From its first scene, Better Call Saul took full ownership of the fact that is what is TV’s most overt (and often least successful) ratings grab, a spinoff. Breaking Bad ‘s Saul Goodman is first glimpsed in a Nebraska mall, now a Cinnabon manager called Gene in a familiar black and white foreshadowing device from Breaking Bad. However, the device works differently from its predecessor. BrBa‘s use of this device was always a hint to coming events, images that couldn’t be understood until the blanks were filled in. With Better Call Saul, BrBa‘s viewers know how Saul got here. Walter White entering Saul’s office to pay for legal representation for the hapless Badger is the starting point on Saul’s journey ending in Omaha. This series, however, isn’t concerned with what Saul Goodman was doing while outside of Walter White’s sightline on that journey, but rather the journey of Jimmy McGill becoming Saul Goodman. As the show concludes its first season, Better Call Saul has taken some good cues from its lineage, but has found its own, unique identity.
The opening episodes Uno and Mijo, show a visual connectivity to Breaking Bad. The sunbaked desert landscapes and blue skies with ample clouds that were so often part of Walter White’s cooks and meets are here. But so are neon lit courthouses and a halfway through Uno, a first look inside the unlit home of Jimmy McGill’s brother Chuck. Darkened due to Chuck’s mental illness and fear of electromagnetism. This is where visually, it has separated from Breaking Bad. Beyond Chuck’s home, there is Jimmy’s dank, cramped office in the back a nail salon. An under lit parking garage at the Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill law firm. Almost all of Mike’s flashback to Philadelphia, the dingy bar, an industrial park. There is a dark, claustrophobic element to Saul that was far less prevalent in BrBa, and has from the second episode on has been a show of interiors, constriction, and darkness, more than one of exteriors, open spaces, and light. Visual style has allowed Saul to keep the urgency of BrBa while being a less intense, generally more upbeat show.
Not that Better Call Saul is the laugh fest that many assumed a spinoff starring Breaking Bad’s comic relief and costarring Michael McKean would be. McKean’s performance has been strictly (and brilliantly) dramatic, and Bob Odenkirk has had the chance to show his range extends well beyond the wisecracks, non sequiturs, and smarminess the BrBa iteration of Saul Goodman is known and loved for. Despite the beautiful, brutal performance in the sixth episode Five-O, Saul gets many of its biggest laughs from the most intense character, Jonathan Banks’ still wonderfully rendered Mike Ehrmantraut (see the three mercenaries in a parking garage scene from the episode Pimento for evidence). Banks’ unchanged performance of Mike is the linchpin that keeps Saul connected to Breaking Bad, the reminder that this is still the world where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman cooked their way to the meth business and Gus Fring can slit a man’s throat with a box cutter to send a message. This early in the show’s run, he needs to be. Saul Goodman isn’t Saul Goodman yet, and beyond a cameo by Tuco Salamanca back in episode 2, there is little else to remind us that somewhere in this world Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher, yet to have cancer, that is just teaching chemistry.
The season 1 finale of Better Call Saul airs April 6th at 10 on AMC