To talk about Breaking Bad's greatness, you have to talk about Walter White. You have to talk about showrunner Vince Gilligan’s now-famous vow to turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface”; you have to talk about tightie-whities giving way to rubber lab coats, about high-school chemistry lessons leading to a machine gun laying waste to a Nazi meth gang. Bryan Cranston's character's five-season transformation from zero to antihero had no precedent on TV, and made for tense, morally challenging viewing.
Take out Walter and his journey, though, and do you still have a masterpiece? Better Call Saul, the new spinoff whose premiere and second episode air Sunday and Monday respectively, suggests that the answer might have been “yes.” Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould have improbably constructed something that feels like a continuation of its predecessor but not a retread, telling a new tale with their old show's trademark meticulousness, gravity, humor, and, beauty.
“Beauty” isn't an attribute anyone would necessarily expect from Saul, based on its subject matter. Breaking Bad fans know the title character, Saul Goodman, as the seedy, fast-talking lawyer who enabled Walter White’s misdeeds and then, finally, fled Albuquerque. Better Call Saul tells his origin story, though not just that; the pilot opens with a dialogue-free, black-and-white vision of Saul’s life after the events of Breaking Bad, when his prophecy that he’d be running a Cinnabon in Omaha has come true.
Gilligan and co. use that unglamorous locale to create a lush aesthetic experience, with the camera lavishing attention on kitchenware, dough, passersby, and dopey signage. When Saul’s face is finally shown, it's disguised in glasses and a mustache, making him look like the ghost of the person Walter White always feared he could be—a middle manager mass-producing pastries instead of meth. The notion of an ambitious person’s hell being a Midwestern mall job, is, of course, a little on the nose; Gilligan has never seemed all that worried about leaning on tropes. Maybe that’s because he knows that originality can be earned in the details: in skewed camera angles, in excellently selected musical cues, and in simple, powerful twists. By the end of the flash-forward intro, we’ve seen that the worst part of Saul’s dead-end future isn’t merely that it’s boring; it’s that even in the most anonymous of places, he can’t ever feel safe.
If that “black-and-white, dialogue-free, cinematic ravishment” sounds more art-movie than hit TV show, well, that's not wrong. Even factoring out the prologue, Better Call Saul starts tentatively, zipping back to 2001 but intentionally delaying first the protagonist’s arrival, then any sort of plot movement, and then much sense of suspense. And yet once all the elements are in place, the feeling is of watching vintage Breaking Bad—a feeling that’s underscored at the very end of the premiere hour by … well, no spoilers.
That's because Better Call Saul doesn't just share characters, locale, and a cinematic style with Breaking Bad. It also has that show’s values. Gilligan and Gould build plots that are Rube-Goldberg machines, driven by unintended consequences that are actually quite intended—not by the characters, but by the universe and its wicked sense of justice. The clockwork nature of the storytelling helps elevate the show’s aesthetic choices into thematic statements; the process animating the coffee machine that the camera lingers on is just as inexorable as the one that leads to, say, an early Bad-style encounter in the desert, where life and death depend on unlocking the right combo of words and actions.
The person doing that unlocking this time out is Bob Odenkirk's James McGill, who will, we trust, at some point rename himself Saul Goodman. Walt relied on his smarts, his ruthlessness, and his underdog angst to win glory; James has other talents, and other goals. Much of the first hour is spent establishing the dire financial straits he’s found himself in, and placing him in situation after situation where his gift of the gab just doesn’t work: in the courtroom, at the parking attendant’s booth, and in front of prospective clients. He can’t persuade his mentally troubled brother to cash out from the mega-firm where he’s a stakeholder; he can’t even get two punk teenagers to pay for the windshield they’ve broken.
And yet when the stakes are really high, a survivor’s instinct kicks in and Odenkirk’s character starts whirring, spitting out one line of reasoning and then modifying it again and again based on feedback from his mark. It’s in these speeches that Gilligan and Gould’s attention to detail matters perhaps more than any other time; plotting the various turns of James’s pleading must take a flow chart of some sort, not to mention a thesaurus. Just as the show’s camerawork gives life to drab, lived-in locales, James compulsively utters bromides ever-so-slightly edited for memorability—in his mouth, for example, a rising tide raises not all boats but “all dinghies.”
White, viewers pretty quickly realized, was on an unswerving trajectory towards corrupt power. James/Saul’s journey has also already been charted—eventually, he'll be hamming it up on TV commercials as the No. 1 lawyer of Albuquerque’s underworld. That’s actually not too far of a leap from where he is at the start of the show, and the shorter journey will likely be a less dramatic one than Walt’s. That's more than okay, though. Without someone breaking bad in a big way this time out, viewers can instead focus on what makes Gilligan and Gould so good. There's a lot to look at.