As with many other avid fans of Breaking Bad, I could have contentedly watched Bob Odenkirk’s slippery criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (still going by his real name, James ‘Jimmy’ McGill) bicker over parking stickers with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) for an entire episode of any spin-off. The interchanges between two of the most entertaining, and remorseless, characters from the critically-acclaimed series are extracted across the opening episodes of Better Call Saul for every potential moment of hilarity.
There are also many stylistic executions within this prequel to occupy the casual viewer, whether or not they have previously seen Breaking Bad. We are treated to a litany of pop culture references, acerbic one-liners and a distinctively idiosyncratic soundtrack, while creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould retain their ability to devise grand set pieces that mark a dark space in the minds of their viewers.
Fortunately, Better Call Saul does not descend into a series of disjointed televisual devices as it easily could have done, and it is to the great credit of its team of writers that the show thematically accumulates into more than the sum of its parts. Each aesthetic flair and barren cold open is precisely deployed to craft a coherent character study of the man who becomes Saul Goodman.
This is memorably displayed in a desert-located set piece which sneaks up on us in the second episode. Our anti-hero must bargain with an unhinged gangster over the fate of two young accomplices (marking a cameo appearance of a fans’ favourite), debating the relative justice of a limb-breaking compared to a tongue-ripping. The scene is a demonstration of the way that Better Call Saul is prepared to use its apparently farcical overtones as a sleight of hand to reveal the underlying horror of the world which our protagonist inhabits. The tone is further established by the acidic humour in the following comic vignette, in which a creative montage comprised of bread sticks at a dinner date conveys the way that this horror has been mentally internalised by McGill.
As the series moves forward, its utmost challenge will be to create a sense of narrative momentum, even as the hectic pace of the early episodes settles down. It is likely that the dramatic rhythm will be driven by its intriguing set of supporting characters, which includes a smart love interest at his law firm in Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who suffers from a mysterious illness. And of course there is Mike himself, whose dry presence is always welcome on our screens, and there are suggestions that the ex-Philadelphia cop will play a significant plot role as the series develops.
Ultimately, Better Call Saul is pervaded with an inevitable sense of tragedy. Odenkirk superbly expresses McGill’s manifesting desperation, and we are constantly made aware of the limitations to his fast-talking and quick-thinking, even when he tries to be a good man. This makes for a compelling way to investigate human failings, and I challenge viewers not to be encapsulated by this story of moral transformation.