When this spin-off from Breaking Bad was confirmed to be in development way back in 2013 I had my trepidations – I didn’t think it could work, I didn’t want anyone to mess with the legacy of something near-perfect. And the universe that Vince Gilligan had created with Breaking Bad was near perfect. But I was wrong about one thing: Better Call Saul‘s first season has only strengthened the universe – strengthened my attachment to the characters.
Prequel spin-offs can function like double-edged swords. You may improve on the legacy of the original show, but, ultimately you will alter the way people view the original one. In a prequel, you essentially know where the characters end up, and only by severely altering the time, setting or the like can you achieve an acceptable end result. Better Call Saul is not Breaking Bad – and that’s a good thing. Sure, some episodes may feel like Breaking Bad (“Mijo”; “Five-O”) – but the main character is bound by something very different than what he was in Breaking Bad. For better or worse, Jimmy McGill in 2002 is not Saul Goodman.
In Breaking Bad, Saul accepted the way he was viewed by clients – hell, he embraced it. He was, for all intents and purposes, the lawyer bad people hired. Which isn’t to say that he would get you acquitted completely, but he knew the game the cops played – and he knew how to manipulate it. He was a lawyer, a con-man, and a stone cold criminal rolled up into one single character.
In Better Call Saul, Jimmy isn’t accepting how the Kettlemans initially view him – “a lawyer guilty people hire” – he works harder than anyone, or so it seems, to improve his appearance to clients; even if he apes HHM in “Hero”. Jimmy is, to put it in Ehrmantraut-terms, an honorable con-artist – that is, however, when he isn’t following the guidelines of Chuck McGill, his brother, played by Michael McKean.
In Better Call Saul, we see Jimmy walk the line between Slippin’ Jimmy (his nickname from nineties’ Illinois) and Chuck. At times he goes on a bender and fools someone, and at times he is an upstanding honorable lawyer. Though, I got the feeling that he became high on the danger in “Mijo”, wherein we get to see a rather long montage the day after the events in the desert. Jimmy is a different beast than Saul – at least until the last shot of the season.
The show brings us more than just courtrooms, deserts, and Slippin’ Jimmy. One of the most interesting characters in the first season was Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. Though some may have originally pigeonholed her as a simple love interest, she is much more than that – she is, in truth, Jimmy’s only friend in New Mexico. I absolutely loved what Seehorn did with this character, and I particularly appreciated her scenes in the parking lot of HHM. Not only were they beautifully shot, but she did fantastically. As were her scenes in the nail salon.
One should also express how great Patrick Fabian and Michael McKean were in the antagonist swap. Patrick Fabian’s Hamlin was beginning to anger, not only Jimmy, but viewers. He looked smug, arrogant, and people were starting to truly dislike him. Then came “Pimento” and all was revealed. Hamlin was covering for Chuck. Jimmy’s own brother had halted his dreams of becoming a full-fledged lawyer. Suddenly, Hamlin wasn’t that bad – and in retrospect Fabian’s acting in “Pimento” was absolutely perfect, as he looked sad (and clearly blamed Chuck) when refusing Jimmy.
Similarly, I loved seeing Michael Mando getting some top work as Nacho, one of Tuco’s ‘guys’. Mando was great as Nacho, though I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see more of him, and that he didn’t play a bigger part in the grand scheme of the season. I expect the writers to have something big in store for him, though.
I loved how the writers handled Mike Ehrmantraut’s story. Jonathan Banks was amazing in the two stand-out episodes this season (“Five-O”; “Pimento”), and his breakdown at the end of “Five-O” was award-worthy. You care a lot about this character, and his heartbreaking backstory was a welcomed surprise.
Now, there’s only one episode that you can single out as being subpar, and that’s “Alpine Shepherd Boy” – I’ve had multiple people tell me that the episode was boring, slow, and a filler episode. I don’t necessarily agree with the latter sentiment, but I get where they are coming from.
Before ending this review, I’d like to note some thoughts (that are in no way groundbreaking, but are noteworthy) on the final scenes of the season, due to some minor fan backlash I’ve noticed. Here’s why I loved the final scenes: It featured that great shot of Jimmy looking ‘east/right’, paralleling the coin scam from earlier in the episode. Instead of going back east/right to his settled past life as an attorney in elder law, he turned around and went west/left – often symbolizing new riches, territory, future, exemplified by the idea of manifest destiny or westward expansion.
The end of the season was, in my humble opinion, about Jimmy disregarding the watchful eye of Chuck – about disregarding the moral compass, the guidelines set forth by Chuck. It was about choosing freedom, in spite of Chuck and all he ‘had to do’. The last week was the best ever for Marco, and, perhaps, Jimmy now finally knows what’s best for him.
I’m Jeffrey Rex