Reinvention
Can Better Call Saul top Breaking Bad?

It took years for Breaking Bad’s critical acclaim to translate into big ratings, and it was only when the show started streaming on Netflix that it took off. No such fate awaits Better Call Saul, which premiered last week to history-making ratings. Written by Breaking Bad’s team of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and starring the inimitable Bob Odenkirk, it’s an instant hit – and it deserves to be.

I happily churned through every season of Breaking Bad, but thought the critical hosannas that it attracted were a bit overstated. Oliver Stone was on the money when he called the series’ denouement “ridiculous”, a cool-guy shoot-out that not only seemed at odds with the show’s thesis but also “would be laughed off the screen”, if it had been in a movie. Walter White’s arc was irresistible, but it was done with more subtlety by Al Pacino in The Godfather, and took 60 hours less. Better Call Saul is a different proposition altogether, not least because the trajectory of its lead character hasn’t already been prescribed.

Odenkirk was a guest at this year’s Berlinale, and the Berlin crowd greeted him as if he were Bowie. The way Odenkirk tells it, the crew of Breaking Bad had about the same reaction whenever he came to set. You can well imagine it – it must have partly been relief. Breaking Bad was unremitting to the point of repeating itself, leavened only by Saul’s glorious shamelessness.

Prequels are all the rage, but Better Call Saul is simultaneously prequel and sequel. It opens with present-day Saul forlornly blending smoothies in a mall, the scene all in wintry black and white, like an alternative version of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (which, coincidentally, also featured Odenkirk). Saul is looking thoroughly depressed when he notices a bald, hulking man staring at him. Later that night he’s sitting alone in his apartment, watching old Saul Goodman infomercials on videotape. Gilligan, who directed the pilot, stays on Saul’s face, and it’s utterly devoid of the energy we can hear blasting from the TV. There’s a flicker of movement outside, but the balding vegetable on the couch is oblivious. As we leave him, Saul’s new life seems poised to come to an abrupt end.

Meanwhile, back in more innocent, pre–Walt and Jessie days, Saul is making ends meet doing legal-aid gigs, and his name’s Jimmy McGill, not Saul. He has a running feud with a parking booth operator, Mike (Jonathan Banks, the first of many cameos from Breaking Bad). In his downtime, he looks after his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner in Hamlyn, Hamlyn and McGill, the big kahuna of Albuquerque law firms, but who’s not quite the full quid. Chuck sits in a house with no electricity, forbids Jimmy to bring his mobile phone inside, and wraps himself in a space blanket.

Unable to monetise his brother’s share of the firm, Jimmy turns to ginger skateboarder twins – sinister immediately – who specialise in getting hit by cars and extorting the drivers for money to cover their fictitious medical costs. Only this particular hustle goes wrong, and all three end up in the house of Tuco (Raymond Cruz) – a gangster and another old BB face – and his aged Abuelita. Needless to say Jimmy doesn’t meet a sticky end, but he ends up in debt to a local hoodlum, and the slippery slope to ruin lies before him.

The slippery slope, of course, is what Breaking Bad was all about, and it’ll be a shame if Gilligan’s new show offers merely a retread of Walt’s Faustian bargain, plus jokes. The ace up Gilligan’s sleeve is his leading man, who is endearing where Walt and Jessie were impressively off-putting. In the end, that was part of the fascination of Breaking Bad – that you could sustain five seasons starring utterly solipsistic characters. As Clive James put it: “The story is the hero. The actual hero, Walter White, aka Heisenberg, is played by an actor (Bryan Cranston) who deserves praise for his readiness to stand around in his Y-fronts, but who plays almost every scene with his mouth hanging open”. Saul might not be much prettier, but at least he makes us laugh.

The third episode hits tonight, but already Better Call Saul has emerged as an intriguing study in self-adaptation. Gilligan’s refashioned the character into Jimmy McGill, with the delicious implication that Saul is a name he adopts for business purposes. In doing so he’s made a vital adjustment, making the character less cartoonish and more human; not just good for short bursts.

At this point the two narrative tracks, both running forwards and years apart, look unlikely to converge, but in keeping both these plates spinning the writers’ room has already given itself a monumental task. Better Call Saul hasn’t yet defined what it’s about, but it’d be fitting if Gilligan has created a show all about the pleasures of remaking oneself. 

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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