One and a half years after one of the greatest and most popular TV-shows of all time came to an end, writer and director Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Hancock) teamed up with Peter Gould (Breaking Bad) – once again – to live up to earlier successes.
The result of this cooperation is yet another great TV-show that centers on one of the most intriguing and compelling characters of Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, criminal lawyer Saul Goodman – played by two-time Emmy Award winning actor Bob Odenkirk. Set in 2002 – six years before Breaking Bad – Better Call Saul follows the story of small-time attorney James “Jimmy” McGill as he transforms into Walter White’s morally challenged lawyer, Saul Goodman. Despite the appearance of Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) – both important characters in Breaking Bad – Gilligan at no point throughout the first season leaves any room for interpretations on who the real star is. Bob Odenkirk is doing a fantastic job at portraying the character of James McGill – just like he did in Breaking Bad. With excellent performances in recent years – especially in shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo and currently Better Call Saul – Odenkirk has really molted into one heck of a character actor.
Despite the high expectations of the audience – following the huge success of Breaking Bad – Gilligan was brave enough to take on this project, well knowing that the eyes of Millions would be on him from the very first episode. Better Call Saul hit the road running though and has never disappointed at any point throughout the first season. This once again shows how confident Vince Gilligan is when it comes to leaving the comfort zone and trying out something new.
Plot and writing
To make this clear from the outset, the first season of Better Call Saul has a very calm and impartial narrative style. The pace in which the story progresses is not nearly as fast as in Breaking Bad which might be one of the reasons why not every Breaking Bad fan will automatically enjoy Better Call Saul. Another aspect is the lack of “action” throughout the first season which can be seen as either a positive or a negative aspect. I for one believe that due to the lack of action (which in this case mainly refers to physical action) and the increasing focus on the main characters personality, the story unfolds in a much more natural and realistic way. Furthermore, the viewer gets a deeper insight into the personality of James McGill rather than the lawyer Saul Goodman which – to be honest – should be the main purpose of this prequel.
“We all know who Saul Goodman is – or at least purports to be – but we know very little about who he was!”
I have to admit, the main reason why the concept of Better Call Saul as a spinoff is paying off is due to Bob Odenkirk and his way of portraying the character of James McGill. Even though Odenkirk started his career back in 1987 as a writer for Saturday Night Live there is no doubt about his ability to act in front of the camera. Furthermore, the foolish yet extremely confident character of small-time attorney James McGill fits Odenkirk – who also did open-mic stand-up comedy for several years – perfectly. In the end, it’s this ease of portrayal that makes this series so genuine and naturally funny.
In this context I’d also like to talk about my second most favourite character of Better Call Saul: Mike Ehrmantraut. Jonathan Banks – who portrays Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad as well as Better Call Saul – is a very accomplished stage actor who is probably best known for his gruff and deep voice (provided that you are watching the shows in English). The most noticeable trademark of Ehrmantraut’s character however is his calm and quiet way of intimidating people and it’s no secret that those character traits are tailor-made for Jonathan Banks. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about just go watch the secondlast episode (Pimento) of the first season of Better Call Saul and you will see what I mean when talking about “quietly intimidating performances”.
Not many of you are going to be familiar with the name Arthur Albert and I have to admit neither was I before I started watching Better Call Saul. Albert – a cinematographer from Venezuela – is probably best known for the TV-show Emergency Room in which he acted as the director of photography an astonishing 164 times. He furthermore worked as DP for the movie Happy Gilmore, a few The Blacklist episodes and two Breaking Bad episodes – which earned him a nomination for the OFTA Television Award for Best Cinematography in a Series in both 2013 and 2014.
The cinematic language of Better Call Saul is indeed similar to the one used in Breaking Bad. This however has less to do with the DP rather than the general style of director Vince Gilligan and the fact that both shows are strongly related. The main difference between those two series is their distinction in mood and overall tone. While Breaking Bad has a very serious and dramatic tone to it, Better Call Saul manages to reflect the protagonist’s chaotic and facetious personality to give the series a more comedic touch.
Besides the use of a very “dull” colour profile – which may reflect Jimmy’s boring and unspectacular life – Gilligan uses a lot of recurring shots – in my eyes a stylistic element – to further strengthen the presumption that the protagonist is stuck in his daily routine. Additionally, I really enjoy the natural and ordinary look of Better Call Saul giving me the feeling that the protagonist is struggling with life just like any other human being.
Unlike (probably) many of you, I believe that the first ten episodes of Better Call Saul were indeed better than the first season of Breaking Bad. Don’t get me wrong I really enjoyed Breaking Bad (still one of my favourite shows of all time) and especially Bryan Cranston as chemistry teacher Walter White but there is just something about the character of James McGill – and the way Bob Odenkirk portrays him – that fascinates me. Of course, it’s hard to say how the story around James McGill develops and I have to admit that Breaking Bad stepped it up a notch especially towards the end of season four but that does not discount the value of Better Call Saul in any way. I greatly enjoyed the first season of Better Call Saul and I am excited to see how Vince Gilligan will satisfy my expectations yet once again.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
“It’s showtime, folks!”