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.

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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.

Better Call Saul: So, that was season one...

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.

Better Call Saul: So, that was season one...

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.

Better Call Saul: So, that was season one...

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.

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  • MichaelANovelli

    So, yeah. Bit of a let-down, so far…

  • Dwayne Nevels

    “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.”

    I feel you are kind of giving this a pretty shallow perspective. Jimmy found out that his brother not only sabotaged his chances for advancement but pretty much told him that he well never respect him. After all that Jimmy has done for Chuck, how can that not be completely devastating on a deeply personal level.

    I agree that this can be one of the faults of binge watching shows. People forget that before all the wiz-bang action that happened in Breaking Bad, there was a lot of slow moving character growth and set up. Season four (my favorite season) was mostly this. However, I felt that the action was a lot more effective because of the way the story was told, everything being brought up to a certain point and all.

    In all, I feel that BCS, like BB before it is at heart a character study first and grand plot second. I found that after seeing all that Jimmy McGill went though, that he is a lot more of a sympathetic character than Walter White ever was.

    • MichaelANovelli

      I’m sure there will be an episode where the thing with Chuck will be the key to the whole series, but it hasn’t been made yet, so I gotta call it like I see it.

      I *do* hope to be proven wrong, ya know. 😉

      • Murry Chang

        Well the thing with Chuck was key to the whole first season really. If he’d gotten hired as a lawyer at HHM right after he finally passed the bar then none of it would have happened.

        • MichaelANovelli

          Fair enough.

  • Murry Chang

    I thought it was better than Breaking Bad myself. BCS has a likeable protagonist who you actually want to succeed whereas I couldn’t get behind Walter White at all.

    Plus it was way less violent…not a big fan of the violence.

    • MichaelANovelli

      Well, the first season of Breaking Bad wasn’t especially violent. BCS may get more action heavy in future seasons…

      • Murry Chang

        Wasn’t it in the first season that they kidnapped a drug dealer and ended up dissolving his body in a bathtub that then fell through the floor because Jessie was a jackass and didn’t wait for Walt to get a plastic barrel? Nothing even close to that happened in BCS…

        Diff’rent Strokes to move the world I guess;)

        • MichaelANovelli

          Well, compared to later seasons…

          • Murry Chang

            True but if things get like that I’ll just stop watching:)

  • tMoD

    I have to reluctantly agree with your criticisms. I watched “Breaking Bad” over the course of about a month on Netflix and it worked way way better watching it all at once rather than waiting for each episode over the course of 5 years. Yes, the first season of “Breaking Bad” was slow, I think that had to do with a writer’s strike which hobbled their ability to pack more story in.

    I also 100% agree with you about Mike’s character. Honestly, that was the only time I didn’t like BCS, as I found Mike’s back story so cliche and boring. Good cop, gets corrupt, suddenly has a crises of conscience when his actions affect a loved one (his son), now he is broken and his morals are complex, at best. It seems like I have seen this many times on “Law and Order”, “The Sopranos”, and “The Wire” with much better results.

    I sort of wish I had waited for BCS to get a few seasons under it’s belt and watch all of them at once. No matter. I felt Breaking Bad was excellent and ultimately well written and compelling. I believe the creators and writers of BCS deserve a chance to let the story play out as they see it. I will continue to watch and I look forward to future episodes.

    • MichaelANovelli

      Here’s hoping! 🙂