AnTV: Better Call Saul Premiere Review + April 8-April 14 Recap

Better Call Saul

"Mabel"

Season 3, Episode 1

Grade: A-

***This review will be largely SPOILER-FREE with respect to the plot points of this episode. In order to properly discuss this episode, there will be some SPOILERS for season 2 of Better Call Saul. Of course, as always, these will be sandwiched between  "[SPOILER]" and "[/SPOILER]"***

When discussions of the greatest series in television history come up, one name that is pretty much inescapable is Breaking Bad. Running for five seasons, Vince Gilligan's masterpiece chronicling the transformation of a mild-mannered New Mexico high school chemistry teacher into a meth kingpin is easily one of the top contenders for "Greatest of All Time." The show's principal cast, specifically stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, were uniformly excellent throughout the show's run, but when it came time to consider what was next for the universe Gilligan had created, it was fan-favorite supporting character Saul Goodman who was selected to star in his own series. Originally conceived as a half-hour comedy series, with criminal lawyer Saul solving a different client's problems every week, the show eventually morphed into an hour-long drama detailing how Jimmy McGill, mild-mannered albeit ethically-ambiguous New Mexico lawyer, transformed into Saul Goodman, the master showman and ethically-challenged lawyer from Breaking Bad.

As with so many other series that have come to be considered great in recent history (FargoLegionHannibal, etc.), the announcement of a Better Call Saul series was met with both hopeful optimism and heavy skepticism from fans. There were many who felt that it would be impossible to improve on the perfection that was Breaking Bad, and in their hubris Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad producer Peter Gould would overreach and tarnish that show's legacy. Ultimately, with Bob Odenkirk back in the role of Jimmy/Saul, beloved Breaking Bad star Jonathan Banks reprising his role as Mike Ehrmantraut, and Peter Gould running the show with Vince Gilligan's heavy input, any initial trepidation gave way to enraptured devotion once the show actually hit the airwaves. Even though Breaking Bad fans know where this story is eventually going for Jimmy and Mike, the many incredible supporting players with unknown destinies and the excellent nods to Breaking Bad in the form of reappearing background characters and other references made it clear that Better Call Saul would not be just a shameless cash-in on the original show's good name. 

Over the course of the show's first two seasons, Better Call Saul began to expertly lay the groundwork for the events which eventually drive Jimmy to take on the mantle of Saul Goodman and cast any semblance of an honest life resolutely out the window. We met Jimmy McGill, a struggling attorney living in the shadow of his incredibly successful (yet recently infirm) older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a name partner at one of Albuquerque's biggest law firms, Hamlin Hamlin & McGill. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is an associate at HHM and tries her best to act as Jimmy's confidant and best friend, helping him to deal with both his professional and personal problems. Mike Ehrmantraut works the parking lot gate at the courthouse where Jimmy conducts most of his work; he's fled his native Philadelphia to live in New Mexico and be closer to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter following the death of his son. From this setup, the characters' lives intersected and developed over 20 episodes that saw Jimmy become an elder law attorney, take a job at a respectable law firm in order to work on a case involving elder abuse at a nursing home, sabotage his own career at that job, and open up a solo office shared with Kim (they're not law partners) after she quits HHM and heads out on her own. [SPOILERS]Ultimately, the second season ended with Jimmy committing an act of fraud, doctoring important documents in order to make HHM look bad and convincing the Mesa Verde bank to hire Kim as their legal counsel. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Chuck had tricked him into confessing the fraud and secretly recorded it, leaving the second season to end on an enormous cliffhanger.[/SPOILERS]

From this setup, at long last, comes the season 3 premiere of the show. Picking up exactly where season 2 left off, the episode wastes no time continuing the story that fans have waited nearly a year to see continued. Right from the start, it is clear that this season will see Michael McKean at his slimiest yet. Known primarily for comedy roles (not dissimilar from Bob Odenkirk himself, actually) McKean has done hilarious work in films such as This Is Spinal Tap; here, McKean plays Chuck McGill as a broken, petty, vindictive man who laments the psychological affliction that has crippled his career (Chuck suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which causes him to believe that electronic devices are causing him immense pain whenever they are nearby) and resent his brother Jimmy for being a huge screw-up for most his life. Jimmy's betrayal at the end of season 2 appears to have been the last straw for Chuck, who clearly has plans for the recording that he made, plans which are not yet disclosed by the end of this particular episode. Jimmy, on the other hand, assumes that everything is mostly as it has always been, with Chuck mad at him but otherwise nothing else being out of the ordinary. What kind of damage will occur as a result of this incorrect assumption remains to be seen.

This episode was split pretty evenly between Jimmy's story and Mike's story. [SPOILERS] At the end of season 2, Mike had been pushed around as far as it seemed he was willing to take. After being hired by Nacho Salamanca to kill his cousin Tuco, Mike instead chose to get Tuco arrested and sent to prison for assault with a deadly weapon. The plan had seemed to work, until Tio Hector Salamanca (who Breaking Bad fans last saw crippled in a wheelchair) appears with the intent of coercing Mike into claiming Tuco's handgun belonged to him, which would reduce Tuco's sentence. Sensing that he had gotten himself in too deep with the wrong people, Mike decided to assassinate Hector, only to be stopped at the last second by an unknown actor warning him not to go through with his plan.[/SPOILERS] Like Jimmy's side of the story, Mike's picks up right where season 2 left off, with Mike speeding away from the shack in the middle of the desert where he had tracked Hector and immediately beginning the process of figuring out how he was being tracked. In all honesty, Mike's half of this episode was incredibly strong, playing out largely dialogue-free and showcasing Mike's thoroughness as he takes apart his car, piece-by-piece, in order to find the tracking device he knows must be there. The show then meticulously document's Mike's plan to turn the tables on those following him, a slow burn reveal that only clicks into place at the very end of the episode and, when it does, proves to be immensely satisfying for the viewer. Jonathan Banks' stoic efficiency as Mike was always one of the highlights of Breaking Bad, and watching him walk further and further down that path over the course of Better Call Saul's two prior seasons has been great. Even though Mike's transformation isn't as dramatic as Walter White's was or as Jimmy McGill's will be, watching here Mike accept the ruthless pragmatism that defined his role on the earlier show is highly entertaining.

It felt like, largely, the rest of the supporting cast did not have much to do in this episode, however. Patrick Fabian, always excellent as Chuck's law partner Howard Hamlin, appears in only one scene, for example. Rhea Seehorn gets the most to do outside of Odenkirk and Banks, and she continues to impress as Kim, who values her professional reputation seemingly above all else, a quality which it looks like will come to drive an immovable wedge between her and Jimmy. There has to be a reason she never turns up in Breaking Bad, and watching the disintegration of her and Jimmy's relationship will surely be one of this show's most tragic plots. The only other supporting player to get major screen time this week was Brandon K. Hampton's Ernesto, long-suffering aide at HHM who makes an accidental discovery that will likely have huge consequences for him down the road this season.

Finally, of course, there is Mr. Bob Odenkirk himself. The man is a comedy legend, having co-created (with David Cross) one of the greatest sketch comedy series of all time, Mr. Show with Bob and David. Odenkirk was always a reliable source of comedic relief on Breaking Bad, imbuing Saul Goodman with the kind of snarky, sarcastic humor that perfectly fit the otherwise dark and violent tone the Gilligan achieved on that series. On Better Call Saul, Odenkirk plays Jimmy McGill as the proto-Saul that he is; he still has a sharp wit and disregard for authority, but up to and including the current point of the series Jimmy has always been striving to do good underneath it all. Odenkirk brings a humanity to Jimmy that he never had to bring to Saul, who was clearly much too far gone to care about silly concepts like morality and ethics. Even when Jimmy toes the ethical line, or outright steps across it, he clearly does so with at least a hint of regret. That regret mostly stems from his feelings for Kim, who acts as his sort of moral compass, a north star that he uses to realign himself after straying too far off the honest path. Once he loses that (which, again, seems highly likely to occur by this series' end considering her total absence from his life on Breaking Bad), it will probably push him past the breaking point. For now, though, Odenkirk is the foundation on which this series is built and he is more than capable of shouldering that burden.

Everyone involved with this series should be proud of what they have accomplished up to this point. I still marvel at how the spin-off prequel to one of the best shows in television history is itself currently one of the best shows airing on television, if not the best show. Everyone here, from the actors to the writers and directors and everyone behind the scenes, is on top of his or her respective games. This show's team, both in front of and behind the camera, makes it all look so easy. Better Call Saul stands on its own as a great show beyond its connection to Breaking Bad, and this premiere only reinforces that point.

"What Else Is On???"

Other than the highly anticipated premiere of Better Call Saul, this was a relatively light week for television. Fox held back it's entire Sunday night bloc of shows, and the CW did not air any of its DC comics series either. Sunday night did see, however, the last episode of Feud: Bette and Joan (Grade: A), which picked up in the aftermath of the 1963 Oscars ceremony and saw Bob Aldrich attempt to follow up the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? by attempting to make yet another film with Bette and Joan together; needless to say, it doesn't go well. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Grade: A-) finally returned to reveal the fate of Gina Lenetti, who was hit by a bus last winter; the precinct is also the subject of an audit to determine whether or not it should be closed down. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. (Grade: B+) continued its sojourn into the virtual world of the Framework, with Daisy, Simmons, and Coulson attempting to find Dr. Radcliffe and figure out a way to escape. Detroiters (Grade: A-) ended its excellent first season with Tim and Sam attending a local advertising awards show and running into someone they had wronged in the series' pilot. Finally, on Archer (Grade: B+), the "Dreamland" experiment continued, with Archer having to assist Cheryl in faking her own death in order to escape her wealthy, judgmental family. 

It was a light week for television this week, but I'm sure there are shows I don't watch that were also great. Let me know about it in the comments below.