by Carl Franzen
Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spinoff starring Walter White’s fast-talking, morally dubious lawyer, seems to have already won over viewers and critics alike. Part one of its two-part premiere drew 6.9 million viewers on Sunday, a new record for a cable series, and a much larger audience than Breaking Bad’s first few seasons.
For those who have been hiding out in a Cinnabon somewhere and haven’t yet heard, the new series acts as both a prequel and sequel for the character of Saul Goodman. As revealed in Breaking Bad, Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill, and the series mostly follows him well before he ever met Walt or Jesse, as he struggles to keep his meager law practice afloat. Billed as a kind of dark comedy, Better Call Saul is wickedly funny at times, but it many ways, it’s actually darker and more despairing than its predecessor — and that’s saying something, given Breaking Bad’s bleak premise. Sure, there haven’t been any acid baths (yet), but here are the main ways Saul has eclipsed Bad’s darkness in the first two episodes, “Uno” and “Mijo,” which are available for free streaming now on AMC, Amazon and iTunes. Spoilers ahead.
1. Saul/Jimmy’s life is soul-crushingly sad
We learn early on that Jimmy is in financial trouble, in part because he’s helping support an older brother who’s had a severe mental breakdown. Even though Jimmy has his health so far, he doesn’t appear to have many family members or friends beyond his brother. Although Walter White was dealing with terminal cancer in Breaking Bad, he at least started his journey in that series with a loving family and a comfortable home. Jimmy doesn’t even have a house from what we can tell, as we see him pull a bed out of a fold-out sofa in his rundown closet office in the back of a nail salon. Moreover, Jimmy just can’t seem to catch any breaks — not from his bills, his potential clients, or even the courthouse parking attendant. The only break he gets is one that spares him from a brutal death, but leaves him trapped in a Sisyphean cycle of repetitive and disheartening public defense work.
2. Saul/Jimmy tries to do good, but is never rewarded
Saul Goodman comes off as a sleazeball supreme when we meet him in Breaking Bad, but he’s much more restrained at the beginning of his own series as the man known as Jimmy McGill. Even though he’s in deep financial trouble, Jimmy refuses money offered by his brother’s law firm because he knows they’re trying to rip his brother off. He undertakes one major illegal scam in the premiere — staging a car-pedestrian collision with two skateboarding twins — but only after nearly becoming the victim of said scam himself. He also sticks his neck out to save his two fellow scammers, putting himself in danger, for which they call him “the world’s worst lawyer.” By the end of the second episode, “Mijo,” Jimmy is again propositioned with an idea to make lots of money illegally, which he refuses on moral grounds. Contrast that with Walter White, who decided in the premiere of in Breaking Bad to break the law and manufacture hard drugs.
3. Saul/Jimmy will never achieve greatness
The series begins by showing us where Jimmy ends up after the events of Breaking Bad: true to his word, he changes his identity and becomes a cashier a Cinnabon in Omaha, where he spends his days fearfully avoiding being recognized as a fugitive, and his nights watching his old obnoxious TV commercials. That’s a far cry from when he was the cocky lawyer to a notorious drug kingpin. But even in what was presumably his heydey, Jimmy/Saul never amounted to much. He operated his firm out of a strip mall, was constantly put in danger, and was repeatedly pushed around by Walt, Jesse, and even his own private eye, Mike Ehrmantraut. The bulk of Better Call Saul has so far shown us what his life was like before meeting Walt and Jesse, and it wasn’t any better. The adage, “we’re all the heroes in our own story,” is put to the test here, as Jimmy himself seems to be only a bit player in the lives of other, more powerful or more disturbed people.
4. Saul/Jimmy is totally alone
It’s not just that Jimmy lacks family and friends. So far in Better Call Saul, he doesn’t have anything approaching a trusty sidekick. While we know from Breaking Bad that he eventually employs the services of Mike Ehrmantraut, that relationship also didn’t seem to last very long, and was compromised by Mike’s ultimate loyalty to Gustavo Fring. Though Jesse and Walt often fought, they also went through the most decisive moments of their lives together, and could not have gotten as far as they did without each other. Jimmy’s brother clearly loves him, but is more of a liability than a help at this point. The closest thing Jimmy has to a trusty sidekick so far is the lady in charge of the nail salon who collects his mail.
5. Saul/Jimmy is actually a pretty decent lawyer
Despite his insistences to the contrary, Jimmy’s infectious energy and quick tongue make him a pretty effective negotiator, as we see when he convinces the skateboarding twins to help him and when he talks Tuco out of killing all three of them in the desert. This might be the most heartbreaking aspect of all in Better Call Saul, that Jimmy could have made for a legitimately good lawyer, but his own inner lack of confidence — depicted in his lengthy “warm-up” scenes in the bathroom — coupled with his harsh circumstances, have conspired to turn him into a cynical hack.