Less than 18 months after the end of Breaking Bad, its completely left-field spinoff Better Call Saul is ready to head before the biggest and most divisive jury, namely TV audiences. Better Call Saul has the arguably impossible task of living up to one of the medium’s greatest achievements, and after watching the first three episodes, I dare say creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have succeeded in cutting another distinctly fascinating story from the same grim cloth as Breaking Bad. And Saul would likely use that cloth to wipe his sweaty brow.
Similar to its predecessor, Better Call Saul is about a man working harder than necessary to carve out a path to, if not happiness, then undeniable success. Though there are other obvious similarities to be found, no one should be expecting Breaking Bad: Round 2. That said, here are five things that Walter White’s biggest fans can realistically expect from Better Call Saul as Season 1 kicks off Sunday night. And don’t worry, this is a SPOILER-FREE story for the most part.
Jimmy McGill: Anti-HeisenbergWhen viewers met Saul Goodman all those years ago, he was already a two-bit lawyer making hilariously awful TV commercials, with a professional approach to keeping his ears out of criminal activity. Set in 2001, Better Call Saul takes place years before he achieves that local notoriety, when he’s still just one-bit lawyer Jimmy McGill. He’s not a genius with cancer like Walt, and he’s not trying to give his family a financial boon in the event of his death, but Jimmy also isn’t (at this point) assisting in creating lethally addictive intoxicants. He’s just trying to make enough money so that he’s not sleeping in his storage closet of an office.
Granted, he has to do that by defending some truly heinous people and crafting some ill-informed schemes, but self-preservation forces strange behavior. And while Walt’s every move came with his assurance of being the smartest man in the room, Jimmy doesn’t have that kind of mental guarantee, with an ego the size of his battered car’s cigarette lighter. The show’s very first cold open wonderfully lays out the stakes, playing with our knowledge of Jimmy’s future as Saul, and it adds another layer of sympathy to this character who is barely even the star in his own life. Even when you know he’s neck-deep in bullshit, Jimmy earns more consistent sympathy than Walt ever did, and Bob Odenkirk has the perfect face for it.
Old Characters in a New LightThrough its dense writing and memorable sequences, Breaking Bad layered importance onto nearly every character it introduced, and part of Better Call Saul’s appeal lies in hoping to see some New Mexico citizens again, years before meeting whatever fate had in store for them. It isn’t long at all before a very familiar face shows up and kicks one part of the plot into motion, and it’s as superb as one could ever hope. In fact, I think it’ll be difficult for every guest star to get that same story-driven punch, but I can’t wait to see them try.
And no, I wasn’t just talking about Jonathan Banks’ glorious return as Mike “I’ll Glare Your Soul Out of Your Ass” Ehrmantraut, since his role as a regular was confirmed when Banks joined the show. I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying Jimmy and Mike aren’t on the same page in their first scenes together. Mike plays the parking lot attendant at the courthouse who constantly thwarts Jimmy’s attempts to get by without proper validation. Their partnership on Breaking Bad never made me consider the background behind it, but I love the fact that Better Call Saul is allowing it to naturally evolve from an unnatural place. These guys are no longer actors on Walter White’s stage.
A New Family DynamicBetter Call Saul won’t be a show where its main character is hiding his numerous felonies from a wife and kids, as Jimmy doesn’t seem destined for adoration-filled relationships. We do get to see him go on a date in one of these early episodes, but it’s more a way to show his fractured mental state than to let him find romance. I’d say we don’t have to worry about a “very special” wedding episode of Better Call Saul, but I guess I have no idea what‘s in store for Jimmy McGill down the road. (But I hope it contains more of him playing his own quasi-British secretary.)
The family we do get to see Jimmy interact with is his brother Chuck, played by the always magnificent Michael McKean. Chuck was a high-powered lawyer with a successful firm before he suddenly left, due to health issues, and Jimmy is trying to secure his brother’s future (as well as his own) by getting the firm to buy him out. (Odenkirk’s Ned Beatty impersonation is gold.) Theirs is a strange, strained relationship that still has a lot of foundation to cover, with one particular flashback hinting at what pre-lawyer Jimmy was like, as well as what pre-sickness Chuck was like. It’s unreal seeing these two comedic icons acting in largely dramatic scenes together.
Way More HumorThough Bryan Cranston was largely known for comedic roles before Breaking Bad, Walter White wasn’t a very funny guy, although he could be on occasion. On the contrary, Jimmy is a genuinely amusing person, even if a notable part of the humor comes from his awful luck and decision-making skills, and Odenkirk’s performance is key. He imbues the character with such humanism, you almost feel bad for laughing at him when he dunces his way into a terribly dangerous situation. Then he opens his mouth and starts yammering his way deeper into a hole, and you know that Gilligan and Gould are still just having fun.
Don’t go thinking Odenkirk is the only reason the show is funny, however; almost every character’s broad strokes draw laughter if your sense of humor is looking for it. And like Breaking Bad, the most hysterical moments are often the ones birthed from the darkest concepts. The first time we get to watch Jimmy working his courtroom magic at the beginning of the first episode, he’s defending a trio of males with the old “boys will be mistake-prone boys” argument, and it’s when we see the horror they’re guilty of that the series locks in its gallows humor mindset, as well as immediately showing us how low Saul has to go to make a living.
That Good Old Sense of ForebodingDespite delivering more chuckle-inducing material than Walter White’s ascent to greatness, Better Call Saul isn't skimpy on uncomfortably tense and hazardous sequences. One does not simply become Saul Goodman without experiencing the damnation of Jimmy McGill. The first three episodes follow something of a mini-arc involving the Kettleman family, whom Jimmy is trying to sway into hiring him for representation. His plan to achieve this is met with violent results, culminating in a scene that is bafflingly maniacal and over-the-top, but grounded by Jimmy’s horrified anguish. (Remember Breaking Bad's "Crawl Space?" (It's like that.)
On the macro, the foreboding storytelling is the combined effort of Gould and Gilligan, the latter of whom also directed the first episode, along with additional directors Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones) and Terry McDonough (An Adventure in Space and Time). On the micro, the tension is stretched out by the criminally dexterous Nacho, played with unpredictable cunning by Orphan Black’s Michael Mando. In order for Jimmy to get to the point in his life where he’s got three bodyguards, murderers for clients, and a brand new identity, he’s going to have to walk through fire first. And Better Call Saul is one of the most flammable shows out there.
Better Call Saul kicks off a two-night premiere on Sunday, February 8, at 10 p.m. ET. Watch it.