Alpine Shepherd Boy
After the success of The X-Files and Breaking Bad, it was always going to be a mammoth task to follow-up the success of those two shows with something equally as timeless and inspiring. With fan expectations at an all time high and the suffocating pressure almost too much to bear, show creator Vince Gilligan had quite the mountain to climb before Better Call Saul even hit the small screen.
Not only does lightning strike a third time here, it does so with all the usual hallmarks and ideas that make Gilligan’s previous shows so endearing. Despite a slow start, a couple of show-stopping episodes help elevate this series and leave lots of promise for the future seasons to come.
It seems difficult to remember now but Breaking Bad’s run worked as a pressure cooker of tension that slowly built up over time. In order to bring the story to boil, the tranquil water needed time to heat up and react. Here the same thing applies, as careful characterization and tantalizing teases for the future are laid out across this 10-episode season.
After a brief black-and-white opener, the story cuts back in time before the events of Breaking Bad take place. Saul Goodman is not a big face on TV and instead, ekes out a living in the shadow of the mammoth HHM law-firm that stifle the competition and hold all the cards.
In fact, Saul Goodman isn’t even our protagonist’s name. Instead, this serves as an alias for the nervous lawyer James McGill whom we follow across this slow-paced, methodically plotted narrative.
With familiar faces of Mike and Tuco cropping up across this first season, Better Call Saul essentially serves as an origin story for both Mike and James McGill. For the first 5 or so episodes, things move pretty slowly. James struggles with the harsh realities of being a lawyer, struggling financially and caring for his older brother Chuck who has an allergic reaction to electricity, forcing him to stay inside.
As McGill squares up against HHM, this David VS Goliath contest sees our plucky lawyer constantly thwarted at every turn. It’s not until he stumbles upon a killer case late on that his luck slowly starts to change. With this change comes a slightly increased pacing, turning the attention to Mike who, up until this point anyway, has been reserved to ticket-booth duties. This split focus really helps channel the energy of the show and it’s from here that Better Call Saul really starts to carve its own identity.
All of this builds up to quite the dramatic ending leaving the door wide open for the second season. It also finally confirms that McGill is well on his way to becoming the Saul Goodman we’ve come to know and love.
Although the story sometimes suffers from its pacing, the cinematography and general scene composition are exquisite and more than make up for this. Whether it be the opening titles that hard-cut away from the guitar strum mid-riff or the off-center compositional tricks, everything feeds back into McGill’s eccentricity and off-beat personality.
The colour yellow is used constantly too; interchanging between both good (positivity, hope, loyalty) and bad (caution and jealousy) traits across the season. It’s a clever tactic and one that perfectly exemplifies the mood at that given time without ever really changing up the colours.
The acting here is just as strong as you’d expect but Bob Odenkirk absolutely nails his role as James McGill. There are glimmers of the old (or future?) Saul Goodman but largely this is a man still yet to find his place in the world. Not mentioning Jonathan Banks would be a discredit to what he brings to the character of Mike. He’s largely the same character but one absolutely stunning stand-alone episode where he takes the spotlight is easily the stand-out segment of the season.
Better Call Saul had a tough uphill battle back in 2015 to try and win over fans of Breaking Bad. Given Vince Gilligan’s illustrious filmography, it was always going to be tough to produce something matching both X-Files and Breaking Bad. While Better Call Saul doesn’t surpass either of those shows (at least at this point in time anyway), there’s enough of a foundation setter here to make for a worthy contender in the future.