Published on February 11th, 2015 | by Michael0
Better Call Saul – Uno – Review
For better or for worse, Better Call Saul sees us plunge back into Walter White’s world in this highly anticipated spin-off. The White family might not be the focus any more but the series starts by reminding us what a relationship with Walt cost the new main character. Yes, the man formerly known as Saul Goodman is shown, via a typically Gilligan montage, as a baker in a Cinnabon somewhere far away from the sun-drenched lands of New Mexico. The scene is shot in black and white as if to emphasise the dreary existence Saul now leads. Did you ever wonder what happened to Henry Hill after he uttered the immortal words at the end of Goodfellas ‘I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook’? Well it probably looks an awful lot like this. As we see this defeated man making these sugary treats, the camera pans up to show a prevalent bald spot peeking through his work cap. In fact, with his limp moustache and sad, almost dead eyes, Saul looks for all the world like Walt, the Walt we first meet working in a car wash, taking abuse from the kids he attempts to teach chemistry to. Like Walt, Saul is taunted by the promise his future once held. Walt was a budding young genius who had to sell up his shares in what became a Fortune 500 Company, Saul once saw his name up in lights. Indeed at night, with a glass of whisky in his hand, he likes to watch his old commercials on VHS to remind himself of what he used to be.
Thankfully for the viewer, we can do what Saul cannot. That’s right, we can jump back into his glory days! Actually, the scene jumps back too far, again missing out on Saul at his peak. Instead we’re confronted with James McGill, a nervous public defender whose valiant efforts are not enough to save three kids (who sawed the head off a corpse and had sex with it) from jail time. Worse, the whole ordeal netted McGill just $700 and just to kick a man when he’s down, the stickler in the parking lot both, Mike Ehrmantraut, no less, tells him his parking hasn’t been validated. A word too, about McGill’s car, which is set to be to Saul/McGill what the Pontiac was to Walt. It’s a beat-up, rusting shit-tip, as McGill says to a pair of amateur hustlers ‘It’s only worth $500 if there’s a $300 hooker in it!’ The irony-laden name of this rolling embarrassment? The Suzuki Esteem.
Things generally are not turning up Millhouse for McGill. He’s reduced to combing the news looking for clients and while it seems that he’s about to score a big case defending the County Treasurer from embezzlement at the last moment the man’s wife talks him out of it. Meanwhile, McGill’s office is off the supply room of a podiatrists, one in which he’s not allowed to drink the complimentary cucumber water. Despite his obvious money troubles, McGill rips up a cheque he’s received for $26,000 – a rare attack of conscience from Albuquerque’s future leading ‘criminal’ lawyer? A fired up McGill storms into the very swish offices of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill (and it’s a cinch ol’ Jimmy is not the named partner) to confront the board over the paltry cheque for $26,000 – it appears that a relative of James’, a Chuck McGill, helped build the law firm and is entitled to a third – by James’ estimation, a cool $17M. Highlights of this scene include McGill trying to work out on the fly what a third of five lamps is, and his quoting of the classic Network to an oblivious and unappreciated audience. You can almost hear him mutter the word ‘plebs’ as he departs.
Chasing Chuck’s money is not the only fish in McGill’s fryer though. There’s also the man himself. It’s not made clear what is wrong with Chuck, but given his manic behaviour, the fact he lights his house with lanterns and that he makes McGill ground himself before he enters, it’s probable he has a tumour or similar. The scene between McGill and Chuck (Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean) is heart-breaking, as Chuck implores McGill to believe he can overcome his ailment and return to work. He also wants a letter translated into Finnish and sent to a Professor, which hints at an abundance of pent up energy that Chuck is at a loss as to how to direct. The seeds of McGill’s eventual name change are also planted here – it seems that Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill don’t want another McGill running around, trading on their name. Meanwhile, James McGill wants to enlist his two would-be hustlers to work for him. The pair, dopey, skateboarding twins (Gilligan sure does love his twins) take falls for money, normally by skating into cars. McGill wants them to do so to the Treasurer’s wife in a half-baked scheme to have her recruit him as her husband’s lawyer. To get them on side, McGill regales them with the tale of Slippin’ Jimmy up in Cicero who revelled in the harsh winters because every fall meant a big pay-day. McGill’s rendition of the tale put me in mind of Palpatine seducing Anakin to the dark side at the Opera in Revenge of The Sith and the net result is the same. Alas, things go awry and the twins fall foul of the second, less expected Breaking Bad cameo. The twins didn’t just pick on the wrong driver, they picked on Tuco’s mother! Whoops.
Better Call Saul’s pilot is hardly explosive but then Breaking Bad before it was the master of the slow burn until it kicked into over drive. The advantage the new show has is that it’s central character is already well known so the show can afford to take its time and dispense with the usual ‘getting to know you’ nonsense that often marrs early episodes. The good news is that two of Vince Gilligan’s undoubted strengths are already in evidence. The first is that he’s a master of structure – rare was there an action in Breaking Bad that didn’t have a consequence, no scene was wasted and the plot went down no blind alleys. It also excelled in jumping around the timeline so it’s great to see Better Call Saul start with a flash-forward – Gilligan and co-creater Peter Gould already know how it will end up, the joy will be in the journey. The second strength that is carried over is Breaking Bad’s signature visual flair. That show truly had cinematography worthy of the silver screen, only The Sopranos before it could claim the same. From the opening baking montage in bleak black and white to the gorgeous, rich colours of Albuquerque, Better Call Saul looks like nothing else currently on TV. Once again, city itself is a character as well drawn as anyone else, with its vaguely unsettling suburbs, run down strip-malls and oppressive desert surroundings. I’m happy to be back.