Paste writer Shane Ryan and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson will be reviewing each week of , just as they did for Breaking Bad—out of their offices in the back of a discount nail salon.
Those final six episodes of Breaking Bad delivered a near-perfect ending to a TV series that was already unlike anything that preceded it on television. So the idea of a spinoff risked ruining that legacy. Before, Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman provided much needed levity to break up the otherwise dark and serious downward spiral of Walter White. But I wondered whether he could carry that alone for an hour.
Yes, Shane. Yes he could.
First, Odenkirk as the blustery, unscrupulous and unkempt lawyer is inherently funny, but Better Call Saul mines territory as bleak as its predecessor for all of its humor. The tone quickly swings from melancholy (the opening black-and-white scenes set after Goodman has fled from the wreckage Heisenberg has left in Albuquerque) to desperate (Goodman sweatily practicing his opening remarks in the lavatory of a run-down courtroom). Neither version of the lawyer is the cocky shyster whose commercials are all over late-night local TV.
Instead, Better Call Saul is about a man struggling to get his business off the ground. It’s housed in the back closet of a third-rate nail salon. His failure is in stark contrast to his brother’s multi-million dollar practice, but even his brother has demons to fight—a mental breakdown has him living off the grid. Whether his desperation leads to his unscrupulous methods or that was just innate all along, he already looks as capable as Walter White of finding himself stranded in the desert by unsavory characters.
Vince Gilligan has three Breaking Bad writers working with him, including co-showrunner Peter Gould. And while Breaking Bad DP Michael Slovis left to work on Game of Thrones, Arthur Albert ensures that the cinematography plays as big a part as it did on Season 5 episodes “Buried” and “Confessions.” The quality is here in spaces, and while Saul’s tale may not turn out to be the epic tragedy of White White, it’s off to a promising start. What did you think of “Uno?” The beginning of something special?
I loved it. Odenkirk is a joy to watch, even when you forget the big narrative swings and focus on the little hysterical touches. I’m thinking of the moment after the video was shown in the courtroom—the one of the three high school kids defiling a corpse—and Odenkirk gives a little flip of his hand and a smirk to his clients, as if to say, “that’s not going to be a problem.” Just as in Breaking Bad, there’s a desperation about Saul that’s both sympathetic and very funny, and makes you like him despite his seedy nature. He’s a performer, which is why Odenkirk’s loud, brash, exaggerated mannerisms work, and why, like you, I think he’ll easily sustain an hour of television every week.
As to the question of whether he evolved into his current slick persona, or whether it’s always been with him, I feel like the parable of Slippin’ Jimmy hints at the latter. As far as origin stories go, the sage of James McGill, Esq., was a satisfying one, and while there’s some elements of transformation at play, there are clues from the start that he’s always been a scam-artst, and, for lack of a nicer term, a bit of a fuck-up. Almost every plot device was like a red herring, or, at the very least, a portal into something deeper, and something with higher stakes. The $26,000 check is no kind of saving grace, and the scam he launches with the skateboarders isn’t the easy shift into Saul Goodman Mode that we may have expected. Instead, it’s a farcical plot that unleashes one of the mood swings you were talking about—suddenly, his simple payday takes on a darker complexion, and he’s staring down the business end of a gun.
Even more than Breaking Bad, which was always at least a little unrealistic, the adventures of James/Saul (this may be a stretch, but the biblical figure of Saul changed his name to Paul after his conversion to godly ways, so I think there’s a bit of humor forthcoming in James McGill going through the reverse process when he converts to the dark lawyerly arts that make him Saul Goodman) have a very Elmore Leonard feel, in the sense that when small-time cons become ambitious, they can quickly finding themselves swimming among sharks, and that’s when things get dangerous. McGill definitely fits the bill—he’s out for the quick hit, but he’s smart enough to want more, and already, we see him floundering in hostile waters.
At the same time, as we saw over and over in Breaking Bad, this is exactly what he needs. There’s something in Saul that craves staring down that gun, or being tied up and thrown in the desert, because deep down, beyond the pathetic shambling grifter, is a man with tremendous survival instincts, and one who knows that in order to escape boredom and failure, a man whose talents lie mostly in cunning has to take a few crazy risks.
The fact that we get to see that each week has me giddy, Josh. Our man may find himself among sharks, but those sharks are about to discover that he’s the one who never stops moving.
One of the greatest things about the James McGill/Saul Goodman character is that he’s smart enough to stay three steps of everyone not named Walter White, but ham-fisted enough to be constantly under some kind of immense pressure of his own making. And no matter how low he stoops to part a fool from his money, the opening scene shows that all his scheming will lead to a pathetic end at a mall in Omaha. He’ll always have our sympathy.
But where that other villainous protagonist Walter White grimaced with resolve in the face of danger, Saul is more of a coward who’d rather avoid it. Each encounter that puts his life on the line (and I have a feeling there will be many) is the result of his failed plans, rather than White’s carefully calculated risks. His silver tongue is continuously camouflaging his exasperation at his own rotten luck. And the more exasperated he gets, the funnier his character is to watch.
But his showmanship is unmatched; he twice in the opener shows his predilection for making a grand entrance, into the courtroom to talk about how knuckle-headed we all were at 19 and later doing his Network impression at his brother’s law firm. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of those in future episodes.
What did you think of the black-and-white cinematography in the present-day scenes? I kind of loved it, along with the quiet paranoia and longing for past glories. His life is almost like Lester Nygaard’s in reverse, complete with Midwestern ennui.
It’s a good thing his character is already so well developed, though, as only Michael McKean helps carry any of the water in this episode. It’s the Bob Odenkirk show. And I’m a little giddy about that myself.
The Nebraska Cinnabon scene kinda depressed me, to be honest, though I agree that they executed it nicely. As I said, though, Saul Goodman is the kind of man who thrives when he’s self-sabotaging in that frantic, hustle-a-minute way, and it felt sad to see him reduced to a premature state of dotage, watching his old commercials with the faintest hint of that old glow in his eye. It almost made me wish that Better Call Saul functions as both prequel and sequel—I don’t want Walter White to be the final act in the gospel of Saul. But you’re right, it was a solid way to start the episode.
Couldn’t agree more on the entrances. That’s where he shines the brightest, even though for all his stagecraft and energy, he’s always prone to being undermined by something as simple as a videotape. The contrast between the “knucklehead” speech, with its appeals to youthful indiscretions, and the footage of the kids hacking off a man’s head, made me laugh out loud, and I think it’s a blueprint for the Goodman character—like any good defense lawyer, he creates his own reality that allows him to proceed in the face of dark truths. It’s why I also loved the “I don’t represent guilty people” line—he’s essentially a method actor who manages to manipulate himself into mindset that allows him to operate under the kind of horrific conditions that would bury a more idealistic man. He’s been a schemer since the start, and his odd combination of cynicism and optimism—hope directed at the acquisition of money—gives him a leg up on anyone foolish enough to play by the rules. It also, of course, lands him in some bizarre and dangerous situations. But as I said before, this is where a man like Saul belongs, and I almost get the sense that he doesn’t feel truly alive until, like a compulsive gambler, the risk has been taken. He may be a terrible planner, but he’s a terrific improviser.
The question that remains is whether the show will be more episodic in nature, with Goodman pinballing from week to week between different triumphs and failures, or are we going to get season-long arcs that follow a single narrative? Or will it be like Breaking Bad itself, where Goodman goes on a personal odyssey that lasts until the emergence of Walter White?
So, you and I usually end our epistolary reviews with a plea for a certain character to stay among the living—Daryl Dixon and Jesse Pinkman and, in a departure, George R.R. Martin—but in this case, we know Saul will live, at least for the time being. So what to do? My initial thought is to borrow a line from S.E. Hinton that serves as a way to show our appreciation for the sleazy lawman, and implores him never to change. Like our protagonist, though, we can always explore a different avenue.
Stay gold, Saul.
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