While there are many great shows out there, only a few of them have a perfect beginning—the kind that draws you in immediately and leaves you wanting more. In 25YL’s Perfect Pilots series, we will be looking at pilot episodes we think are flawless. This week, Ali Sciarabba takes a deep-dive into the pilot episode of Better Call Saul. Got a pilot you think should make the list? Let us know!
When Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould first had the idea to make a prequel series to Breaking Bad based on the character of Saul Goodman, they didn’t know exactly what they wanted it to be. Their initial thoughts were, given Bob Odenkirk’s inimitable comedic talents, that it would be a comedy. However, as any fan of Better Call Saul knows, the series ended up being so much more than that. Not that it’s not funny—it is laugh-out-loud funny at times—but overall the show falls solidly within the drama category. Though initially the stakes were not as high in Better Call Saul as they were in Breaking Bad, as the series moves towards its fifth season, things have gotten much darker and much more complicated.
But let’s start at the beginning, with the pilot episode “Uno,” which I believe to be one of the most perfect pilots I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The definition of what makes a perfect pilot for a prequel series is slightly more complicated than it is for a brand new show. The challenge that Gilligan, Gould, and their team of writers had was an immense one: how do we satisfy fans of Breaking Bad while also making something that can stand on it’s own merit? Personally, I think they accomplished that goal. However, as someone who was a Breaking Bad fan before Better Call Saul, I can only really evaluate it from that perspective.
That said, the opening sequence of “Uno” (written by Gilligan and Gould and directed by Gilligan) is designed to grab the Breaking Bad viewer from the jump. It opens in black and white, with a relocated Saul Goodman on the run from the consequences of his involvement with Walter White’s meth empire. Saul is now going by the alias “Gene” and working at a mall Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska (a callback to his throwaway comment regarding that exact scenario from the penultimate Breaking Bad episode “Granite State”). The Ink Spots’ melancholic tune “Address Unknown” plays as we watch “Gene” go about the mundane tasks of his new life. He doesn’t speak throughout the entire six-minute teaser, and this—coupled with Gilligan’s choice of using black and white—serves to remind us that the vibrantly colorful and loquacious Saul Goodman is no more.
Both at work and at home, Gene lives in constant fear that he will be found out. In the mall, he is convinced that a stranger is watching him, has come for him, and that the jig is about to be up. Of course it ends up just being a random guy, but the scene serves to remind us that, even though he got away, Saul is not free. At home he feels slightly more relaxed than he does in public but that tension and unease is still there. He fixes himself a Rusty Nail and settles into his armchair, flipping through channels with nothing catching his attention. His mind is far away, lost somewhere in the past, and—after making sure he’s not being watched and closing all the blinds—he furtively digs out a shoe box containing various relics from his past.
One of these items is a videotape containing a series of his (in)famous, low-budget commercials from his former law practice. In Breaking Bad, these commercials were always played for comedic effect, but Better Call Saul’s opener turns that on its head. The camera slowly pans in on Saul’s face, near tears, as he watches the videotape of himself as he used to be. He’s like a husk of his former self and, without a single word spoken, we feel the extent of his suffering.
Saul Goodman made it out of Albuquerque, but at what cost? And why, exactly, do we care? We care because Jimmy McGill exists, and Better Call Saul is (at least at first) Jimmy’s story. We learned vaguely about the existence of Jimmy McGill in the season 2 Breaking Bad episode “Better Call Saul,” in which the character of Saul Goodman was first introduced. Saul tells Walt that his real last name is McGill but that he goes by Saul Goodman to please his clientele. In “Uno,” we finally meet Jimmy McGill, and he is not at all what one might expect.
The Better Call Saul timeline begins in 2002, six years before the events of Breaking Bad begin. That means that in just six years, somehow Jimmy McGill—this earnest, struggling public defender in drab, ill-fitting suits and driving a clunker car with mismatched paint—will somehow become Albuquerque’s most successful criminal lawyer, cruising around town in his white Caddy with the LWYRUP vanity plate.
“Uno” presents us with a man we do not know yet. We get our first look at the man who will be Saul in a courtroom, defending a group of young men who have committed a heinous (if technically victimless) crime. We see that Jimmy, like Saul, is blessed with the gift of gab, but despite his best efforts he is unable to win the case for his clients. In all fairness, these boys very much deserve to be punished, and yet we still root for Jimmy. We also learn that Jimmy is struggling financially, as public defenders are woefully underpaid and overworked.
As Jimmy attempts to leave the courthouse’s parking garage, we are treated to another blast from the Breaking Bad past: Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring’s badass enforcer. However, in 2002, Mike is working as—of all things—a parking attendant. He’s just as curmudgeonly as he always was, but at this stage in the game he’s more concerned with the fact that Jimmy doesn’t have the requisite amount of stickers to cover his parking fees. Seeing Mike in that tiny parking booth never fails to make me laugh and it’s a completely unexpected (and somehow perfect) introduction to Better Call Saul era Mike. Jimmy and Mike do not know each other yet; this is likely their first meeting, but it would appear that the animosity between these characters, which we saw in Breaking Bad, was there from the start.
Jimmy is clearly dissatisfied with the lack of financial rewards from his PD work and is in the process of trying to land a big client of his own: Craig Kettleman, the county treasurer accused of stealing $1.6 million. After attempting to make his practice sound more legit by affecting a Mrs-Doubtfire-esque secretary accent on the phone, Jimmy arranges a meeting with Craig and his wife, Betsy, at a local café. The Kettlemans, Betsy especially, claim total innocence, but Jimmy knows that they stole the money. He doesn’t particularly care whether or not they are guilty; he’s just looking for that big-name client who will finally put him on the legal map in Albuquerque. Betsy is clearly running the show and she’s not sold on Jimmy and so he is unable to get them to sign the letter of engagement.
But Jimmy McGill is nothing if not persistent. When he leaves the Kettlemans he calls from the car to order them flowers but, his financial situation being what it is, his credit card is declined. While on the phone, Jimmy hits a skateboarder in the middle of the street. The “injured” skater, Cal Lindholm, is one of two twins, and his brother Lars had been filming him at the time of the incident. Initially, Jimmy is frantic but he soon realizes that these two are running a scam on him. And how does he know this? Well, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. He manages to scare off Cal and Lars by calling them out on their stunt, but that’s not the last we’ll see of them.
Jimmy returns to his office and we see just exactly how desperate he must be for some income. In contrast to Saul’s storefront office with the blow-up Statue of Liberty and gaudy Constitution wallpaper, Jimmy McGill works out of a storage closet in the back of a nail salon. The proprietor, Mrs. Nguyen, doesn’t seem too keen on Jimmy, but the rest of the ladies seem to find him charming. In his postage-stamp-sized office. Jimmy is discouraged to find he has no voicemail and so he checks his mail: all overdue bills save one thing—a $26,000 check made out to him from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Instead of being ecstatic at this influx of cash, Jimmy tears the check into pieces.
We soon learn why: the McGill of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill is Jimmy’s older brother, Chuck. Chuck is a partner at HHM, the top law firm in Albuquerque, and Jimmy goes to their bright, sparkling offices to have a little chat with Chuck’s fellow partner, Howard Hamlin. It’s clear from the time that Jimmy walks in that he is familiar with all the people at HHM, whom he greets by name, so there’s some history there we are not yet privy to.
Jimmy barges into the conference room, where Howard and a group of other lawyers are having a meeting, and (after a dramatic reenactment of a scene from Network) Jimmy scatters the ripped up check pieces on the table. We learn that the money is not for Jimmy but for Chuck, who—for reasons not yet known—is unable to handle his own finances. Jimmy thinks it’s not enough and that Chuck is entitled to one-third of the company, something in the ballpark of $17 million. Jimmy accuses Howard of making out piecemeal checks to give the illusion that Chuck still works at the firm when, as Jimmy claims, he doesn’t and never will again. Though we don’t yet know what Chuck’s issue is, Howard is of the belief that he will be able to work again after his “extended sabbatical” and accuses Jimmy of putting words in Chuck’s mouth.
Jimmy has a lot of animosity towards Howard, the extent and reasons for which become clear later on in the season. Whatever their history, a new reason for Jimmy to hate Howard pops up on his way out of the building: Craig and Betsy Kettleman arrive at HHM to meet with Howard. Jimmy’s anger and frustration get the best of him down in the parking garage as he kicks the crap out of a garbage can.
Just outside, a blonde woman (who we will soon learn is the indomitable Kim Wexler) is smoking a cigarette against the wall. When Jimmy emerges he wordlessly plucks the cigarette from her mouth and takes a drag, sticking it back in her mouth when he’s finished. This one small gesture says so much even though these two barely say a word during this scene. Kim is not even named until later in the pilot, but there’s a level of intimacy here that is intriguing and leaves the viewer wanting more. In this very brief introduction, we are already hooked on Kim Wexler (and we can tell Jimmy is, too).
In one of the best character introductions I’ve ever seen, we finally meet Chuck McGill. Jimmy arrives at Chuck’s house, which is completely dark from the outside, and goes through an odd series of actions: putting his watch, cell phone, and key fob in the mailbox, and tapping some device outside the door to “ground himself.” We soon learn that Chuck’s condition is (at least, he thinks it is) some sort of reaction to electricity. His entire house is free of any sort of electronic devices. He works by lantern light, on a typewriter, and he relies on Jimmy for everything, as he cannot go outside and be exposed to the electromagnetism of the world around him.
The dynamic between Jimmy and Chuck is fascinating, for even though Chuck is essentially at Jimmy’s mercy and completely reliant on him, he is still the alpha in their relationship. It’s more than just an older brother/younger brother thing; it’s the fact that Chuck—even from the beginning, before we learn more about their history—acts superior to Jimmy. He talks down to Jimmy, albeit gently at first, but it’s there from the beginning: that tiny hint at the tension between them that will ultimately explode and end in tragedy.
Jimmy’s latest attempt to get his brother to cash out of HHM is met with resistance by Chuck, who knows that in order to pay out his share HHM would basically be bankrupted and tons of people (including Jimmy’s “cronies in the mailroom”—hence his familiarity with the HHM staff) would be out of a job. Chuck, like Howard, believes he’s going to get better and is actively seeking out medical treatments for his condition, which he fully believes to be a physical one. It’s clear that Jimmy is not so sure about that but he goes along with it because Chuck is his brother and he loves him (even if he’s a pretentious ass).
Jimmy is desperate, though, and he admits to Chuck that he’s really struggling, and that public defender work just isn’t enough to keep him afloat. Of course Chuck responds by talking about how crucial and important PD work is to the legal system, how Jimmy needs the experience in order to build his business without taking shortcuts, etc., but Jimmy isn’t trying to hear it from him. The fact is that Chuck is broke and (unbeknownst to him) Jimmy has been carrying the full load. Jimmy has reached the point where he can no longer do so and, as a result, he needs Chuck to cash out.
What Jimmy doesn’t know is that Chuck has accepted an $800 a week stipend from HHM, with a check personally delivered to him by Howard. This infuriates Jimmy, who clearly does not want to rely on his nemesis Howard Hamlin for money. They begin to argue about it but when Jimmy makes a sarcastic comment about Chuck going back to work, Michael McKean gives a heartbreaking line delivery when he yells, “I’m going to get better.”
This is the first of many little moments over the course of the series where you feel very deeply for Chuck. McKean’s performance is masterful and he manages, in small ways, to make Chuck not likeable but relatable on an emotional level. There’s a desperation to Chuck that he tries so incredibly hard to mask under his many layers of superiority, elitism, and pretention, but at the end of the day Chuck McGill is a sick man who needs help—a harsh truth that he cannot and will not accept.
Jimmy’s desperation (and also likely his disdain for Howard) leads him to concoct a plan to win the Kettlemans’ business away from HHM. Reenter the skateboarding twins. Jimmy tracks them down at the local skate park and tells them a story of a guy named “Slippin’ Jimmy” who was Chicago’s slip-and-fall expert—the scammer of all scammers. Jimmy’s monologue is all exposition but Jimmy’s backstory is fascinating, Bob Odenkirk’s delivery is flawless, and it brings things full-circle to some extent because Slippin’ Jimmy is much closer to Saul Goodman than Jimmy McGill seems to be.
Jimmy’s plan (which is pretty absurd) involves the twins running the skateboard car accident scam on Betsy Kettleman, having them call “their lawyer” (i.e. Jimmy himself), and then somehow magically convincing Betsy Kettleman he is her savior and that she should hire him. It’s flawed to begin with but all goes to hell when the twins unknowingly run the scam on the wrong car. When the driver doesn’t stop they follow the car to a random house that is most certainly not the Kettlemans’ place. Whose house is it? None other than the grandmother of Breaking Bad psycho Tuco Salamanca. The episode ends on this cliffhanger, which gave the audience another taste of Breaking Bad as well as raised the dramatic stakes, because if Tuco is involved, you know somebody is getting hurt.
Over the course of Better Call Saul’s four seasons to date, there has not been a single episode that has left me unsatisfied. Though things have gotten darker and more dangerous since Tuco popped his head out that door, and when I rewatch season 1 it does seem like such a simpler time, the pilot still stands out as one of the best episodes. A lot of shows’ first seasons are not as good as later seasons because they are still trying to find their legs and figure out who the characters are. With Better Call Saul, they knew from the jump who everyone was—and not just Jimmy and Mike. Everything they presented for the new characters absolutely holds up in a rewatch after having seen later seasons. For this and so many other reasons, Better Call Saul’s “Uno” is an absolutely perfect pilot.