Better Call Saul Remains the Master of The Slow Burn
Better Call Saul is the prequel to Breaking Bad, intending to show the transformation of the ultimately well-meaning, but fundamentally flawed Jimmy McGill to the ‘criminal’ lawyer Saul Goodman. Despite this, Better Call Saul begins each season by showing us a bit of what happens post-Breaking Bad for Saul/Jimmy. It is not glamorous, with Saul finding himself working a fairly uninspiring job as the Manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. He is likewise going by the fairly uninspiring name of Gene. (But at least he made it to Manager!) Like the 3 seasons before it, the fourth season’s premiere, Smoke, begins with a rather tense 8 minutes of post Breaking Bad content, with an increasingly nervous ‘Gene’ feeling the pressure as his unsavoury past threatens to catch up with him. Perhaps these segments are to keep Breaking Bad diehards enraptured and watching, in the hope that there will be more information about what became of Heisenberg, or perhaps these segments are just there to remind us that a life of dishonesty and criminal behaviour ultimately doesn't pay off. Either way, I'm all for it!
Following the black and white opening, we return to the past (a fairly hellish world circa 2002), to the aftermath of Chuck’s suicide, with Jimmy struggling to deal with the fact that his brother is dead, in part due to Jimmy’s own actions. However, in order for Jimmy to transform into Saul, characters like Chuck must be moved out of the way – so his death makes both dramatic and narrative sense. Sorry Chuck, but you had to go. At least you died of smoke inhalation and not from burning alive (or so we are told). We likewise get to see Mike investigating the shady Madrigal Corporation, and Nacho clashing with Gus Fring. If you are a Breaking Bad fan, several of these things might sound very exciting to you, and even if you are not, they may intrigue you nonetheless. Though you really should watch Breaking Bad. Because it is great.
While Breaking Bad was often fast-paced, with explosions and murders aplenty, Better Call Saul remains a decidedly slower affair, the show so far having been a 3-season slow build, with a few scenes of extreme violence splattered throughout for good measure. Not to say that it doesn’t work – it does. When the builds pay off, it’s gripping television. Nonetheless, Better Call Saul, for the most part, avoids Breaking Bad’s hyperrealist style for a slow underlying tension, with a fair few minutes of this episode spent watching people go about mundane day to day tasks. In one scene, a man helps his son fix his bike, and then gets into his car to drive to work. We feel that something is wrong. And it is. Were this Breaking Bad, his car might explode, or he might get abruptly shot through the heart. This is Better Call Saul, however, so the worst thing to happen to this man is that he has misplaced his security pass. If you only like explosions, this may not be the show for you – stick to Narcos, I suppose (does anyone actually watch Narcos?). In its slow inevitable way, however, the pieces move into place for good-hearted Jimmy to become sleazy Saul, for the ill-fated Mike to become a hired drug goon, and for Nacho to never be seen again.
Although not action-packed, this episode proves that Better Call Saul still packs an emotional punch. On the whole, this was a solid first episode, effectively showing the sombre aftermath from the events of the prior season, and helping move the characters towards their Breaking Bad starting places. Although lacking the cultural impact of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul remains a worthy successor and remains that rare thing: a spin-off that stands up to the original.