Since the finale of Breaking Bad and the announcement that Bob Odenkirk's character Saul Goodman would lead his own spin-off, Better Call Saul, I've been tweaking... uh... I mean... eagerly awaiting my next fix of Vince Gilligan.
From the black and white flash-forward open, full of wide angle and POV shots, revealing Saul, now Gene, as the manager of a Cinnabon, and then jumping back in time to the stark, almost depressingly bland scenes of Albuquerque, New Mexico, it's clear we are back in Vince Gilligan's world.
For anyone who hasn't seen Breaking Bad– I'm assuming there has to be a few people left –the show revolves around Saul Goodman, for now, simply known by his given name, Jimmy McGill.
Better Call Saul takes place in 2002, and Jimmy is hard up for clients; he's a criminal attorney who, despite trying to make it big, ends up defending the worst of the worst at the public defender's office. Low on cash, taking care of a brother with a mysterious illness, and basically painting the picture of an everyman loser with big dreams, you can't help but feel for the guy.
Sound familiar? I can already feel this show setting me up for a Walter White type of heartbreak.
And I can't wait!
Though the episode has many callbacks to Breaking Bad, the beauty of Better Call Saul is that it holds up perfectly well on its own. Unlike many spin-offs, this is one I'd be perfectly happy watching without any prior knowledge of the characters involved. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have done a great job writing the pilot and should be very proud. Long story short: Better Call Saul looks to have all the ingredients for a great new show.
Hit the jump for the full recap and review.
Before we go on, let me add in a quick disclaimer: The following review contains mature content. It's also very heavy on spoilers. You've been warned.
The pilot opens in black and white in an Omaha, Nebraska, Cinnabon. An old-timey piano melody (The Ink Spots - "Address Unknown") provides the backdrop as we catch up with Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), post-Breaking Bad. According to his nametag, we may now call him "Gene". Wearing glasses and sporting an awful pornstache, it's clear life isn't going too well for Saul. It's not long before a menacing looking man in the corner eyes Saul and we are hit with a feeling of dread. Have his past transgressions come back to haunt him? The dude stands up, heading his way, and Saul is visibly shaken, looking cornered and scared.
The dude passes by Saul without a second glance and heads on over to his friend, warmly greeting them, amid smiles and hugs.
My heart rate returns to normal. Have I mentioned how much I've missed Gilligan's style of storytelling?
Like Breaking Bad, the episode is built on this style, with mounting tension that doesn't pay off, glorious visuals, and superb sound design. The episode builds and builds and builds, you begin to wonder if anything will ever happen.... and then it does. And the episode ends, and you're left with a punch to the gut, and a hankering for much, much more.
Now, back to the story.
We move to Saul's apartment. His home life seems just as depressing as his work life; he makes himself a drink and flips through TV channels, finding nothing he likes. He gets up, and again the tension builds along with the music as he checks the windows for anyone outside. Closing the blinds and heading over to a closet, he pulls out a box and grabs a VCR tape. This whole process is achingly slow.
What's on the tape? Put the tape in the VCR! OMG, WHAT IS ON THE TAPE?
Remember what I said about tension building and not paying off? In the second glorious example of this episode, before the teaser has even ended, we learn what's on the tape:
His "Better Call Saul" ad reel.
The entire opening scene, not a word is uttered from Saul, and yet, we feel for him. He sadly watches the evidence of his glory days, pre-Walter White, and I feel for the guy. I really do.
Damn you, Vince Gilligan. I love you, Vince Gilligan.
The title card rolls and we're dropped into the present: New Mexico, circa 2002, now in glorious Technicolor.
A courtroom awaits a missing attorney, and I'll give you one guess as to who it could be. The judge sends the bailiff to find him and we follow her to the bathroom where Jimmy McGill (Saul), younger and wearing a sharp suit but clearly nervous, is trying to prepare his defense. The bailiff clears her throat and gives him the evil eye, summoning him to the courtroom.
Saul bursts into the next scene, all nervousness gone, and the Saul Goodman we know and love is in full form. He gives a pretty convincing "boys will be boys" argument and I find myself rooting for him and his defense table full of clean-cut teens, before we finally find out the charges by way of a very incriminating videotape shown to the jurors.
Turns out the kids lopped off the head of a corpse and ... ahem... made sweet, sweet love to it.
Damn you, Vince. I love you, Vince.
After bitching about the crappy pay he's getting for the public defender work, Saul exits the courthouse, and approaches a Cadillac that suits the Saul we all know and love from Breaking Bad. But this isn't that Saul, and instead he walks right past it and to a beat up Suzuki Esteem.
Jimmy takes a call from a potential client, and doing a terrible impression of a somewhat-British legal secretary, he arranges a meet at a local diner, claiming strong paint fumes at his office. Plans arranged, he drives off, complete with clouds of black exhaust and a glimpse of an off-colored door, driving home the point of just how broke and desperate Jimmy is.
He reaches the parking gate and...
OMFG! It's Mike! Mike Ehrmantraut! (Jonathan Banks – Breaking Bad, Community)
You know Mike: Former cop, hit man, P.I., fixer-upper of all things Breaking Bad, and nemesis to Walter White.
Actually, he's the parking attendant, and Jimmy (Saul) is short three bucks. Being broke, Jimmy refuses to pay and instead heads back to the courthouse for another validation sticker.
Moving on, and he meets with the Kettlemans, who are very obviously guilty, but who are claiming innocence of money laundering and looking for an attorney. Finally, some hope. Mr. Kettleman's pen is lingering above the dotted line and it looks like things might be looking up for Jimmy. After some painfully slow deliberating, Mrs. Kettleman steadies his hand and decides they should sleep on it.
Gah! Poor Jimmy.
Damn you, Vince.
Next up, Jimmy's driving and talking on a cell, when out of nowhere some skater dude flies into his windshield; he and his brother are trying to scam Jimmy with a faked crash. After some yelling and screaming, the skater dudes decide the only way they won't call the police is for the low, low price of five hundred dollars.
"Only way that car is worth $500 is if there's a $300 hooker sitting in it," Jimmy replies.
Cue me: laughing out loud.
I love you, Vince.
On to Jimmy's law firm, a tiny room in the back of a nail salon. The owner of the nail salon thinks so lowly of him, he isn't even allowed to partake in the cucumber water. After shuffling though a bunch of overdue bills and checking his messages (he has none), he comes upon a check for $26,000 from the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill. He promptly tears it up into tiny little pieces.
At the offices of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, we find out that Jimmy has a brother named Chuck who is a founding partner of the firm but out on sick leave, perhaps indefinitely. The firm is trying to quietly pay him off. Jimmy thinks Chucks deserves his fair share: in his estimates, seventeen million dollars.
Yeah, good luck with that, Jimmy.
To add insult to injury, as he's on his way out, Jimmy comes across the Kettlemans, happily signing up for legal counsel with the big boys. He can't take it anymore, and does a mighty fine job of kicking the crap out of a trash can.
It's nighttime now, and Jimmy arrives curbside at a suburban house. He grabs the mail, and leaves his cell phone, watch, and keys in its place. Strange, very strange, and the scene is extremely dark.
I wonder what the heck is going on.
"Ground yourself?" asks a voice from somewhere in the darkness as he enters the house.
We finally meet Chuck (Michael McKean – The X-Files, Castle), who either has some rare disease where he can't go near anything that emits electricity, or he's simply nuts.
For the record, my money is on nuts.
McKean does a great job of playing Chuck. He seems to truly believe he is ill, even if he doesn't seem to quite believe he's going to get better like he angrily claims while the two argue about finances. The scene between these two is probably the most powerful of the entire episode; it made me feel the brotherly love and sympathize even more with the downtrodden Jimmy.
To add insult to injury, Chuck informs Jimmy that he needs to change his law firm's name because it's too close to the name of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill.
"Chuck, whose side are you on?" asks Jimmy.
"There are no sides, but Jimmy, wouldn't you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else's coattails?"
I think I feel a wee tear threatening to spill for Jimmy.
Damn you, Vince!
The next day, we're at the skate park and Jimmy tracks down the skaters. We find out he is originally from Cicero, IL, where he was known as "Slippin' Jimmy," a scam artist who "slipped and fell" his way into misbegotten, litigious money.
In short order, Jimmy recruits the two dudes into swindling the Kettlemans for him. He wants them to pull the same trick on Mrs. Kettleman as they did on him. In return they'll get two grand. After admitting that on their best day ever they only cleared $630, and that was pulling two cons, it's an offer they can't refuse.
The episode picks up the pace here.
After slowly building, suddenly Jimmy is looking and behaving more like Saul. The con is on. Mrs. Kettleman has a predictable route in her 1988 Mercury station wagon. The skaters will pull their fake crash trick, Jimmy will arrive just in the nick of time, 'protecting' Betsy from the skater's scam, and in return she'll hire him for the money laundering case.
That's the plan, anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything goes wrong.
The station wagon does a hit-and-run; the skaters give chase, ditching Jimmy in favor of a bigger paycheck for themselves, and follow it to a house. But it's not Betsy who gets out of the vehicle. Instead it's an old Hispanic woman, speaking not a lick of English. After asking her for some "righteous dinero", they follow her into the house as she calls for "Mijo".
The tension is back in full swing.
Saul eventually finds the house, the car and skateboards outside. He knocks, peeks in the windows, waits, says he's there as an "officer of the court" and to "open up in the name of the law".
The music turns foreboding. The door opens, and he's greeted with a gun to his face. And then...
OMFG!!!! It's Tuco! Tuco Salamanca! (Raymond Cruz – Breaking Bad, Major Crimes) The ruthless, violent, psychopathic and unpredictable drug kingpin from Breaking Bad. Even if you're one of the few I mentioned earlier who hasn't seen Breaking Bad, his presence is sinister enough that you'll be on the edge of your seat.
It fades to black. The episode ends and my flails begin. All that tension is paid off in one thrilling, crazy second.
Oh Vince, how I've missed you.
Episode two of Better Call Saul, "Mijo", airs tonight at 10pm/9C on AMC with an encore showing of the pilot, "Uno", at 9pm/8C.