Last night, Saul Goodman – Breaking Bad’s slimy, two-bit ambulance chaser played by Bob Odenkirk – weaseled his way back onto our screens in AMC’s Better Call Saul. For creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, spinning off from their monolithic series was a risky move and their fan base – used to the finer things – would be quick to pipe up if their latest serving of Albuquerque pulp fiction was not up to muster. With the first instalment, ‘Uno‘ – dropped onto Netflix yesterday like a briefcase of cash left in a train station – we can rest assured that we are in safe hands as the Gilligan directed episode delivers in dark comedy and a melancholic tone, with a knowing performance from Odenkirk, as well as a few familiar faces on the sidelines.
We begin with a black and white ‘cold open’ – a stylistic technique that was perfected to an art form on Bad – in which a moustachioed Saul is working behind the counter at a greasy Cinnabon, his paranoid eyes fixed on the skinhead hunk of muscle who appears to be staring angrily back at him. It’s a red herring; the man stomps past and greets his smiling family outside with a big hug as Saul breaths a sigh of relief through his unfashionable whiskers. Back home, he pours himself a punchy cocktail and settles down with a video tape of Better Call Saul commercials before we launch into a vibrant, scratchy, technicolor intro that seems to finish as soon as it has started.
This masterful sequence, through its style and use of generic tropes, sets an intoxicating tone for the episode and indeed series that will follow. The black and white photography, whilst serving as a time-defining shorthand (these events are taking place after the events of at least this first episode) it also clues us into Gilligan and Gould’s noir sensibilities, referencing the oppressive filmmaking styles of the 40s with deep shadows, stark contrast and low angles.
These noir affiliations ring throughout the episode, particularly in the photography – shot here on 4K digital – but also in its instigation of heavy plotting, sleazeball character types, and – in one alarmingly necrophilic instance – some pretty shocking gallows humour. It’s a delight to see Saul himself, here going by his given name Jimmy McGill, making a start in the business, psyching himself up in the men’s as the milkshake slurping courtroom waits patiently.
Bring on episode two!