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‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Justified’ and Why Even TV Is Nostalgic for TV

'Better Call Saul,' 'Justified' and Why Even TV Is Nostalgic for TV

This article contains spoilers for “Fate’s Right Hand,” the first episode of “Justified’s” sixth season, and minor details from “Better Call Saul’s” pilot.

In “Fate’s Right Hand,” the first episode of “Justified’s” sixth and final season, the perpetually hapless Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) reminisces about the good times when he and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), the white supremacist preacher-turned-budding crime boss who has become the show’s ultimate nemesis, were small-time lawbreakers together. “I want it to be like it was at the church, when we was Crowder’s commandos,” Dewey says, mustering a depth of feeling rarely seen during his years as “Justified’s” best running gag. “The music cranked so loud that we almost blew the roof off that old church. Bombing around in my Cadillac and makin’ war plans and drinkin’ ‘shine. Why can’t it be like that again, Boyd?” “Those were simple days, good days,” Boyd agrees, but “whatever it was we was hoping for, those days have long since passed.” A minute later, he puts a bullet in the back of Dewey’s head.

Dewey’s fatal reminiscence serves, in a sense, as a eulogy for “Justified” itself. Those simple, good days Dewey remembers so fondly were the stuff of the show’s first season, an especially poignant callback after its near-deal-breaking fifth, a tangled mess that drove many longtime viewers, including this one away. But as much as “Justified’s” sixth season, which is now three episodes old, is structured as a return to first principles, it’s also about the trap of being caught by the past, whether it’s the decades-old bond between Boyd and short-tempered lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) or the much older battles of “Bloody” Harlan County, with its history of murderous anti-union violence. When Dewey gets his brains blown out, the blood spatters a photograph of coal miners on the wall of Boyd’s office, a reminder that looking backwards can get you killed.

That goes for TV shows as well as their characters: As Tony Soprano once said, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” It’s never been more so than with the “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul,” which premieres on AMC Sunday night. (The first episode airs right after “The Walking Dead,” followed by the second on Monday in its regular slot. New episodes will be available on Netflix the Tuesday after their initial broadcast.)  Like “Caprica” and the upcoming, as-yet-untitled “Walking Dead” spinoff, “Saul” attempts to avoid the curse of following a hit TV show by preceding it. Rather than pick up with Jesse behind the wheel of his car, driving off into the night as Walter White’s body cools on a warehouse floor, the show rewinds to when twitchy shyster Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) was still Jimmy McGill, a smalltime shyster only a few years past his first career as the slip-and-fall king of Cicero, Illinois. 

But before “Saul” dives into the past, there’s the matter of easing “Breaking Bad” fans into the bath, which it does with a opening sequence designed to both lure in and give a heads-up to its core demographic. The first thing we see is a crystalline substance being sprinkled over a white surface as part of a stylish, music-driven montage that deliberately evokes “Breaking Bad’s” bravura meth cooks. But what’s cooking here isn’t Heisenberg’s blue: It’s Cinnabons. Remember when Saul prophesied, If I’m lucky, in a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha?” Turns out he was on the money, except for the manager part.

After a tense moment in which he fears a burly mall patron may have caught him out, Saul heads back to his house, checks that no one is likely to knock on his door, and pulls out a hidden treasure, a videotape that turns out to contain a string of TV commercials. As he sits back and watches them, a reminder of the good, if occasionally life-threatening, times that use to be, we see Saul Goodman do something we’ve never seen him do before: He begins to cry.

Saul misses those good old “Breaking Bad” days, and so, of course, do we. But “Better Call Saul” isn’t about to let us sit on the couch and weep. As Saul watches his old commercials, the show, which has stuck to black-and-white thus far, shows us a glint of color reflected in his eyeglasses. The future’s not getting any better, but the past — the past is where it’s at.

Over its first three episodes, “Better Call Saul” dribbles out bits of fan service: Mike (Jonathan Banks), Gus Fring’s once-terrifying enforcer, appears as a disgruntled parking-lot attendant, and, well, the rest would be telling. A good chunk of “Breaking Bad’s” key creative team has re-upped, including composer David Porter and director Michelle MacLaren, who crafts an engrossing sequence involving breadsticks (seriously) for the second episode. But it also feels like “Saul” is building, methodically, towards something different, using its built-in fanbase as an excuse to take its time, to build a world of characters rather than zero in on just one. (One potential indication of its direction: As Saul watches TV in the pilot’s opening sequence, a QVC host hawking oil-painting reproductions advises, “This is what you’re looking for if you’re a Renoir fan.”) Nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but “Better Call Saul” and “Justified” are smart enough to exploit it rather than yield to it. 

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