40 THE LAST STEP – BETTER CALL SAUL
Season 5 will premiere a month after this is being written. Better Call Saul has been acclaimed as a worthy successor to Breaking Bad. But there are also people out there that argue the latest Martin Scorsese movie The Irishman is a masterpiece. That movie is well-made but rehashed and over-familiar gangster material. A dash of distilled Proust is added courtesy of Once Upon A Time In America from Sergio Leone. Watch The Irishman, though, collect the Oscars. The accomplished but safe has always been popular.
Better Call Saul is good to look at and sounds great. There are a few false calls but the dialogue is sharp, and the photography and music, as they were in Breaking Bad, are highlights. Vince Gilligan and his team remain accomplished. In the credits there are some fresh names but the usual suspects dominate. The elements that made Breaking Bad stylish and a success are repeated without shame in Better Call Saul. This creates a problem. What was fresh can soon become hackneyed. Repeated long distance shots interrupting important conversation undermine the contributions of the actors. Point of view shots from the inside of machines or equipment are also irritating. Because their use in Breaking Bad heralded something different, they could be tolerated. There is, though, a reason why the rest of the film industry avoids arbitrary POV shots. Divorced from characters they lack meaning and represent empty headed style. Making the right calls depends on knowing how to quit when you are ahead. Like the not really relevant POV shots, the teasers in Better Call Saul offer echoes rather than promises. A couple have real merit and could qualify as independent and worthwhile short films but they are the exceptions. This is not the fault of Vince Gilligan. Second time around we understand the process and expect more. As Gilligan once said about writing Breaking Bad, ‘God, this is hard work.’
Up until season four Better Call Saul was shaped by two main narratives. Scenes alternated between a Cain and Abel type struggle of two brothers and the story of an ex-cop being drawn into the world of gangsters. Other characters connected to these people also had narratives but they occupied less running time. So far the two main stories have been tangential rather than connected. Whatever we thought about Walter White and his irritability Breaking Bad would not have been the same without him. His progress or decline was the unifying core that linked everything that happened. When people were not creating difficulties for Walt they were either responding to him or having their lives shaped by his decisions. This does not happen in Better Caul Saul. One minute TV viewers are watching a tale about ambitious lawyers, and the next they are back inside a crime drama. The frequent switches may mitigate boredom but they reduce emotional impact. Set pieces and interesting detail have an addictive hold on viewers but neither of these stories generate compulsive curiosity. There is much that is ponderous. Attempts are made to incorporate corresponding themes into the two narratives but these operate at a subliminal level, as they must. A subtext is no substitute for focussed drama.
It does not help that the two main narratives are loaded with absurdities. The Cain and Abel tale relies on successful older brother Chuck being hostile to chaotic younger brother Jimmy McGill, previously known as Saul Goodman. Breaking Bad earned praise for being organic, plot followed characters. In Better Call Saul the character of Chuck McGill is a contrived creation that came from the keyboard of an admittedly talented writer. Allergies to electricity have been claimed but instances are rare. It is not a recognised condition. Combined with the devotion of roguish but complicated brother Jimmy it all makes a dubious mix. In the final demise of Chuck there are at least two unbelievable incidents in the plot. To win a court case Jimmy plants a battery in the jacket pocket of Chuck. This ploy succeeds but it depends on Jimmy knowing the impossible, how unpredictable Chuck will react. We can appreciate well-made drama but no one should accept being kidded. Later, Chuck commits suicide. Odd and a bad loser Chuck is an insecure man affected by a psychosomatic illness. Such men do not set fire to themselves and wait to be burned alive. Before that, Jimmy has not just waded one evening through a mountain of paper but used a local cheap photocopying service to alter original legal documents. The idea is well executed but daft. Better Call Saul improves in the third season when Jimmy McGill loses his legal licence and says goodbye to the courtroom. The previous legal drama felt second-hand which may be why the well-groomed and photogenic lawyers looked as if they had stepped out of 70s American television fodder .
If the exploits of Jimmy McGill became more interesting towards the end of the third season, so did the scenes with Mike Ehrmantraut. His actions to undermine criminal Hector Salamanca delivered sequences of real suspense. Gilligan and his crew stayed patient with the material and in these scenes they created work worthy of an unhurried Hitchcock. But overall the tale of the ex-cop moving towards gangsterdom has serious weaknesses. The actor Jonathan Banks is not a young man and he is obliged adopt the posture of a young cool Clint Eastwood. How senior citizen Banks felt having to act this way through a macho movie fantasy only he will know. There are marvellous moments but few occur before season three arrives. The improvement in quality that occurs during season three, as if the writers and participants had either resolved certain issues or acquired a confident step, may be welcome but this cannot be regarded as praise. Too much before then was inconsequential, unbelievable or just dull.
Apart from a too cute granddaughter all the characters in Better Call Saul leave a legacy of damage. This theme could have had resonance but the trajectory of the character of Jimmy McGill is too similar to that of Walter White. The moment when Jimmy acquires the will to inwardly celebrate the destruction of his awkward brother compares to when Walter White lets Jane die. This similarity reduces the potential for independent life in Better Call Saul and weakens what was original and interesting.
Vince Gilligan has a compulsion to build TV series around characters that in other shows would be no more than cameos. He gambled with three nerds in The Lone Gunmen. Breaking Bad was built around a middle-aged schoolteacher, and Better Call Saul has a grubby and unsuccessful hustler. Apart from the CV of Gilligan there is precedent elsewhere for Jimmy McGill. In The Sweet Smell Of Success the repellent Sydney Falco is so desperate to succeed he betrays everyone. The actor in that movie was the young and glamorous Tony Curtis. Women thought Curtis attractive, and Elvis Presley was curious about the hairstyle. It is to the credit of Gilligan that actor Bob Odenkirk is not as handsome as Curtis but without the critical polemic of American society that exists in The Sweet Smell Of Success we are justified in asking what is the point of a story about Jimmy McGill and his ambition to be a successful lawyer. At his best McGill works hard and at his worst he betrays people and, because of Breaking Bad, we also know what will happen to him. There are surprises. In one episode hustler Jimmy makes a substantial sacrifice to ensure a retired pensioner does not lose the affection of her friends. Even told like this and without the details it sounds like moonshine. The most interesting element in the legal story has been the mental stress endured by lawyer Kim Wexler. She is the girlfriend of Jimmy McGill but so far her main problem has been overwork. For once a development in the plot felt organic, something inspired by the character rather than invention.
Laws of the land or legal machines rest on precedent which, as a concept, is perilously close to exalting cliché. There are great legal movies such as 12 Angry Men, Anatomy Of A Murder, and To Kill A Mockingbird. All those movies required exceptional heroes. James Stewart played jazz alongside Duke Ellington, Henry Fonda was Wyatt Earp in a jury room and Gregory Peck was the most noble of them all. The lawyers in Better Call Saul are predictable dullards that power dress and make a lot of money. Without any hint of irony Gilligan and his writers permit them to claim they have high ethical standards.
All this, though, is detail. Better Call Saul suffers because it is dragged down by nostalgia. Rather than be fired by an original idea it is an attempt to exploit what was achieved in Breaking Bad. Characters who were previously killed are given fresh life and then introduced to an audience who can celebrate what they remember or do not want to forget. These introductions usually follow a pause, extended facial expressions have proved useful. The characters from Breaking Bad that reappear are heralded like actors walking on stage in a Star Trek convention or ageing rock bands reforming and making nationwide tours. Some forgiveness is required. Gilligan had to shape his story around what and who are available. This is how a 60 episode TV show is made, and what may be seen by some as compromises can be transformed into opportunities. But added to nostalgia and deliberate repetition the formulaic becomes unavoidable. Gilligan needs to take his considerable talent outside his comfort zone and create something different. If we are right in discerning his yearnings, perhaps an unashamed Western rooted in history and territory beyond the Albuquerque desert would suit him. Gilligan deserves support which is why the appalling opening credits of Better Call Saul are best ignored.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.