*includes minor spoilers
Finally, we have a hero, and his name is Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman.
Rarely have my expectations been so far exceeded as they were by Better Call Saul, AMC’s spin-off prequel to the brilliant, dark and darkly comic Breaking Bad. When rumors about the new show first circulated, it sounded like a joke: Saul was Breaking Bad’s light relief, its comic turn – what sort of leading man could he make? I feared wackiness and slapstick, or an only-for-nerds fan fiction effort, stocked full of cross-references and inside baseball nods and winks. Breaking Bad had the rare distinction of a truly satisfying ending, but with this potential development its memory seemed at serious risk of being sullied.
Well, I should have had more faith in Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and their writers. The show’s calm confidence and clear-eyed, singular vision never faltered for a second. By the end of the first episode, I was able to sit back and relax. I was in safe hands.
It has great style and looks sumptuous, as you’d expect. The performances are delicious too, and all the trademark cleverness and humor is still there in the direction. (We’re behind the trashcan. We’re inside the mailbox. We’re in the ceiling with the ductwork, the joists criss-crossing to suggest to us that Jimmy’s in jail). Deftly, the writers create just enough overlap with the world of Breaking Bad to assuage our nostalgic urges (I cheered out loud in the second episode, when Jimmy/Saul finds himself on his knees at gunpoint in the desert again), while at the same time introducing us to a whole new set of surroundings: the county courthouse and its parking lot; the home of Jimmy’s troubled brother, Chuck; his ramshackle office at the back of the Vietnamese nail salon. They ease us into it gently, but Jimmy’s world is his own.
After a string of anti-heroes stretching all the way from Tony Soprano via Don Draper to Walter White, here at last is a hero-hero, an ordinary Joe whose struggles, frustrations and plain bad luck we can all relate to; a guy we can really get behind. Yes, he’s a petty conman at the start, but he was young and wayward then. Eventually (and admittedly only once cornered) he finds his way to the straight and narrow, taking a humble but respectable job in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm and secretly studying online at night to qualify as an attorney himself (with the University of American Samoa). For a moment it seems like things might finally be coming together, but the cruel fates just won’t smile on poor old Jimmy McGill. Denied a job at the fancy big law firm, he fights the good fight as a public defender, displaying all the wiliness and chutzpah we loved about him in the future, but he’s earning a pittance and somehow just can’t seem to get a break – even from the parking attendant. Turning his hand to ‘elder law’ (i.e. drafting wills for $140 a pop), he finally stumbles across the Big One: systematic over-charging of residents by a large care home chain. But the case is too big for him to handle alone and, in the process of trying to pursue it, he discovers a truth about the past that may change his life forever.
Saul, we come to realize, was always more than a comic turn. In a 2014 interview, Gilligan described him as the least hypocritical figure in Breaking Bad. His heart is large – he’s devoted to his brother and wants the best for his blue-rinsed clients – and the needle in his moral compass wavers roughly around the right spot, at least most of the time. He declines the gangster Nacho’s offer to cut him in on a robbery. Even his con tricks are mostly aimed at fellow crooks and chancers. The fact that one too many knockbacks will ultimately wear him down and send him wayward once more doesn’t change what we know about his fundamental nature.
In fact, there are two heroes in Better Call Saul: Mike Ehrmantraut, the taciturn, hangdog fixer also familiar from Breaking Bad, appears again here too, like Jimmy doing his best to live a quiet life below the parapet. But, as with Jimmy, the universe has other plans for old Mike. The long scene where he confesses his sins to the widow of his late son is the season’s emotional epicenter. Neither he nor Jimmy is blameless – not at all – but both their souls, at this particular point in history, are more-or-less pure.
In reversing the anti-hero trend and perhaps beginning to show the way to some form of redemption for men on TV, Better Call Saul might have forgotten about women altogether, but the character of Kim Wexler and her sincere friendship with Jimmy was a particular highlight for me. (Though what it says about our culture that a seemingly genuine male-female friendship feels like such uncharted territory I hesitate to explore). There is plainly a sexual history between them, but loyalty and mutual affection lie at the core of their relationship, and there’s a refreshing naturalness about their witty interactions that comes across as understated to a viewer accustomed to super-real, lightning-quick Sorkin-style banter.
No doubt there are those who found the pace of Better Call Saul too slow, or felt disappointed that the season stopped short of showing Jimmy undergo his big transformation, but for me it was right on the money. The careful control of the narrative feed was the antithesis of the cram-it-in-to-keep-‘em-watching approach typical of network dramas, yet the plot kept moving and kept me guessing, I never felt bored, and now I’m just glad that there’s lots of story left over to savor in Season Two.
Better Call Saul made me reflect on how we can live several lifetimes in one; and how, so often, we have no idea where – or who – people have been. Favorite show of the year so far.