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Better Call Saul episode 1 review: Breaking Bad's crooked lawyer flies solo

by Mark Langshaw. Published Tue 10 Feb 2015 12:49

The chance to revisit the Breaking Bad universe is a tantalising prospect for fans of AMC's drug drama, but Better Call Saul is at risk of being crushed beneath the weight of expectation.

Series creator Vince Gilligan has always maintained that his new show is a different animal with the strength to stand alone, yet comparing the spinoff to Walter White's doomed journey is only natural.

There are good reasons why these comparisons are unavoidable. Just as the parent show depicted Walt's transformation from Mr Chips to Scarface, the spinoff reveals how a washed-up attorney named Jimmy McGill came to put the 'criminal' in criminal lawyer.

Although Bob Odenkirk's conniving attorney was largely used for comic relief in Breaking Bad, fears that Better Call Saul would turn out to be some kind of farcical sitcom have dissipated one episode in.

The show has Gilligan's creative stamp all over it, from its teasingly-ambiguous opening to the effective use of foreshadowing. A bevy of police cars in the background hints at trouble to come, and a skilfully-framed shot of our protagonist beside a flash car evokes the ill-gotten gains he'll come into.

While it's far too early to say whether Better Call Saul holds up when juxtaposed to its predecessor, the signs are promising. A gut-wrenching scene involving Saul and his older brother Chuck is the episode’s show-stealer.

Chuck was once a more successful attorney than our protagonist, working for a large law firm where his name is mounted on the wall, but he's been stricken by an unnamed illness.

"I'm going to get better," he yells as Saul pleads with him to take a sickness payoff and leave the company. From Saul's reaction, we know this sadly isn't the case and it's Odenkirk's ability to rise above his character's comic roots and convey emotion that sells the scene.

Down on his luck, driving a beaten-up car and operating out of a dingy office in the back of a beauty salon, Saul turns to underhand tactics as early as the first episode. He teams up with a pair of skater twins who have mastered the art of throwing themselves under vehicles for profit.

This partnership quickly lands Saul in trouble and paves the way for the unexpected Breaking Bad cameo that serves as the first episode's cliffhanger. It's a fan-pleasing twist, but we'll have to see how it plays out before deciding whether it's anything more than a gimmick.

Better Call Saul's opener is a stark contrast to the frenetic pacing of Breaking Bad. The parent show began in roller coaster fashion and was instantly addictive, not unlike a certain blue substance cooked up by its protagonist.

The spinoff’s first steps are more leisurely and jaunty, with Gilligan and his creative team seemingly revelling in the freedom this project brings. Breaking Bad had to be told in a short space of time, given Walt’s terminal cancer diagnosis, but the storyteller is no longer bound by this restriction.

Odenkirk is really stepping up and seizing the role of leading man with both hands, and while time will tell whether lightning has struck twice for Gilligan, his crooked attorney looks destined for great things.


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