Origin stories usually move pretty fast. A radioactive spider bite, and voila, you’re Spider-Man.
By contrast, “Better Call Saul” – which capped off its first season on Monday night – took the slow boat in establishing this “Breaking Bad” prequel/spinoff, gradually charting the descent of Jimmy McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, to the money-grubbing drug lawyer he played for comic relief, Saul Goodman, on that earlier series.
The goodwill invested in “Breaking Bad” fostered patience, which was largely required to reach Monday’s finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), which pointedly marked the moment when Jimmy shed any higher aspirations and decided to embrace an anything-for-a-buck mentality presumably leading into the grimy world he will eventually occupy.
That decision followed two vital events: The betrayal by his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who was exposed as having no respect for Jimmy as a lawyer; and his return to his con-man ways, which brought him into contact – tragically, as it turned out – with an old pal. (Highlights from that detour included Jimmy waking up next to a woman and confessing that, yes, he really isn’t Kevin Costner.)
Written and directed by Peter Gould, the finale might have been a tad too on the nose in identifying the crossroads Jimmy reached, squandering an opportunity to join a corporate firm in a partner-track role in order to pursue money any way he can get it. Yet that followed a series of encounters and moral choices during the season that paved the road to Jimmy’s own break from goodness, from his run-ins with an embezzling couple to his enthusiasm at having a chance to work alongside his much-admired older brother, only to have the carpet yanked out from under him.
The latter half of the season also expanded the role of Jonathan Banks as the other “Breaking Bad” transplant, Mike, and the series received a huge infusion every time he took center stage. Indeed, if there were one note that merits consideration for season two, it would be to more fully integrate Banks’ character into the proceedings sooner rather than later, as opposed to having him continue to linger on the outskirts of Jimmy’s life.
That’s not intended as a slight to Odenkirk, who delivered a wonderfully rich performance that was alternately touching and funny, no small feat given that the show was initially conceived as a comedy. Still, given the limited role he occupied in “Breaking Bad,” “Saul” at times hoisted too much weight onto his shoulders, and occasionally let scenes drag on too long, such as Jimmy’s near-breakdown while calling Bingo numbers as he sought to metabolize Chuck’s actions.
Although both series explore similar themes – basically, a losing battle for one man’s soul — “Breaking Bad’s” arc for Walter White possessed considerably more heft because of the stakes involved and the character’s support system. If that show was “Mr. Chips” transforming into “Scarface,” as series creator Vince Gilligan famously put it, this one started with a sleazy character who fleeting tried to embrace the better angels in his nature, only to determine he was more at home on the wrong side of the tracks.
For all that, “Better Call Saul” delivered a highly watchable first season, and griping that it isn’t as good as “Breaking Bad” – a show that set the bar almost impossibly high – would be silly. That said, after this protracted introduction it’s not too much to ask that Gilligan and Gould step up the pace, which seems likely now that Jimmy has experienced his silent epiphany.
Or as Jimmy might say, it’s all good, man.