Following in the footsteps of Breaking Bad so shortly after that show completed one final domination at the Emmys, there are plenty of reasons to question why anyone would want to mess with such a well-constructed story with a definite end point. But over the course of the two-night premiere last week, Vince Gilligan and fellow Breaking Bad producer Peter Gould made the case for dipping back into ABQ. Breaking Bad told the story of one man's criminal rise-and-fall during the final years of his life, staring down a death sentence of a cancer diagnosis. Better Call Saul establishes that Walter White wasn't the only character in Albuquerque worth following over that timeline, that the patchwork of the city as envisioned by Gilligan and his cowriters is fertile ground for further exploration.
Thanks to the creative team assembled, Better Call Saul has the same visual palette, a handful of familiar characters, a knack for revelatory music cues, and healthy thematic parallels to the now-iconic drama series that preceded it. But in order to justify its existence, it shades in a different facet of what Gilligan and Gould revealed in Breaking Bad. In preparation for tonight's third episode, here's a look back at several of the key moments from the opening episodes "Uno" and "Mijo."
Whoever picked The Ink Spots' 1939 single "Address Unknown" to score this opening sequence deserves a healthy raise right off the bat. The extended black and white sequence recalls the second season of Breaking Bad, which strung out several episode-opening moments throughout the season along with a message hidden in the episode titles. But right from the get-go, that technique is used for a different effect than it was on Breaking Bad. Previously, it was cryptic and morbid foreshadowing of a massive traumatic event that affected the entire area (two planes colliding) that had personal underpinnings for the characters, linking back to Jane, her air-traffic controller father, Jesse, and Walt. For Saul, it depicts how he's always looking over his shoulder, waiting to be discovered and caught in violent retribution. His loneliness—that empty wasteland of an apartment is his own private "Granite State"—only gives him infinite time to contemplate when he had it better. And so he digs out the VHS tape to relive the glory days before Better Call Saul flashes back to the beginning.
There are plenty of visual similarities connecting the Better Call Saul pilot to the actions of Walter White. But the difference in focus is a matter of scale and scope. Breaking Bad takes place between Walt's 50th and 52nd birthdays, ending in 2011. Co-creator Gould has stated that Saul takes place before, during, and after Breaking Bad. But despite the shortened timeframe, there's a lot more dramatic distance to cover sliding downhill from Mr. Chips to Scarface than there is from James M. McGill to Saul Goodman, and Better Call Saul is finely tuned to that distinction. Where Breaking Bad moved in Shakespearean sweeps, Better Call Saul is more gradual. Jimmy's life isn't great, he's struggling mightily as a lawyer, but he's not dying of cancer like Walt was, so there's no great motivation to make drastic changes by whatever means necessary. If Breaking Bad didn't have such a compelling inciting incident—high school chemistry teacher cooking meth to provide for his family before he dies and is forgotten forever—there wouldn't be as much excitement around exploring the history of a small-time crooked lawyer in Albuquerque.
One of the most interesting strains of Breaking Bad concerned Gray Matter Technologies, the corporation that Walt left under mysterious circumstances before the series began, and before he could take part in the lucrative profits—which created an all-consuming bitterness in him that festered all the way through to the finale. It fueled his rage at being unrecognized for his intellect, and though it went unremarked upon for large stretches of time, it was always a key factor in his thirst for an empire.
Jimmy has something similar. His brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a name partner in a highly profitable law firm in Albuquerque, but due to some unnamed condition, be it something to do with electromagnetic fields or just paranoid schizophrenia, he no longer leaves his house, and allows no electronic devices inside. It's clear from Jimmy's first conversation with his brother that there's a shared history at the firm. Chuck references Jimmy's "cronies in the mailroom" and his "friend Kim"—who should play a larger role in the series going forward—but it's clear from Jimmy's interactions at the firm that he's seen as less-than. Again, it's not as archetypal or catastrophic as what sets Walt's actions in motion, but Gilligan and Gould are dealing with a more demure type of ostracized talent.
Aside from the fact that New Mexico has an excellent array of dinosaur fossils, and that skate park is an excellent shooting location from a visual standpoint, there's some thematic significance to be mined from here. This kind of small-time con exists in a tiny bubble—similar to Walt and Jesse's tepid initial forays into meth distribution—oblivious to the depths of the actual criminal underworld. Here these guys sit, listening to one small-timer regale them with rip-off schemes that pale in comparison to a big-time score. This is where these guys belong, unless something—such as the eruption of Walter White's insatiable ambition while facing his own mortality—yanks them from a fishbowl into the deep, blue sea.
And now we arrive at the biggest moment of convergence with Breaking Bad. Yes, we've already seen Mike Ehrmantraut as a parking attendant at the courthouse, but bringing Tuco Salamanca into the fray fulfills one of the somewhat truncated plot threads from Gilligan's previous show. During the WGA strike in 2007, Breaking Bad cut its first season short, which had some big effects on where the series went during its second season. One of those big chances was mandated by Raymond Cruz's role on TNT's The Closer (which he still continues on spinoff Major Crimes). The Tuco arc finished up in the first three episodes of that second season—and Jesse lived through it—but clearly Gilligan didn't get to finish what he wanted to with Cruz's character.
Of all the moments that harkened back to Breaking Bad, this is the choice that made me hesitate the most, because it now requires Saul to fill in the background of even more familiar characters. There are plenty of little cameos sprinkled in here, but with Jimmy, Mike, and Tuco, there's a lot of connective tissue that directly affects the other series, and what I liked most about these first two episodes was how much new ground it staked out while complicating shared themes. Having said that, reviving Tuco, and showing his comically out-of-place Abuelita, suggests that there's a chance Tuco's uncle, Don Hector (Mark Margolis) may make an appearance, which would be phenomenal.
The above image is the exact midpoint of the second episode, "Mijo." It's the shot when Jimmy makes his first official deal with the devil, a gorgeously composed handshake in the desert with the bounty at stake floundering in misery in the middle ground. The skater punks may think he's the worst lawyer ever, but as he makes plain, "I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months probation. I'm the best lawyer ever." Gilligan directed the pilot (of course), but it's also significant that Michelle MacLaren got to helm the second episode, at once extending and expanding the visual cadences of Better Call Saul in concert and apart from Breaking Bad.
Once again, there are visual callbacks to the previous series. But MacLaren does well to hammer home just how significantly this event in the desert affects Jimmy. The longest notable take in either of the first two episodes is the minute-long track/zoom in on Jimmy watching, horrified, as Tuco breaks the skaters' legs. It's so traumatizing that he can't hear breadsticks snapping without having flashbacks—all communicated through the direction, sound design, and Odenkirk's performance.
And there's the montage. MacLaren has gotten her due after phenomenal work on Breaking Bad—she's helmed a handful of Game Of Thrones episodes and is slated to direct DC's Wonder Woman. And Saul coping with his public defender workload isn't exactly the shocking two-minute "Gliding Over All" sequence (also directed by MacLaren), but again, it's a question of scope, and Better Call Saul hammers home the message of this montage once Jimmy has a moment to relax on the tiny pullout couch in his boiler-room office behind the nail salon.
Just like the clients he represents, who he meets while looking at them through bars, Jimmy is trapped by this cycle, unable to rise above to a better job and unable to walk away for fear of what his last scheme wrought. It's a top-down visual cue any college freshman making his or her way through a Bordwell and Thompson textbook could single out, but that doesn't make it any less notable. That is until Tuco's advisor Nacho (Orphan Black's Michael Mando) becomes the first customer to show up at Jimmy's crummy "temporary" office, prepared to offer McGill a finder's fee for information that helps Nacho rob the corrupt county treasurer of his ill-gotten gains.
The final image of the two-night premiere is another one fraught with meaning. James McGill is certainly willing to work in an ethical gray area—all lawyers do, exhibited by that moment in the montage where Jimmy finally gets a prosecutor to agree to a plea bargain with the extra promise of a bag of Fritos. And he's not idealistic—this is a guy who earned the name Slippin' Jimmy in Cicero, Illinois, and as he emphasizes to Chuck, "Money is the point." But unlike the guy who pops up in Breaking Bad as the personification of a slimeball, at this juncture, Jimmy McGill has hard limits on how far he'll go to keep his head above water.
But now that the criminal world has been revealed to him, through brutal violence after a laughably failed attempt at extortion, there's no way to go back and forget it exists. That's the beaded curtain—Nacho walks right through it, back and forth into his world and Jimmy's. And instead of a solid door barring his entrance, or the cell-like existence of an Omaha apartment waiting out there in Saul Goodman's future, it's clear that Jimmy is going to have a hard time not following Nacho right through that curtain.
Extra Legal Advice
- The Albuquerque-area lawyer Ron Bell—who allegedly partly inspired Saul Goodman—went full ouroboros and created a "Better Call Bell" billboard.
- Though the Cinnabon outlet from the opening sequence purports to be in Omaha, it's actually the Cottonwood mall in Albuquerque. I love how this show has maintained a cottage television production industry in a small metropolitan area.
- In addition to all the callbacks (though since it's a prequel it feels weird to use that term) and connections in the pilot, AMC also put out a webcomic that shows what went on from Saul and Mike's side of things in "Better Call Saul" back in season two of Breaking Bad.