The last we saw of Saul Goodman, he was buying himself a new life. As Breaking Bad headed to the final countdown and Walter White was arming himself for one last battle, his oily lawyer, Saul, was off with a bus ticket to Nebraska, escaping to the fantasy Plan Z of every two-bit hustler in every American crime story. A new name. A new town. A new identity, giving him a chance to live the rest of his life as a schnook. As he told Walter, “If I’m lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.”
The whole idea of Better Call Saul may make you skeptical. As Saul himself might say, faced with a disaster he can’t just lie his way out of, this could go a couple of ways: It could be a worthy prequel to Breaking Bad, or it could be a pitiful act of desperation, after the demise of a never-to-be-repeated desert-noir classic. Maybe Vince Gilligan and the whole AMC crew were in denial — like Walter White, they found it too painful to walk away from the life and go manage a Cinnabon.
But after just a few episodes, it’s clear that Saul Goodman is a compelling enough slimeball to carry his own backstory. Bob Odenkirk remains a revelation as Saul, so much funnier and darker than he ever hinted on Mr. Show. The aura of low-rent sleaze fits him better the older he gets — or maybe it just takes a hambone to play a con artist as smarmy as Saul.
It seems strange in retrospect that Saul didn’t arrive on Breaking Bad until halfway through Season Two, because he instantly made himself crucial to the dramatic chemistry. Walter White knows from the start this is a small-time Irish grifter posing as a Jewish lawyer. As Saul explained, “My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”
On Better Call Saul, we get a look at how a cheapjack Albuquerque lawyer named Jimmy McGill invents a new identity and gets tangled up with the criminal underworld. It’s the early 2000s, when Saul is still Jimmy. He’s a public defender, psyching himself up in courthouse men’s rooms, saying “It’s showtime, folks!” into the mirror like Roy Scheider in All That Jazz. (“It’s from a movie,” he says to annoyed-looking court officers.) He’s fueled by vending-machine coffee and cheap despair, driving a beat-up Suzuki Esteem, representing the guiltiest of the guilty. When your defense attorney turns to the jury and begins his statement with “OK, a fire was started — we know that,” it’s a bad sign.
The tone is nowhere near as bleak as Breaking Bad — more like a comic noir. Michael McKean is excellent as his older brother, Chuck, the kind of legit lawyer that Jimmy could never be. And Jonathan Banks makes a welcome return as tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut.
Like Saul, Jimmy tends to talk too much and sweat too hard when cornered. If a client worries about retaining a lawyer — it might make him look guilty — he flashes his greasiest smile and says, “It’s getting arrested that makes people look guilty.” But he’s the kind of lawyer who’d make anyone look dubious. If Breaking Bad was the story of an ordinary guy turning into a murderous meth kingpin, this is about an already crooked guy who was always a moral cesspool at heart. We know where Saul’s story took him. But the whole point of Better Call Saul is that he never had anywhere else to go.