The first black-and-white moments of Better Call Saul serve as a decent encapsulation of what to expect from the Breaking Bad spin-off. The viewer will no doubt recognize some of the series’ moves, like a paranoid glance at the thuggish dude across the room or detailed shots of hands working. (Whoever decided to draw a visual parallel between Cinnabon’s addictive, face-destroying cinnamon rolls and Heisenberg’s addictive, face-destroying crystal meth deserves an honorary Emmy.) But this isn’t a cook. It’s a bake. And no matter how much you expect bongos, steel string guitar, and chemical formulas after the cold open, it ain’t going to happen, because this isn’t the story of Walter Hartwell White. It’s the story of Gene, the manager of an Omaha Cinnabon, and of Saul Goodman, but mostly it’s the story of Jimmy McGill.
And things are bad for Jimmy McGill, so bad that most of the premiere’s runtime is spent driving home how far he has to climb to earn Saul Goodman’s strip-mall office, as if his yellow Suzuki Esteem weren’t proof enough. When we meet Jimmy, he’s is barely making ends meet by taking lowest of the low from the public defenders office. The crime his clients are charged with—sneaking into a morgue, removing the head from a corpse, and then having sex with it—hails more from Westeros than the Albuquerque of Breaking Bad, but even when that courtroom scene runs a little overlong and a little over-gross, Bob Odenkirk is there to wave off the incriminating video tape as not so bad with perfect Goodmanian assurance.
As far as Jimmy is from Saul in that opening court scene, the seeds of the criminal lawyer to come are not that far away. One major, grumpy seed is perched in the parking lot just outside. Mike Ehrmantraut is still an enforcer in the prequel world of Better Call Saul, but he used stickers on a validation ticket instead of balloons and a silenced handgun to get the job done. Jonathan Banks, as the other major returning cast member, doesn’t disappoint. As always, he’s good enough to support his own series about the ins and outs of parking lot law. It’s a fun cameo that says “hey, don’t worry, this will all be Breaking Bad someday,” as well as a stinging reminder that this is the prequel series we got instead of the one in my head that follows Mike’s loss of innocence as a cop in the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Gilligan, I know you’re reading this. Please?)
With some stage setting taken care of and the obligatory Breaking Bad cameo out of the way, Saul moves onto its own story. County treasurer and beyond-reproach stickler Craig Kettleman may or may not have just stolen over $1 million from his office, as Jimmy has learned from the newspaper, and he’s deciding whether or not to hire a lawyer. Jimmy comes within a few pen strokes of signing the likely guilty and highly bankable client, until Craig’s wife Betsy intercedes at the last moment, convincing him to sleep on it. The near miss, even with some of the patented Saul Goodman charm, proves that Jimmy has a way to go before he’s the smarmy, silver-tongued persuader from TV.
Then there’s Chuck. Once a powerful attorney, Jimmy’s brother now fears electromagnetism and demands that anyone entering his darkened house “ground” themselves by placing cell phones and car keys in the mailbox outside. We’re not quite sure what’s making him sick, aside from that it’s affecting his mind, and the outlook isn’t great. The Michael McKean character is the biggest missing piece in the puzzle that Better Call Saul is assembling. Saul, despite how low he has stooped, has always had a decent moral-ish compass deep, deep, deep down inside. The needle might point toward offing someone, but it was always in the interest of his clients. With Chuck, we can see Saul’s heart more clearly than ever, and so far it’s the one completely new aspect of the show that really works. When Saul rips up the check from Chuck’s partners, we feel it, and learning why the slip had to go makes the hurt worse.
So to reiterate: Things are bad. Chuck’s law firm is conspiring to screw the McGills out of money that is owed to them, and the Kettlemans have taken their business to that same firm. The Saul we know would have never taken that lying down, but that’s exactly with Slippin’ Jimmy would do, probably clutching his leg as well. At a local skate park, Jimmy finds the twin scammers who tried to grift $500 from the wrong guy by jumping onto his windshield. He wants to bring them into the fold, by pulling the same con on Betsy Kettleman and hopefully bringing her husband’s case back to him.
The set-up and (near) execution of the scheme is, by far, the Breaking Bad-iest and, not coincidentally, and best part of the first episode. Jimmy, like Walter, dreams up a plan, which subsequently and inevitably falls apart. The previous show and its spin-off are at their most interesting when their heroes are handling the aftermath. In this case, the car that the twins target doesn’t stop after one of them flings himself onto the hood. In fact, the car doesn’t belong to Betsy Kettleman at all, but a sweet old lady with a not-so nice grandson. Yes, Tuco Salamanca, Walt’s first real adversary, is back from the dead, presumably to scream and call the twins “bitch,” if he hasn’t killed them already.
One episode in, Better Call Saul is already facing the issues that every prequel goes up against. We know how things end, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where they started. The weird road that gets us between the two has to be absurdly entertaining for people to keep coming back, since the endgame has already played out. The Tuco cliffhanger should carry everyone to the second half of the two-night event, but beyond that the direction of the show is less clear. Will Breaking Bad fans stick around to find out what’s wrong with Chuck and what forms Jimmy has to fill out to change his name to Saul? Co-creator Peter Gould has said that the show will jump around in time, taking place before, during, and after the events of Breaking Bad at any given point, but even after a glimpse of Gene for Cinnabon and nearly an hour with Jimmy, I’m more curious about what’s happening at the food court than the courthouse.