As we cross the threshold into the prequel that is AMC’s new spin-off from Breaking Bad, we see Saul (Bob Odenkirk) post-BB in his job at Cinnabon in Omaha, the very future he prophesied for himself before the end-times of Walter White’s celebrated and notorious career in the manufacturing and sale of the great Baby Blue meth. As legal retainer of this unwieldy and dangerous kingdom Saul had to put his fancy legal footwork to the test time and again in situations that would drive Perry Mason himself to the bottle. If Saul’s legal contortions for the benefit of his clients ever served him as well it’s because if there’s one thing Saul’s younger self, Jimmy McGill learned a few years earlier, it’s that if he didn’t look after himself, no one else would.
As Saul, post-Breaking Bad, sits in a lonely apartment on a snowy evening he yields to the urge to watch one of his vintage “Better Call Saul” commercials. We hear the familiar voice exhorting would-be clients to contact him and this is our portal into the world of Jimmy McGill, circa 2004. If Saul exists in a noir world, Jimmy stands on the precipice of that world, and by the end of the second episode sees it yawning wide before him.
Noir characters are mostly outsiders, or at best, liminal characters, living on the edges. Jimmy is a lawyer, but not of the rarified world of the high-priced firm that keeps his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who suffers from a mysterious illness (could be mostly mental?) on the payroll to save money. When he tries to intervene on Chuck’s behalf, these smooth talkers patronize and belittle Jimmy and they don’t get his Network references either. His great quotes channeling Mr. Jenson from the film are wasted on them. When Saul goes to Chuck to explain why what they’re doing is only in their best interest, Chuck won’t take Jimmy’s word for it. He even relays Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill’s message that Jimmy shouldn’t use his own name for his own law practice out of professional courtesy to them. Huh? Oh, they’ll even pay to change the name on Jimmy’s matchbooks.
Marginalized completely by the big firm and even Chuck, who sometimes looks askance at Jimmy as if he’ll never really be able to live down some past tricks (Slippin’ Jimmy?) that forever leave the faint whiff of “sleazy” in the consciousness, Jimmy gets weary of trying to be a stand-up guy who just needs to a catch a break. He decides to carve out a different niche for himself, reconnecting with two skateboard scammers he met by “accident” early in the first episode. When he thinks he’s run over one of them he’s already having a very rough day and the crash elicits from him a brief sob, a what-the-hell-now moment before he pulls himself together to face the scammers, call them on their game and then even co-opt their game, with himself as ring-leader.
Things go spectacularly wrong when circumstances spiral out of Jimmy’s control and even in the grip of fear and under threat of bodily harm, Jimmy keeps his wits, trying to talk his way out of it as long as he has breath. He even intervenes on behalf of the skateboard scammer brothers, where his relentless defense lawyer patter prompts one of Tuco’s guys to say, “You gotta mouth on you.” Jimmy takes the compliment and never stops defending his fallen accomplices to Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and company. Jimmy can’t get them off completely however, as they lie bound in the desert of the wild, wild west and Jimmy has to endure the resulting mayhem. He does pay their hospital bills, even though the deepest trouble they got into wasn’t due entirely to Jimmy but to their own greed and desire to cut Jimmy out of the deal. Even after the fact, Jimmy finds himself sickened, literally, by the violence he witnessed in the desert (this wasn’t the kind of break he wanted), but he’s sickened also by trying to play by the rules and getting lied to, disrespected and further behind, no matter how hard he works. It’s still very early in the series, but one can see that the experience with the skateboarders which intensifies with Tuco and the boys will eventually pave the way for Jimmy’s/ Saul’s association with Mike (Jonathan Banks, who simmers as the court house parking lot attendant here) and Gus, Walt and Jesse.
Jimmy McGill exhibits a naturally sunny disposition, a glad-handing way about him in his public persona that those at the big law firm seem to find juvenile and off-putting, and it’s sometimes met with silence and a stony stare by the more criminal element, but he’s just trying to be a nice-enough guy in a noir universe. The hard times he’s been through, the skepticism and attitude he faces, even from those he cares about, and the fight for self-preservation in a brutal world rife with violence, insanity and even sheer indifference are what will forge Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad: still an upbeat guy with a ready handshake and an encouraging word—and not above floating the idea of someone getting “sent to Belize” if they get to be too problematic. But that’s still in the future.
In Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill is still learning to navigate the tightrope between what he can stomach and what he can live with, how far is too far, and when it’s too late to pull back. Jimmy is a complex character all the more compelling because he hasn’t yet become Saul.
This promises to be a great series, so whether you’re a fan of Breaking Bad or not, give it a chance. You never know; the day might come when you’ll have to give Jimmy (or Saul) a call!