Better Call Saul: So, that was season one...
The first season of Vince Gilligan’s prequel to Breaking Bad has come to a close. Originally, I wanted to do a mid-point review like the Agony Booth does with Agents of SHIELD sometimes, but then it looked like the writers might actually resolve something within a single season for once, and I wanted to see how it played out. This turned out not to be the case, but we’ll get back to that. All I can say is that while I’m hooked, I was really hoping for more out of this show, and so far it has yet to deliver.
Before we start, I want to talk about Breaking Bad for a second, because it really illustrates what this show’s strengths and weaknesses have been so far. Breaking Bad is a show that was great if you were coming into it a season or two behind, so you could binge watch and really appreciate the flow of the story. Once you started watching new episodes every week, however, the whole thing ground to a halt, because while deliberate pacing is great for streaming or watching on DVD, on network TV it becomes downright glacial.
This doesn’t get any better when you realize that Better Call Saul hasn’t yet found an identity other than “what Saul (and Mike) did before they met Walter”, so instead of setting up Breaking Bad as a life-changing doom-spiral that took them down along with Heisenberg, what we have instead is just the same show without its two most interesting characters.
Before I get too far ahead of myself: Better Call Saul takes place about ten years or so before Breaking Bad, and has so far depicted Saul (Bob Odenkirk) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) back when they were struggling lawyer James McGill and a disgraced former cop fleeing a murder charge, respectively. James is a former conman who’s tried to turn his life around after his successful lawyer brother Chuck (Michael McKean) pulled his ass out of the fire over a sex offender rap.
James has gotten his law degree (online), but because of a bunch of office politics that don’t come to light until later in the season, his brother’s firm won’t hire him, so he strikes out on his own. He spends most of the first half of the season scrambling for work as a public defender, while also taking care of Chuck, who’s completely snapped and become convinced he’s allergic to electricity.
I really do think that Chuck is this show’s most brilliant conceit so far. He’s got such a daffy premise, and they play it completely straight. He’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen in a while, because I honestly have no idea what they’ll have him do in season two; he’s probably the biggest wildcard in a show I like since Laurie Forman started sleeping with Kelso. Though, considering how badly That ‘70s Show managed to fumble her character, that doesn’t bode well.
After failing to land a big embezzlement case, James starts falling back on his con artist roots to drum up business, which runs him afoul of Tuco Salamanca (one of the mid-level heavies Walt kills on Breaking Bad). He manages to bluff his way out of it, but when one of the cartel’s drug runners gets framed for kidnapping the very clients that James has been trying to land, he gets sucked into a web of bribery, blackmail, and other good stuff that, once it’s settled, has both afforded and cost him the chance to take revenge against the head of Chuck’s firm, with his plans ultimately ruined because James still has a conscience at this point.
Throughout this season, we can see a faint but plainly visible influence from Netflix’s House of Cards, specifically in how James is trying to be a bad person in the name of the greater good. While I do love House of Cards, I feel that this was probably the wrong way to go. For one thing, Saul Goodman is no Frank Underwood. Yes, I guess the case could be made that Saul was more of a villain than Walter was, on account of him helping build their drug empire until Walt’s Heisenberg identity had completely consumed him, but the fact of the matter is that Saul’s main weakness was, well, that he was weak. It’s kind of hard to get invested in “how does James become a bastard?” when we know what he’ll become isn’t all that different from what he is now.
Even more so, we really didn’t need to get Mike’s backstory. It’s not that I disagree with trying to make him more sympathetic, but much like Wolverine, he gets less interesting the more we learn about him. (Plus, his being here means we don’t get to see Buzz Hickey on Community anymore, which is a shame.)
This season also failed to deliver on the promise of seeing James having to run his game both for and against the cartel. It would have been really interesting to watch him flail around trying to help and prevent them from committing crimes at the same time (since that was what he always did for Walt and Jesse), and then watch his humanity be gradually chipped away as he realized he couldn’t justify the fact that he was part of the drug trade anymore.
Instead, we get the weak reveal that Chuck has secretly been sabotaging James’ legal career which, along with the death of an old friend from back east, is all it takes for him to decide that he’s going to be a selfish prick from now on.
Obviously, the intention is for pretty much every minor detail to act as foreshadowing for some very dark shit later on, but this is still Vince Gilligan we’re talking about. Odds are, we’re going to be waiting at least three years or so before any of this matters.