It’s not clear, at first, what we’re seeing in black and white, accompanied by The Ink Spots’ “Address Unknown.” There’s a rolling pin, and sugar, and baked goods. Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul begins sort of like a Woody Allen movie set at a Cinnabon in an Omaha mall. Lightly disguised with a mustache and glasses, Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman works the register and shrinks in terror at the sight of a muscular guy who he mistakenly imagines has been sent to do him harm. We follow him home to a modern yet dark and soulless-looking home, where he slumps in front of the TV and drinks. Then, after ensuring that no one is spying on him, he digs out a VHS tape from a box under the floorboards and watches “Better Call Saul” commercials until he cries.
So, this is the post-Walter White fate of Saul Goodman. Despite being entirely devoid of dialogue, the first few minutes of Better Call Saul tell us everything we need to know about his life now: he’s relocated, solitary, anonymous. He works a dreary service job. Fear (of getting caught or killed) and nostalgia (for the days when he was the go-to lawyer for Albuquerque’s criminal elite) are his ruling emotions. This sequence is both entirely different in tone from anything we ever saw on Breaking Bad and a classic example of the unexpected — and shockingly effective — Vince Gilligan cold open.
But what is this beautiful little short film doing there, as a prologue to a series set before the events of Breaking Bad, besides satisfying that show’s fans’ curiosity about Saul’s fate? Well, it’s informing everything that comes after it. As we learn in the pilot, Better Call Saul will be the story of how Jimmy McGill, struggling public defender with a big mouth, becomes Saul Goodman, a successful and notorious legal adviser to Walter White and all manner of other deep-pocketed criminal types. Knowing that our protagonist ends up drunk and alone, working at a mall in the Midwest, inflects what should be a triumphant (if sordid) hard-earned-rags-to-ill-gotten-riches tale with tragedy. And it’s not even the Shakespearean or Greek-style tragedy that befell Walter White — by living, and serving as nothing more than a supporting character in another man’s epic rise and fall, he’s consigned to a more pedestrian fate.
The real story of Better Call Saul begins in 2002, which means that our hero’s glory days lasted less than a decade. When we meet Jimmy McGill, he’s in court defending three 19-year-old boys on trial for breaking into a funeral home, severing the head of a corpse, and then, ugh, having sex with it. Those of us who still see Tortuga’s head mounted on the shell of an actual turtle in our nightmares shouldn’t be surprised at Vince Gilligan’s (who directed the pilot, which he wrote in collaboration with his Better Call Saul co-creator, Peter Gould) twisted sense of humor. After a rehearsal in the bathroom, Jimmy delivers a spirited closing statement about how knucklehead kids do stupid things… but then the prosecutor simply switches on the video of the defendants committing the crime, and secures the guilty verdict. This seems to sum up Jimmy’s entire existence: he tries very hard, and even often performs beautifully, but the deck remains stacked against him.
By the end of the episode, we have a decent grasp of Jimmy’s world: He’s got a dingy office in the back of a nail salon, whose proprietor scolds him for defending the boys who had sex with the head and prohibits him from drinking the cucumber water she offers her customers. He earns a measly $700 per case as a public defender. All of his bills are past due. He has a sworn enemy in the courthouse’s parking attendant, who happens to be none other than Mike Ehrmantraut (welcome back, Jonathan Banks!), imposing and impassive as ever.
The most important person in Jimmy’s life seems to be his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner at a fancy law firm, who has become a shut-in due to some unidentified illness — one that seems to be physical (perhaps cancer), as he’s searching desperately for a cure, but may well turn out to be mental. Chuck yells, “Ground yourself!” — which appears to mean, “Leave all your electronics outside” — when he hears Jimmy open the front door of his beautiful house. Inside, he uses lanterns, writes on a typewriter, and stores the food Jimmy brings him in a cooler full of ice. Paranoid behavior aside, though, Chuck is a fascinating character: intelligent and eloquent, full of Latin quotations and moral questions.
As we learn in a tense (and very funny) scene at the offices of Chuck’s firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, he’s taken an extended leave from work due to his illness. His partner, the imperious Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) is keeping Chuck on payroll, sending checks for sums like $26,000 through Jimmy instead of paying out the millions Chuck would be due if he cashed out his share of the business. Aside from a desire to keep that money in-house, it’s not clear yet why Howard is so set on holding Chuck’s place at the firm. What is clear is that Jimmy is livid about it, because both of the McGill boys are rapidly running out of money. And though Chuck is adamant enough about beating his illness and reclaiming his position to side with Howard — and god knows Jimmy’s motives aren’t questionable — I have a funny feeling that Jimmy is right about his brother’s partner.
Also at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, we meet Kim (Rhea Seehorn), a pretty blonde attorney who clearly has a history with Jimmy. In an intriguing scene outside the office, after our hero has thoroughly destroyed a trash can with his foot, he steals a drag of her cigarette — plucks it straight out of her mouth and then puts it back in! — and asks, “Couldn’t you just…” She replies, “You know I can’t.” We don’t find out precisely what they’re talking about, but the conversational shorthand alone speaks volumes about their relationship.
Better Call Saul‘s pilot doesn’t just set the scene, though — it also kick-starts the plot. In his professional and monetary desperation, Jimmy is courting Craig Kettleman, a county treasurer who he pegs as a potential client when he reads in the paper that $1.6 million has gone missing from the treasury. After a fortuitous run-in with a pair of twin redheaded skateboard scammers, who Jimmy sees right through and then schools with his own story about his youthful escapades as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” Illinois’ personal injury fraud king, he sets up a scheme to guarantee the Kettlemans’ business. When his disciples set up Craig’s wife Betsy, Jimmy will magically appear to get her out of the legal pickle, thus positioning himself as the family’s lawyer.
It doesn’t go quite as planned, of course. Instead of getting out of the car when she smashes into a skateboarder, Betsy hits the gas. The twins follow her home, hanging on to the back of a truck. By the time they find out that the woman in the car isn’t Betsy at all but a Spanish-speaking grandmother, Jimmy is already in hot pursuit. A hit-and-run, after all, is an even bigger jackpot than a mere accident. Then he gets to the house and knocks on the door and gets a gun in the face. A very angry-looking young man — who Breaking Bad fans will surely recognize — pulls him inside.
So, our first episode of Better Call Saul also gives us our first cliffhanger. Though it wasn’t quite the same tour de force as Breaking Bad‘s pilot, it was absorbing and fun to watch all the way through, introduced rich characters and deep conflicts that are sure to pay off for seasons to come, and capitalized on its predecessor’s audience with the kind of slow, beautiful opening most new shows can’t afford. And, luckily, we won’t have to wait another week to find out what’s waiting for Jimmy inside that house — Episode 2 airs tomorrow at 10, and we’ll have plenty to discuss about it Tuesday morning.