Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review of Better Call Saul

We are now eight episodes into Vince Gilligan’s prequel to "Breaking Bad", “Better Call Saul”, which concerns the exploits of the wheeling-and-dealing titular lawyer, a character portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, who after his first appearance in Season 2 quickly became a fan favourite.

His position in the original show was of the Shakespearean fool, and a sort of moral half-way point between evil (main character Walter White) and good (all those standing in his way). His waiting room, generally stocked with ne’er-do-wells, vagrants, drug addicts and prostitute-looking types was often a punchline after or setup before his shady dealings with the (self-made) drug kingpin. He was only ever known through his business with Walt, but even then he was a fairly fully-realised character; by turns a somewhat pathetic, fast-talking con artist, monetarily motivated and morally conflicted yet good at heart (whatever that means in this world). That Saul was not even his real name added an element of theatricality which fit his character quite well.

The spin-off has been successful. Taking place some years before "Breaking Bad", it charts Saul (now called Jimmy McGill)’s rise to legal power. That’s, and this is not a complaint per se, it. It is just showing how he came to be one of the iconic characters of the show.

Within this remit, the show is fantastic. It’s emotionally involving, has strong, well-drawn characters, the plot-lines are well-written and convincing. The show is relentless in its presentation of Saul’s opportunism. As with "Breaking Bad", it prefers the slow-burn to the flashy exposition; we are drip-fed bits and pieces about how Jimmy got into the profession, and the show even hands a lot of time to Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), another popular figure, a sort of perennially crabby handyman, forever doing the nitty gritty of his superiors. Again, we only ever got to know him by proxy through the inner workings of the meth empire, but here his character, and how he came to be, are laid open for us. It’s a sad arc, and it does lend an extra poignancy to the already poignant scenes of Mike with his family.

And yet, despite this, "Better Call Saul" is not a Great Show in the way "Breaking Bad" is, and in all honesty I doubt it could have ever been. There are a number of reasons, the primary one being that there simply isn’t as much at stake. In "Breaking Bad", everything was at stake; indeed, no more and no less than one man’s soul, the eternal struggle between good and evil. The show reached a curious Milton-esque perfection in its presentation of morality. Superficially, the show might have been about a meth empire, but Walt could have equally been a pimp, a politician, a movie producer. The meth business always played second fiddle to the characters; proof of this is everywhere, from the way the meth-making always played out in 90 second montage, or even how Walt’s eventual rise to power, everything he’d fought for, was conveyed in all of five minutes, again of montage. More time was given each episode to his arguments with Skyler, his quasi-paternal relationship with lackey Jesse, the manipulations of power with his superiors. Meth is not a good barometer of evil, but other characters are; that’s what the show is really about.

The continually evolving visual style was another signifier of this; this was a show unafraid to present things in a sometimes gothic, sometimes surreal, sometimes horrifying way, when the subject matter saw fit.

And whilst there is no doubt that “Saul” takes place in the same universe (the show does look equally as beautiful as “Bad”), it is simply not of the same calibre. This is evident in how it spends much, much more time on the minutiae of Saul’s cases; there are times when the show more resembles a legal drama like Boston Legal, as opposed to a spin-off of one of the great morality plays of our time.

These are not cons necessarily; I found myself incredibly involved in Saul’s attempts to bring down a care home rinsing its citizens of money through overcharging and very, very small print. But where I like Saul, and find him endearing, and think it refreshing to see a character who is honest-to-god good at heart, he isn’t consistently fascinating in the way Walt was, his machinations are simple as opposed to cryptic and debatable. It’s all there in the text.

This is not to say it needs subtext, or to be deep, or anything like that. The show purports to show the journey of one character, and it does that very well, far better than most shows out there. Gilligan is a genius, that much can be said. And not everything can be great; where would be the fun in that? These are just observations, not criticisms. Indeed, my only criticism of the show is that thus far it has a relatively limited pool of stories, and I hope it opens up a little before the season’s end, at risk of stagnation. But again, I am sure Gilligan knows exactly what he is doing, so this doesn’t worry me much. The show is making the best of what it has. And there are many shows which could never even dream of being as good as "Saul".

If anything, one should just take this moment to re-appreciate "Breaking Bad", what it did right, the bravery of the choices the makers took, the sheer lightning-in-a-bottle quality, that indefinable aspect. And then be glad that there are still interesting stories to be told from its world. 

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