Years before “Breaking Bad,” Albuquerque’s premiere “criminal” lawyer Saul Goodman was Jimmy McGill, a public defender who puts on a good show, but struggles to get his clients off and never has enough stickers on his parking ticket. Bouncing between the courthouse, a local diner, the electricity-less house of his brother Chuck and a tiny office in the back of a Vietnamese nail salon, Jimmy has his eyes on a potential financial jackpot — the Kettleman family, which may be sitting on a million dollars thanks to an “accounting discrepancy” on the part of the husband. But in his attempt to win over the Kettlemans’ business, a mix-up regarding Mercury station wagons puts Jimmy face-to-face with a loaded gun.
The Least Legal Move
There are maybe more noble ways to try to win over a client than hiring a pair of skateboarding twins to fake a car accident. Maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t do that to manipulate a client into picking your services. The Bar Association probably frowns upon such a move — and probably has an even bigger problem with you doing it to the wrong person.
Remembering What Hasn’t Happened Yet (The “Breaking Bad” Tie-In)
“Better Call Saul” opens with the reveal of a prophecy fulfilled — as Saul Goodman once told Walter White, “The fun’s over. From here on out, I’m Mr. Low Profile, just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I’m lucky, a month from now – best case scenario – I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.”
And life in Omaha, for Saul, is a scary and lonely thing: Constantly looking over his shoulder in public, filling his evenings with alcohol and repeat viewings of his glory years. Odenkirk’s performance in that prelude says everything; there’s a sad tragedy to knowing that your glory years were the ones you spent as a storefront legal adviser to drug dealers.
Meanwhile, we find out how Jimmy met not only Mike Ehrmantraut, but one of “Breaking Bad’s” first heavyweights, the very testy Tuco. Neither introduction is particularly fortuitous, though at least Mike doesn’t pull a gun on him.
Oh, That’s Right, It’s a Period Piece
Not much looks that different, here in the year 2003, but the technology is just a little bit bigger and bulkier. Most importantly, the phones all flip open. That was always fun, to end a phone call by snapping your phone shut. Way more satisfying than pressing a button on a touchscreen.
What’s Wrong With Chuck?
Plenty. Jimmy’s meeting with Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill, Chuck’s old law firm, seemed to indicate that Chuck is sick, but that illness may not be physiological. No names of diseases are thrown around in this episode, but based on the electricity-free house, a fear of cell phones and Chuck’s request for letters to be translated into Finnish, Jimmy’s brother’s problems seem to be primarily in his head.
On The Journey From Jimmy to Saul
Same actor, same city, same profession. So what makes Jimmy, as we know him now, different from the man he will become? The key distinction is that Saul had a confidence that comes from success — but when we meet him here, Jimmy is just pure desperation, scrambling like crazy to make a semi-legal living.
Yet the foundation for a name change is laid, courtesy of Chuck, who tells Jimmy that he should change the name of his legal practice, because the name McGill is already associated with Chuck’s old firm. Chuck calls it “professional courtesy,” but also encourages Jimmy to consider it an opportunity for a new identity. We know that eventually Jimmy will do so — but given his hatred of the Hamlin-controlled firm, it seems unlikely at the moment that he’ll do so willingly.
The drink that Jimmy splashes together in the opening… flash forward to the present day? (Man, writing about this show is going to get confusing fast.) Anyways, that drink is known to bartenders as the Rusty Nail, a combination of Drambuie and whiskey. Here’s Esquire’s recipe. Try it, if you like your Scotch with a side order of Scotch.
Jimmy’s initial sales pitch to the Kettlemans is full of classic bits — “I don’t go looking for guilty people to represent — who needs that aggravation?” and “it’s getting arrested that makes people look guilty.” But we have to go with this off-hand remark about the quality of Jimmy’s car: “The only way that car is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker inside it!”
“It’s From a Movie!”
One of “Better Call Saul’s” odder quirks (actually, one of Jimmy McGill’s) is a love for very deliberate pop culture references, which today includes a rousing tribute to Ned Beatty’s performance in “Network” — which no one at Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill recognizes. Great film is wasted on corporate lawyers, it appears.
In Conclusion, Your Honor
“Uno” is a quiet introduction to the world of “Better Call Saul,” lacking massive initial stakes and relying a lot on built-up goodwill from “Breaking Bad” to inspire interest. But if that interest is there, then it’s a treat to see Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould push the universe they originally created into some new directions, and really rely on the concept of longform storytelling, letting mysteries unravel slowly.
This isn’t always going to be captivating television — uncertainty about what exactly happened to Chuck, as one example, is likely to be an ongoing source of frustration. But so far “Better Call Saul,” has done something tough: Take something that is technically a prequel — that has a predetermined ending — and keep audiences feeling like they have no clue what will happen next.