Sunday, May 7, 2017

Breaking Saul

Whether by necessity or design, Better Call Saul has become about much more than a small-time lawyer’s transformation from hustling clients from the back of a nail salon office to consligiere for Albuquerque’s reigning meth king. And the change has been to the show’s benefit. All too often, and particularly in the first season, it simply felt like there was not enough “there there” to carry this story for a four or five season run. Episodes were mired in the back and forth of class action lawsuits and filial competition, but as as the show has accelerated its pace in a standout third season, the writers’ end game is now clear - instead of simply answering the question of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, they are filling in the entire backstory of the ABQ’s criminal underground when Walter White and Jesse Pinkman took that RV into the desert for their first cook.

In doing so, the show is less Better Call Saul and more Breaking Saul, as the child spin off adopts more of the parent show’s look and feel, including direct call backs, grittier storylines, and, most notably, the return of Gus Fring, one of the most sharply written villains in recent TV history. The fan servicing is not subtle and more than appreciated. A recent opening sequence flashback featuring Steven Bauer as Don Eladio meeting with his lieutenants was the closest BCS has come to directly referencing BB and the tension of those few minutes was as gripping as anything witnessed in the salad days of Heisenberg’s reign. On the other hand, the writers have offered a little lagniappe (something extra) at the beginning of each season - a one scene glimpse into Saul’s “erased” future, where he is now a sad sack Cinnabon store manager in Omaha, Nebraska with a droopy mustache and thinning hairline. 

As each episode airs, you see the puzzle pieces filling in, like the border has been completed and the middle parts can now be put into place. We see the nascent scuffles between Hector and Gus and know that the former will end up essentially becoming a suicide bomber to kill the latter, but we do not yet know how Hector became a mute in a wheelchair. Similarly, Kim, Howard, and Chuck are all integral to BCS but none appear in Breaking Bad. Do they simply live on (off-screen) in the BCS/BB universe or are their fates more dire? 

In broadening its scope, the writers have also lifted some of the narrative weight from places it seemed strained (Jimmy’s on-again/off-again relationship with Kim) and made it more balanced. As Alan Sepinwall has noted, BCS is now really two shows in one - the first is still tracking Jimmy’s inexorable slide to his alter ego but the Mike Ehrmantraut storyline, which seemed a throwaway when the series started, is every bit as prominent now. While Jimmy and Mike seem to be running on parallel tracks, their intersections, and in particular with the Fring/Salamanca storyline, show how these paths will all converge once a high school science teacher with a death notice fulfills his destiny and becomes the southwest’s greatest meth cook. 

Vince Gilligan had the good sense to put a temporal limit on Breaking Bad, ending it after 62 tidy episodes over five amazing seasons when he surely could have stretched but left an inferior product. I hope a similar decision is made with Better Call Saul which has become a highly entertaining spin off while retaining its own charms. 

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