Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman provided most of the brevity in the wonderfully bleak landscape of Breaking Bad. Not only was the criminal lawyer (and CRIMINAL-LAWYER) played for laughs by a wry, capable comic, but his character’s approaches to problem solving and lawyering were funny, almost impossibly creative, and destined to either pull Walt and Jesse back from the precipice or into the ditch, with nary a half-measure.
Much ink has already been spilled about the much-anticipated spin-off (/prequel) centering on Saul Goodman in his years before meeting Walter White. These articles were to be avoided for anyone who prefers to watch something without the influence of hype and internet chatter (which is designed to push you into easy extremes of fandom, and a place where “spoiling” is the subject line in a click-bait world.)
After much effort avoiding plot points, we sat down to watch the first two episodes of Better Call Saul (which are airing on U.K. Netflix, AMC online and are expected to run on U.S. and Canadian Netflix soon). The good news is really, really good. And for once, there is no bad news. The ABQ is just as we left it, if anything, even weirder and more entertaining as we’re now outside of the Whites’ disturbingly dark home. By dark, I’m talking here about the skin crawling interior design, those years of soggy breakfasts and those damnable green screens in the living room, some of the most gloriously horrible on-point stuck in the 80’s/90’s set design ever created. We can now peer into other homes, other diners, other strip malls, and one central nail salon, just the type place Breaking Bad fans will remember can be a Goodman-approved money laundering investment. We have here one great, weird, anti-heroic origin story.
Almost giddy with glee, we see that the ABQ of 2002 is as full as we hoped of Abeulitas and their Telenovelas, overgrown little shits in skateboard parks (who say BIZZNATCH) dirty secrets kept behind the perfectly dull closed doors of conservative buttoned down nerds and their controlling wives, some of the more interesting mental disorders depicted brilliantly by perfectly cast comedy veterans, and a few familiar, welcome faces. All of this unfolds under the direction of Breaking Bad showrunner (and evil genius) Vince Gilligan,with episode two directed, as always, gorgeously, by Breaking Bad’s stellar director, Michelle MacLaren).
But Better Call Saul belongs wholly to Bob Odenkirk, a man who never called himself an actor until now, who brings a pitch perfect tone of lonely loser to a character (for the moment still in possession of his birth name, Jimmy McGill) who is capable of moments of lawyerly brilliance, stunning negotiating skills that ought to have made him a millionaire, a nice face, and a good heart full of loyalty, but who is on the bottom rung of career and life for some reasons yet to be explained. We will see him, as the series unfolds, go from a man in loose possession of his code of ethics to the slimy, chillingly unshockable and almost soulless Saul Goodman who knows every devil in the state and beyond in the eventual shit storm of the Breaking Bad years.
Better Call Saul is the perfect, rare, “spin off” that flows naturally, one that is warranted because there is so much more story to tell in the universe of the larger narrative and in the interior world of this great character. Nobody could wring a laugh out of the pitch black darkness of Breaking Bad the way Odenkirk did. He can be trusted to take us back into the desert, knowing he can talk us out of our certain demise and with our sentence, against all psychopathic whims and odds, knocked down to probation.
Watch before you get spoiled, because it’s not hype, it’s genuine buzz.