Better Call Saul: so many star wipes in a row

, | TV reviews

One of the cases to be made for Better Call Saul being better than Breaking Bad is consistency of tone. Breaking Bad frequently strayed from family soap opera, to hard-hitting crime drama, to wacky character comedy, to drug cartel intrigue. You could argue that was one of its strengths, because it allowed for episodes like the one with the fly and the magnet heist. Breaking Bad went wherever it felt like going. From Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Vince Gilligan is on record as saying. But with multiple layovers.

This often felt like experimentation. Let’s see whether this works, the creators seemed to be saying. Like having a musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But for every time breaking format works, TV series are littered with examples where it doesn’t work.

Breaking Bad had a great sense for the absurd. The pizza on the roof, for instance. It had a less comfortable relationship with outright comedy. Consider discursions like Badger and Skinny Pete as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of romanticized drug use. Those lovable scamps! Yeah, sure, they were meth addicts, but they meant well. More importantly, they were wise and competent when the show needed them to be. What’s a little meth between sidekicks? They were an example of how the series never quite knew what to do with the moral objections to drug use. It mostly overlooked that methamphetamine addiction fries your mind, saps your resolve, ruins your relationships, and destroys your body. Instead, the problem with meth is that it distracts air traffic controllers so that airplanes crash.

One of Breaking Bad’s least comfortable relationships with outright comedy was Saul Goodman as the wacky go-between for the family soap opera and the hard-hitting crime drama. Bob Odenkirk’s fast-talking, loose lawyering money launderer in a goofy office felt like he had walked through the wrong door after leaving the set of a sketch comedy series with David Cross. No, no, the door to the left goes to Arrested Development! The door to the right goes to a bold but tonally inconsistent AMC series. Well, as long as you’re here, let’s get you to hair and make-up…

In the end, Saul became a sympathetic character, but not because we knew much about him. We didn’t. He was a comedic afterthought, and therefore, the perfect terra incognito for a spin-off. But he was sympathetic because there’s a certain well intentioned haplessness to Odenkirk. He’s not the snake oil salesman who deserves his comeuppance; he’s the snake oil salesman who deserves a better line of work. Like many of the aggrieved victims-by-proxy of Walter White’s poor decision-making, he doesn’t deserve what he gets. Better Call Saul is an exploration of that fundamental fact, and it consistently affirms that, yes, it turns out Odenkirk belongs in a series written by a now tonally consistent Vince Gilligan, exploring the moral ambiguity not of drug use — if you’re going to do that, meth isn’t the best poison to pick — but of the law. Better Call Saul doesn’t have a Badger or Skinny Pete. It doesn’t even have a Saul Goodman.

All that said, this episode provided a great reminder that Odenkirk did indeed walk off the set of a sketch comedy series with David Cross. It was as if a Mr. Show segment had jumped dimensions and been put on a TV for Kim to see. Her reaction is not unlike my reaction to Breaking Bad’s occasional inconsistency.

By the way, Better Call Saul’s director of photography has recently changed. The talented Arthur Albert gave the show its distinct perspective and bright New Mexican palette for the first two seasons. This season, a fellow named Marshall Adams has taken over. Here are a few examples of his work from this last episode:

I couldn’t be happier with Adams’ cinematography. The show has never looked better.