Small Screen Reviews

Better Call Saul

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould managed to accomplish the nearly impossible feat of making a prequel to one of the most beloved and acclaimed television series of the last 20 years with Breaking Bad. The crime drama set in Albuquerque not only matches the quality of that show but also deepens the audience’s connection to many of the supporting characters who inhabited Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) world. Set years before the events of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul follows the corner-cutting Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) devolution into becoming the criminal lawyer Saul Goodman who helped build Heisenberg’s crystal meth empire.

McGill’s fall from grace into the criminal underworld is played more as a human tragedy, as we see how his strained relationship with his successful lawyer and brother Chuck (Michael McKean) pushed him down a road of self-fulfilling prophecy into becoming the ne’er-do-well his sibling had always viewed him as, contrasting the descent of Walter White which was spurned by pride and bruised ego. Odenkirk plays the character through internal emotions, a sharp contrast to Cranston’s larger-than-life, theatrical performance as Walter.

Odenkirk is a revelation in this series. In Breaking Bad he was brought in to bring some comedic levity to the intense proceedings having made a name for himself as a sketch comedian on Saturday Night Live and HBO’s groundbreaking Mr. Show. In Better Call Saul, however, he is simply heartbreaking, playing the character with deep sadness hidden behind the brash and charismatic alter ego he would embody in the Breaking Bad timeline. It is a phenomenal leading performance that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other small screen greats like James Gandolfini, Jon Hamm and, of course, Bryan Cranston.

Better Call Saul brought back many of the supporting cast from the original series, including Jonathan Banks who does exemplary work as Mike Ehrmantraut, a former police officer now working as a fixer for the cartels helping them hide bodies and keep the cash flow coming. Banks, who was a long-time character actor appearing in small roles in an array of film and television projects ranging from Beverly Hills Cop and Gremlins to CSI and Two and a Half Men, earned a lot of acclaim and recognition later on in his career for his work in Breaking Bad; and he goes go even deeper into the role of Mike in Better Call Saul, expanding on his backstory and world view, and adds shade to his Breaking Bad performance. Also returning is the villainous Gustavo Fring, played with such menace by Giancarlo Esposito that he has become Hollywood’s current go-to actor when in need of a compelling villain. Again, Esposito draws out more from the character in this prequel series, making Gus almost sympathetic by comparison to some of the other evil men in this cartel-run underworld.

As for new characters, Michael Mando shines as Nacho Varga, a young man who gets caught too deep between the warring cartel factions. As the series’ spiritual successor to Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, Mando plays the part with immense vulnerability, always forcing the audience to root for him even as he makes all the wrong choices. As Howard Hamlin, Chuck’s business partner, Patrick Fabian does a remarkable job of turning one of the series’ least likeable characters into its most sympathetic one throughout the show. While Tony Dalton manages to steal every scene as Lalo Salamanca, the charming but ruthless head of the Salamanca crime family. It is the type of tightrope walking villain performance where you love the character and can’t take your eyes off the screen when he is on, even as he commits the most despicable acts possible. But arguably, the series’ most valuable player is Rhea Seehorn as Jimmy’s partner and love interest Kim Wexler. Also coming from a comedy background having appeared on NBC’s Whitney, Seehorn makes Kim into the most decent person in the show, causing her moral descent alongside Jimmy to be all the more devastating. Seehorn is excellent throughout the show but especially in the final season when all her questionable actions catch up with her. She is sure to be up for many great roles in the future.

Better Call Saul is something of a miracle: It manages to live up to the high expectations thrown onto it after the universal acclaim of Breaking Bad yet still carves out its own identity. It is a far deeper show than anyone could have anticipated. Instead of only seeing Saul as a wacky lawyer, viewers were given a series about regret and the consequences of our decisions. It is among the best shows of the past decade and pushes Gould and Gilligan into a class of their own as dramatic writers.

House of the Dragon

Game of Thrones’ final season landed with a thud back in 2019. The once meticulously written series became laced with plot contrivances; the dialogue floundered from poetic wit to an abundance of Marvel-esque punchlines; and many characters betrayed their well-established motives in favor of uncharacteristic decision-making. Many had written off any hope of returning to George R.R. Martin’s world, but with House of the Dragon, HBO’s first spinoff of their blockbuster series, showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik have accomplished the unthinkable and made Westeros compelling again. Set about 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon follows the ruling Targaryen family, the ancestors of Daenerys, exploring their familial quarrels and showing how they reigned over the Seven Kingdoms through the power of their fire-breathing dragons.

While Game of Thrones followed multiple warring families, House of the Dragon is focused solely on the Targaryens, which makes the scope of the story feel smaller but allows for characters to have more time to breathe and be fleshed out early in the series. At the center of the show is the young Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), daughter of King Viserys (Paddy Considine), who has been promised to be the heir to the iron throne despite it being decided that only a male can be the ruler of Westeros. Much of the early episodes have dealt with the push and pull between the princess and her father and the question of whether she will be able to fulfill her father’s promise. Both actors are excellent in their roles and feel like naturals in this world. Elsewhere is the King’s deceitful and untrustworthy brother Daemon (Matt Smith), who is both compelling and easily hateable at the same time.

The show’s production values are of the highest order. Unfortunately, the filming was not done on exterior locations as Game of Thrones’ globetrotting production was, which sometimes causes a lack of immersion that the original show was so great at creating. But so far, the writing has been much sharper than in the final couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. The characters and performances are engaging, and the plot is compelling, making me look forward to Sunday nights as Thrones once did at its height. It is early days in this series, but there is much promise here.

About Harry Moore