Better Call Saul Series Premiere Recap: A Busted Suzuki Esteem and Other Humble Beginnings

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Jimmy McGill psychs himself up for trial. Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC/? AMC Networks Entertainment LLC. and Sony Pictures Television Inc. All RIghts Reserved.

I can’t have been the only Breaking Bad fan who cringed at the announcement that show creator Vince Gilligan was considering a spinoff. A spinoff: The word alone feels nasty and commercialized, the cheap dream of admen trying to squeeze a little extra money out of a series you weren’t sure you cared that much about anyway. Wasn’t one of the unspoken points of Breaking Bad — a show compared by its most ardent fans to great literature and film — that TV had become too sophisticated for stuff like spinoffs?

And yet here it is: a spinoff of Breaking Bad. And not just a spinoff, either, but a spinoff dedicated to Saul Goodman, the lawyer hired by the show’s protagonists (or were they antagonists? I can’t remember) to launder money and fumble through some comic relief when the narrative’s natural, more serrated comedy got too uncomfortable. Saul Goodman, whose suits never fit; whose inner chambers had a huge, gaudy triptych of the Constitution; whom you might’ve seen between late-night reruns of America’s Most Poisonous Animals begging to know if you’ve been injured, under a mnemonic phone number like 1-800-PAINFUL — a guy whose shamelessness was eclipsed only by his moxie. He has no apparent family, no apparent story, no apparent life. If Vince Gilligan’s stated goal with Breaking Bad was to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface,” Better Call Saul faces the equally steep challenge of turning a cardboard cutout into a human being.

We start in black-and-white at a Cinnabon in Nebraska, which, for some reason, is labeled on the wall specifically as a Cinnabon in Nebraska. People are chatting, employees are frosting buns with those fat bakery knives. Synched in this scene is “Address Unknown,” a sweet song by 1930s crooners the Ink Spots that conjures simpler times than the ones we know we’re getting into. Soon, we see why we’re here: Standing behind the counter in his little Cinnabon visor, looking nervous and sad, is Saul, a little older and a little more haggard, a big mustache and those symbolic double-bridged wire frames — the same kind of glasses, incidentally, that Walter White wears in the early beats of Breaking Bad, stock accessory for all middle-aged men neutered by circumstance.

Cinnabon of Nebraska is presumably where Saul ends up after he has his old identity scrubbed by the vacuum-cleaner salesman. (For those who didn’t watch Breaking Bad: First of all, the vacuum-cleaner salesman is a mysterious character with the poetic talent of being able to make dirt disappear. Second of all, watch Breaking Bad.)

After a moment of panic — Saul thinks a skinhead-looking guy from his past has recognized him — he goes home and crashes out with a Rusty Nail that appears to be about one part Scotch and three parts Drambuie (instead of the other way around) and watches nature TV before digging out a VHS copy of his old “Better Call Saul” commercials. Is the message clear enough yet? His life is a fragile shell filled only with memories of the past. At this point, we’re about two minutes in. It is the longest amount of time we have ever spent alone with Saul Goodman. Outside, snow begins to fall.

Gilligan used to pull the same season-opening tricks to powerful effect with Breaking Bad: Start with a moment in the future and use the intervening episodes to show you how the character gets there. The impulse on the part of the viewer is natural: Mark two points in space and we crave a line.

Back to the present (or past, if his arc on Breaking Bad was the present). Saul Goodman is a struggling public defender whose name isn’t Saul Goodman at all, but Jimmy McGill. Everyone is waiting around the courtroom for a trial to start, but Jimmy — whom I will call Jimmy from now on, not Saul — is in the bathroom, stating his case to a urinal. This is his routine — even the bailiff seems to know exactly where to find him. Recognize shades of the Saul we come to know: compulsively public, always rehearsing his lines. Even when he’s alone, you get the sense that he’s just winding up to the next moment when people are looking at him.

After his case tanks (the prosecutor has video footage of the defendants committing the crime, which I won’t spoil here other than to say it involves fellatio and a severed head), Jimmy scraps with the woman paying him for the case about his rates, then walks dejectedly to the parking garage and gets into a Suzuki Esteem with the complexion of a taxicab that has been left in the sun for hundreds of years. (I recall Bryan Cranston talking in an interview about how important Walter White’s avocado-colored Pontiac Aztek was to his character — a sensible car in a sickly color so neutral that nobody could have any real feeling about it other than mild pity. Saul’s car doesn’t have to be an Esteem for us to get the point.)

On the way out of the parking garage, we recognize a familiar face collecting the toll: Mike Ehrmantrout, ex-cop turned criminal fixer and one of the most baldly tragic characters in Breaking Bad. I suppose you could be watching this show having never seen BB before, but my guess is you have, and that Mike’s face inspired some childlike grin, possibly even an audible whisper that this is going to be good

Jimmy has a preliminary meeting with prospective clients about a municipal embezzlement case, which he takes in a coffee shop because his own office is the boiler room of an Asian nail salon. (“Cucumber water for customers only,” the owner scolds when he collects his mail.) The prospective clients — the guy with double-bridged glasses, of course — can smell his desperation and shy away. (Jimmy leaves them with his business card, which is actually a matchbook.) On the way home, he gets into what appears to be a car accident with a dude on a skateboard, who howls in pain and then suddenly snaps to when asked what Jimmy could do to make it right. (Cash.) Jimmy knows a faker when he sees one and calls the kid — and his twin brother, who films the whole incident — out on it.

The incident seems to animate a sudden cynicism in Jimmy. We can already see glimmers of Saul, like the iridescence of fish scales in the water. This is where I’m reminded of how right Bob Odenkirk was for this role: desperate in a way that inspires humor and pity, but capable of spinning that pathos into surprising bitterness; the sad sack who dreams quietly — and in vivid detail — of how he will someday fuck the world over.

Things get pretty muddy, plot-wise. Jimmy, luckless and broke, gets a $26,000 check from another law firm that he tears up angrily, then proceeds to actually drive to the law firm in his pale Suzuki Esteem and insult a conference room full of people in suits willy-nilly — a show of overconfidence so far out of his range that the moment feels almost schizophrenic. (The law firm is an obviously successful one; the rooms are dustless and sparkling; all the guys who work there have bangs that stand up stiff like soldiers.)

A conversation between Jimmy and some slick partner ensues about a guy named Chuck, who apparently has a big stake in the firm but has been on some kind of medical leave — a conversation whose details are written with such frustrating realism that the whole scene transpires without giving you much of an idea of what they’re actually talking about. What we do know is that Jimmy is defensive about Chuck, obviously close to him, and feels as though the firm is somehow cheating Chuck out of what he’s owed. I found myself missing how unassuming Breaking Bad was in its first few episodes, how it moved from clarity and simplicity to deep complication. Here we start in the middle of a situation with an already hot backstory, which itself is a backstory to a story we already know that connects to the Cinnabon in Nebraska in a way we don’t quite understand yet. Confused? I was, too, but I figure Gilligan et al. assumed they had earned enough goodwill from Breaking Bad to open with some risks.

On the way out of the firm, we see Jimmy’s prospective clients — a possible embezzler and his wife — coming in for a meeting. Will the insults never cease? The last leg of the episode is, at least superficially, the strangest, the one most designed to get us wondering: Jimmy goes home. It’s a nice house, suburban-looking, on a quiet street. Trouble is that there’s no electricity at all. The whole place is dark. Jimmy inspects a camping cooler — the fridge, presumably — that has nothing in it but mustard, bacon, and some juice. Finally, we meet Chuck, played by Michael McKean: A put-together middle-aged guy wearing a button-down shirt, sitting behind a typewriter at a very handsome desk, a bookshelf of hardbound classics behind him, typing by the light of lanterns strung around the room.

Hard to figure out by the conversation whether he’s Jimmy’s brother or dad, but we do know that they have the same last name, and that Chuck is far calmer about the situation with the slick law firm than Jimmy is. The conversation ends with Chuck presenting Jimmy with Jimmy’s business card/matchbook, which Jimmy had left behind. Apparently there’s been some confusion about whether the McGill in “Jimmy McGill, A Law Corporation” is the same as the McGill in Hamlin Hamlin McGill, the name of the slick firm Chuck used to work for. “Wouldn’t you rather build your own identity?” Chuck whispers meaningfully to Jimmy in the dark. The sound of a gong is implied.

The episode winds up with Jimmy tracking down the skater kids from earlier in the episode and soliciting them to take a fall for money — the target vehicle being the wife of the potential embezzler. A little backstory: Jimmy used to be a slip-and-fall kid just like them (“Slippin Jimmy”!); he knows the tricks, he knows the routine. The idea at play here is that Jimmy’s new identity — Saul — is just an inability to repress his old one, that the fissures in our character develop early and only get bigger with time.

Vaudeville, miscommunication, third-act chase-scene-type scenario: The plan flops when the car hits and runs. The skaters track the car down. Its driver is an elderly woman who can only speak Spanish. Soon Jimmy catches up. The last thing we see is him banging on the door, announcing himself as an officer of the court, then the door answered by the silver barrel of a gun. A head pops out of the house to survey if anyone else saw: Tuco Salamanca, whom Breaking Bad fans may remember as a drug dealer and midwife of this immutable line of dialogue:

Though it’s hard to feel anything other than excited — and though I’ll keep watching the show — I’m also wrestling with my expectations for it. Will it be as good as Breaking Bad? Will it even be like Breaking Bad? Well, hopefully not. No matter how corrupted he was, Saul Goodman always seemed to teeter on the edge of conventional morality — a character who saw the system as a big, stupid game but never trawled the depths of nihilism and anger, the way Walter White did, or the edges of psychological frailty, the way Jesse did. And here’s another thing: We’ve already spent five seasons with Saul at his worst. Is his conscience all he has to lose?