Jun 20, 2017

TV Retrospective: "Better Call Saul" - Season 1

Bob Odenkirk
After three seasons, it's hard to say that Better Call Saul has really gotten anywhere. This spin-off of Breaking Bad had the audacity to spend its first two seasons with limited guest stars that would connect the two series. However, it helped to build something more important to the series, which was the relationships that lead protagonist Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to go bad and become criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. With season three, the series finally starts to feel familiar as each episode introduces characters both prominent (Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring) and minor (Laura Fraser's Lydia Rodart-Quayle) to the larger story. Still, the season focused on the increasing tension between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean). It may still be a far cry from the series that spawned it, but it continues to find heart in this universe by showing just how hard it can sometimes be to do wrong to people you love. 
For many, there's concern over when the show's title, Better Call Saul, would pay off. It starts every episode with familiar images of Saul Goodman's office, but there wasn't even a clue as to what his origins were. Had the series stalled after one season, it would definitely be underwhelming. Still, the assured nature of creator Vince Gilligan being allowed to tackle a slow burn made the moment when "Saul Goodman" became a character all the more exciting. There have been fragments before, specifically in the young shyster days of Slippin' Jimmy. It's been fun to watch Jimmy try to go straight only to have everything go wrong to the point that his own brother turns on him. It's all a tragedy, but what's more perplexing is that Saul Goodman doesn't exist for him to be a criminal lawyer at first. It's actually to be a commercial director, who even then has to twist words to keep his clients happy.
The show hates convenience, and it shows in every strained look on the cast's face as they progress through the season. The show has gone beyond merely being a vehicle for Odenkirk to flesh out the character, who is now a disgraced lawyer on suspension. Now there's plenty to care about with future hit man Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) as he finally meets his employer: Gus Fring. Fring's involvement in the Salamanca affairs are knowledge that all Breaking Bad fans will recognize. Even then, Tio Salamanca (Mark Margolis) gives an exciting and different performance here, largely because he isn't yet restrained to a wheelchair in bitterness. He is intense, and it makes the world beyond ABQ all the more fascinating. Jimmy may still be searching for purpose in a dark period of his career, but the show fills that time with excellently directed scenes in which petty crimes happen in montages or long and silent scenes. 
What is perfectly portrayed in this is an antithetical yet similar mentality to Breaking Bad. Even in seemingly pointless scenes, there's a sense that these characters are contemplating their merit. Even as Jimmy finds lying to be an easy way to get what he wants, he comes across a client whose relationships are frayed by the settlement. It is a moment that plays out over the end of the season, and reflects his desire to not let go of the people who need his help. However, those people aren't whom the series would've suspected at first. Chuck has turned against him and is attempting to live a normal life, only to get lost in his misery. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is contemplating how valuable it is to work with Jimmy when she has better options out there. The relationships that were built in the first two seasons are starting to not just tear, but rip like bandages pulled off of a wound. It's painful, but artfully done by the cast and crew.
Even as the pieces come together to explain how Jimmy became Saul, there's still a question as to why. There's been plenty of tempting options to turn to crime instead of live a pointless existence of good. While Saul Goodman has frequented a few episodes, he still doesn't feel like the one that smiles on a billboard. He is merely an unformed alter ego who will go through a dark and dangerous period in the future. Traces of it are starting to be seen, but nothing specific explains the turn. Whereas Breaking Bad saw Walter White turn evil for an almost impulsive reason, Better Call Saul shows restraint by depicting men with codes too scared to just jump into danger. Even as the season ends, the danger is lurking, but nothing too jarring. 
Better Call Saul remains a fascinating counterpart to Breaking Bad, even if it rarely manages to be as engaging on a week to week basis. This is a drama that studies individuals whose lives are falling apart, and who turn to evil out of desperation. For two seasons, it looked like Jimmy could go good, but everyone knows that he won't. It's the tragedy to him fooling himself. To see him start to leave behind a path of good is just as sad, but in a compelling way thanks to how the show set up its characters. Because there was plenty of back story, each mundane exchange feels heavier than it needs to. Most of all, the audience understands Jimmy's struggle, but not how Saul consumed him. With excellent performances and great writing, season three is the best season yet, and one can only hope that the show continues to explore the difficulty of being good when you're destined to be bad.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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