Turns out Breaking Bad’s fallen jurist Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) wasn’t just a’kiddin’ when he offered this assessment of his future before climbing into Ed the Extractor’s van in the series’ penultimate episode: “Best case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.”
In the black-and-white opening moments of Better Call Saul!, Odenkirk’s new AMC series from Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, we discover that that is just exactly where Goodman ended up — massaging giant wads of dough into sticky, high-cal treats and looking entirely unconvinced that his wire rims, hefty mustache and expanding bald spot can mask his identity from whatever evil has surely followed him from Albuquerque.
In true Gilligan fashion, the melancholy introduction to Saul’s bleak new calling also has a pithy vintage soundtrack: “Address Unknown” by the Ink Spots.
“Address unknown, oh how could I be so blind?
Who’d think that you would never be hard to find?
From the place of your birth to the ends of the earth
I’ve searched only to find, only to find, address unknown”
Safely back at that address in a nondescript apartment complex, Goodman — is he still called Goodman now? — pours himself a Rusty Nail and fishes out a shoebox full of memories, extracting a VHS tape and settling in to gaze blankly at his former self.
Cut to the bright sunlight of Albuquerque and a time years before Walter White and Jesse Pinkman would enter his life, when Saul Goodman was James M. McGill, Jimmy for short, a lowly public defender with big aspirations, a closet of an office and a brother named Chuck who also has a law degree — and a paralyzing fear of electrical waves that keeps him housebound.
It’s a problem. A big one.
At the moment, Jimmy is having a very bad day. He’s been given the thankless task of defending three teenage dopes who filmed themselves gleefully defiling a corpse. The no-B.S. attendant at the courthouse lot — why hello there, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks)! — gives him the business. Frank and Betsy Kettleman, the clients he desperately needs to supplement his $700 public-defender payouts, won’t give him their business. And on his way back to the office, he has a literal run-in with a pair of skateboarding twins who look like duplicate Napoleon Dynamites and have a painfully interesting way of making a buck.
If you were the same sort of Breaking Bad fan that I was, you’ve probably (happily) realized by this point in the pilot that — as was the case with Bad — it’s a bad idea to avert your eyes and ears from the screen even for a moment. Every flicker of expression and every creak of a chair is purposeful and every camera angle is a minor (in some cases, major) work of art. And Odenkirk clearly knows his character inside and out. He’s hug-yourself good.
By the second commercial break, any lingering pangs of Breaking Bad withdrawal should be nicely salved by Saul. And any doubt that Saul could carry a show of his own kiboshed.
Still, when Jimmy finally does pilot his junk-pile Suzuki Esteem (“The only way that entire car is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it” he tells the twin dunderheads) back to his backroom office and finds a check for $26,000 in his pile of past-due bills, he tears it to shreds. Amid all the day’s drama, what’s really on Jimmy McGill’s mind is Chuck McGill (Michael McKean, casting brilliance), his older brother whose own far more successful law career has been derailed by a mysterious happening that has left him with the aforementioned electrical issues. Chuck’s partners in the hoity-toity firm of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill are only too happy to go along with Chuck’s notion that this is an extended sabbatical and he’ll be back soon and not cash him out of the firm. Chuck doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Jimmy does. To the tune of $17 million. The partners ice him right out of the room.
And Frank and Betsy Kettleman’s business, while they’re at it.
If you’d begun to wonder, by this point, if Better Call Saul is a comedy with dramatic shadings, the next moments are a revelation — and a tantalizing opening act to what we might see from Odenkirk and McKean in episodes to come.
Jimmy parks the Esteem, puts his cell phone in a roadside mailbox and enters a darkened house. As he fumbles to light a lantern, a manual typewriter clacks away in the background. “Did you ground yourself?” a voice calls out.
Turns out, despite the electricity thing, Chuck McGill is a far more serene soul than Jimmy, believing in the power of good intentions and good work and that time will return him in good standing to his firm. In the meantime, his coffers are dwindling and Jimmy’s finding it hard to keep them both in the red. Not to worry, says Chuck. HHM has newly coughed up a $857 weekly stipend for him to live on. Oh, and by the way. Would Jimmy kindly stop using the name McGill on his startup firm? HHM had it first and, you know … professional courtesy and all. Jimmy looks quietly gut-punched. “Whose side are you on?” he pleads of his brother.
“There are no sides,” Chuck soothes. “But Jimmy, wouldn’t you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else’s coat tails?” Oh ho.
We all know that new identity is coming. But in the meantime, Jimmy has a score to settle. He hunts down the twins at the skate park and sits the wary pair down to hear a little story about “Slippin’ Jimmy,” the long-ago legend of Cicero, IL.
Seems that, come winter, Jimmy managed to “keep himself in Old Milwaukee and Maui Waui” all the way to Labor Day by finding businesses with icy sidewalks and staging injurious performances that landed him $6,000-$8,000 a tumble. In other words, Slippin’ Jimmy McGill thinks you’re amateurs Flippin’ Skateboarders and it’s time to up your game. And your payout. On Betsy Kettleman’s windshield.
A plan is put into place, and sure enough — the baby-poop-brown station wagon that was parked in Mrs. K’s driveway takes its human missile and stops, but no one gets out to plead for understanding. Instead the car takes off with the twins in hot pursuit, bumper surfing on the back of a pickup and declaring their independence from Jimmy, and Jimmy McGill not far behind, trying to think as fast as he’s driving.
The wagon pulls into the drive of an unassuming ranch house and when the door opens, it’s a tiny, flustered Mexican grandma where Betsy Kettleman was supposed to be. The boys can’t believe their luck. Demanding dinero, they follow the teensy abuela inside her abode. Shortly after, Jimmy spies their skateboards in the driveway and heads to the door to join in the shakedown.
Except for one complication. He’s greeted with a gun in his face. And when he’s yanked inside and his captor steps out to check for witnesses, we find out that Slippin’ Jimmy just slipped up good — that’s Tuco Salamanca’s grandma he just messed with.
New episodes of Better Call Saul! premiere Monday nights at 10/9CT on AMC.