Better Call Saul Season 1’s Uneven Footing

140711-call-saul-2036_39fab2d749f5d3a39fd5bc5f83c65084-1940x1291With Season 2 of Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan’s return to television and the world of Breaking Bad, premiering last night, I’m feeling a combination of boundless hope and extreme wariness familiar from this time last year. The series premier in February 2015 was an exercise in managing expectations; when those first credits rolled, I was left with a feeling I’d been dreading. That was it? Compared to the earth-shattering pilot of its predecessor, Saul’s first episode left the earth decidedly intact. It was as well-written and artistically detailed as any episode of Breaking Bad, certainly, and there were some fun comedic setups to boot, but the story felt unimportant, and the characters lacking in emotional value.

Over the course of the season, however, these characters and stories, as well as the show’s comedic drive, came into their own. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill (the early Saul Goodman) receives an exceptional arc that manages to both reinforce and challenge the notion that conscienceless criminals like Goodman are born rather than made. Secondary characters like Jimmy’s brother Chuck, his girlfriend Kim, his arch-rival and Chuck’s legal partner Howard Hamlin, and Jonathan Banks’s immortal Mike (first introduced, brilliantly, as a parking attendant) are distinctive and well-realized. A number of sub-plots, both comedy- and drama-centered, work to powerful effect—a standout involves Craig and Betsy Kettleman, clients of Jimmy’s whose unfathomable irrationality embroils him in a hilarious predicament. By the end of the season, Jimmy and much of the supporting cast has flipped 180 degrees and back again, with several memorable comedic beats and poignant dramatic moments along the way.

And yet, for me, Saul thus far is a disappointment, failing to approach the astronomically high standard set by Breaking Bad.

Of course, the two shows are stylistically very different—so different, you might say, that it seems unfair to directly compare them. But I believe comparison has merit here, as a way of illustrating certain general concepts of satisfying storytelling that Breaking Bad exhibits and Saul appears to lack. The first of these concepts concerns stakes. In Breaking Bad 1×01, we meet Walter White, a seemingly normal, suburban chemistry teacher; by the end of the episode he has been diagnosed with lung cancer, become a meth cook, and apparently killed two people. In “Uno,” the first episode of Saul, we meet Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer with a decidedly un-lawyerlike past. By the end, he’s still a struggling lawyer whose questionable ethics have become slightly more apparent. The trend continues when we compare where seasons of each show end. Seasons of Breaking Bad invariably ended on a shocking moment to which the entire season built—always a death, with Walt and Jesse becoming ever more willingly complicit in it. The climax of Saul’s first season involved lawyer stuff and Jimmy’s relationships with supporting characters. Mostly lawyer stuff. The stakes, and consequently my emotional investment in the show, simply don’t compare.

I should admit that my analysis is based on a potentially controversial premise: that high stakes are strictly better than low stakes. I think this is a defensible position, though, especially when we clarify that “high stakes” doesn’t necessarily mean the life or death of a person. The few episodes I’ve seen of Friday Night Lights, for instance, were supercharged with emotional value despite the fact that no major characters faced the threat of death. However, I would argue, the show’s stakes are nonetheless life and death. Of course, Saul’s premise has the potential for stakes of a similar sort—the life or death of Jimmy’s career, his honor, his relationships with others. However, for a number of reasons, primarily the show’s comedic tone, it doesn’t feel like we’re dealing with life and death. Yes, this is the point where my pretense of objectivity breaks down a bit—I can’t do much better than to say that stakes that don’t deal explicitly with the life or death of a character require a specific artistry to sell that Saul doesn’t exhibit. But I feel justified in asserting that Saul is a good deal less exciting than Breaking Bad, and that it doesn’t do enough with character and story—or, on the flip side, comedy—to justify its lack of excitement.

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I think I stand on firmer critical ground with a second point about characterization. Saul’s writing favors long scenes and lengthy, uninterrupted character speeches, tropes instantly recognizable to veterans of Breaking Bad. Indeed, the earlier show used these elements, especially the speeches, to achieve unprecedented dramatic effect—Walt’s “I am the one who knocks” and “Say my name” tirades have gone down as some of the most quotable dialogue in the history of television. Saul, too, makes good use of well-written comedic speeches: the speech that opens “Uno’s second half is a particularly entertaining and effective form of characterization. However, the show’s dramatic speeches, which are significantly more common, are boring at best and deeply unsatisfying at worst.

In the season finale of Saul, Jimmy tells a very personal and embarrassing story to the residents of a nursing home meant to justify his state of distress. The previous episode features a troublingly unenlightened emotional outburst from Chuck, which serves as the climax of the conflict between Jimmy and his brother. In both cases, the speeches feel less like dramatic devices and more like “emotional value downloads,” explicit explanations of a character’s feelings. In Breaking Bad, Walt’s disturbing speeches reflected and encapsulated his transformation from affable chemistry teacher to ruthless drug dealer; in Saul the speeches are plot points in themselves. There is a common phrase in screenwriting, “show, don’t tell”—it is almost always more satisfying to derive a character’s emotions from situation rather than explanation. With the talented team of Breaking Bad behind the show, it is unfortunate that Saul falls prey to this mistake.

“Five-O,” the sixth episode of the show, exemplifies this point. The episode is dedicated entirely to Mike, a revered Breaking Bad alumnus, and fleshing out his backstory—with this premise, it had every reason to be one of the best episodes of the season. Yet I felt that “Five-O” somehow did to Mike what many claim midichlorians did to the Force, removing a layer of intrigue and complexity by making motives explicit. The backstory itself, told through extended flashback, is interesting and meaningful, but its impact is muddled by a dialogue scene with Mike’s daughter-in law in which he explains his emotional response to the incident. Though the speech is well-written and features a mesmerizing performance by Banks, these efforts cannot redeem the infuriating act of Mike spoon-feeding his inner life to the viewer.

The strikingly ineffective scene calls to mind “Half Measures,” the twelfth episode of Breaking Bad’s third season, which features a similar Mike monologue that powerfully heightens rather than cheapens the episode’s drama. As in “Five-O,” Mike’s story in “Half Measures” lends insight into an emotional value, but does so indirectly—the content of the narrative relates primarily to Walt and his predicament. When Mike narrates Walt’s story, the audience learns multitudes about who he is and what he stands for without the feeling of emotional manipulation that results when he explains his own feelings in “Five-O.” The disparity between the two speeches highlights a feel for the tools of effective characterization that seems to have been lost between Breaking Bad and Saul.

But I’m still holding out hope for Season 2, hope of a kind many Breaking Bad lovers know well. The earlier show’s first two seasons, while they attracted critical attention, earned only modest viewership; in its third season, the show took off, and with Seasons 4 and 5 firmly solidified its place as a lasting icon of modern television. Looking back, the moment when I realized I was watching something truly special didn’t come until the mind-blowing finale of Season 3. That’s not to say I thought there was anything wrong with the first two seasons—they were the perfect setup for what the show eventually became. But they were just setup, retrospectively justified by the greatness of Breaking Bad’s second half. This is the sort of hope I’m keeping alive for Saul. In all likelihood, Gilligan and co. have a far more sophisticated concept for where to take the show than I can begin to imagine, and after all, the story has only just begun. With the crew of Breaking Bad at the helm, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in subsequent seasons the show finds its footing more powerfully than anyone could have anticipated, just as its predecessor did. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, when that happens, the hidden brilliance of Saul’s first season reveals itself to me.

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