BARNHART

Now’s a Great Time To Jump on the Better Call Saul Train

AMC's magical prequel to Breaking Bad launches its fifth season with two mesmerizing episodes.
  • Bob Odenkirk in a promotional photo for the fifth season of Better Call Saul. (AMC)
    Bob Odenkirk in a promotional photo for the fifth season of Better Call Saul. (AMC)
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    Your Honor. Members of the jury. Today I’m going to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my client — AMC’s Better Call Saul — deserves your viewership.

    Yes, I am aware that my client has been on television for four seasons and this week begins its fifth season. I know that tons of storyline has come and gone in the forty episodes that have aired to date. Beloved characters, dead. Law licenses, revoked (and then reinstated). Friends, we can’t live in the past! It’s all water under the bridge and this … is a very …. long … bridge. With a lot of water under it.

    What I’m saying is, you don’t need to have seen one minute of Better Call Saul to begin watching season five. Do not deliberate! Just jump in. I assure you, there is no better time. This week’s two episodes (one airs Sunday, one airs Monday) are so immediately immersive, so incredibly well done, and Bob Odenkirk’s character so razor-sharp after all these years, that it would simply be a crime not to watch the last 23 episodes of Better Call Saul.

    Ten episodes this year, 13 episodes next year. Members of the jury, if you love great television, how can you pass up this opportunity to see history in the making? You will recall Netflix’s testimony. The streaming giant told us that even its most successful shows will be cancelled after just three or four seasons from now on, because it no longer makes financial sense to keep ordering episodes. And you can bet that other networks and streaming channels will do the same. Which means we may never again see a character as long-lived as Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy McGill, aka Carl the Cinnabon Guy. My fellow viewers, now is the time to tune in.

    Of course, it helps to have seen at least a season or two of Breaking Bad first — although, how does one stop after two seasons? Even my wife, who gives up on shows faster than anyone I know, watched all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad. Anyway, that’s not important. All you need to know is that Saul Goodman was written into Breaking Bad in Season 2 because the creator of the show, Vince Gilligan, felt a dark, murderous drama about a meth-cooking science teacher navigating the criminal underworld might need, oh, some comic relief.

    For the role of Saul, Gilligan chose Odenkirk because Mr. Show was hilarious. Walt White hired Saul Goodman as his attorney because his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman, told him to. When Walt protested that he couldn’t have a known sleazebag like Saul as his legal counsel, Jesse assured him that someone as tainted as Better Call Saul would know exactly how to keep Walt out of trouble.

    “You don’t want a criminal lawyer,” Jesse said, “you want a criminal, lawyer.”

    With his absurdly confident style and carefree approach to unethical lawyering, Saul quickly became a fan favorite on Breaking Bad. (True story: There is a well-known personal-injury attorney in my town who has an outdoor sign above one of the busiest streets in town that reads: Better Call Brad! I wonder if that guy actually watches the show.) Eventually Gilligan and a Breaking Bad writer, Peter Gould, pitched AMC a prequel just about Saul — or rather, how a con man from suburban Chicago named Jimmy McGill turned into the fast-talking attorney with the fake name that’s easy to remember because, S’all good, man.

    As a bonus, Odenkirk’s role on Better Call Saul took on a much more dramatic flavor than it ever had on the old show. As Primetimer's Jade Budowski recently noted, Jimmy McGill has explored emotional ranges that Breaking Bad fans never suspected Odenkirk was capable of. (But I remember when people said that about Bryan Cranston.)

    OK, let’s say you haven’t been watching but you want to jump in. Two key things to know. Key thing one: Somehow, some way, Better Call Saul is going to try to “stick the landing” (in Gould’s words) somewhere near the spot where Saul Goodman makes his first appearance on Breaking Bad. Which means that if you did watch Breaking Bad, familiar faces will start popping up in the final 23 episodes as the story works its way back to Saul’s introduction to Walt.

    Already in previous seasons we’ve seen kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) build his muscle around Albuquerque, culminating in the construction work on his state-of-the-art meth lab that fans know from Breaking Bad. We’ve also seen Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) evolve from small-time parking lot attendant to hit man doing other people’s dirty work. And other familiar characters will begin appearing very soon. (Also, there will be an appearance by Carl, the Cinnabon mall worker whose identity Saul/Jimmy was forced to assume at the very end of Breaking Bad.)

    But wait! There’s more! If you start watching Better Call Saul now, you’ll get to see semi-reputable attorney Jimmy McGill shed his old identity and morph before your eyes into the entirely disreputable but newly emboldened lawyer who answers his phone, “Saul Goodman speaking! Justice for You!” Trust me, you won’t want to miss it.

    Key thing two: Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is not just another show about quirky characters and intriguing storylines. The people behind these two series love to make television, and it’s evident from the product. You don’t have to know the name or mission of every single second-tier character to be thoroughly entertained by every scene of Better Call Saul.

    I’ll give you one example. At the end of Monday’s second episode, Saul drops a mint ice cream cone on the hot sidewalk and leaves it there. The following episode picks up moments later, with the ice cream cone where it was, but swarmed by ants — at first, we see a close-up of a single bug, then an army of ants, the whole scene scored to music. It’s apropos of absolutely nothing (except maybe the Breaking Bad episode built around a fly), yet it’s mesmerizing and beautiful, even if it makes my skin crawl.

    This is television magic, and it won’t last long. You should enjoy it while you can. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

    The fifth season of Better Call Saul premieres on AMC Sunday February 23rd at 10:00 PM ET.

    People are talking about Better Call Saul in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Better Call Saul, AMC, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Vince Gilligan