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Lawyer up: 'Better Call Saul' finishes strong as TV’s latest must-watch show

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For a show to be a hit, almost every element of it has to be perfect.

You need a group of writers with a clear vision, a cast that can instantly connect to the audience and a TV network that is supportive and patient. Accomplishing this feat once is nothing short of a miracle, yet somehow Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have captured lightning in a bottle twice, as Better Call Saul looks every bit as popular and exciting its predecessor Breaking Bad.

The show wrapped up last week, but it’s well worth your time if you haven’t had a chance to catch its first season yet.

It should not have been this easy for Saul to reach the heights it has. After all, most spinoffs tend to be cheap knockoffs of the shows that birthed them – pure profit grabs by network executives unwilling to see a popular tent-pole and revenue stream leaving them. Better Call Saul could have easily fallen into this trap. Yet, somehow, Gilligan and Gould took Saul, Breaking Bad’s comedic relief character and turned him into a three-dimensional protagonist.

Keeping the same writing staff together from Breaking Bad was a key move in the show’s success. Having worked together for more than six years, this crew has mastered episode structure and flow, making sure the audience goes through every emotional beat that establishes our characters’ motivations throughout.

They also understand the show’s setting and all the ways it can be used, be it an endless desert landscape that somehow seems claustrophobic, or nail salon back office where so many plots and schemes are hatched.

Keeping the same primary crew together has not only contributed to this show’s success, but also likely bought Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould a lot of creative will as the show was green lit for two seasons before a single episode aired.

While the writing and directing have been outstanding, the show’s greatest strength is its cast, specifically Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks. While Saul Goodman was introduced to Breaking Bad as a kind of comic relief, Odenkirk plays Jimmy (Saul’s name in the series prior to changing it) like he’s the butt of every joke. Jimmy is different from Saul in almost everyway.

Where Saul would always jump for the short money or quick scheme, Jimmy seems to strive so hard to do the “right thing,” something that has cost him more than furthered his professional and personal lives.

This role is Odenkirk’s big break – he finally has a fully nuanced character with shoes finally big enough to fit his talent. His scenes with his shut-in brother Chuck (Michael McKean) stand out in particular, as the strains of heightened responsibility and family secrets take their toll on the brothers McGill.

Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut is the show’s real link to its Breaking Bad past. Continuing in a long line of killers with unbreakable moral codes, Mike became an instant fan favorite on Breaking Bad and he continues to be on Saul. We see the beginnings of Mike’s descent into the Albuquerque underworld and his motivations for entering this environment.

The first season’s high point was the sixth episode “Five-O” which detailed Mike’s past in Philadelphia and his reasoning for moving out west. Banks’ is particularly phenomenal in this episode as he takes Mike’s standard gruff, tough guy exterior and displays an unexpected level of pathos and range. The episode played out as one of the most tragic and harrowing television experiences I can remember since, well, Breaking Bad.

After one season, it seems the only thing that could hold back Better Call Saul is constant comparison to the show that birthed it. While they obviously share so much of the same DNA, each show has a slightly different main question that drives the narrative forward. In Breaking Bad the show seemed to pose the question of how many bad acts can a basically good person commit before they become bad?

Saul on that other hand seems to pose this question: What happens when the thing that you are best at in the world is illegal or moral or puts people in harm's way?

It has been fascinating to watch this question play out this season and how it will play out for seasons to come.

Ultimately, Saul may never reach the heights of its predecessor, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. The purity might not be as high, but Breaking Bad fans should still be able to get their fix from this show.

So if you haven’t already, I’d suggest you “lawyer up.”

Joseph Wilner is a Contributing Writer and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com


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