Friday, February 13, 2015

Breaking Away: AMC's Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk stars in AMC's Better Call Saul.

"Wouldn't you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else's coattails?"
– Chuck McGill to his brother Jimmy (Better Call Saul, "Uno").
My first real introduction to Vince Gilligan's work (outside of the many episodes of The X-Files that bore his name) was The Lone Gunmen, a spin-off from a groundbreaking, blockbuster show – in that instance, The X-Files itself. That series premiered and disappeared in 2001, during its parent series' ever-weakening eighth and penultimate season. (In many ways, those last seasons of The X-Files felt like a pale spin-off of itself, with its signature stars becoming slowly reduced to near "guest star" status.) The Lone Gunman however took its trio of "not-ready-for-primetime" characters from the comic relief background of The X-Files, and built a story with and around them that had humour, poignancy, and most crucially an energy that seemed fundamentally lacking in The X-Files itself at the time. Along with fellow X-Files alums John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz, Gilligan penned most of the episodes. Despite positive reviews, the series suffered terrible ratings and was cancelled at the end of its brief first season. Last winter (not uncoincidentally in the months following the end of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad), I binge re-watched all 13 episodes The Lone Gunman (including its cliffhanger-resolving "14th episode" that ran as part of The X-Files' ninth season), and found it even more delightful, and addictively entertaining, than I'd remembered. The Lone Gunman succeeded precisely where many spin-off series fumble: it knew and loved its characters more than it wanted to woo its source series' coveted audience share. It was a show designed to reflect its offbeat and charming characters. The result was a series with a unique voice and tone – an especial challenge precisely for a spin-off to a beloved series – and one that could stand on its own. In short, The Lone Gunmen could justify its own existence.

This past Sunday and Monday, Vince Gilligan returned to the cable airwaves with another spin-off, this time to his critically and audience acclaimed series Breaking Bad.  Better Call Saul takes us half a decade back before the beginning of Breaking Bad and delves into the unwritten back-story of one of the series' most beloved secondary characters: Walter White's shady lawyer, Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk). So far, so good – but when the prequel series was first announced in the months prior to the airing of Breaking Bad's final episodes, I was definitely of two minds about its prospects. Spin-offs are risky propositions, not least of which because when they falter, they can retroactively diminish the show that inspired them. My concerns about the proposed new series were redoubled after Breaking Bad ended with near novelistic completeness in September 2013. (I'm not sure any television series has ever had so emphatically a beginning, middle, and end as Breaking Bad – and it seemed to me, as the credits rolled on its final episode, that anything added to that universe could only diminish it.) If I remained hopeful at all about the new series, it wasn't because Gilligan had created and helmed what turned out to one of the smartest and most powerful television series of the new millennium: it was because of The Lone Gunmen. And now that the first two episodes of Better Call Saul have aired, I am grateful to be able to say that my faith has been more than confirmed.

Co-created by Gilligan and Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould, Better Call Saul opens some time after the events of Breaking Bad's final scenes. We find Saul (Odenkirk) soberly slaving away at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska – precisely as Saul himself had predicted in the second-to-last episode of Breaking Bad. Mustachioed and now apparently named "Gene," Saul is pretty much as we last saw him: despairing, tired, and ultimately resigned to his fate in hiding. We follow him back to his sparely-furnished home, where he pours himself a glass of inexpensive whiskey and slumps down in front of the television to watch a shopping channel. After a moment and a deep sigh, he pulls a few items out of a hiding place, including an old videotape that he slips into the player. We soon hear the familiar sounds one of Saul's late night television ads for his strip-mall law office: "It's never too late for justice. Better Call Saul!"

The opening scenes play out in black-and-white, but as Saul mournfully stares at the television, the flickering light of his old TV ad reflect back in colour on his glasses. His unvoiced question is clear: "How did I get here? How did this happen?" Having watched five seasons of Breaking Bad, viewers might believe they already know the answer to that question. Better Call Saul begins from the premise that we don't.

Michael McKean as Chuck McGill in Better Call Saul.

Because it turns out that Saul isn't thinking back on Walter White and Jesse Pinkman or about blue meth and international drug cartels, but to years earlier, back to when he wasn't yet Saul Goodman at all, but still named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy's a hustling and struggling public defender living hand to mouth, and trying to get out from under the shadow of his far more successful lawyer older brother Chuck, played by Michael McKean (himself a veteran of The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen, where his quirky Agent Fletcher character was the most persistent bridge between the two shows). Chuck, it turns out, is broken as well: recently estranged from the law firm where he was a founding name partner, and suffering from what seems to be a kind of electromagnetic sensitivity. Jimmy McGill, unlike Saul Goodman, has friends and a family – if not much else. Jimmy is a talker, but one who has yet to find his true voice.

Deeply pragmatic, wisecracking, self-deprecating, and often the only character on Breaking Bad who was capable and willing of telling the truth when he saw it, Saul Goodman was a grounding figure and probably the closest thing Walter White's Albuquerque had to a sincere man, albeit a sincerely criminal and self-serving one. Despite his comedy background, Odenkirk's character on Breaking Bad was never mere comic relief, but he was a kind of relief nonetheless: reliable, in his own self-interested way; a constant in a universe in which evolution was the norm; and perhaps the one character whose reactions could be comfortably anticipated. Better Call Saul is that man's original story. And often the best stories are the ones that we didn't believe needed to be told. Still, opening the series the way they did may seem like a risky wager on Gilligan and Gould's part. It explicitly invites us to take all that we already know from Breaking Bad  – about Saul and his world and his future – and keep it firmly in mind. Right away, the series dares us to not bracket everything we know, but instead hold to it and let it hover on the margins of all the scenes to come – essentially framing the entire series to come as a sustained flashback sequence. Frankly though, that would have been the case no matter how the series was framed – and it was immediately reassuring to know that Better Call Saul knew that too.

Bob Odenkirk with show creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan.
Odenkirk is in practically every scene of the first two episodes, and he shines throughout. To witness just a glimmer of his actor's range, check out his supporting role in last year's first season of Fargo. There, as here, Odenkirk inhabits his characters with his entire body. Though Jimmy, like his older self, is a talker – a man with a golden, or perhaps silver, tongue – it is more often when silent that Odenkirk really communicates. (In the second hour, there's a scene in the desert where Jimmy finds himself, albeit with good intentions, complicit in two acts of brutal violence. With his face, posture, and a determined refusal not to look away, Odenkirk reveals layers of ambivalence and even the first indication of Jimmy's still-undiscovered strength, all without a single word.)

I don't think any Breaking Bad fans were walking into Better Call Saul with any notion that it would continue the existential tour de force that the earlier series was. I was surprised, and gratified, however, by how firmly the new series remains set in the Breaking Bad universe. Also filmed and set in Albuquerque (and no doubt using much of the same crew), Better Call Saul doesn't have the signature look and often expressionistic cinematography of Breaking Bad but many of the same rules apply, especially when it comes to its depiction of violence. Saul has already demonstrated that it won't shy away from the reality of the violence it depicts; when it comes, the violence is unrelenting and brutal – but never exploitative.

Ironically, if it weren't for Breaking Bad, Saul may have even more impressive on first viewing. The controlled direction, the care that it gives to the inner lives of its central characters, its near absurdist comic voice, and the bursts of  extreme violence which seem to perennially lurk just around every corner: all of that shows up here. Few other television shows have ever taken violence as seriously as Breaking Bad did, and now we can add Better Call Saul to that short list. Whether it’s a spontaneous beating or a broken leg, there is no way to watch it without feeling the weight and reality of its cruelty and its pain. The costs of experiencing violence – be it as victim, perpetrator, or bystander – are painfully apparent.

Perhaps the most anticipated new series of 2015, Better Call Saul doesn't disappoint. And even better, it surprises. Though the 10-episode first season (and its already commissioned 13-episode second season) certainly promise a bevy of cameos and guest stars designed to thrill loyal Breaking Bad fans, Better Call Saul has already begun to stand firmly on its own feet. In just two episodes, Jimmy McGill has already become a character worth rooting for, whatever his future may hold

Better Call Saul airs on Monday nights on AMC.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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