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Better Talk Saul: an in-depth, spoiler-y analysis of the first two episodes

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Better Call Saul, the genetic successor to Breaking Bad, is here — and it’s really, really good. If you haven’t seen the first two episodes, which aired over the last two nights, we highly recommend you read our (mostly) spoiler-free take.

Alright. With that out of the way, what follows is a spoiler-heavy discussion about the show between Senior Reporter Bryan Bishop and Senior Editor Ross Miller (condensed and organized for clarity).

The Breaking Bad Conundrum (or: "Okay, so it’s a prequel")

Bryan Bishop, Senior Reporter: It’s no big secret that most people are going to watch Better Call Saul because they loved Breaking Bad. It’s certainly why I am — I miss Saul! I miss Jesse! I got overly emotional when Walt showed up in a Super Bowl commercial! But that’s going to be a short honeymoon. If Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould want people to tune in week after week, they’re going to need to set up their own self-contained universe that lives and dies on its own merits.

Jimmy's better as a skeezeball schemer

The pilot does a great job of that, getting Breaking Bad out of the way at the top and then letting Bob Odenkirk start the work of building a fully-formed character. I love the idea of a guy that wants to do the right thing, but just doesn’t have the skills to pull it off. Jimmy’s better as a skeezeball schemer, and there’s something really fun in that premise — and while it’s related to Breaking Bad, it is also its own thing. The best compliment I can give is that while we all know where Saul will end up, I have zero idea of how he will get there. As long as Gilligan and Gould can preserve that, they’ll be dodging the biggest bullet of them all: turning Better Call Saul into accessory TV.

Ross Miller, Senior Editor: Couldn’t agree more. The biggest challenge for Better Call Saul will be to find emotional ways to surprise and impact the audience — to enjoy the journey as the show reaches its foregone conclusion. Part of Breaking Bad’s beauty was its unpredictability. Sure, it didn’t kill off as many people as The Wire or Game of Thrones, but no one’s fate was certain from episode to episode.

I will fault the second episode of Saul, however, for one moment of false drama. There’s a scene early on where Tuco is threatening to kill Saul or at least cut off his finger. But look, we know neither of those happen, so emphasizing the moment feels like a waste of screen time — especially to an audience that knows how this will play out. I know Saul will live, all (visible) limbs attached. We all do. What we don’t know is the extent to which he’ll be emotionally damaged over his next six years.

When does Michael McKean's character die — and how?

Of course, the new characters don’t have the same guarantee of mortality. I think it’s safe to say McGill’s brother won’t be a factor by the time Breaking Bad begins, so … how come? Or more bluntly, when does Michael McKean’s character die — and how?

Better Call Saul promotional image (AMC)

Comedy or Drama?

Ross Miller, lives in New York: Gilligan and Gould have been clear that the idea of this show began agnostic of format. To quote Gilligan himself from his interview with Vox:

"We went through every permutation in the book. There was serious discussion of it being a half-hour show, and being, if not a sitcom, a straight comedy. There was a lot of talk about, is it a sequel? Is it a prequel? Do the events take place concurrently with the events of Breaking Bad? Could it be a little of all three? We talked about every possibility under the sun."

This is how I imagine Vince Gilligan would write a comedy

This is how I imagine Vince Gilligan would write a comedy. What differentiates the world of Better Call Saul stylistically from Breaking Bad is the sheer absurdity of Saul’s / McGill’s suffering. It’s brutal in that it’s presented in blunt force. It presents a world that seems to be built to make him suffer — not with physical torture but with mental strain from all sides. Sometimes it’s a brother suffering debilitating technophobia and being screwed out of millions by his own company. Sometimes it’s through sheer mundane repetition of basic court cases. (Okay, that part got a little too repetitive.) It’s harrowing enough that the levity is punctuated, and it lets Gilligan and Gould build up to humor in ways you wouldn’t normally expect. I laughed pretty damn hard after McGill’s beautiful defense of the boys who we later find out — after a comically silent and pronounced setup of a television cart — decapitated a dead body.

Come to think about it, making jokes about defiling dead bodies is the epitome of BB / BCS comedy.

Bishop: It’s true! I think people forget just how funny Breaking Bad was in the beginning, actually. Not Friends funny, sure, but definitely Very Bad Things territory. I don’t think Gilligan can help it; it’s just the way he sees the world. But somehow Saul is even darker than Breaking Bad was. Maybe it’s just because we already know how bad things will get, but I was pretty surprised there weren’t more straight-up gags, and that the world of the show is so oppressive and crushing.

Wouldn't you have loved to see a sitcom version?

To be clear, I do like what they’re doing and it definitely works — I was just expecting something a little lighter. But man, a sitcom version … wouldn’t you have loved to see that? Some crazy, mad, Natural Born Killers multi-cam half-hour version of Saul Goodman’s rise and fall? It would have had a shelf life of 15 minutes, but just imagine the Mike / Saul Odd Couple vibe.

Miller: Or Mr. Show with Mike and Saul, where the pre-taped sketches create the "real world" narrative and the on-stage hijinks in between are some metaphysical, fourth wall jokespace.

Better Call Saul promotional image (AMC)

The Man That Would Be Saul

Bishop: Odenkirk really impressed me in Nebraska. I saw that movie right in the middle of Breaking Bad fever, and it was a quiet, restrained performance from an actor that I loved precisely because he could turn things up to 11. He brings that same deft touch to this new version of Saul, and let’s be honest: This is almost a new character entirely. There’s simply more here for him to work with, and from the black-and-white intro forward he inhabits the skin of Jimmy and imbues him with a heavy heart and sense of world-weariness than we haven’t seen before.

This Saul is almost entirely a new character

Who knows where the show will go from here, but should he continue on this trajectory I really wonder if it’s going to change the way I feel about Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman was a great sort of safety valve, wasn’t he? The court jester that let you escape from the horrible creature that Walter White was becoming, if only for a brief moment. Does that go away if we know how horrible Saul’s life has been?

Of course, there it is again: thinking about the show in comparison to Breaking Bad. I told you this was going to be a problem.

Miller: There’s no way to avoid the comparisons, at least in the beginning while Better Call Saul builds its own narrative, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like Eric said in our initial review, this is a better pilot than what Breaking Bad had. It’s more polished in all aspects, created by a group that’s already familiar with parts of this world — but more importantly, a group of creatives that just spent five seasons creating one of the greatest television shows ever. This is a chance to take that institutional knowledge and start (somewhat) fresh.

There's no way to avoid the comparisons

That all holds true for Odenkirk as well. Some of the best Mr. Show sketches found humor in dark and painful places — mining laughs when characters suffer is part and parcel for comedy. Saul started as pretty much a one-dimensional character who developed layers over several seasons. Credit Odenkirk for a lot of that, who was able to paint a more nuanced picture. He could be over-the-top, sure, but he knew how to keep an oddball character grounded and real. No one is born Saul Goodman, both literally and figuratively. Saul Goodman exists as a reaction of what James McGill suffers and experiences. If Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman was a comical character with a dash of flawed humanity, Better Call Saul is its inverse: a flawed human with a dash of comedic timing.

I also can’t stress this enough: Odenkirk has the unenviable task of carrying the show, at least for now until a stronger ensemble reveals itself. He is the only character the cameras follow. Even Walt had a foil with Jesse.

Better Call Saul promotional still (AMC)

Hey, I Know That Guy!

Bryan Bishop, intentionally watched Jupiter Ascending last week: I had a complicated mix of emotions about last night’s episode. At first I was really excited to see Tuco, because it was a (sort of) friendly face that I already had an emotional connection with. But then it started to go sideways, starting with the wacky business with his grandmother. It felt a little Laverne & Shirley: fun, sure, but way too aware of itself. And that’s the biggest problem with what could be a parade of cameos. They’re going to be entertaining, and we all love characters from Breaking Bad — but by their very nature they’re wink-and-nods to the audience. That initial buzz of familiarity is going to be very short-lived, and then you’re left with the hangover of working yourself back into the show you’re actually watching. Thankfully, they seem to be tackling Tuco as more of a change agent than a central character, but what about Mike? He can’t just be the wacky parking sidekick for much longer.

I've already starting fantasizing about the first time we’ll see Los Pollos Hermanos

The irony, of course, is that while I’m pointing out these dangers I have to admit that I totally loved the No-Doze cameo and have already started fantasizing about the first time we’ll see Los Pollos Hermanos. But my gut reaction hasn’t changed. The show’s walking a very delicate balance, and I hope Gilligan and Gould feel they can leave the Breaking Bad nods in the rearview mirror really soon. It’s the only way the show can really thrive long-term.

But, you know, get Giancarlo Esposito in there first.

Ross Miller, intentionally watched Gigli this weekend: Did Mike or Saul know Huell before Breaking Bad’s fourth season? Can we find a way to get him in the show either way?

Better Call Saul promotional image (AMC)

Conclusion: Will You Keep Watching?

Ross Miller, happy AMC will now be on Sling: I was pretty late to Breaking Bad. I think by the time I caught up with the show, it was just about to start its fifth and final season. My love of that show has been carried over almost entirely to Better Call Saul. I imagine a lot of people feel the same way. Thankfully, the show is good enough to meet expectations and different enough that I’m not subconsciously drawing unfair comparisons.

That said, the one thing that Better Call Saul hasn’t established a clear throughline on par with Breaking Bad (aka "Mr. Chips becomes Scarface") or a clear reason for any immediacy (aka "I need to make drug money for my family now before I die of cancer"). It could be McGill’s brother. It could be Tuco’s crew. It’s more likely something we haven’t seen yet — if there’s any need for a throughline at all.

I’m just having fun enjoying the ride and seeing a new side to an old coin

For now, I’m just having fun enjoying the ride and seeing a new side to an old coin. Gilligan and Gould have earned patience by virtue of a winning track record. I know where the show has to ultimately go, but I have no idea where it goes next. It’s both maddening and surprising. But yeah, I like it.

Bryan Bishop, still wondering what accent Jimmy’s fictional secretary was supposed to have: Making a prequel to a show like Breaking Bad was one of the crazier ideas I’ve seen happen lately. The only thing crazier? That it’s working. I’m fascinated by what Gilligan and Gould are doing with this premise, and by the character they’re building with Bob Odenkirk.

I do find myself continuing to look for patterns and comparison to Breaking Bad, and that’s going to keep happening. The locations, the mood, and the tone; there’s just too much that’s familiar. I’m definitely in for now, but to convert me from a tourist to a full-time resident the show will eventually have to carve out its own identity. I’m betting we’ll get a sense of whether that will happen over the next few episodes. And if Better Call Saul is able to pull it off, it’s going to be an awful lot of fun.