Better Call Saul, Mondays 9pm Central on AMC
I love everything about this show. Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould took what has long been a pitfall of TV entertainment (the useless and unneeded spinoff) and turned it into what may be the best show on TV. The entire 1st season has unfolded like a slightly off-kilter John Cheever story. The creators and writers have taken an uproarious, ridiculous, sleezy, but quite one dimensional color character from the now classic “Breaking Bad” and fleshed him out into a leading character that we feel for, pull for, and laugh with (and occasionally at). Over season 1 we have watched Jimmy McGill (played, as in Breaking Bad, by comedic impresario Bob Odenkirk) try and build his bellow the bottom the of barrel law practice into something less than a punchline to a life that had up to that point been a literal con job. You see, Slippin’ Jimmy, with the help of his wingman Marco, had made his living on the mean streets of Cicero conning barflies out of their beer money until he finally got in over his head and his lawyer brother Chuck bailed him out, figuratively and literally.
Jimmy went from mail-boy at his brother’s million dollar Law Firm to newly minted (by the law school at the University of the American Samoa) lawyer. Jimmy looks like a dumb puppy who finally went number two on command when he shows his brother his passing grade from the New Mexico Bar. Chuck is less than thrilled, and as we find out as the season unfolds, Chuck (who has some serious, though as yet not fully explored mental health difficulties) finally admits to Jimmy that he sees his younger brother as little more than a joke, a cross to bear that will never be anything but Slippin’ Jimmy in his eyes. Chuck is played with subtle humor and sympathy by the great comedic actor Michael McKean and a character that could have been your run of the mill “disapproving authority figure” but is instead a compelling part of the plot and a source of some of the season’s great moments, not the least of which is the agoraphobic lawyer’s first sojourn into the real world in months, if not years. The scene is beautifully shot, with an enormous elm tree embracing the frame like a comforting hug from a loved one. The scenes between Jimmy and Chuck are incredibly realistic and, I can say as someone who has a brother, the feelings that are on display are dead on in their accuracy. Chuck loves Jimmy, but he hates what he is, who he is, and sees his hijinks, not unfairly, as an insult to the Law profession that he loves just as dearly. It will be fun to see where the writers choose to take this relationship as the series continues.
Better Call Saul is about some rather seedy characters, but it does not have the moral burden of having a literal psychopath as it’s central personality. We don’t constantly have to justify our love for the character, and explain away his actions, like we had to with Walter White/Heisenberg. If Breaking Bad was about the banality and morality of good and evil, Saul is more about those pesky grey area most of the world lives, lies, and loves in. Jimmy is a “bad guy”, sure, at least insofar as he is an unethical guy. Then again most of his “victims” are unethical or at least criminally stupid. Jimmy seems to have an innate understanding of the human capacity for self-justification: the larcenous couple, Jimmy’s clients, who bilk the tax payers out of millions, the brother who who justifies his emotional abuse of his brother by telling himself it is for the poor schmuck’s “own good”. Jimmy knows when to hold them and when to fold them, to quote the great Kenny Rogers, and he knows when someone is trying to string him along. Sometimes he lets them, all the while gaining leverage over his wannabe tormentors and turning the deceit (and greed, and anger, and fear) to his advantage. Jimmy McGill is a bad lawyer, in an ethical sense, but he is not an incompetent lawyer. Far from it; he knows the ins and outs of the law, the loopholes and hidey-holes that can make you a pretty penny if you know how to exploit them. This is how he creates the Sandpiper Nursing home out of whole cloth, and how he stays one step ahead of a violent group of drug runners he runs afoul of in pursuit of a case (or con).
As with Breaking Bad (it is inevitable that this new show will be compared to its progenitor, so why fight it?) “Saul” is buoyed by its supporting characters. The aforementioned Chuck is one example, as is fellow lawyer and one time love interest Kim Wexler. Kim works for the Jimmy’s brother’s firm, and while the character has yet to be fully fleshed out (I am looking forward to this next season) she is played by Rhea Seehorn with a steely resolve and drive that is tempered by a burning-self doubt that seems to be holding her back from her full potential. It is not always clear whether Kim loves Jimmy or just pities him, but she tries to do right by a friend who she obviously has some feelings for. In a flashback we are teased with the fact that Kim and Jimmy were once very much in love, but something, or someone, came between them. That tension is obvious in their interactions with one another, with Jimmy obviously trying his damndest to not drag Kim down into the muck and mire with him.
The real standout from the first season, and in my opinion the most compelling and human story in the show so far, is the saga of corrupt Philly Cop/Muscle for hire Mike Ehrmantraut. Mike was played by Jonathan Banks with a tired authority in Breaking Bad, and he reprises the fan favorite character with an increased sense of urgency and tragedy in “Saul”. We find Mike running a ticket booth at the county court parking lot, where he first meets Jimmy, obviously bored as can be with his life and seeking to do right by the widow of his beloved son. The son was gunned down by his supposed “brothers” on the police force in Philly for refusing to play dirty like his fellow cops, and his father, do and did. When Mike relates the story of his son’s disillusionment with his father and with his career, Banks takes what could have been a maudlin scene and turns it into a tour de force of genuine emotion and pathos. Mike is not the sort to wear his emotions on his sleeve but in this moment with his daughter-in-law he shows a vulnerability and a sadness that is as profound as it is revelatory. Mike in “Bad” was a violent but fair grim reaper of sorts, but “Saul’s” Mike is a man who is trapped in a hell of his own making and who is desperately trying to salvage what he can from the wreckage that he had a large part in creating. Mike’s story line is not integral to Jimmy’s development (at least not yet…) but it is an important part of why the series works as well as it does. I personally hope that Mike’s plot remains as central to the show as Jimmy’s, and I suspect it will as Jimmy becomes Saul and has more and more need for a quiet but effective enforcer. Mike is brutal and unforgiving, but he has a humor and sense of fairplay about him that makes you respect and even love him. He is kind to his daughter-in-law and positively dotes on his granddaughter. Mike is most like the Ronin of such Samurai classics as “Seven Samurai”, “13 Assassins”, and the “Blind Samurai” series. He takes his craft, organized, strategically applied violence, seriously and he never does anything halfway. He also refuses to hurt others unless he absolutely has to, and he takes no joy in causing others pain. He is a force of nature, an inevitability, and he embraces this role. In Jimmy he has met another soul that knows that sometimes you have to get your hands, or a homicide detective’s shirt, dirty in order to get things done. They are drawn together first out of need, and then out of a sort of begrudging respect. Mike wanted out of the dirty world in which he plied his trade, but now that it is threatening to drag him back in again, he is not struggle all that hard to prevent it from doing so. I think there is much more to mine with this character and I expect Jimmy and Mike will find more and more in common as the show progresses.
I have tried, but I cannot find anything wrong with this show. It’s pacing is perfect, its subject matter dark but fascinating and occasionally hilarious, and the writing is so naturalistic it borders on documentary style. This is how people in the real world spin tall tales, how they ply their trade, and how they justify their behavior to their peers and to themselves. The season ended on a low key (but brilliant) note and I have a feeling that Better Call Saul has nowhere to go but up.