Tuesday, February 10, 2015

(TV) Better Call Saul Season 1 Episode 1 TV Review

Rarely has there been this much anticipation for a spinoff of a successful show and what’s even rarer is the spinoff being anywhere as good as its predecessor but with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and Philip Gould at the helm and off the first outing of Better Call Saul, It’s already quite clear that it won’t go the way of other spinoffs.

The show doesn’t have ounce of fat on it as it focuses tightly on our protagonist who is present in just about every scene. In the first episode, we learn more about Saul Goodman A.K.A James McGill than we did in the character’s four season run as Walt and Jesse’s wisecracking “criminal lawyer”. In stark contrast to the upbeat and glib charm we come to know and love Saul for in breaking Bad, he cuts a forlorn figure before and after the events of Breaking Bad as we see him working at Cinnabons and watching over shoulder his in fear of reprisals.

His supposed fall from grace is hammered home as we follow him home to decent but eerily empty abode where pours a mix of Drambuie and Dewar White Label and watches his old cheesy commercials a picture of sorrow and regret. These short but depressing few scenes at the start of the episode reveals to us not only his fall from grace but a man stripped of purpose and on a road to self-destruction which makes for a compelling but ultimately sad spectacle especially in light of what we knew of him before.

We flashback to his life before he met Walt and Jesse and to some extent it’s kind of hard to say which part of his life was more depressing: his life before or after the events of Breaking Bad. We once again learn more in a scene than we did in his whole run in Breaking Bad as we see Saul, now going by the name James McGill, holding up a court trying to get his closing argument down pat.

This small scene is pretty great as we learn all his charm doesn’t come from natural charisma but from bloody hard work. Throughout this episode, Saul (I find it difficult to refer to Saul by his real name), is portrayed as a lonely and severely insecure man looking to prove himself and failing at every turn but in the scene in the bathroom where we find him going through his closing argument in his head to when delivers it perfectly in the courtroom, we know it’s not for a lack of trying.

There’s a great comedic moment when Saul rips through his great closing argument in defense of three teenage boys, the prosecution simply goes across the room, drags a nearby television hooked to a VCR in front of the jury and pops in a tape that shows Saul’s clients sexually molesting then cutting of the head of a dead corpse.

The video pretty much kills his case as we find Saul remonstrating with a court receptionist over his measly pay as a public defender demanding extra for representing three defendants. What this short but telling scene revealed is that Saul from the outset could care less about the guilt or innocence of his clients. It also reveals that he’s no fan of his current position as public defender as the last case showed, most of them are unwinnable. We find out later in the episode that Saul was morally corrupted back in his teens but in this short scene and in others in the episode, we see that it wasn’t going to take much to corrupt him later on.

Another short scene right after shows us Saul’s uncanny skill for deception as he impersonates an Irish assistant supposedly working for his firm on the spot. We’ve already seen Saul is a pretty good at working a crowd but his skill for on the spot deception is outright criminal genius. In that same scene we see him pull up at a tool booth and from a voice off screen we instantly realize that this is Saul’s first encounter with Mike. Jonathan Banks was excellent as the deadpan and no-nonsense hitman and it’s great to see that he’ll be playing him in future episode which already makes my anticipation for the next episode that much unbearable.

In the next scene, we find Saul at the four O’clock appointment setup by his “Irish assistant” in a diner with a couple once again showing his great ability to pitch. His ability to pitch is even more highlighted by the awkward conversation about the case which reveals the couple’s guilt and, once again, Saul’s indifference towards the guilt of his prospective clients.  
So far, we’ve seen Saul frustrated by his legal career and thanks to the treasurers’ wife, he suffers another setback as she stops her husband from signing a letter of engagement at the last minute. Gilligan and Gould make a great choice of focusing on Saul’s face watching the treasurer almost sign on the dotted line before his wife stops him as one frame on Saul’s face shows us the desperation and over-eagerness of a man looking for a break and the dejection when that break turns into a false dawn.

The time we’ve spent with Saul has been one disappointment after another as life is handing one lemon after another and they keep on coming as two twin scammers try to pull one over on Saul as one jumps upfront of Saul’s car while the other twin ramps up pressure on Saul with a camcorder that just happens to be handy when his brother is “unfortunately” run into.

However their misfortune is compounded by the fact that Saul has their number as while Saul initial reaction of blind fear is real, he relaxes when they bring up the issue of compensation. After the twins settle on $500 being the number that “make(s) things right”, Saul proceeds to cut through the act and then rips them for their poor choice of victim with a great line about his car “only being worth $500 with a $300 hooker sitting in it”.

That great line is one of the few lines that made me laugh out loud in this episode which wasn’t particularly funny. This is not bad thing as I’ve found the best comedies don’t make you laugh but when they do, it’s worth remembering. The episode wasn’t funny because Gilligan and Gould can’t write comedy (they clearly can as Breaking Bad would have been an unbearable watch if they couldn’t), it’s because Saul’s life is more tragic than it is funny.  We’ve seen Saul get poorly compensated for taking unwinnable cases, get rejected by drop dead guilty clients and chase off twin scammers for trying to get one over on him, none of which is funny to him or would be funny to us if we were in his shoes.

If there’s any comedy in Better Call Saul, you’d better believe it’s down to the great lines and comic timing of Gilligan and Gould and a stand out performance from Bob Odenkirk (whose been great in everything we’ve seen him in post Breaking Bad from the Oscar nominated Nebraska to the brilliant and award laden TV reworking of the classic 1996 Coen brothers’ film Fargo) because it’s certainly not coming from the events taking place in Saul’s life.

In the next scene, we see why Saul’s “Irish assistant” set up a meeting at a diner rather than his office as his “office” is basically a spare room at the back of nail and pedicure joint.  Again we see traces of his insecurity as he hesitates to check his messages fearing he has none, his fears are realized when the answering tells him what he already knows. Saul files through his mail then opens up a letter from Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill (HHM) with a check made to James McGill for $26,000 which Saul, after a beat, rips into pieces.     

In the next scene we get to see why as he makes a visit HHM. From his interaction with just about everybody outside the main office, he’s not exactly man of the year as while the staff there remember him, it’s palpable they don’t remember him fondly. We get an even greater sense that his presence is not welcome when he makes his entrance into a partners meeting to discuss the check in mail which he empties out of his palm onto a finely polished table.

We learn through his conversation with one of the partners that the check wasn’t for him, it was for his brother, Saul clearly thinks his brother is being shortchanged and wants HHM to buyout his share of firm but it becomes clear that Saul doesn’t have the authority to make such a demand on his brother’s behalf. Saul then threatens to take HHM to court then exits the office but not before his best impression of Ned Beatty’s performance in the classic 1976 Paddy Chayefsky satire “Network”.
All we’ve seen all episode is Saul suffer one knock back after another but the one that clearly hurt him the most was seeing the treasurer and his wife in the foyer of HMM chopping it up with the senior partner we saw earlier in the main office. As he exits the elevator we see Saul lets go of all his frustration as he wails on a nearby bin with a barrage of kicks. This is telling as lets out all the choked back anger at his situation and the cosmic joke that has become his life. We got none of this in Breaking Bad as more often than not, Saul always had some semblance of control.

In the next scene we follow Saul home and find that his house is powerless but not empty as we hear a voice off screen. After Saul lights a lantern and puts groceries in an ice bucket, we find Saul’s brother Chuck at a typewriter. The conversation between the two is the first conversation between that wasn’t purely business or outright adversarial as Saul clearly cares for his brother and vice versa.

The love between the two is palpable when Saul insists that Chuck quits HHM and his brother also determined to prove he can get back in the game but with his fear of electromagnetism (hence the powerless house), Saul’s not so sure. However, Chuck proves himself to be a great debater as he swiftly cuts through his brother’s arguments regarding his career as he rightly points out that his arguments are built on false principles but Saul counters with an argument built on a principle that’s hard to falsify: economic reality.   
Saul informs Chuck that he’s broke and while Chuck argues that money is “beside the point”, Saul counters that “money is the point” which reveals a sharp philosophical break between the two. From what we’ve seen so far, Chuck is clearly the more patient, intellectual, and therefore the more successful of the two while Saul, driven by his insecurity and lack of success in spite of his sharp mind, is overly concerned about the result of his actions which makes the continual cosmic setbacks harder to take on the chin.

In the scene with Chuck we find out that Saul only took public defender work because of Chuck’s insistence of its nobility and the precious experience he would gain which again brings into focus the philosophical difference between the two as Saul, less than impressed with monetary results never mind the unwinnable cases, is clearly not convinced that public defender work is either noble or the experience of doing it enlightening.

However, Saul soon found out that his impassioned argument to get his brother to cash out of HHM was to come to naught as the firm was already sending Chuck checks he was more than happy to accept due to his insistence he will resume work at the firm. Saul, flabbergasted, thinks HHM are taking advantage of his brother’s optimistic assessment of his health but is shut down by Chuck’s insistence that he will get better. Saul has spent the whole day suffering setback after setback but when Chuck hands him the matchbox he gave to the couple earlier in the episode and suggests he changes his name ”to build his own identity”, we see that this was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Saul playing by the rules.

While we know later that Saul took Chuck’s advice wholesale down the line, right now, blinded once again by his anger and insecurity about his life and now HHM taking advantage of his brother’s naivety, all he can fathom is a certain sense of betrayal and a major hard on for poking HHM in the eye.

Saul plan to poke HHM in the eye is crudely simple by potentially effective as he recruits the twin scammers to play the same hustle they tried on him on the treasurer’s wife so that he can come to her rescue and possibly steal the treasurer’s embezzlement case from HHM. Not a bad plan but, as with all plans, good or bad, they are useless when the variables they’re based on suddenly change or were faulty in the first place. The twins are on the right street and target the right car but clearly the wrong driver as instead of getting out of the vehicle to see if  their “victim” is ok, the driver speeds off. While Saul rightly tells the twins, now following the car, that the hit and run is a good thing as it gives them more leverage.

However, this makes the twins greedy as they figure they could shake down once they catch up with the driver and demand compensation. They ignore Saul’s wise advice to hang back which they ultimately pay for as they roll up on the driver, an elderly but stern looking Hispanic woman, and demand, through a cursory understanding of Spanish, compensation. However, the old lady, certainly nobody’s fool, sees right through the twins and invites them into their home and calls out for her son in Spanish which would have sent a red flag among the twins if they understood a word of Spanish beyond the terms that sound similar to their English equivalents.

Their greed also drags Saul into the same quagmire as he spots the twin’s skateboards and headgear on the old lady’s lawn which should have sent a massive red flag but with Saul working on his pitch to reel in the treasurer’s wife, he’s too focused on cashing in to register any danger. However, Saul inability to register danger is soon addressed as he gets a 45 Magnum Revolver stuck in his face by none other than Tuco Salamanca who drags Saul into his house.

In Tuco we see another face we recognize from Breaking Bad and s sure to feature heavily in the show and probably might explain how Saul got connected with Gus Fring and in the New Mexico underworld in general. In any case, I trust Gilligan and Gould’s ability to tell a story as if the first episode is anything to go by, it might just match its original inspiration for greatness.   

In sum, “Uno” was a great episode as it was brilliantly written, directed, shot and acted and if Gilligan, Gould and Odenkirk keep giving us episodes and performances like this, all three are shoe in for Emmy consideration not only from the good will garnered from their magnum opus but from the quality from their current work of art.  

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