Warning: spoilers below for the first two episodes of Better Call Saul.
The original pitch for Breaking Bad, as creator Vince Gilligan has said many times, was “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” From its very genesis then, the show was couched in the language of cinema, with its foundations of performance, or performativeness. For Walter White, that metamorphosis was played out in his dramatic rise and fall, but in his internal psychology as well. What else was the donning of Heisenberg’s black hat besides the assuming of a suit of dramatic armor? The nail-biting tension, and carefully plotted tragicomic farce of the story aside, it was that dramatized sense of wish fulfillment that appealed to many of the series’ fans: What if I could play a role? we asked. What if I could step outside my own life and become someone else?
In Better Call Saul, the prequel series that premiered with back-to-back episodes Sunday and last night to record ratings, all of Bernalillo County is once again a stage, but with an extra layer of meta-textual bracketing that reinforces the idea.
This conceit isn’t unique to the wider Breaking Bad world of course, as the fluidity of identity and masculinity is central to the other shows it is inevitably compared to: Mad Men, The Sopranos, and others like them. But with Better Call Saul it’s been conspicuously, and necessarily enhanced. In any typical piece of fiction we must, of course, suspend our disbelief. The most successful examples make this easy for us through narrative precision and acting prowesshis prior career to the contrary, none of us will ever be able to look upon Bryan Cranston again without at least momentarily confusing him for Walter White. But with a spin-off of a successful show, in particular one that’s widely considered to be one of the best television series of all time, there’s a further inherent degree of difficulty in selling the con. Once you’ve been made, as Saul Goodman surely would’ve told a client, it’s a lot harder to blend into the scenery.
The writers of Better Call Saul have wisely chosen to lean into that knowingness. For all of the assumed prestige lent to the program by its predecessor, there’s ample baggage as well. We know what they’re trying to pull off here, they know that we know it, and we know that they know that we know. Perhaps the most succinct example of this comes in our first glimpse of 2001-era Saul, then known as Jimmy McGill (from Cicero, Illinois, a nod to the famed Roman orator and lawyer no doubt), a public defender doing his best to get three knuckleheads off for the crime of despoiling a cadaver. It’s an arch bit of commentary on the entire spin-off concept that the writers are far too clever to have chosen coincidentally. Breaking Bad is dead, but that’s not to say there’s still not some mischievous fun to be had in laying its bloodless corpse out on the slab and having a go at it.
It may have stopped there, but throughout the premiere, the winks and nods to the grinding of the gears behind the curtain come fast and frequent. We’re not only reminded that McGill himself is in the process of playing a role, of learning how to play roles in order to play the role he was born to be, but also that it’s happening within the context of Breaking Bad, the televised entertainment we’re all familiar with. This is established from the opening scene, in which Saul’s new jobat a Cinnabon no less, just as he grimly predictedis shot in such a way, with a musical montage lovingly hugging the contours of the production process, that it’s a deliberate callback to some of the prior series’ most iconic shots. The fact that it’s fatty cinnamon buns instead of the only slightly more addictive meth is just another layer of the joke. This is recognizable, we think. It signals to us that we’re in the presence of the familiar, much in the same way the hungry are satiated by cinnamon frosting, or the addict by the bracing high. The musical accompaniment here, “Address Unknown” by the Ink Spots, wryly nods at our return to the familiar: “I was a fool to stay away from you so long. I should have known there’d come a day when you’d be gone.”
McGill is reminded of a previous role of his early on in the premiere, when he’s paranoid that a hard-looking tough in the store is a character from his past. When he goes home that night, to a seemingly lonely existence, even if the home does seem a little nice for a Cinnabon manager, he’s isolated, worried that he’s being watched. It’s as if he’s on a stage as he closes the curtains and pours himself a drink (a Rusty Nail, for those curious, which, given the drab circumstances, will probably not be seeing a Mad Men-style Old-Fashioned renaissance any time soon). Part fan service, but also fitting with the metaphor, he digs out an old tape from his past, one we’re familiar with, too, and watches his old hammy TV commercials as Saul Goodman. The lawyer from TV is on TV now.
“Do you feel doomed?” his voiceover asks. Then, even more foreboding, “It’s never too late for justice…”
Later on McGill storms into the law offices of his brother’s firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, and proclaims a rousing bit of dialogue spoken by Ned Beatty’s Arthur Jensen in Network: “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and I won’t have it! You will atone!”
Saul, McGill, whoever’s past is never too far behind, and the two blend into one here, the borders fungible. We jump back to Oct 13, 2001, and see McGill, quite literally, backstage, preparing before court, rehearsing his lines. “Oh to be 19 again,” he says in his defense before the jury. “To go back. To relive it.”
We, and Saul, are given ample opportunity to fuck the corpse again and again. It’s another subtle joke that the gawkers in the court gather round to get a better look at the television. But more literally, we meet McGill as a sort of pre-Walter White, an emasculated, powerless man, rendered low beyond his apparent talents. Underpaid, driving a drab car, frustrated by grievances great and small.
His brother Chuck later asks him, in suggesting he not lean on the family name for publicity: “Wouldn’t you rather build your own identity?”
And what will that be? We’re given a hint as McGill meets with prospective clients at a restaurant, again, playing the role of a more successful lawyer than he is, leading the couple to believe his offices are just being painted.
“I don’t go looking for guilty people to represent. Who needs that aggravation?” he asks, in a bit of on-the-nose dramatic irony.
There are also the skateboarders to consider, who show us, as the second episode begins, that there’s such a thing as playing a role way beyond its logical endpoint, as they choose the worst possible Breaking Bad character to try to lie to in Tuco. They’re running a con on his grandmother, who is, of course, distracted by a show within the show within the show. Tuco, too, is playing a role in front of his grandmother, that of a normal, well-adjusted, non-murderous psychopath.
As we see back out in the desert, the quintessential Breaking Bad setting, he does not do a very convincing job. McGill pleads for his life. “People know me,” he pleads. “I’m a known quantity.”
Yes we do, and seeing him do what we’ve come to know him forlie, scheme, talk his way out of a jamis thrilling. He feigns at the identity of an FBI agent when he assumes that’s what Tuco and his gang want to hear, letting Tuco falsely believe that he himself is playing the role of the king. It’s probably not a coincidence that the desert piece is shot almost like a stage play, the drama carried mostly by dialogue.
And McGill’s prevaricating works. We watch him become Saul, the Saul we know, in real time. Granted, the two skateboarding brothers have one leg each broken, but considering that the death penalty was on the table, McGill can’t help but feel he’s won a victory here. “You’re the worst lawyer ever,” one of them tells him on the way to the hospital. “I’m the best lawyer ever,” he responds. And we see that the seed has been planted that will lead him to start believing it, and the montage of case after case he handles in court shows us he’s on his way. “It’s showtime!” he tells himself in the mirror, over and over again. “It’s from a movie,” he tells an onlooker.
Back at his brother’s home, he has a rare moment of sincere empathy, however. We get to see what McGill might actually be like outside of the public eye. He pleads with his brother to end his performance, the electromagnetic condition he’s struggling with, and he seems for once, like a real, honest human being. Then, he goes to the front door, and the sun blasts into the room, looking like the glare of a stage light. The transformation from James McGill into Saul Goodman is almost complete.