As in Breaking Bad, Gilligan doesn’t rush to define every relationship or fill in every backstory. Better Call Saul‘s promotional materials identify Chuck as Jimmy’s brother, but if you watched the show without reading anything about it, all you’d know until the third episode is that they share a last name. I won’t be surprised if a full season passes before we find out exactly what happened between Jimmy and Kim.
Instead of exhausting itself with exposition, Better Call Saul throws Jimmy headfirst into a classic Saul Goodman scheme — one that ties together everyone from the fancy lawyers and a local politician to a pair of skateboarding scammers and a few angry thugs when it backfires. This does far more to establish Jimmy’s world than Gilligan would have accomplished had he taken the time to tell us every character’s favorite color and relationship status and where they went to college.
By far the most fascinating character on the show, of course, is Jimmy himself — the down-and-out defender with the beat-up car who will, in the space of a few short years, remake himself as Albuquerque’s #1 extralegal lawyer. A desperate desert scene midway through Episode 2 brings to the forefront something that Breaking Bad often suggested: Jimmy/Saul’s mouth is both his best weapon and his biggest liability. It’s the source of everything good and terrible in his life, and the reason why he is both a terrible lawyer and an excellent one.
Critics, myself included, have become fond of labeling every complicated white man at the center of a TV drama an “antihero” and bemoaning how common these characters have become. And don’t get me wrong — there are far too many hard-drinking, womanizing middle-aged men on television who are mysteriously brilliant and/or great at their jobs. But Vince Gilligan, despite having been elevated to demigod status sometime around Season 4 of Breaking Bad, has rarely gotten credit for how much his protagonists diverge from that trope. Walter White wasn’t an antihero so much as a repressed blank slate who found within himself an unlikely talent and a limitless capacity for villainy.
What makes Jimmy different is that his moral flexibility is in place from the very beginning, so in that way, his transformation into Saul will inevitably be subtler than Walt’s. The fact that his saving grace and fatal flaw are one and the same means that he isn’t quite like the classic antihero, either. Jimmy’s problem isn’t that his life is compartmentalized — it’s that it’s all jumbled together. Those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know where all this confusion will lead him, but in Better Call Saul, Odenkirk and Gilligan prove that it will be both fun and fascinating to watch him get there.