By Richard von Busack
In the background of the show Better Call Saul, Nancy Sinatra chirps “Sugar Town.” Seen in black and white, disguised by a fake-looking brown mustache, is Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), once known as Albuquerque’s most dubious lawyer. He’s the oldest guy working at a Cinnabon in an Omaha mall. Some sugar town! In flashback, we see the rise of McGill, and the chicanery that undid him.
A main plotline in Better Call Saul’s source show, Breaking Bad, had Walter White (Bryan Cranston) almost outwitting his police detective brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris). Saul isn’t brother vs. brother-in-law, but brother vs. brother. Chuck (Michael McKean), McGill’s older sibling, is a respectable lawyer, immobilized in his house with a case of electromagnetic sensitivity. The game continues between this snobbish attorney, and the charming, untrustworthy McGill.
The sharp point of this tragi-comedy is McGill’s partnership with his fellow lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a smart lady becoming worn down by work and disappointment. Wexler’s admiration for McGill’s audacity is maybe the saddest part of the show.
The New Mexico terroir is remarkable; the show is staffed with novice directors working like crazy to get a fresh angle on cityscapes and deserts. And then there’s the narrative itself. It’s worthy of Honoré de Balzac in its analysis of how big illegal money is made—as he wrote, great fortunes are the result of great crimes, and men make their way through the world either like cannonballs, or like contagions in the wind. So many of the best qualities the movies used to have seem to have migrated to Better Call Saul.