Even Knowing How It All Ends Can’t Dilute the Pure Pleasure of Better Call Saul

By  · Published on March 24th, 2015


Better Call Saul began with its own ending. The Breaking Bad spinoff opened its first show with a black and white (and oddly wistful) look at Saul Goodman (better known as Jimmy McGill to new fans of Better Call Saul) post-Breaking Bad bust-up, manning a Cinnabon in Omaha, as he had always feared (or possibly dreamed, the man talked about it so damn much). That’s the problem with prequels and prologues: we know how they’re going to end. We’re actually compelled to watch them because we know how they’re going to end.

Breaking Bad was the story of a regular man descending into evil, madness, and something approaching supervillainy (this is a popular take on the material, and one I’ve long ascribed to, even if not everyone buys into it, especially people who like to see guys go batshit, but what can you do). Although Walter White (Bryan Cranston) ended his run as a dizzyingly crafty meth-maker with something approaching grace, the road there was littered with bad deeds, dead bodies, and enough character devolutions that it was terrifying most of the time. Breaking Bad also boasted a large cast of supporting characters, including DUI lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who existed for both comic relief and actually savvy legal maneuvering. Saul was always a welcome addition to the giant, sprawling tableau that was Breaking Bad, but I rarely thought of him when he wasn’t on the screen, and I certainly wasn’t excited about the possibility of retreading his path to late night commercial infamy with Better Call Saul. I was wrong.

Better Call Saul opens with what can only be deemed a super-flash-forward. The series already takes place six years before the action of Breaking Bad kicks off, and the opening, that Cinnabon-set scene mentioned up top, picks up after the action of that series has ended. We’re seeing Saul in the future, and we’re about to meet him in the past.

This might be a good time to start calling him Jimmy McGill – his given name – because, after eight episodes of Better Call Saul, I’ve found myself unable to call him Saul anymore. The truth is, he’s not Saul. He hasn’t gotten there yet (and, should the cable gods allow, he won’t be there for awhile, ensuring plenty of seasons of the series), and the entire point of Better Call Saul is to show how Jimmy McGill (small-time lawyer, brother, friend, nice guy, renter of nail shop back room) ascends to Saul Goodman status. And it is an ascension, because no matter how sleazy Saul might appear to be, he’s also in possession of two things that Jimmy is (even just eight episodes in) desperate for and deserving of: money and power.

It’s not a tremendous surprise that Jimmy McGill is a nice guy – even at his worst moments, there was a weird sweetness to Saul Goodman that seemed to gently obscure his true nature. Sleazy isn’t bad, it’s just, well, sleazy. Saul might not have been the most moral operator, but he understood the law and its intricacies and he was compelled to use (read: exploit?) that to get his clients off with as few consequences as possible. He might have been a strip mall lawyer in a bad suit, but he was also a guy who believed in what the law could do (and, to continue that line of thinking, what the law could do for his clients).

Jimmy has already demonstrated those same traits in Better Call Saul. Long derided as an ambulance chaser, Jimmy has so far combined a plucky desire to find new clients in unexpected places (yes, like ambulances, but more like retirement homes, a steady thread that has been picking up over the course of this season) with an off-kilter eye for illegal activities. Fine, Jimmy occasionally stumbles into big possible cases – like he did during last night’s episode, “RICO” – but it’s his dogged determination and perky ears that turns little issues into big possibilities.

Which is why it was so telling that “RICO,” in addition to giving Jimmy perhaps his biggest case ever, also took the time to show us how he became a lawyer in the first place. We’ve previously seen bits and pieces of Jimmy’s early years – mostly, his time as a petty criminal – and Better Call Saul recently spent an entire episode focused on Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) backstory (the kind of episode Breaking Bad fans have waited actual years for), but within a minimum of action, the series hammered home Jimmy’s work ethic with startling clarity. Terrified of disappointing his big brother (Michael McKean), Jimmy went to law school (well, “distance learning” law school), studied for the bar, failed it twice, and then actually passed it. In secret. For whole years.

This is a man with professional drive, and while it’s already been mostly painful to see Jimmy stumble about in search of anything resembling career success, “RICO” pulled into sharp relief just why it’s all been so upsetting. Sure, we already know that Jimmy/Saul will have something like success one day – and even that it will be ripped away on a later day – but Better Call Saul makes the case that the journey is what truly matters, at least enough to make us all forget about that lingering Cinnabon in our future.

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