; the past, on the other hand (we soon dive into a flashback, which is how the series unfolds henceforth), is much more alive in comparison: it’s anything but sluggish, peopled with go-getters, who are trying to better their lives, avenge their losses, the kind you will find selling or buying a ponzi scheme. But if there’s something that unites these two portions, it’s this: Saul Goodman is missing. Sure, Odenkirk is present in both the segments, but if the guy managing Cinnabon is deprived of an identity (we don’t see anyone interacting with him or mentioning his name), the Albuquerque lawyer, whom we see after the first few minutes, goes by the name Jimmy McGill. But McGill is not the Goodman we know from Breaking Bad; he’s not the Goodman, for instance, who can stand against Walter White, Jesse Pinkman or Mike Ehrmantraut. In fact, forget standing against others, McGill can barely stand for himself.
The most notable achievement of Better Call Saul, at least for now, is that it doesn’t walk into our expectations; it creates some of its own. As if the show is telling us, “Don’t be in such a hurry. The Goodman that you know — the Goodman we all know — will be with you in a while. Till then, watch and engage with his back story; know McGill first to understand Goodman later, notice his lust for money and recognition to truly see how the Goodmans of this world are made.” So, as Better Call Saul’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, would rather prefer, let’s first talk about McGill before we get to Goodman.
Better Call Saul introduces us to McGill, while he’s in the loo, preparing for an already delayed court session. McGill is rehearsing his lines — trying to perfect his pitch, and the tone he will employ to sell his case to the jury. Given his propensity to rattle off details to sell a lost cause, McGill could well have been a salesman, launching into spiels at doorsteps on the magical powers of vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers, or what not, but here he has to rescue three 19-year olds who were caught, well, fornicating with a dead body. McGill tries his damnedest hard, but fails. And that’s his current state: trying, but failing. McGill has also fallen on hard times: he haggles for parking tickets, checks his voice mail in the hope that it may contain one unread message for a case that can change his fortune, tries to not act desperate when a prospective client is about to sign on the dotted line. So when Saul tells his elder brother, Chuck, who’s become unhinged for reasons unknown, that, “Money is not beside the point; money is the point,” you see a man who will do anything to rise above who he’s right now.
Compelling characters, tightly-wound plot, controlled performances — Better Call Saul ticks all these boxes like a diligent event organiser checking his preparations before the big gig. But there’s something else that takes Better Call Saul a notch higher, makes it go beyond the functionary: Arthur Albert’s cinematography. Albert, Better Call Saul’s Director of Photography, stages a lot of scenes using pithy long shots that show how miniscule Goodman has become and, later, how little McGill matters to the sleepy Albuquerque; there are recurring overhead shots, too, exhibiting vast empty space surrounding Goodman/McGill, that underscore his unique isolation; jump cuts lend a droll tone to McGill’s court cases.
The smart, sharp writing ensures that Better Call Saul retains some of the flair of its original — a critical scene in the second episode was shot at the same place that witnessed the showdown between Walter White and Declan (a Phoenix-based meth distributor) in the fifth season, and two important characters from Breaking Bad, Tuco Salamanca and Mike Ehrmantraut, have already resurfaced here. These writing choices keep Better Call Saul just close enough to its predecessor, making us wonder, how, and to what extent, will the two worlds commingle?
While we are talking about Breaking Bad, let’s also get to the inevitable, address the elephant in the room — the question playing in nearly everyone’s mind: Is Better Call Saul better than Breaking Bad? And if that indeed is the question that you want to an answer to, then you are asking the wrong question. Here’s why: a) the most obvious one — give Better Call Saul some time; two episodes are just not enough to deduce anything, the most they can provide is a glimmer of promise, which they have; b) more than rivalling Breaking Bad, it’s imperative to see if Better Call Saul can carry forward Breaking Bad’s legacy — and that will be an impressive feat in itself — because think about it, how many series brim with writing so rich that all they need is the story of just one of its characters to spawn a separate show. So let’s see if Better Call Saul can be that perfect hat-tip to Breaking Bad — a rare series that lived up to and surpassed every bit of hype attached to it — and, if its first two episodes are any indicators, the possibility of that coming true are not slim. Gilligan and Gould have taken up an intimidating challenge. They are not on short on support though: around 7 million viewers are backing them to win.
An edited version of this piece was published at The Sunday Guardian.