October 20, 2018

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Opinion

Better Call Saul closing in on Breaking Bad

Inability to rely on twists, cliffhangers makes for great television

Set in Albuquerque in the early 2000s, Better Call Saul is nominally a prequel to Breaking Bad, that brashly violent crime chronicle in which Saul Goodman, a.k.a. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), provided sleazy legal cover for meth dealer Walter White. Here, he is still the oddly appealing Jimmy, a low-rent lawyer with grifter tendencies but a good heart.

As Season 4 opens, Jimmy is sliding toward his Goodman-esque destiny, implacable fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) seems to be moving closer to violating his no-kill code and cool drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is coming into central focus. Clearly, we’re starting to get pretty jammed up between the ending of Better Call Saul and the beginning of Breaking Bad. With admirable stubbornness, showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould seem to be responding to this impending juncture by moving even more slowly.

And that’s a good thing.

Rare in this Gilded Age of TV, Better Call Saul can’t rely on crazy twists and cliffhangers, puzzle-box plotting and breakneck pacing. We know, in broad terms, where all the main characters are headed. In a lesser series that might have been a downside, but here it becomes a draw.

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Set in Albuquerque in the early 2000s, Better Call Saul is nominally a prequel to Breaking Bad, that brashly violent crime chronicle in which Saul Goodman, a.k.a. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), provided sleazy legal cover for meth dealer Walter White. Here, he is still the oddly appealing Jimmy, a low-rent lawyer with grifter tendencies but a good heart.

As Season 4 opens, Jimmy is sliding toward his Goodman-esque destiny, implacable fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) seems to be moving closer to violating his no-kill code and cool drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is coming into central focus. Clearly, we’re starting to get pretty jammed up between the ending of Better Call Saul and the beginning of Breaking Bad. With admirable stubbornness, showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould seem to be responding to this impending juncture by moving even more slowly.

And that’s a good thing.

Rare in this Gilded Age of TV, Better Call Saul can’t rely on crazy twists and cliffhangers, puzzle-box plotting and breakneck pacing. We know, in broad terms, where all the main characters are headed. In a lesser series that might have been a downside, but here it becomes a draw.

Sony Pictures Television</p><p>The central premise of Better Call Saul is the transformation of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), seen with fellow lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), into Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman.</p></p>

Sony Pictures Television

The central premise of Better Call Saul is the transformation of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), seen with fellow lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), into Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman.

BCS relies on old-school storytelling — character, setting, dialogue, moral conflict — developed slowly and with precision, detail and craft. We know what’s going to happen, so we can concentrate instead on how it’s going to happen. Not only does this make for great television, but the show has become a tonic for our hurried, distracted digital times.

There’s something refreshingly concrete about Better Call Saul. Every season has started with a black-and-white flash forward of Jimmy/Saul on the lam after the end of Breaking Bad and now passing as Gene Takovic, manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, Neb. Somehow, the rituals of dough-making and kitchen clean-up claim our attention.

The show gets a kick out of the simple, straight-up physicality of everyday actions — making coffee, getting the newspaper, feeding a fish, fixing a bike chain. There are elaborate montages of things not generally considered montage-worthy — getting up and out the door in the morning, doing repetitive manual labour, making phone calls or checking paperwork.

Gus Fring might run a massive, murderous drug empire with still, silent menace, but he seems most himself when he is meticulously sweeping the floor of his fast-food chicken franchise, Los Pollos Hermanos. (Hey, just because it’s a front doesn’t mean you should get sloppy about litter.)

Sometimes, there’s an undercurrent to these seemingly mundane moments. In the Season 4 opener, suspense hinges on an almost comically tedious back-and-forth conversation about a medical form. In previous seasons, a scene involving duct tape became a comment on the complexity of brotherly bonds.

Sony Pictures Television</p><p>Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) takes a money-laundering gig as a security consultant in Season 4 of Better Call Saul.</p></p>

Sony Pictures Television

Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) takes a money-laundering gig as a security consultant in Season 4 of Better Call Saul.

Mike is the Better Call Saul master of what’s sometimes called "competence porn," a TV trope rooted in the fact that we love watching people do stuff they’re really good at. He’s often at the centre of sequences that at first seem unnecessarily long but soon take on a hypnotic quality, as when he takes apart a station wagon or digs holes in the desert.

In Season 4, Mike Ehrmantraut is laundering money by taking a US$10,000-per-week job as a "security consultant" to creepy multinational corporation Madrigal Electromotive. It’s supposed to be a purely paper transaction, but Mike gets antsy sitting at home.

We follow him as he stages a drop-in safety and security audit, somehow turning a long laundry-list of violations — no lift-belts and gloves in the warehouse! — into a weird dramatic monologue, a typically Ehrmantrautian revelation of motivation and character.

The series’ central premise involves the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. Jimmy is a morally slippery but often surprisingly sweet guy, a mess of good intentions and bad decisions, overly optimistic impulses and insufficiently stringent ethics. Saul is on-the-make, irrevocably corrupt and implicated in a violent criminal underworld.

I suspect this changeover will be expressed not through a big, dangerous, dramatic reveal but rather through the kind of slow, precise, understated details Better Call Saul is so good at. Each viewer will probably have a different point at which they mark the end of Jimmy McGill and the beginning of Saul Goodman. For me, it was a chilling but completely ordinary moment in the Season 4 opener. Actually, it involved feeding a fish and making coffee.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Sony Pictures Television</p><p>Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) seems most like himself when sweeping the floor of his fast-food chicken franchise.</p></p>

Sony Pictures Television

Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) seems most like himself when sweeping the floor of his fast-food chicken franchise.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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