Better Call Saul concluded it’s first season last night. The episodes were a fragmented and rudderless mess devoid of tonal consistency or narrative. Somehow, despite that, the show still managed to be masterful in it’s writing and mesmerizing in it’s execution. So, I guess that makes Better Call Saul the Dark Knight Rises of television.
That being said, we’re not out of the woods yet. I still haven’t forgiven The Dark Knight Rises for that goddamn Bruce Wayne in Paris scene. I took that lesson hard. I will never forget that anything which seems dicey enough innately possesses the potential to make a sharp right into garbagetown despite managing a decent juggling act for the majority of it’s narrative. Like The Dark Knight Rises, there are many warning signs in this first season of Better Call Saul, as well.
To begin with, why would anybody produce a companion piece to Breaking Bad? Breaking Bad was a show focused on a single man’s explicit influence on the universe which he inhabited. We’re talking about a dude that, because of his dastardly deeds, caused planes in flight to collide over his house, his family to go into hiding, and an entire drug empire to crumble into dust. The universe of Breaking Bad was Walter White’s playground to selfishly ruin, and we, his spectators. A narrative with a central theme of Man Vs. God, after all, does not exactly lend itself well to expansion. Now it’s Men Vs. God? Who gives a shit?
Still despite that, the principal staff decided to go on with Better Call Saul as an official, in-universe, prequel to Breaking Bad. It’s was a baffling decision that made me wonder if they understood the larger dynamic of their narrative which made their initial show exceptional. It turns out that, in execution, the expansion of the Breaking Bad universe, in many ways, is beneficial, and in other ways, it’s absolutely detrimental.
In many ways, that’s the best outcome that the immensely talented team of writers and producers at Better Call Saul can hope for. They’re attempting a game of inversed Jenga with their narrative. The conclusion of Breaking Bad needs to tug the pieces of Walter, Skyler, Hank, and Jesse out from the top of the tower and the beginning of Better Call Saul needs to plug those pieces in as new characters. So, now we have Nacho, Kim, Howard, and Chuck.
Are the characters which surround Saul as immediately interesting as the ones which surrounded Walter? Not really. Rhea Seehorn’s Kim is strong and dry to the point she seems perpetually uninterested. Chuck’s tantalizingly vague ailment is quickly droned out by the character’s insistent nagging and self-righteousness. Patrick Fabian’s problematic Howard is so contrived and stereotypical as a character that he almost isn’t worth mentioning.
One who is worth mentioning, however, is Micahel Mando’s captivating Nacho. Nacho is ferocious in his intelligence and captivating in his innate charisma. It’s more than that though, Nacho is fucking frightening. At all times, there is an implied violence and savagery just under his words and gaze. So odd, then, that the character is completely sidelined for nearly the entire season – despite being billed as principal cast.
The game of hot potato which this first season of Better Call Saul ends up playing with it’s various characters and plots ends up being it’s inherent flaw. The writers and producers have had no problem with generating bold ideas for their world. They have tons of new pieces to place. They just don’t have the balls to really place them anywhere.
So, we have a season that meanders, and in all aspects. The show is about Saul and his scams with twin skateboarders. No! Nacho. Wait, now it wants to talk about aspects of elder law. You know what, though? It hasn’t checked on those crazy Kettlemens in a while! Hey, now it wants you to take Chuck’s condition really seriously. Look! A silly scam with a billboard! Mike’s turn! Look at all these naughty deeds he’s up to! Fuck you! Pay attention to Sandpiper now!
The show is a procedural. No! It’s a western. It’s a drama. It’s a comedy! It’s a quiet show where Mike sadly stares at animals and children. It’s a show about zany billboard scams! It has Breaking Bad cameos and tie ins! No! It’s it’s own man. You don’t like that? Okay, more Breaking Bad cameos!
Even it’s placement of Saul and Mike as co-workers is clumsy at best. What do you call a coincidence? I call it the beginning of story. What do you call too many coincidences? I call it a television show.
“But Dan,” you’re saying to yourself now, “you said that the show was masterful and mesmerizing.” You’re right, I did say that. I watched all ten episodes of this show. The writing was masterful. It’s so masterful that you don’t notice that all of these things are happening. Plot threads get dropped and characters disappear, but they’re plotted and spoken about so intelligently that it feels like it’s building to something greater. It’s just that, in it’s ten episodes, it really didn’t. It’s so well written that you only notice it way after the fact.
Setting aside the obvious, that the show is an absolute cinematic feast, there is more to my labeling of Better Call Saul as mesmerizing. The manner in which it presents you with information is always interesting. Consider the scene where Chuck, a character allergic to electricity, absentmindedly walks outside to retrieve a box from Jimmy’s car. Jimmy chases him outside, and the concluding sequence is absolutely hypnotic. We learn that Chuck is way outside, he doesn’t know it, and he locks eyes with his brother. They exchange no words. Chuck drops the box. It cuts to black. All of the scenes harbor several secret intents, and the team spectacularly pulls back the curtain on what’s really going on.
Better Call Saul has quickly become one of my favorite shows on television. I tune in every week. I adore it. It’s just that, after ten episodes, I’m willing to remove the rose-tinted glasses I left on Breaking Bad and can acknowledge that it has some problems to address after this rudderless first season. Still, I think that’s okay. The last show that concluded it’s first season like that went on to become one of the greats. That show was Breaking Bad.