TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 1

Better Call Saul Season 1 (AMC)
Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Bradley Paul, and Gordon Smith
Directed by Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Terry McDonough, Colin Bucksey, Nicole Kassell, Adam Bernstein, and Larysa Kondracki

Justice is a joke in the United States. I was born & raised in the U.S., and it’s evident that our system of law & order is a complete joke, a hollow icon trotted out by the worst corrupt figures responsible for doing near incalculable harm to the most vulnerable people. But we give them badges, call them “Judge,” and put everything on fancy official letterhead, which legitimizes the evil. There are always pressure release valves built into any social system like this, and the establishment understands most people will not go along with the idea that the justice system is hallowed & pure. So they allow us to mock one part of it, and it works out to their advantage that way; they mock defense attorneys. I grew up seeing commercials for people like Bart Durham, downright shady ads that promised people big paydays if they went with him. These are always working-class lawyers, the big city, expensive slick ones get a bit more grandeur in their media portrayals. On the surface, Saul Goodman appeared to be one of those ambulance chasers when he appeared on Breaking Bad. With his own series spin-off, a prequel of sorts, audiences got the chance to see if there was more beneath the colorful suits & flowery language.

Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is a lawyer working out of the back of a nail salon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But he’s also Gene Takavic, managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. Well, that second identity is part of a framing device. Jimmy is in hiding following the events of Breaking Bad. He’s assumed a false persona with forged credentials and had to abandon everything he loved. One night, as the snow begins falling in a potential blizzard, Jimmy sits in his lonely apartment and remembers the early 2000s. He was working as a public defender, scraping by and trying to stay on the straight and narrow. 

His older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a well-respected lawyer at the firm Hamlin Hamlin and McGill, but something happened a few months prior. Chuck claims to have developed an intensely violent allergic reaction to all things electronic. He lives in his large mansion devoid of electricity, using a gas-powered stove and old-fashioned lanterns. If Chuck leaves the firm, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) will be forced to buy him out, leaving HHM in a bad financial state. So Howard pretends Chuck is working from home, and everything is fine. 

Jimmy is a loner for the most part, but he does have one person he lets in, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Kim is an attorney at HHM who dreams of making partner. While Jimmy likes to tiptoe over the Law to get the outcomes he knows should happen, Kim is very by the book. She’s still tempted by Jimmy because she can see goodness in him that others can’t, especially his brother. Their relationship is relatively secret but not officially declared; it’s hard to say in the first season if they are a couple or just friends with benefits at this point.

Rounding out the cast is another familiar face, Mike Ehrmentrout (Jonathan Banks). We get to see Mike before he was the lackey of Gus Fring. Jimmy knows Mike as the unyielding parking lot attendant at the Albuquerque courthouse. Eventually, Mike runs into legal trouble, and as much as Jimmy annoys him, he knows he’s a lawyer who can get him off the hook. That begins their working relationship, where one calls upon the other when things get bad. For the most part, Mike is operating in his own side stories making the show not just a solo spin-off but a two-hander.

The core of Better Call Saul’s first season hinges on the question, “Is it worth it to be good?” The definition of what “good” means is explored mostly in episodes that center on two cases: The Kettlemans and the Sandpiper Crossing retirement homes. Craig Kettleman is a county treasurer accused of embezzlement, and Jimmy is trying to get the case because he sees it as a career maker. As we learn more about the Kettlemans, we are reminded that this television world is one with a lot of moral gray instead of simplistic black and white. Jimmy constantly wobbles back and forth on what he should do and does break the law but in a manner that he feels he can justify, at least to himself. The Sandpiper Crossing case proves to be something where our protagonist can do a lot of good, but outside forces overwhelm him and leave Jimmy feeling smaller than before.

In a clever twist, the first episode ends with a cameo from a Breaking Bad character, and they do play a significant role in the second one. However, the show clarifies that this will not be Breaking Bad: Constant Foreshadowing. Instead, this is a story about Jimmy McGill and the people in his life. When appropriate, a figure from Breaking Bad may appear, but don’t expect to see that in every episode. The peril in Better Call Saul is often much more muted than Breaking Bad’s intense and violent stakes. Negotiation with dangerous parties does happen but shares screen time with what might be considered relatively mundane character development. 

The seediest episode of the show’s first season is also its best, though “Five-O” spotlights Mike as we learn more about his personal life. His biggest concern is the safety and care of his daughter-in-law Stacey and his granddaughter, Kaylee. Mike’s son Matt was, like his dad, a cop in Philadelphia. Matt was killed when he and a few other officers responded to a call at a warehouse on the city’s edge. Mike thinks the whole thing smells like a set-up and tries to learn the truth about what happened to Matt. At the same time, he wants to keep Matt’s image clean in his family’s eyes and tries to hide it all. When two Philly cops turn up dead, they send detectives to Albuquerque to question Mike. Mike needs a lawyer, and the only one he knows off the top of his head is Jimmy. Thus their relationship expands to something outside of the courthouse parking situation. The show is interested in taking time and developing these relationships, so Mike & Jimmy are a very slow-burn.

Better Call Saul Season 1 is a great starting point. With all television shows, you can see that it’s just a hair rough around the edges, but coming off the end of a major success like Breaking Bad, the showrunners are building on that framework. What sets this apart from that show is that Better Call Saul’s creator Peter Gould is a much different creative type than Vince Gilligan. Gould is doing some exciting things visually with this show and peppering the dialogue with film references. It’s never too much, and it helps to inform the audience about where the show is coming from thematically. This is like a 1970s drama turned into a prestige television series, something Friedkin or Scorsese might have dreamed up. It has hooked me right away, and I can already feel we’re going on an emotional roller coaster with many of these characters in the coming seasons.

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