Surprising AMC spin-off makes solid start in the shadow of ‘Breaking Bad’

“Better Call Saul,” a prequel and spin-off to the critically acclaimed and widely loved “Breaking Bad,” had to live up to extremely high expectations. The show, created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, centers on the character of Saul Goodman and his life six years before meeting Walter White, the protagonist of “Breaking Bad.” The original show’s fans will know the character well, and there are certainly many ties to “Breaking Bad” that are interesting and unexpected, but the show isn’t meant to discourage new viewers who know nothing of the former show. It is easy to follow without any knowledge of “Breaking Bad,” and Saul’s character is fully fleshed out and expanded upon separately from his former role.

At first I was hesitant to watch “Better Call Saul;” I had watched all six seasons of “Breaking Bad” and loved the show, and Saul had always been an interesting character, but I didn’t know if I cared enough about him as a stand alone to watch a show in which he was the main character. I’m glad I did eventually give it a chance, though, because even though it’s unknown whether the show will live up to its predecessor, it has many of the elements I loved about “Breaking Bad.”

The show starts off with depicting Saul’s life after the finale of “Breaking Bad.” He is working at a Cinnabon, and looks visibly different from his last appearance in the former show, due to being paranoid about being recognized. Later, he is shown at his home, alone and depressed, replaying his old commercials.

The show then goes back to 2002, when Jimmy McGill (who later apropriates the name, Saul) was a public defender. A courtroom scene is shown in which Jimmy is defending three teenagers, and though he tries his best to paint them as nothing but mischievous youths who made a mistake, they end up going to jail, and he gets a measly $700 for his efforts, causing him to quit working for that court. From that point on, Jimmy’s financial and work troubles are made clear and emphasized, from his fighting over having to pay three dollars to exit the parking lot to pretending to be his own secretary on the phone with potential clients, to his denied credit card and tiny office in the back of a nail salon. Prospective clients hesitate to sign with him, and there are no missed calls or messages on his office phone to suggest new opportunities.

We also get a glimpse of Jimmy’s relationship with his brother, Chuck, whose firm is trying to cheat him and who believes he has electromagnetic sensitivity and hasn’t gone to work for over a year. Chuck claims he will get better, but Jimmy doesn’t seem to believe him. Chuck refuses Jimmy’s advice, and Jimmy admits they are both broke.

As he is driving back home from work one day, he appears to hit a young man on a skateboard, whose brother records it and threatens to call the police if he doesn’t pay them $500. Jimmy realizes they staged the incident to make some cash, and the two boys run away.

Driven by his financial problems to consider extremes, Jimmy finds the two youths that had attempted to trick him earlier, and convinces them to let him join and make their operation better and more efficient, with three times the profit. He describes his former role as “Slippy Jimmy,” who used slip and falls to get money and was great at it. Their partnership is reminiscent of that of Jimmy’s with Walter and Jesse, and even to some extent of Walter and Jesse’s, as Walter had gone to Jesse and turned to criminal activity in times of desperate need. Jimmy and the boys try their first ruse, and it seems like it will go smoothly until things go awry and Jimmy ends up at the doorstep of none other than Tuco Salamanca, another character familiar to “Breaking Bad” fans.

The strongest point of the show thus far is no doubt Jimmy’s characterization. His unique personality shines through in every scene, but his struggles and his sadness are also made abundantly clear. Characterization was always “Breaking Bad”’s strong point as well, as shown with Walter White especially. Everything is depicted slowly and subtly, with small details painting a vivid picture of Jimmy’s current situation.

The dynamics between the existing characters thus far, such as Jimmy and Chuck and Jimmy and the two boys are depicted with the same precision. However, the show is definitely in need of other main characters aside from Jimmy to focus on.

The show is equally serious and funny, with Jimmy’s character as a lighter protagonist counterpart to Walter White. I enjoyed the more humorous and lighthearted approach that “Better Call Saul” took, though it’s probable that the show will get darker later on. It started off a bit slow, and there were moments that were certainly confusing, such as Chuck’s situation with his firm. However, I was hooked by the end, and was especially interested in Jimmy’s new partnership and the appearance of Tuco.

For “Breaking Bad” fans, “Better Call Saul” is a must watch. Gilligan brings back a lot of the same “Breaking Bad” crew for this prequel show, giving the show a familiar view and vibe for returning fans. For other viewers, it can also be entertaining as the show itself functions well on its own, though perhaps not as much as “Breaking Bad.” It’s unclear whether the show will reach the level of “Breaking Bad,” but it definitely has a great start.

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