'Better Call Saul' recap: Sleazy lawyer's twisted saga begins

The pilot of 'Better Call Saul' places Bob Odenkirk's sleazy lawyer character in pre-'Breaking Bad' days

In the opening scenes of “Better Call Saul,” the spinoff of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” series, viewers don’t see the familiar harsh desert and azure sky of Albuquerque.

Instead, the pilot episode’s black-and-white images depict snowy Nebraska, where criminal defense attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) hides out following the demise of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his methamphetamine empire.

Saul is the skittish manager of a Cinnabon franchise at an Omaha shopping mall. At home in his small apartment, he watches a VHS tape of cheesy “Better Call Saul” commercials and reminisces about better days.

Before long, Episode 101 (“Uno”) flashes back to the colorful Land of Enchantment. Saul is practicing law under his real name – Jimmy McGill – and won’t cross paths with Walter for six years.

As a struggling public defender, Jimmy shamelessly represents the most despicable of clients, including three teenagers who videotaped themselves as they sexually defiled a severed head.

“Nobody got hurt” when the young men experienced a “momentary, minute, never-to-be-repeated lapse of judgment,” Jimmy fervently tells the appalled jurors. Unmoved by this over-the-top, Al Pacino-style closing argument, the panel votes for conviction.

Adding to Jimmy’s frustration is no-nonsense parking lot attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), a former Philadelphia cop and future drug cartel enforcer. Go back inside the courthouse and get an additional sticker, Mike stubbornly insists, or pay a $3 fee.  

After a long day of aggravation, what is Jimmy’s compensation for his public defender duties? A measly $700 check from an unsympathetic bureaucrat.

Back at his tiny office, Jimmy rips up a check for a much larger sum that was intended to pacify his mentally disturbed older brother Chuck McGill (Michael McKean).

Rather than accept this “penny-ante” payment of $26,000, Jimmy demands that Chuck receive a buyout of $17 million for helping establish the highly successful legal firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill.

Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), a tanned and wealthy law firm partner, isn’t about to comply, however. He maintains that Chuck "is going to lick this thing,” and that his lengthy absence from work is merely “an extended sabbatical.”

Chuck optimistically agrees with Howard about just being away from the office on a temporary basis. And should that enormous payout occur, Chuck gently explains to Jimmy, 126 people would lose their jobs when the firm is liquidated.

Among the casualties would be Jimmy’s close friend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a talented attorney who’s climbing the corporate ladder.

“I might as well head down to skid row and sell plasma,” Jimmy moans to Chuck, lamenting the fact that the two of them are going broke.

But Jimmy’s devious mind soon comes up with a money-making scheme involving two skateboarding con artists (Steven Levine and Daniel Spenser Levine).

“I look at you guys, I see potential,” Jimmy says enthusiastically. He then offers to pay the twin brothers $2,000 if one of them crashes into the windshield of an oncoming car while the other records the “accident” with a video camera.

The intended victim is Betsy Kettleman (Julie Ann Emery). She’s the wife of County Treasurer Craig Kettleman (Jeremy Shamos), who embezzled $1.6 million from taxpayers. Now Jimmy wants a share of the loot by “rescuing” Betsy from the twins and signing on as her attorney.

The scam works much better than Jimmy hoped, he initially believes, when a driver hits one of the brothers and speeds away, thus committing a hit-and-run felony.

“You fell into the honey pot, kids,” Jimmy gleefully exclaims.

But Jimmy’s exuberance will be short-lived. Because the driver isn’t Betsy. And the twins have just been abducted at gunpoint.

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