'Better Call Saul's' Dark Comic Brilliance: Vince Gilligan’s ‘Breaking Bad’ Spin-Off

‘Better Call Saul,’ Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s spin-off of one of TV’s greatest shows, is a slow burn, but after the premiere’s cliffhanger you’ll be hooked. [Warning: SPOILERS]

Ursula Coyote/AMC

When we first met Saul Goodman, the ambulance-chasing, Bluetooth-sporting attorney played with feverish panache by Bob Odenkirk, he’s a wisecracking fixer (think Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolf with an inferiority complex) who, like Bryan Cranston’s Seinfeld regifter, is posing as a Jew for the perceived benefits.“Faith and begorrah!” he exclaims. “A fellow potato eater! My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”

The episode was titled “Better Call Saul”—the eighth of Breaking Bad’s second season—and it saw Saul wedge himself in the middle of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s business. Walt is initially hesitant, but Jesse is onboard. “You don’t want a criminal lawyer,” he tells Walt, “you want a criminal lawyer.” So, after dodging a death threat in the desert, Saul miraculously solves the pair’s DEA/Badger kerfuffle by convincing a convict, Jimmy In-‘N-Out, to go to jail as Heisenberg in exchange for $80,000 and a pound of New Mexico’s finest blue meth. Eventually, he convinces Walt/Heisenberg that he can be his consigliere—the Tom Hagen to his Don Corleone—and offers up his money laundering expertise and myriad criminal connections (see: Gus Fring) in exchange for a cut of Walt’s action.

“Better Call Saul” was written by Peter Gould and he, along with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, serve as co-showrunners on the spin-off series Better Call Saul, which made its premiere Sunday night on AMC.

Saul opens with a six-minute black-and-white sequence. We’re in Omaha, Nebraska, where Saul relocated following the events of Breaking Bad. His new identity is that of Gene, a balding, mustachioed, bespectacled sad sack manager of a mall Cinnabon. He’s also incredibly paranoid, with one eye constantly looking over his shoulder. When he gets home, he pops in a tape of one of his old in-your-face TV ads, ending with the catchy slogan, “Better Call Saul!”

Following this brief meta-homage to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which also starred Odenkirk, the action flashes back six years prior to the events of Breaking Bad. We’re back in the familiar, colorful environs of New Mexico and Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk) is a bottom-rung lawyer begging for new clientele, whose self-described “A Law Corporation” rests in the back of an Asian nail salon. Aside from a trio of teen “knuckleheads” on trial for decapitating (and then sodomizing) a cadaver, his only real would-be client is his brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), a partner at the prestigious law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Chuck is on disability leave, but instead of collecting his share of the company—an estimated $17 million—he’s intent on recovering and reclaiming his former legal glory, much to Saul’s dismay.

“Money is NOT beside the point. Money IS the point,” Saul tells Chuck. For all his help, Chuck tries to persuade Jimmy to abandon his name as a “professional courtesy” to both him and the firm, so that he carves his own path in the law field and doesn’t “ride on someone else’s coattails.”

Stylistically, Saul resembles its parent show Breaking Bad from the get-go. The drab mise-en-scene punctuated by vivid close-ups; the tragicomic tone buoyed by the specter of disease; the intoxicating retro music; and the overall sense of alienation and desperation. There’s even Saul’s henchman, the late Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who pops up as a hard-nosed… parking garage attendant by Saul’s courthouse. He’s a long way from becoming Saul’s boy Friday and the man who removed any sign’s of Jane’s overdose from Jesse’s apartment—just as Jimmy is a long way from becoming the criminally-connected kook, Saul Goodman.

Though the first portion of Saul’s premiere is a slow burn, the action picks up at the tail end of the episode when Jimmy orchestrates a con gone awry that leads him into the clutches of none other than Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), the psycho, silver-grilled drug kingpin with ties to the Ciudad Juarez Cartel who got smoked by Hank Schrader.

Much of the success of Better Call Saul hinges on Odenkirk, who appears in virtually every scene of the premiere. And the Mr. Show star has never been more enthralling or at ease in a role. The ball of manic, depressed, negative energy that is Jimmy is a perfect match for Odenkirk’s comedic (and newfound dramatic) chops, as he lends plenty of pathos to this mesmeric loser with a heart of fool’s gold.

He’s not Saul Goodman just yet, but the journey there should be a bumpy, thrilling ride.