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TV Series Structure: Better Call Saul S01E01

Initially, Better Call Saul was going to be a comedy spin-off for Breaking Bad fans. Then, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould claimed they were going to do something entirely different and new. Breaking genre.

After only the first episode, it transpired that Gilligan & Gould came up with something that is tonally very close to Breaking Bad. It also means that the plot plays a much bigger role than originally anticipated. Smart move, as it essentially gives the viewers what they have been lacking since the Breaking Bad finale.

The fans can only applaud it. And with an IMDb rating of 9.3, it seems to be working.

Structurally, Better Call Saul follows very much the one hour drama clock as we are used to from Breaking Bad, with an opening teaser, and act breaks roughly around the 15-30-45mins marks.

[box type=”alert” size=”large” style=”rounded”]We Spoil Everything -You Are Warned[/box]Act One

00.00  B/W Nebraska – Montage over The Inkspots Address Unknown – Saul is ‘Gene’, donut manager.
01.50  Customer looks at Saul with suspicion, Saul freaks out… False alarm.

Bob Odenkirk as Saul, in Better Call Saul
02.50 Saul at home in his townhouse, drinking Drambuie and watching TV, depressed.
04.15 Closing blinds, opening mysterious box with old photos and passport, he finds a VHS tape.
05.15 He watches the old “Better Call Saul” ads, back to back. They reflect in color in his classes.

06.00 Better Call Saul – Titles

06.12  Flashback – An Albuquerque court is waiting, until the judge gives the guard a sign.
07.35  The guard finds Jimmy McGill (Saul) at the men’s, rehearsing his plea.
08.10  Jimmy enters the courtroom, defends three boys to a jury.
10.35  Prosecution plays a tape showing the boys desecrating a corpse.
12.15  Jimmy complains about his $700 cheque, 1 fee for 3 clients PD work.

Bob Odenkirk as Saul, in Better Call Saul

12.55  At the carpark, Jimmy gets a call confirming a meeting with the Kettlemans for 4pm.
14.00  He doesn’t have enough stickers, won’t pay $3. Carpark attendant (Mike) sends him back.

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The first act of the pilot episode of Better Call Saul sets up a number of things. The opening montage is slow, and serious. This is not going to be a straight-up comedy.

Structurally important is the fact that the show opens in the present day, Nebraska. We see Saul in Omaha where Breaking Bad left him. To me, this is a signal that the show may also end here, after however many seasons it will last. Gilligan and Gould know that the most satisfying ending to Better Call Saul should add something to Saul’s current situation. After all, we don’t want to see a characters that we like end in the same depressed state it opened. So my bet is that the final episodes of the final season of Saul will come back to the present day with some surprises.

Some people found the opening to the first episode of Better Call Saul slow. Of course it is. Montages are rarely dramatic, and the courtroom scene adds to the notion that this show will build gradually. At this stage I give them the benefit of the doubt. Gilligan and Gould know what they are doing.

In terms of tone, the creators couldn’t be clearer: this is going to be very dark. When we learn that the boys desecrated a corpse’s head, it is at the same time shocking and comedic, in the light of Jimmy’s plea for the boys, which went just before.

The Kettlemans’ call is the first important plot setup, which will run throughout this episode. Later it will fork into two separate plots: the Deal (that doesn’t happen) and the Scam (which goes wrong).

Gilligan knows his hero’s journey, as we have seen over and over again in Breaking Bad. At the end of the first act of this episode of Better Call Saul, we have a clear Crossing the Threshold scene, where Jimmy wants to leave by car, but a Threshold Guardian (Mike) won’t let him.

Interesting to note, is the absence of a series Inciting Incident. In Breaking Bad, Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer, which triggers the decision that sets up the series concept. It turned White into Heisenberg. Here, no major event seems to be turning Jimmy into Saul. Because this is a prequel, we are waiting for this moment – or process. It is a important part of our anticipation.

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Act Two

15.20  Jimmy’s sales pitch to the Kettlemans fails. Betsy wants to “sleep on it.” She clearly wears the pants.
18.25  Driving, Jimmy hits a skateboarder. Saul sees the scam, identifies as a lawyer, and the boys run.
21.00  The manageress at the nail salon berates Jimmy over defending the teenage boys.
22.00  At his office, Jimmy finds  messages and only bills. Bills. He rips up a cheque for $26K from law firm HHM.
23.35  At the HHM offices, Jimmy claims they have to buy out Chuck for $17m. Nemesis Howard Hamlin refuses.

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28.30  When Jimmy sees the Kettlemans at HHM, he is fuming. He kicks a rubbish bin and smokes a cigaret with Kim.

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While the first act of Better Call Saul didn’t have many character introductions, in Act Two we see quite a few characters that will come back later in this episode, and season.  Jimmy meets with the Kettlemans, the skater brothers, his nemesis Howard Hamlin, shapeshifter Kim Wexler, and somewhere in between also the manageress of the nail salon where he has his office.

This act is richer in setups. The skaters kickstart the scam plot that will run across into the next episode, and the Kettlemans will become part of quite a few plotlines. Another subplot is linked to Howard Hamlin, who has obviously been a player in Jimmy’s past, and is unlikely to go away soon. The setup for this happens when Jimmy receives a $26K cheque in the mail – and rips it up.

From Jimmy’s interaction with Kim in the basement, we may safely assume that these two have a history. More anticipation!

We have also heard the name Chuck, so our interest is piqued as to who this character might be. Probably important, within the Better Call Saul universe.

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Act Three

30.30  Jimmy leaves his electronics in Chuck’s mailbox, tops up ice in the eski, then tells Chuck to cash out.
33.30  Chuck: “I’m gonna beat this.” Jimmy admits he is going under himself, complains about PD work.
37.25  As Chuck wants to help, Jimmy apologizes. But he is annoyed when Chuck defends Hamlin’s actions.
40.00  With ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’ as inspiration, he makes the skaters a proposal: take home $2.000 in one hit.
43.11  Jimmy briefs the skaters for the setup on Betsy’s car.

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We enter the Cave. In a scene that lasts 6.30mins, Jimmy visits his brother Chuck, who clearly has some issues.

The dynamics of the dialogue change, as initially it seems Jimmy wants to help Chuck, but later it appears Chuck is more stable and has been helping him all along.

The scene is mythical: the inscrutable darkness, the stripping bare of technology, Jimmy’s first show of honesty. Here is where Jimmy meets his demons, where he can’t hide, and where he returns to his own self. A strong contrast to the Jimmy we see in the outside world… The screen time of this scene indicates this will be the main inner journey story line for Better Call Saul.

After this scene, Jimmy returns with the ‘reward’. He has an idea that might help him to some quick and easy money. He briefs the skater boys, and plants in our minds the action we can expect in Act Four.

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Act Four

45.30  It is on. Jimmy gives the boys 2 mins warning. They launch into it successfully, but the car drives off.
47.45  Jimmy is rehearsing his part when the boys call, and report the hit and run. They’re following the car.
49.25  We crosscut as Jimmy’s car first won’t start / the driver of the hit car is a Mexican woman. “Mijo!”
51.00  While Jimmy drives, trying to find them, he rehearses his negotiation/threat. Finally finds them.
51.40  He knocks on the door. A gun appears. He is pulled into the house. By Tuco Salamanca…

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The action is on, as it befits the final act to any dramatic narrative. True to the Hero’s Journey, there must be a chase/escape/drive/run to open the act. Here, it runs through pretty much most of it.

The entire act is really only payoff to the scam plot, so all the other plotlines will continue in the next episode(s).

The final image of this Better Call Saul episode provides a strong hook to its second episode, as well as a second reward (the first was Mike) for the Breaking Bad addicts.

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We are about halfway the first season when I write this, and I am still enjoying the series. Are you?

Let us know in the comments what you think about this much anticipated prequel!

-Karel Segers

 

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

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