Better Call Saul Reviews: “Uno” (season 1, episode 1)

Let me get the elephant out of the way first; I don’t have cable. That means I’ll be a day behind on my Better Call Saul reviews. I don’t think that will matter in the long run, but in this particular case it means I’m writing about episode one while you’re all watching episode two. Do me a favor and try to avoid episode two spoilers in the comments, but otherwise feel free to pick apart the fact that everything I say here has already been disproven by the second installment. (Oh, and, needless to say, these reviews may well contain their own spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the first episode yet, go do that. It’s good.)

So, here we are. Breaking Bad is over, but we have another opportunity to dip back into its universe. It’s a spinoff. And a prequel. And…a sequel. But we’ll come to that in a moment.

If any character from Breaking Bad seemed like he could carry a show on his own, it would indeed have been Saul Goodman. Saul always did seem to me like an intrusion from another world. A welcome intrusion, I hasten to add, but when Walter described him as coming off like a circus clown, he was echoing my thoughts as well. Saul was the jester in a tragedy.

His introduction on Breaking Bad was given an entire episode; one full of complicated two-handed scheming to get ahead, and a strong prioritization of money over justice. That episode was also called “Better Call Saul,” and that short summary could apply to this introductory episode as well.

Saul Goodman has always been in danger of becoming a cartoon character. Yet, I’d argue he was kept just in check by Vince Gilligan and co. While his dialogue was too clever by half, it always seemed rehearsed. It’s not that Saul was witty…it’s that Saul was prepared. When we see him delaying a court case so that he can practice his precise words — not only what he will say, but what he will say in return — it bears that suspicion out. And I think it says a lot that the prosecutor in this very court case, which goes deservedly south for our hero, says absolutely nothing. He simply gets up and shows the jury the evidence. The prosecutor knows, or senses, that you won’t win a verbal sparring match with Goodman. Refuse to engage him, though, and you’ve got him on the ropes.

Better Call Saul, already, is filled with these little details that manage to define an outsized character without necessarily humanizing him. Perhaps down the line we’ll get our tear-jerking moments, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for them. Goodman is a strange creature, given to flights of theatrics and rushes of inventive panic. Sitting him beside more “traditional” television lawyers (such as the aforementioned prosecutor, or Mr. Hamlin in a later scene) reveals that Saul’s world wasn’t crazier than Walter’s; Saul was the comic outlier there, too. He’s the comic outlier everywhere.

One of the reasons, I believe, that people surrendered themselves so willingly to Breaking Bad was its promise of a built-in termination point. Whereas so many shows start off promisingly and then spin their wheels until the money stops coming in, Breaking Bad told us in the first episode that Walter White was going to die, and it was going to happen sooner rather than later. Vince Gilligan could have reversed that decision in any number of ways at any point, but, ultimately, he didn’t. Even when Walter “beat” cancer, it was already replaced by a much more frightening danger. Tension cannot be ratcheted up indiscriminately; at some point, it needs to go somewhere. Otherwise your audience realizes that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Better Call Saul, surprising me, opens with the promise of a termination point as well. Granted, we knew eventually that our favorite criminal lawyer would meet Walter White, and we know his story from there. But so what? Couldn’t Better Call Saul trot out silly court cases and situations indefinitely? Does he actually have to get anywhere?

The opening of “Uno” says, yes, he does. In fact, it picks up where Breaking Bad left off for him. He’s managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. He has a new name, a mustache, and impaired vision. And sometimes, when the nights are particularly lonesome, he’ll pop in a VHS of his old commercials, and remember what life was like when it had some color.

This means, again, that Vince Gilligan is taking us somewhere. As easy (and fun) as it would have been to give us The Continuing Adventures of Young Saul, we enter this story knowing that it’s not going to have a happy ending. And that’s tantalizing.

“Uno” does a lot of scene setting, which is understandable. The fact that in many cases it only sets the scene and leaves the rest for now to our imagination (such as the possible ousting of Chuck McGill from his partnership, and our hero’s romantic flounderings) is positively laudable. We trust the show to explain these things in due time, and the show trusts us to respect it and have patience.

However, there’s a problem. At least potentially. And here it is: James McGill is already Saul Goodman.

He has a different name, far less money, and a dearth of clients. He drives a Suzuki Esteem with one red door. He has more hair and has not yet discovered Bluetooth.

But he’s still Saul.

If you take the Walter White of Breaking Bad‘s first season and compared him to the Walter White of Breaking Bad‘s final season, the difference would be astonishing. The show very deliberately plotted his dark descent, but remove all of that knowledge from your mind and simply compare both versions of the same man. It’s striking.

Now take the Jimmy McGill of “Uno” and compare him to Saul Goodman. Superficial changes aside, I don’t think you’d see a different person. At all.

I don’t see this as a problem that can’t be surmounted, but I am interested to see what they do with it. If Breaking Bad was about a man changed by his circumstances, Better Call Saul looks like it’s about a man changing his circumstances.

We know he gets more successful, and we know that if he does experience a serious change of personality, it can’t be permanent. So what is the journey of Jimmy McGill? I don’t know, and considering the fact that I know both how his story begins and how it ends, that’s an unexpected admission.

Ultimately, Better Call Saul deserves to be thought of on its own merits, but the fact that it features more than one familiar Breaking Bad face — and is undoubtedly to feature more (hurry up, Kuby!) — means that we’re going to hold it to a higher standard than we would some unrelated Bob Odenkirk law comedy. Then again, we probably wouldn’t be watching that unrelated Bob Odenkirk law comedy.

As of the end of “Uno,” my concerns are more like questions. While some of the comedy went a bit broad (a phony severed head rings particularly false after the exquisite pain of Breaking Bad‘s more brutal moments), there are enough quiet passages of McGill facing something inside, something we can’t see yet. Something, maybe, we will never see. And at the very least, I’m looking forward to exploring that…however indirectly.

If it’s fun to spend time with Saul Goodman, then that’s all we really need. In a show that opens with its own inevitable, sad coda, though, I hope that’s not all we get.

9 thoughts on “Better Call Saul Reviews: “Uno” (season 1, episode 1)”

  1. I’m an episode behind too, so I sympathize with your plight.
    I was pretty impressed with this episode. I forgot just how brilliant Gilligan & The Gang are at directing, pacing and storytelling. I didn’t know what to expect from this show, and I’m still not sure what this show *is* exactly, but it definitely feels unlike anything else on TV.
    I think the fact that it’s connected so directly to the Breaking Bad universe is maybe not such a big flaw. I got my mom to watch this somehow; she’d never seen Breaking Bad, but she loved this first episode. Not knowing who Mike is doesn’t make his comment about the judicial system any less funny, and the reveal of Tuco at the end of the episode is a great twist even if you don’t know who he is–the fact that the episode ends with Saul with a gun to his head is a good enough twist on its own. That impressed me.
    Tonally though, I think the show is going for its own thing, and I’m not sure how beneficial or helpful comparisons to Walter White’s arc will be. Although I think you could argue that the guy you see at the beginning of Breaking Bad is not so different than the guy we see at the end.

    1. I don’t think that its connection to the Breaking Bad universe will hold it back so much as it will perpetuate certain comparisons. It’s easy to *want* to think of it as a completely separate entity from Breaking Bad, but it’s about a breakout character from Breaking Bad, shows him interacting (possibly regularly, since Jonathan Banks gets front billing) with other characters from Breaking Bad, in the setting of Breaking Bad, and opens with an epilogue to Breaking Bad.

      It would certainly be one thing if this were, say, a studio sitcom with a laugh track, but so much about its presentation (and promise of eventual termination) place it pretty squarely in that same stylistic universe.

      But I admit, I’m questioning things in episode one that will no doubt be answered by episode XX.

      I think the Walter White of season one is very different from the guy we see at the end. Maybe not in terms of what he feels, or what he wants, but certainly in terms of how he reacts to what he feels and wants. I think the ego was always in place, but quiet frustration and relatively minor outbursts (such as when he quits the carwash) have evolved into substantially different ways of dealing with his world. I don’t see the Jimmy McGill of this episode dealing with his world much differently than I saw Saul Goodman, though.

      I’m not disagreeing with anything at all…I’m just glad the spinoff is already engendering conversation worthy of its predecessor. That in itself is a huge accomplishment.

      1. Oh for sure. The Breaking Bad *comparisons* are more what I’m worried about–I worry that people are going to complain that the show isn’t as intense or suspenseful, when I don’t think that’s what BCS is going for–but from a storytelling perspective I do think it works on its own for people who aren’t familiar with BB. I wonder what the writers are going for here. I can’t tell if they want this to be its own show, judged on its own merits, or if they want it to be a direct follow-up to Breaking Bad. I guess it’s just hard to tell at this point whether the nods to Breaking Bad will be just nods, or if they’re going to end up being very important backstory. Like, how much of this show is about Saul, and how much of it is about cameos and backstories to other secondary characters and stuff?
        I don’t think the Walter White comparison is entirely fair, because I’m not sure this show is about a definitive transformation like BB was. I think it’s (and this is a stretch) more of a Don Draper thing–just trying to figure out who this mysterious guy is.

        1. Ah, okay, we’re in agreement, I think. I don’t mean to compare Saul with Walter so much as contrast them. Walter I feel is a convenient (and I’d still argue appropriate) reference point, even if all we’re doing is defining how their arcs differ. As I mentioned in the review (though I admittedly simplified things), circumstances changed Walter…but it seems like Saul changes his circumstances.

          I agree that it’s not a show about transformation in the same way. In fact, it can’t be; we know Saul Goodman, and if he’s not much different from Jimmy McGill, we can rule that right out. I’m just interested in (rather than concerned about), what the show will be. This show isn’t wrong for not repeating Walter’s arc through Saul…it just makes me wonder what we’ll get instead.

          It could just be a matter of a weekly chance to spend more time with Saul, and I certainly wouldn’t complain if it is. At the same time, I’m not quite ready to surrender to that possibility. The opening scene was far too loaded for that.

  2. I’m surprised how much I liked this first two episodes, I went in fully expecting to hate this given how many things this show has going against it: the protagonist being too much of a comedic character, living in the shadows of one of the best TV shows ever, knowing exactly how it ends from the start.

    Mr. Gilligan is really really good at his job.

    James McGill is already Saul Goodman.

    I don’t know that I agree with this statement, James McGill seems a bit more of an idealist than Saul Goodman.

    1. I really didn’t get a heightened sense of idealism from the first episode, but it could also be me applying too much of what I already know to the character and missing out on subtle differences.

      “Mr. Gilligan is really really good at his job.”
      Truer words were never spoken.

  3. Actually, Phil, this episode was a bit of a tear-jerker for me (although I didn’t actually cry, natch!). The second I realized that the poor schlep behind the Cinnabon counter was Saul, I could literally feel my heart break…
    In fact, it was strongly reminiscent of a story I read not too long ago in an anthology about some game I’d never heard of. Oh, and BTW, I read “Tetris” a while back. I’ve been meaning to write you about it. You REALLY have the knack for that style narrative, and I can’t wait to read Detective Fiction. (But alas, I think I liked the other story a bit more. Perhaps because more alcohol was consumed during the reading thereof.)

  4. Oh, and also, I thought the whole “Slippin’ Jimmy thing was the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, because it took a while for the anecdote to unfold, but man, what an anecdote.

    1. Oh God, I adored Slippin’ Jimmy. I was paying attention and all, but at some point during the monologue I realized how long it had been going on. It was indeed funny (in a lot of ways), but it also hammered home to me the confidence that Gilligan & co have in this project. For the title character to sit down in episode one and provide a long lecture to the viewer, which doesn’t seem relevant until later in the speech…that’s showing complete faith in their abilities as writers, Odenkirk as an actor, and us as viewers.

      And I’m pretty sure I laughed each time someone in the background rode up JUST too close to him. A fantastic sequence for what amounts to one guy telling a story.

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