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Better Call Saul's brilliant first episode, explained in 9 shots

Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) will be known as Saul Goodman someday. But not today.
Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) will be known as Saul Goodman someday. But not today.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the most notable things about Better Call Saul, which aired its first episode Sunday, February 8, is how beautiful it is.

That's not really a surprise. It is, after all, the spinoff of Breaking Bad, which is one of the best-looking TV shows of all time. What's different about it, though, is this show has to deal with the sorts of urban landscapes and bureaucratic hellholes Breaking Bad could escape as a matter of course.

The former show frequently headed out into the deserts of New Mexico (where both shows are filmed). But Better Call Saul — which is about lawyers — can't make excuses to break out of Albuquerque nearly as often. It has to find its beauty in the humdrum and the mundane.

Fortunately, series co-creator Vince Gilligan, who directed the pilot, is up to the challenge.

Here are the nine best images from the show's first episode.

1) A color TV reflected off black-and-white glasses

One of the least well-kept secrets about Better Call Saul is that its opening moments take place post-Breaking Bad, in a world where lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has fallen from grace and had to change his identity to go into hiding.

This opening sequence charts a typical day for the new Saul, who works at a Cinnabon. The sequence is in black and white, perhaps as a wink and a nudge to Odenkirk's work in the film Nebraska, which was also devoid of color. But then, at the very end, there's a brief flash of color, as Saul watches old ads of his Albuquerque days. That color is only reflected in his glasses, however. The allure of the bad old past is always there, always tempting.

2) Jimmy McGill prepares for trial

Then we're catapulted into the past, when Saul's name is Jimmy McGill and he's doing lousy public defender work that pays poorly.

Here, we see him preparing for trial, gesticulating wildly to a set of urinals. His shadow looms large, but the man himself is a far cry from the ambulance chaser we'll meet when Saul Goodman first appears on Breaking Bad. It's a great introduction.

3) Jimmy hits a kid — or does he?

In many ways, the pilot of Better Call Saul has thematic and visual resonances with the pilot of Breaking Bad. Both go out of their way to throw random obstacles at the protagonists, and both attempt to minimize said protagonists within the frame, to show how much life has beaten them down.

But if Walter White is thrown by an unexpected diagnosis, Jimmy has something literally thrown at him, in the form of a skateboarder who throws himself in the path of Jimmy's car, in an attempt to scam him out of $500. It won't work, but it will start Jimmy scheming.

4) Jimmy in prison

Here's another view of how imprisoned Jimmy is, as Gilligan uses an overhead shot of the lawyer in his office (tucked away in the back of a nail salon) to suggest that Jimmy is literally behind bars. The lines running between ceiling tiles become a kind of jail cell. It's a nifty effect.

5) An homage to Network

Both Jimmy and Walter have resonances with one of the great, frustrated protagonists of film: Network's Howard Beale. The news anchor was famously "mad as hell," and he wasn't going to take it anymore. And those words could apply to Jimmy and Walter as well.

That's never more apparent than in this scene, which is a direct reference right down to the camera angle, to the scene from Network, in which a character played by Ned Beatty rips into Howard for what he's done.

6) Faces half in shadow

Pay attention to how often in this episode Gilligan frames characters so their faces are half in shadow and half in light. This is often a way to visually indicate moral conflict – someone who's trapped between the better angels of their nature and their own worst impulses. Gilligan traps literally every character in this fashion at some point in the pilot.

We're used to seeing this divide between light and dark on the vertical axis. But Gilligan also does it frequently on the horizontal axis, as in this scene where Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) hang out in the parking garage beneath her law offices, smoking a cigarette. The shadow seems to be swallowing them whole here. That might end up being appropriate.

7) More shadows in a nighttime meeting

Here, Jimmy meets with Chuck McGill (the sterling Michael McKean) in the middle of the night, trying to talk him into cashing out of the law firm he helped found. (That firm is also the one Kim works for.) Chuck is resistant, but he's also serving as a kind of angel on Jimmy's shoulder, telling him how important his public defender work is, how much good he's doing for people who have nowhere else to turn.

And yet both Jimmy and Chuck are swathed half in shadow here. They're both tempted, and either or both could turn toward the wrong path.

8) The Sermon on the Mount

Here, Jimmy gives his origin story to the two skateboarders who tried to scam him. He turns out to have been a small-time con artist named "Slippin' Jimmy" back when he lived in Chicago, and he knows about running a good scam. Thus, he imparts his wisdom to the two brothers.

I love the resonance of the brothers with Jimmy, but I also love the way Gilligan chooses to perch Jimmy atop a hill at the skate park. It has visual echoes of the Biblical Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his followers how to live. Jimmy is doing the same — but he's advocating a much less virtuous path.

9) The gun

Jimmy's plot to scam the Kettlemans into bringing him on as their legal counsel (when they're suspected of embezzling from the county) inadvertently leads to him encountering violent criminal Tuco (a Breaking Bad carryover). At first blush, that might all seem like one coincidence too far, even in a universe that runs on coincidence.

But the more I sit with this, the more I like it. The Breaking Bad universe has some sort of higher power that warns and directs the characters, that they might not fall into evil. Thus, Jimmy's choice to do one tiny bad thing — running the skateboarding scam on the Kettlemans — is greeted with a gun in the face and the arrival of Tuco.

If Jimmy stays on the straight and narrow, he never meets the criminal element that will introduce him to Walter and eventually leave his life in ruin. But the path of wrongdoing is so much more convenient, isn't it? Tuco putting his gun in Jimmy's face is the announcement that he can't escape what's coming. Nobody can.