We’ve waited a long, long time for the return of Breaking Bad’s amoral lawyer Saul Goodman (over 16 months…), but like expert teases, showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould keeps us waiting just a little longer…
This spinoff could well have ended up as a light-hearted half-hour sitcom. So the moody monochrome opening, in which we follow a balding, moustachioed Saul, now working in a baked goods chain having assumed a new identity, is particularly wrong-footing. It seems certain we’ll be returning to this timeframe at some point, if not with regularity.
Even once we do cut to Better Call Saul’s present, we’re kept waiting for some trademark Goodman patter, as Bob Odenkirk’s character – at this point going by his birth name, Jimmy McGill - keeps a courtroom waiting, rehearsing his spiel in the men’s room. It’s a neat trick from a series that, like its forebear, clearly isn’t afraid to mess with the viewers, and doesn’t feel obliged to spoonfed the audience.
Satisfyingly, it’s assumed that we have the patience and intelligence to work things out for ourselves. Why is Odenkirk’s penniless attorney so quick to tear up a cheque for $26,000? How is he related to Chuck, and what’s his mysterious condition? Who’s that blonde with whom Jimmy shares a cigarette, and what’s their history? Some of the answers come fairly quickly; sometimes we’re left with gaps to fill in; some issues remain clouded in mystery. It’s an approach that not only builds a sense of verisimilitude – in real life, people don’t go around constantly explaining themselves the way they do in bad TV scripts – but also keeps you engaged.
The song that plays over the opening sequence is "Address Unknown”, a 1939 track by The Ink Spots.
But there’s more to be gleaned from “Uno” than the pleasure of puzzling out how the pieces of Jimmy McGill’s world fit together. One of the great joys of Breaking Bad was its flair for a heist; the way it could have you routing for its characters as they robbed methylamine from a train, or magnetised the contents of a police evidence store. Though it’s small beer by those standards, Jimmy’s scheme to land a potentially lucrative embezzlement case by hiring a pair of skateboarder dudes to stage a traffic accident delivers the same kind of rush – and a familiar type of twist. (Warning: major spoiler ahead) Breaking Bad fans who’ve followed the casting announcements will have expected to see Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraub (and will be dying to learn more about his backstory), but it’s a gasp-inducing surprise to see Jimmy ending up, at episode’s end, in the clutches of psychopathic meth dealer Tuco Salamanca. Is this merely a temporary peril, or could Tuco be the character who first plugs Jimmy into the criminal underworld?
Alternately intriguing and laugh-out-loud funny (the sequence where Jimmy takes his rage out on a bin is beautifully set up) and built on the firm foundation of a note-perfect performance from Bob Odenkirk, “Uno” is a supremely confident start to a series that feels very much of a piece with Breaking Bad, but doesn’t feel like it exists swamped by its shadow. Walter who?
The last time we saw Saul (in Breaking Bad’s "Granite State"), as he readied to assume a new identity, he cracked, “If I'm lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.” His job looks a little less responsible than that, but otherwise... spot-on.
As Jimmy acknowledges, the speech he delivers in the boardroom of Hamlin Hamlin and McGill (“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature… and you will atone!”) quotes a Ned Beatty character in the 1976 film Network, in which it’s likewise delivered at the end of a long boardroom table, with accompanying dramatic hand gestures.
Michael McKean is best known for his role as rock singer David St Hubbins in This Is Spinal Tap! SF fans may also remember his X-Files character Morris Fletcher, who swapped bodies with Fox Mulder in the two-parter "Dreamland".
Zen And Now
The Asian-run nail bar - called Zen - that's the location of Jimmy's cruddy back-room office featured in Breaking Bad twice. In season three's "Kafkaesque" (pictured) Saul tried to convince Jesse to use it to launder his money, and in season four's "Open House" he suggested that Walt and Skyler buy the business for the same purpose.