Would it be weird to call Better Call Saul lovely? Okay, not during the leg-breaking. Or the screaming about the leg-breaking. Or the vomiting after the leg-breaking. But still! After tonight's episode "Mijo," that's the word that comes to mind. With its lyrical, impressionistic approach to filmmaking, largely absent from the airwaves since co-creator Vince Gilligan said, "It's all over now, baby blue meth" to Breaking Bad in 2013, this prequel show makes for sumptuous viewing, even though its story has yet to deliver a real "this is a must see" moment.
But this spin-off is as pleasurable as it is because it hasn't made its high stakes plain just yet — its single biggest difference from its predecessor. Remember, one of the ways Bad broke the mold was by never establishing a status quo for Walter White's "new normal" as a meth dealer. This was a show that painted him as pantsless and hopeless right in its opening sequence, and had him kill someone after his first meth-cook. (It's like if GoodFellas began with a coked-up Henry Hill cooking spaghetti and fleeing helicopters and getting arrested in his driveway.) Walt's entire criminal career is a series of cascading catastrophes right from the start, establishing the tone of white-knuckle terror that carries through to the end.
That's not to say that Saul is a stranger to scary shit. It's just deployed very differently here: Walt, a complete stranger to criminality, murdered his way out of his first big jam; Jimmy McGill, who makes his living off lying on behalf of thieves and thugs, talked his way out of it. There's no "everything has changed" vibe, no sense that Jimmy is on the edge of oblivion at all times — and not just because we know for a fact he'll survive for years to come. (Note to BCS, though: Cliffhanger commercial breaks in which an enraged Tuco Salamanca holds a loaded gun to your prequel antihero's head aren't very good cliffhangers.)
With matters of life and death largely out of the way, the show can focus on the life side of the equation, and that's where it really excels. Take that montage sequence, in which tastefully, giddily whirling strings soundtrack the day-to-day existence of James McGill, Attorney-at-Law. We see the courthouse as he sees it: vending-machine coffees, half-hearted self-affirmations in a dingy men's room, familiar faces in hallways (the "petty with a prior" prosecutor is the episode's best gag), indistinguishable cases, the predictable obstacle of Mike Erhmantraut in his "troll-booth." The picture that emerges is that of a consummate pro playing his umpteenth season in the minor leagues. That's a rhythm worth capturing.
So too is Jimmy's sad, singular dynamic with his brother Chuck. These are brothers who trade pity, condescension, frustration, and support back and forth like baseball cards. Chuck is upset that Jimmy drank himself into a stupor and crashed at his place, and paternal about making sure he recovers. He's also hurt by the thinly veiled skepticism about his "space blanket," determined to prove he's not a crazy invalid by taking the blanket off when asked — and desperate to put it back on the second he can. Jimmy is cagey about the real reason for his bender, fed up with Chuck's tinfoil-hat shenanigans and polite enough not to call them out for what they are. There's so much emotional work being done on both sides here, and none of it's trite. Director Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, countless BB eps) earned a reputation as TV's finest purveyor of small-screen action, but the performances she coaxes out of Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean here, working off co-creator Peter Gould's script, are as impressive as any swordfight or shootout.
Let's not give short shrift to the Tuco material either. His impulsiveness, 0-to-60 rate of escalation, and delusions of grandeur are as darkly hilarious here as they were during Breaking Bad's first two seasons. Meanwhile, his lieutenant Nacho has the confidence, intelligence, and sociopathic smoothness necessary to become a worthy antagonist in his own right, even if his absence from BB somewhat telegraphs the outcome of his story. Most importantly, the act of violence that Jimmy and Tuco negotiate as a fitting punishment for the skateboarders' transgression is appropriately sickening, even if it's a better deal than straight-up murder. Jimmy can't bear to look, but MacLaren stretches the moment out as long as we can take it, as the dissonant music crescendos, the screams grow hysterical, and Tuco and his goons laugh it up. It's bravura brutality.
But in a way, that brutality is beside the point, or at least inessential to it. Much has been made of whether Better Call Saul has a reason to exist, given how completely its predecessor mastered this milieu. But isn't quality reason enough? The two-part, two-night premiere of BCS has given us an unusual character (very different from an everyman who starts cooking crystal to make ends meet), and used every tool in its visual, aural, and editing arsenal to make his pre-Heisenburg life something memorable and enjoyable to watch. If that story never transforms into the runaway train that Walt's did, so what? Stop and smell the vending-machine coffee instead.
Previously: Back to the Future