Before we begin, I’ve penned a heartfelt open letter to “Better Call Saul” (which unfortunately shortens to BCS):
Hey there, BCS. Thanks for coming by on Sunday. It was real nice having you over. I just wanted to write you because, well, look. I’ll cut to the chase: Nobody’s really excited to be here. We’re happy you stopped by, sure, but it’s a nervous sort of happy, y’know?
I know what you’re thinking, so before you say anything, I just want you to know that I speak for all of us when I say that we just want what’s best for you, BCS. You mean more to us than “Peter Pan Live!’ or a Lifetime Original #HateWatch of the week. What I’m saying, BCS, is that we’re here because we love you. But we’re cokettlencerned for you.
The shadow of one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of all time is a tough life to be born into, especially when its non-union Mexican equivalent[ref]Actually, it’s Colombian, but my mama taught me to always go for the Simpsons joke, and my mama raised me right[/ref] is still on the air. You know as well as any of the rest of us what this looks like. We all remember “Joey.” We all remember “Joanie Loves Chachi.” And nobody remembers “Baywatch Nights” even though they completely fucking should. Jesus Christ that show was so great.
But when you’re trying to find your way in this crazy world, we don’t want you to think of the failures. The many, many, many failures. The literally countless number of catastrophically, historically, world-sunderingly bad failures. No, we want you to think of the success stories. The shows that found their own riffs on familiar melodies. The shows that dared to become something different, something more than just a goulash of their betters’ leftovers. We want you to think of “Frasier,” and “Daria,” and “Mork & Mindy.” But we don’t want you to stop there, BCS. Oh no. We want you to aim higher. We want you to keep your eye on the ultimate prize. We want you to be the show that finally ushers in the TV Spinoff Eschaton.
That’s right, Better Call Saul. We think you’ve got what it takes to be the next America’s Funniest People.
We believe in you, Better Call Saul, but the heavy lifting is up to you. Now let’s get out there and make some meth OH WAIT SORRY I meant be a shitty lawyer or whatever.
Okay enough of that. Time to recap some god-dang teevee.
We begin, as all good television begins, in a world of unimaginable darkness. A dying planet, spinning ever more slowly around a dying sun. A doomed people, forced to endlessly repeat the worst parts of their meaningless lives in the most existentially horrifying place on earth: A Cinnabon in Omaha. There, in tasteful black and white and to the tune of the Ink Spots’ “Address Unknown,”[ref]Vince Gilligan better have dropped a yacht full of small, unmarked bills into the driveway of the creators of Fallout before jacking this move from them[/ref] we meet the balding, paunchy, mustached, bespectacled, extraordinarily depressed man we used to know as Saul Goodman.
This is pretty standard stuff, honestly. The show spends three or so minutes letting us watch him mash up pastry dough and give the paranoid side-eye to a hard-looking dude who oh obviously was just staring intently at Saul because Saul I guess holds a passing resemblance to his girlfriend. That kind of thing.
So Saul heads home, pours himself a rusty nail (Dewars and Drambuie, ’cause he’s a classy motherfucker no matter how much he smells like an accident at the frosting factory) and flips channels. The first signs of winter are hitting Omaha, and this brings back important-ass memories that he’s gotta cry through, and that means he’s gotta close the blinds, dig through the box of memories he keeps under the sink until he finds an old VHS tape, plug it into his TV and let the soothing sounds of his old commercials lull him softly into suicidal dreams.
Yeah, that’s your cold open. But lay off the hesitation marks for now ’cause we got plenty more depressing-ass bullshit to get through before anything awesome happens. Stay with me, though. Shit starts popping eventually, I swear.
FLASHBACK TIME! Welcome to sunny New Mexico, where an entire courtroom full of people is waiting on the arrival of one James M. McGill, Esq., to give closing remarks in the case of three 19-year-olds who, um. Yeah. Um. Yeeaaah.
Seems James is pretty nervous about these kinds of thing, so he’s in the bathroom trying to work out a speech. You get a lot of shots of him from the back and sides, hanging out next to urinal cakes and stained walls. Hell of symbolic, right? Anyway finally the bailiff comes and corrals him and he turns around and, oh my god, it’s a young, vibrant, tastefully dressed Saul Goodman — BEFORE he was called Saul! (Side note: I’m assuming Twitter has already laid claim to every available joke about how this show is basically Gotham, right? Because the Heisenberg/Batman parallels are just too awesome to ignore? I didn’t check before writing this though, so, y’know, sorry.)
So James (“Please, call me Jimmy!”) marches out of that bathroom and delivers a Grammy-worthy defense of these kids, poking holes in the prosecution’s arguments, appealing to the jury’s sense of nostalgia, and generally leaving everybody feeling real fine. He sits down at his table, exhausted but confident.
So then the DA comes out and plays the jury a video tape of the kids sawing the head off a cadaver and then fucking it.
Not your day, Jimmy.
So he loses the case. Big deal! He’s always got a plan B. In this instance, that amounts to a callback from a certain Mr. and Mrs. Kettleman. Seems there’s a whole lot of money missing from the county treasury, and Mr. K, as treasurer, is being advised to lawyer up. So he hops in his car (in an obvious nod to Better Call Saul’s ancestral pedigree, Jimmy drives a shitted-up Suzuki Esteem, painted piss yellow except for one door that’s painted hungover-and-dehydrated-piss orange) and tries to drive off to a meeting where he will attempt to convince some nice people to hand him a lot of money for no reason (SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T SEEN A SINGLE TELEVISION PILOT: He fails comedically).
But before he can do that, he must face his greatest challenge yet because between him and city streets is a droll, gravel-voiced police officer-turned-parking-lot-cashier-turned-private-investigator-turned-drug-kingpin’s-righthand-man named Mike Ehrmantraut. Mike and Jimmy proceed to haggle over $3, which was probably hilarious even if you don’t have Miss Cleo-style insight into their druggy, lucrative future, but I couldn’t tell you because I KNOW HOW IT ALL ENDS. THE KNOWLEDGE, IT CONSUMES ME.
Anyway so Jimmy’s meeting with the Kettlemanses doesn’t go great, and he’s driving home in his terrible car when OH GOD HE HITS A TEENAGER OH GOD.
The kid’s all on the sidewalk all “OH JEEZ OW OH GOD MY LEG IS BROKEN” and then the kid’s BROTHER comes over and he’s got a VIDEO CAMERA and they are gonna call the COPS. Jimmy is in desperate straits here, guys, but he doesn’t want this to be a police issue. “Don’t call the cops! I’ll do whatever it takes to make things right!”
“Whatever it takes,” according to these kids, is $500. And just for a second, you think Jimmy’s gonna do it.
And then you see a little Saul. Not much, but it really got me through all this episode’s depressing-assed scene setting. Just nice to see, you know?
Anyway Jimmy stomps on the kid’s “broken” leg and blows the whole con wide open. “Listen, Starlight Express, I’m gonna give you a 9.6 for technique but a 0.0 for choice of victim. I’m a lawyer, you idiots! And look at this car! The only way it’d be worth $500 is if there was a $300 hooker in the back!” Give ’em hell, Goodman!
And now back to the depressing shit. Kinda just wanna bullet this out so we can get to the good stuff. Yeah, fuck it. It’s all just that standard “here are some potential plotlines” bullshit American audiences have come to expect from their TV S1E1s anyway:
- Jimmy’s office is the custodial closet of a Vietnamese mani / pedi shop.
- Inside Jimmy’s office is a pile of mail that almost entirely comprises bills that say things like “PAST DUE.” He sadly flips through every envelope as sad music plays sadly in the background.
- One of the pieces of mail Jimmy has received is a check for $26,000 from the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill (that’s your name, Dude!). He rips the check into tiny bits.
- The next day, Jimmy visits the boardroom of the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill[ref]And does a fantastic impression of Ned Beatty in Network when he walks in[/ref] where a bunch of successful lawyers look down their noses at him.
- As he’s leaving the offices of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill he spies who else but Mr. and Mrs. Kettleman, there to give their money to those assholes instead of Jimmy. The schmucks.
- The check was for Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s brother, who helped found the law firm but is on extended sabbatical.
- Chuck is on extended sabbatical in a house with no electricity because Chuck fucking snapped at some point and is now pathologically afraid of electromagnetic radiation.
- Jimmy is going broke and can’t support Chuck.
- Jimmy wants Chuck to cash out of the firm, but Chuck won’t do it because he thinks he’ll get better eventually, and also Mr. Hamlin came by before Jimmy did and they had a nice chat and now Chuck is getting $850 a week as a stipend.
- Oh and also Chuck and Mr. Hamlin agreed that Jimmy should call his law firm something other than McGill because having two firms with “McGill” in the name could get confusing. “How about Vanguard Law? Or Gibraltar!” Chuck helpfully adds.
Ok, you survive all that? That was like half an hour of screen time, and basically all it was was a long way of saying that James M. McGill, Esq., is broke, friendless, living in his brother’s shadow and also failing to care for said brother. The TV Sad Sacks Society welcomes its newest member. Anyway, from here on out it’s total aces. You’ll see.
Because all is not yet lost, and Jimmy’s got a plan. First, he tracks down those skater brothers who tried to con him earlier[ref]Bro: “How’d you find us?”
Jimmy: <Gestures around the giant skate park they’re standing in>”I know! Eerie, right?”[/ref] and tells them the story of Slippin’ Jimmy from Cicero, Illinois, who loved the onset of winter (OMG TIE-IN TO THE EARLIER THING WHERE IT’S WINTER) because he’d do what these dumb kids were doing except he’d clear $6,000 for one incident. The skaters are suitably impressed, and now we have a cabal.
Jimmy lays the plan out to them in advance: They do the car crash thing to the evil Mrs. Kettleman who so callously spurned his advice earlier in the episode, then Jimmy, who “just happened to be in the neighborhood” steps in and Saves The Goddamn Day with his hot lawyerin’ antics. The kids get $2,000 and Jimmy gets a lifelong client for life. Too easy, right?
Except the first rule of entertainment is that the best way to ensure a kooky scheme doesn’t work is to tell it to the audience in advance. Sad trombone for anyone who didn’t see that one coming. Show’s still getting its sea legs, so I’ll give it a conditional pass, I guess.
For yes, the kids do their thing, but the car proceeds to do a hit and run. Jimmy, via cell phone, is ecstatic because that turns it into a felony, and that means more money for everybody. The skaters, who are chasing the car, are all “then what do we need him for” because they’re assholes, and the whole thing ends up at this nice house in the suburbs.
And then out of the car comes a person who is definitely not Mrs. Kettleman. Uh oh. She barely speaks English, so the skaters are demanding “mucho dinero” and convince her to let them in the house. Jimmy shows up minutes later and begins banging on the door. “I AM AN OFFICER OF THE COURT. OPEN UP IN THE NAME OF THE LAW.”
So the door finally opens and then there is a gun in Jimmy’s face. A gun that belongs to none other than Heisenberg’s first true nemesis, an unhinged drug dealer named Tuco Salamanca. Yeah, there are no unpulled stops left. We doin’ this, y’all.
So, look. This wasn’t perfect television, but that’s how a lot of these pilots work. Only perfect pilot I can think of is the one for “Lost, “and we all know how that one ended up. That said, it was frequently hilarious and cleverly written when it wasn’t trying to set up a bunch of bowling pins to be knocked down at a date TBA. I desperately want to insult everyone’s intelligence right here by drawing parallels between the struggles of both the protagonist and the show he lives in to define themselves against their more successful relatives, but instead I’ll just do that hacky writer thing where I say something by pretending I wasn’t gonna say anything about it. At any rate, I can see why AMC is running the next episode just a day later, ’cause the train’s only barely left the station. Can’t wait to see where it goes.
I’ve decided to rate this episode according to where it would fall in the TV spinoff pantheon if the world ended today. Thus, I give you…