We start off with a black and white montage, an old song “Address Unknown” blares from the sad imagery of a broken man, working in a dead end job, looking and feeling lost with life. While his work sucks, his home life is not much different. He spends each night (we believe) drinking Scotch Whisky and sitting alone, nothing but an empty existence as he flicks the TV channels in hope for something to grab his interest. After a while he goes looking at an old box of memories, hidden away, like a part of him is ashamed of his old life, but at the same time he can’t let go. One of the contents within the box is an old VHS video which he plays…….
And so begins the start of Better Call Saul…………..
The expectations on this opening episode is unbelievable. How exactly do you follow up a much loved and critically adored series like Breaking Bad? A show that is quite rightly being talked about as “the best show of all time”. If you wanted to play it safe and do a spin off, then many lesser writers would have centred it around Jesse Pinkman, his life now that Walter White is no longer in it. But Vince Gilligan, the genius behind the perils of Walter and Co does not believe in doing things the way of expectations and instead, for the spin off, went for the comedy character in Saul Goodman.
Risky? Stupid? Would fans want this?
Spin Off shows are notorious affairs. They either suck beyond belief (Joey…. nearly ruined the memory of FRIENDS) or somehow create a world which reminds you of the series you loved but at the same time develop their own magic (Cheers….Fraiser Crane)….and because Breaking Bad has been one of the most critical well loved shows of all time, the pressure is huge for all involved. You may be forgiven to have doubts that perhaps Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould only came up with the entire show because of the unexpected success of the blue meth and that they just could not let go of the universe they created to a glorious effect.
Even the opening moments of this show, no matter how glorious it is, was a hark back to the Breaking Bad days, where we see a “cook” spread his ingredients and create a much wanted snack for “his” customer. Yes Vince, well done……a great nod for us all there.
But what of that beginning?
It all harked back to the last episodes of Breaking Bad where Saul himself predicated where his life was heading. A sad place, far from the joys and thrills of a shady but successful lawyer. It was a brilliant way of introducing old and new fans to this other story to tell. For the newcomers, they had the grip of how a man could end up in such an empty place. But for us fans who have been there from the very beginning, it went deeper than that. When Saul reached out for that hidden box (again a sort of reminder of how Walt hid his money), and he chucked on that VHS Tape, there for the first time we saw flickers of colour and all of a sudden like when Dorothy was all black and white in Texas before hitting the yellow brick road, we the viewer were basking in the rich picture which signalled that the “magic” had began.
Unlike Breaking Bad where we saw the birth of Walter White becoming “Heisenberg” before our very eyes, and not knowing what would happen, we all know what happens to Saul, so this series will focus on the fun of him becoming the very guy we love. Of course there has to be surprises and a few twists and the opening episodes surely delivered in spades. First though we had to deal with Saul or as he is known so far….Jimmy McGill……. and there we have the hook…..we about to witness how a guy become…..
Jimmy McGill >>>>>>>>>>>>>Saul Goodman>>>>>>>>>>>>Gene….manager of Omaha Cinnabon
Now us fans can finally understand why Gilligan and Gould were so determined to tell this story.
The wonderful writing of Vince Gilligan is there for all to see with a wonderful court scene that showed how Jimmy is so far out of his depth. His speech to the juries and his confident smile as he sat down, simply built up the moment when the other lawyer simply pressed play on a video recorder and showed his clients, cutting off a dead man’s head, and won the case there and then without uttering a single word. This scene alone is now up there with my favourite moments of this Walter White universe.
Then we have a our first geek moment, and we did not even have to see his face at first, just his rasping voice. Yes, fan favourite Mike (Jonathan Banks) is back from the dead (well it is set 6 years before), and his fleeting moment of him working in a car park and arguing with Jimmy must have had fans everywhere smiling at what they were seeing and adds another slant to this tale, in how Mike ends up working like he does when we eventually get to those pesky Blue Meth pills.
But it is the quiet moments that show the quality all set to be on offer. Unlike 24, Lost and say Prison Break, Breaking Bad was a slow burn affair, where it required the viewer to invest in each character and where every scene had a meaning, even though we did not know it at the time. Better Call Saul is following the same path. From his friendship with “scared of the electric” Chuck, to what could be the eventual season one bad guy in Howard, to my second favourite scene, in which Jimmy shares a cigarette with Kim, a brief moment where once again no dialogue is exchanged, just vast amount of questions left in the heads of us viewers.
We can see that the one thing both shows are going to have in common is that the creators are determined to keep this grounded and will take their time in telling the story they want. There is no knee jerk reaction, no bowing to fan pressure, not even a glimpse of Walter White lurking in the background in a surprise cameo. We will get that scene one day and no doubt the viewing figures will go through the roof, but at the moment this is Jimmy’s tale and actor Bob Odenkirk is relishing every scene now that he is centre stage.
But what I loved the most and to be honest, Better Call Saul is already my favourite TV Show, is the tone is different to what we know. Yes we were told that this would be more of a comedy than the intensity of Breaking Bad and you can feel it through out and overall we are getting a different vibe, which is important as it must try and develop its own identity. But then it is worth remembering that its parent show was quite witty in the early stages and you can tell that when required, Saul itself, while displaying some moments of hilarity will not be afraid to dip its toes into the dark black stuff. Take that cliff hanger. What started as a simple plan by Jimmy, ended up with the return of the notorious Tuco (Raymond Cruz) which I guess no one expected but had everyone like me sat there open mouthed….
What that final scene did, was demonstrate by embracing the old memories and not be afraid, we are re-entering a new unknown life of these characters we never knew. No one believes that Better Call Saul can be better than Breaking Bad, but so far in its first steps of birth…..it matches it….and for that, we all should be thankful.