Sunday, February 8, 2015

REVIEW: 'Better Call Saul' - Jimmy McGill Tries to Con His Way into Being a Respectable Lawyer in 'Uno'

AMC's Better Call Saul - Episode 1.01 "Uno"

Jimmy works his magic in the courtroom. Unexpected inspiration leads him to an unconventional pursuit of potential clients.

Breaking Bad was just a fantastic show. One of the best in the medium to date. Thusly, I understand AMC's desire to try spinning the Saul Goodman character off as the star of his own show. And yet, the former series provided a strong sense of closure to this universe. Do we necessarily need to re-open this world in order to see the untold story of Saul's past? That was the big question I've been asking ever since AMC first confirmed the series order for Better Call Saul.

Set six years prior to the events of Breaking Bad, the show could easily become an engine for fan service. Characters who died in the former drama could pop up again. But those characters all had purpose on Breaking Bad and their character arcs were insightful and concise. Why then, open up the can of worms and potentially tarnish Breaking Bad's legacy? Sure, Breaking Bad will still be viewed as a classic no matter how well Better Call Saul does. But the former show forces all of these questions and uncertainties into the conversation surrounding Better Call Saul.

The thing that Better Call Saul has to do early on is establish itself as its own thing. Yes, it can provide callbacks to characters as foreshadowing for the future. But the show would be better served providing its own point-of-view. There has to be a reason for this show to exist. I'm still not completely sold based on just the first episode. It varies wildly in tone throughout the extended premiere. The opening teaser is beautiful and on par with some of the best Breaking Bad teasers. It is melancholic. Saul's - who is still going by his birth name of James "Jimmy" McGill - interactions with his older brother Chuck are emotional. He is suffering from an undisclosed illness and that brings about these ideas of the future that Jimmy is still envisioning for himself as a lawyer. It's aspirational but it also showcases how different Jimmy is from Saul Goodman. And then, there's all of Jimmy's various antics to get clients which are almost always played for comedic effect. It's tonal imbalance that doesn't always add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet, the show is trying to establish itself as something different from Breaking Bad. Yes, Mike and Tuco both make cameo appearances in this episode - and Mike is set as a regular on this show as well - and the teaser further showcases Saul's future after he meets Walter White. But Jimmy McGill is not Saul Goodman. He's still trying to establish himself in this community as a lawyer. He's different than your typical lawyer. He's quirky with a con man quality. But Jimmy is not a criminal. He is still predominately self-interested but he also has this connection with his brother. His brother is a little off. He uses lanterns instead of lights; cooler instead of a refrigerator; and a typewriter instead of a computer. He's a man who sticks out in this universe. And that is very much to the show's benefit.

It also helps that Better Call Saul does not feel and look like Breaking Bad. Both shows are set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But Better Call Saul shows a different side of the city than the places that Walt and Jesse would frequent. The law offices of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill are going to be a predominant location for this show. They present a different kind of work environment than the car wash. Even the shot composition is slightly different. Jimmy isn't frequently shown in tight closeups like Walt and other notable characters were on Breaking Bad. He is often just a part of the frame to further showcase how little he actually is in the legal system of this community.

Jimmy has no respect as a lawyer. He is begging for clients and trying to con people into needing representation. It's horrible that he wants the two skater brothers to get hit by a car in order to provide legal services to the driver. And yet, he's not as big an expert on conning people as he will become. Jimmy is not a smooth talker. Multiple times he has to rehearse what he is going to say. His public persona really is a performance. A mask he wears in order to try and make it in this system. He hasn't embraced his inner criminal yet - even though that side is always apparent. He's a planner. He needs to compose himself. And yet, that doesn't make him that well prepared for when things don't go according to his plan. When the driver in the con decides to drive off afterwards, it throws everything off. Once the show finally catches up with her, an elderly Latina woman gets out of the car. That wasn't the woman Jimmy was expecting to con. What's the story there? Whatever it is, it will lead Jimmy into conflict with Tuco. Yes, the ending is pandering a bit to Breaking Bad fans. But it was a satisfactory ending to a competent premiere. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Uno" was written by Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould and directed by Vince Gilligan.
  • Any guesses on what Chuck's illness is? What about the couple involved in an embezzlement scandal? How will they factor into this season?
  • Even though their interaction is minimal, I'm really looking forward to the show delving deeper into the relationship that Jimmy and Mike have. They had a history that Breaking Bad didn't really showcase. Now, they are given that opportunity to do so.
  • Chuck's lines about Jimmy needing to be patient and potentially changing his name were clear allusions to his future success.
  • But his later success will come at a cost. That's a path that has already been determined for the character. He is destined to run into Walter White and then seek another identity change to hide in Omaha working at a Cinnabon always looking over his shoulder. Damn, that teaser is just amazing. It provides his most emotional moment as he's forced to relive the past by just watching his old commercials as Saul Goodman. Being a lawyer really is all he wants to do in life.