As Breaking Bad‘s more sun-kissed, looser and less preoccupied younger cousin, Better Call Saul is a triumph in that it now rarely, if ever, needs the full-fledged support of its relative series to succeed. Its confidence may not entirely be earned just yet, but its cool yet ever-determined demeanor matches the competence and flair of Bad and makes it a fine match/replacement.
Now that the characters are established/reestablished with “Uno” and its tone is more concentrate with its sophomore episode “Mijo”, it’s time for Better Call Saul to get to the nitty-gritty of its plot. As seen by the cliffhanger in the last episode, public defender Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is left in a precarious position on the other side of the law when Nacho (Michael Mando) walks into his “office” with a tempting offer in the life of crime. As seen by his stint on Breaking Bad, heard in references in the last two episodes, and then seen by a flashback cold-opening in this week’s “Nacho,” Jimmy is not immune to crime.
In fact, his bad-times used to go by the name “Slick Jimmy,” and apparently he got caught in the big house once for a incident (and misunderstanding, if you ask him) with a sun roof that almost lead to a sexual offender charge on his record. His brother Chuck (Michael McKean) — then space jacket-free it seems — helped him out and from there he resolved to change his life around. That is what makes Jimmy’s trepidations to the life of crime, unlike Walter’s, so filled with doubt and trepidations. He isn’t necessarily “breaking bad” as he is “returning bad.” Jimmy/Saul, as we know, is not that smart for all his sure-talking and slick catchphrases. He wants to be a better person, but doesn’t quite know how to do this. So, it would seem, getting his foot caught in the door of petty schemes and felonies is his only way towards his American dream. Such is life in the Breaking Bad universe.
Much like last Monday’s episode, the fact that show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are so thoughtful and meditative on their spin-off creation is what makes it so endearing and winnable. While they’re far more professional and experienced in the art of show-making than they were during this time in Breaking Bad, they know they won’t quite capture the same intensity and high stakes. As such, Better Call Saul is a far more subdued story. Sure, the visual metaphors, music montages and dynamic colors all will burst onto the scene in plentiful bounties, but because we know what becomes of our protagonist, it leaves his journey to be more a point of reflection than high-strung suspense.
Don’t make that out to be Better Call Saul lacking the show’s intensity. It certainly knows how to create that in these last couple episodes. But even without that withholding desire to see where the characters can go, it decides to study why they go where they go. That’s what, ultimately, makes Gilligan and Gould’s show more mature than its last series, even though its main character is younger and far less sophisticated. It’s about looking back instead of looking forward, and in that point of reflection we get to see what makes a man rather than what becomes of a man. It’s a classic 11th grade English novel-type story, filled with doubt, anguish and moral stakes, but we get far more thugs, death threats and cheap suits to boot.
This is what makes one be won over by Better Call Saul. In addition to the great performances from Odenkirk and Mando this week, Terry McDonough’s direction — a filmmaker who hasn’t had control in the Breaking Bad universe, but helmed the introductory episode of Saul’s character in season two — brings back a reflexive grace to Better Call Saul that hasn’t quite been seen in a Breaking Bad property since all the shoot-outs, gun fights and death threats of late. That’s what this excels. It hosts almost all the good qualities of the previous show, but makes room for its own identity and explorations. There’s, thankfully, no need or desire to write this puppy off anytime soon.
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