Friday, February 19, 2016

Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul’s second season began this week and I am still trying to answer one simple question: why am I watching this show? The quick answer is that Saul Goodman was, at times, the best part of Breaking Bad and so, an “origin” story, in comic book parlance, of how Jimmy McGill, former con artist turned low rent attorney turned into a CRIM-IN-AL defense lawyer [1] is a logical hook.

Of course, the spin-off is not new; All in the Family begat both Maude and The Jeffersons. The Mary Tyler Moore Show birthed Rhoda and The Facts of Life was born from Diff’rent Strokes. More recently, Frasier was spun off from Cheers and the long-forgotten Joey was a half-hearted attempt to maintain the magic of Friends. But Saul’s conceit is different. Whereas most spin-offs pick up where the parent show ended, excepting a single “flash forward” in each of the two season’s first episodes, where Saul is now an anonymous Cinnabon store manager in Omaha [2], we assume BCS is just filling in Saul’s history until we meet him midway through season 2 of BB.

In doing so, the show’s creators and writers are setting fairly low stakes. The best parts of Season 1 were not in BCS’s “present” where Jimmy McGill tends to an older brother with severe agoraphobia and has an on-again/off-again girlfriend, but even further in Saul’s past, in Cicero, Illinois where “Slippin’ Jimmy” works his hustle. There, the silver tongue so many BB fans would come to know and love was immediately recognizable, rather than watching present-day Jimmy labor through the drudgery of being a solo practitioner operating out of the back of a nail salon.

But this is a limitation imposed by the writers, who could have chosen to fully explore Saul’s post-Breaking Bad life on the lam where he is always looking over his shoulder instead of simply providing a brief glimpse of that future. In doing so, the show could have mined more of the ominous energy generated in the latter stages of BB instead of watching the synthesis of Jimmy’s grifter tendencies with his hangdog decency. Perhaps because of that, the show has a mellow feel, like it is not in any particular rush to get to its destination. It does retain its predecessor’s ability to balance humor and peril, sometimes simultaneously, and of course, there are those quirky camera angles, but even as we watch Jimmy stumble a step forward to fall two steps back, we are left wondering whether it is necessary to comment on the pit stops when we know the final destination.

Vince Gilligan famously described Walter White’s narrative arc as turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, but that occurred with the steady erosion of Walt’s moral compass and increasing taste for murder and mayhem. He may have rubbed out Krazy-8 as a survival mechanism, but watching Jane choke to death or putting a bullet in Mike were the acts of a sociopath. Saul is not that guy and we know it because we know the person he becomes.

I generally like the show’s sometimes shabby feel as being of a piece with Saul’s low-rent vibe and the writers find a plucky underdog vein in Jimmy that leavens what could have been a more one-note lounge lizard act. That said, Bob Odenkirk’s reading of the pre-Saul Goodman persona sometimes feels off. Part of this is simply the tricky logistics. Odenkirk is now six years older than when he appeared on Breaking Bad but is being asked to play a younger version of that same character. Makeup and wigs can only do so much. By comparison, the other holdover from BB is the Mike Ehrmantraut character; however, his gruff look is, in its way, timeless. And therein lies the rub. Mike’s backstory was told start to finish in a single episode in Season 1 of BCS (it also happened to be the best episode). Do we really need twenty, or thirty for Saul Goodman?

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1. See, Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad Season 2, Episode 8.

2. This fate is a callback to the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, where Saul tells Walt that having called in the favor of his fixer, who creates an entirely new identity for his customers, that Saul’s best case scenario is managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. See, Granite State, Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 15.