How do you get there from here? Breaking Bad loved answering this question. Four of its six premieres began with cold opens depicting mysterious future events, only to slowly rewind time and march us toward these inevitable destinations episode by episode. Better Call Saul, the new prequel series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, takes this technique of narrative reverse-engineering and recreates it on a much larger scale. We already know how Saul Goodman, the con-artist formerly known as Jimmy McGill, ends up: disgraced, alone, working behind the counter of a shopping-mall Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. What’s more, we’re intimately familiar with his story’s whole final volume: how Saul scored the biggest client of his life and eventually caused him to lose everything. The question, then, is this: Will Jimmy McGill’s long, winding road to “Saul Goodman” — and to the moment that Walter White walks into his office — be worth the trip?
Based on Better Call Saul‘s Gilligan-directed pilot episode “Uno,” the answer is yes — and despite the show’s pedigree, that was in no way a sure thing. Even great shows tend to start with their broadest material, playing to the cheap seats in order to keep butts planted firmly in them. Astute viewers may recall that Breaking Bad itself began as a splat-stick black comedy before reaching its dark and terrible final form around the end of the second season, with the one-two punch of a death-by-vomit and a plane going down. Even if you feel that the series finale wrapped things up too neatly and let Heisenberg off the hook way too easily, the show was brutally suspenseful, morally uncompromising, and beautifully made right up until that final pulled punch.
But “Uno” earns a favorable verdict by playing to its predecessor’s quieter strengths, not trying to top its loudest ones. That starts with Vince Gilligan, the showrunner responsible for what was arguably the most stylistically bold and formally inventive show in the New Golden Age canon. So many scenes and sequences in “Uno” were simply beautiful: the hand-held, off-center aesthetic of the black-and-white “present day” opening; the piss-yellow palette and florescent-lightbulb hum of the courthouse; the torchlit darkness of the house of Jimmy’s sick older brother, Chuck McGill, a man stuck in an enveloping cloud of obvious mental illness. If you fondly remember Bad‘s visual panache — from those pants floating in the air to that pink teddy bear, from those musical montages to that crawl-space freakout — this premiere episode makes the case that you’ve got a lot to look forward to.
And it makes that case quietly, which is a welcome surprise. That cold open? Not a word from Saul except on his sad VHS commercial compilation. The courthouse scene that follows it? An interminable delay as judge and jurors sit in bored silence, waiting for Saul to show up. The final scene? Tuco Salamanca, whom we know from Breaking Bad as arguably the world’s loudest meth dealer, pulling Saul into his house at gunpoint without so much as a whisper. As played by Bob Odenkirk, Saul was that show’s comic relief — a necessary role, since Jesse Pinkman couldn’t spend the entire series in “Bitch!” mode. Odenkirk is a major comedic talent, but given that his go-to prior to playing Saul was yelling, the reliance on the character’s silence here was striking. It gave him the chance to sell his hangdog desperation with his face, his rumpled clothes, his failing hairline. It showed, rather than told.
Michael McKean’s portrayal of Chuck might be even more impressive, if only for the degree of difficulty involved. Navigating a character in danger of being reduced to conglomeration of quirks — the electromagnetic paranoia, the genial workaholism, the unnamed illness — is a tall order for any actor. What a delight, then, to watch McKean dig the pain out of a pile of weirdo foibles. When he snaps at Jimmy for mocking the idea that he’ll be back to work at his hotshot law firm soon — “That’s correct, minus the sarcasm!” — you can hear how hurt he is that his baby brother doesn’t believe him. And when he screams “I’m going to get better!” in a quavering voice, you can hear how wounded Chuck is over the fact that he doesn’t quite believe himself. If you grew up with Lenny Kosnowski, David St. Hubbins or even Mr. Green from Clue, this is revelatory work.
Fortunately, though, not everything’s quite so grim. From the casting on down — all hail the Ginger Twins! — the final act is pleasurably weird, fast-paced and funny. Jimmy’s spiel to his scamming, skateboarding partners in crime about his lucrative career as “Slippin’ Jimmy” and his stage direction of their fake accident are the kind of glimpses into how the criminal sausage gets made that every good drama about bad people needs. It was 10 minutes of TV that made you feel nothing so much as happy to be watching it. That’s more than enough reason to put Saul in your speed dial.