We open cold with a black-and-white sequence observing a sad-sack milquetoast rolling dough at a Cinnabon in Nebraska. The song ”Address Unknown” expresses our disorientation and the existential condition of this nervous-looking soul hiding behind a mustache and glasses. He lives in fear, and if you watched Breaking Bad, you know why. He lives alone in a spartan home with the blinds closed, finding comfort in drink and a videotape of commercials that remind him of more vibrant, colorful days, when he was Saul Goodman, lawyer to meth kings and lowlifes and assorted losers willing to break bad to be somebody—which is to say, people like him.
Better Call Saul is an origin story, a drama about how Walter White’s morally challenged counsel became a man worth calling. We meet him roughly six years before Breaking Bad, when Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is not yet Saul Goodman, but rather Jimmy McGill. He toils almost literally in the shadow of his once illustrious brother (Michael McKean), a legal hotshot losing his mind to a malady that has him scared of electricity and living in darkness. Jimmy digs lawyering the way Walt loved cooking, but he’s far, so far from Walt’s genius, and he resents paying his dues with lowly public-defender work, and couldn’t give a s— about the law anyway.
What Jimmy wants is a feeling of significance, and he’s fighting his hustler’s nature to get all of what he wants in mostly legit ways—a battle he seems set to lose by degrees. The first threshold: an encounter with a character Breaking Bad fans will recognize. Co-creator Vince Gilligan, who directed and co-wrote the pilot, packs the hour with clever metaphors for Jimmy. He can never get enough validation stamps for the courthouse parking attendant—Hey, look! It’s Mike (Jonathan Banks), Saul’s future fixer!—to let him exit and move forward. His car, a Suzuki Esteem, is beaten and yellow, just like his character, and he drives it recklessly. It’s only a matter of time before he hurts someone, and wrecks himself.
As a character study of a postmodern Willy Loman, as a satire about self-creation, as a subversive poke at those who find wish fulfillment in antihero fantasy, Better Call Saul has promise and purpose. But the show doesn’t yet know how to entertain as anything but deep-dive fan service. Like Saul himself, its identity is a work in progress. The energetic visual storytelling engages, but the deliberate pacing left me restless. I like the offbeat black comedy and downbeat poignancy, but the qualities don’t mix well at present. (Though the McKean character nicely shades Saul, he’s absurd all the same.) Odenkirk is fine, but he might be more compelling if the role were modified to express his broad range of comic talent. Saul has a story in it. A series? For now, that call’s on hold. B