Jimmy McGill continues his tragi-comic slouch to legal hustler Saul Goodman in the second season of Better Call Saul, and the Breaking Bad prequel continues a steady ascent to singular greatness. If last year was about Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) accepting with clarity and grace his slippery grifter orientation as his authentic self, this year seems to be about deciding how to best manage it — or not.
The opening two episodes present the floppily-coiffed bogus barrister as a relapsed addict, a reckless thrill-seeker, or a (con) artist figuring out his medium, sometimes all at once. “Are you still morally flexible?” asks tollbooth attendant and underworld fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), phoning him with a job. It’s a call to heroic adventure, a devilish temptation, and an opportunity for catharsis. The rewards: fortune, fulfillment, some feeling of victory in his cold war with his more accomplished yet strangely afflicted big brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who last season helped catalyze Jimmy’s current spiral with a betrayal and a damning judgment. Where Jimmy once chased Chuck’s affirmation, for better and worse, he now petulantly runs away from it, also for better and worse. Indeed, Jimmy’s evolution toward Saul has reached an adolescent stage. Here in season 2, he’s temperamental and easily triggered, testing identity and testing limits. At risk: a future with friend, colleague, and would-be lover, Kim (Rhea Seehorn). At one point, she makes a condition on their relationship by drawing a moral line with him. He agrees not to cross it. Yeah, right. Destiny beckons like the Statue of Liberty inflatable that’ll grace Saul’s strip mall HQ, a siren wooing him to the rocks.
For anyone who’s eager to see Jimmy doing dirty deeds full time, all the time, patience is still required. There are set-piece scams and they’re quite fun – brace yourself for the “cobbler squat” – but they’re also modest in scale. While engrossing, the pace is deliberate, and while telegraphing nothing, the storytelling suggests a slow-build season of escalating tension. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould seem intent on making Better Call Saul more of a darkly comic character study than darkly comic crime drama. This ambition gives the show unique identity and great meaning: Jimmy’s slow-mo car crash morph makes for a more contemplative meditation on what it means to break bad. I’m all-in. At a time when too many shows are tying to please with scale or busyness, Better Call Saul impresses by digging deeper with fewer characters, allowing scenes to stretch and breathe. The producers demonstrate endless imagination for this incremental transformation, and Odenkirk is clearly energized by the complexity of his character and supremely skilled at making him worthy of our empathy. Whether spinning lies to a mark or turning wheels in his head, he makes every minute with Jimmy a poignant spectacle.
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Together, Better Call Saul’s writers, directors, and cast give us a rich collection of inventive, wonderfully crafted scenes layered with significance. This was true in season 1, but the images and metaphor-making feels less forced and more casually discovered this year. One of the premiere’s best moments finds Jimmy deciding whether or not to turn on a light switch. There’s a bit more to this than what I’m saying (spoilers, you know), but not much more, and it’s a very small thing – seriously, the stakes couldn’t be smaller – yet it feels huge, too, because of what the action of flipping this particular switch represents to Jimmy. The road to his Pauline conversion to Saul is, for now, a slippery slope traveled by inches. Every single one of them matters – even a switch; even a “cobbler squat” — and Gilligan & Gould & Odenkirk & Co. make all of them count and pleasurable, too.
Innocuous choices precipitating muddy, shaping consequences play out in another storyline, this one belonging to Better Call Saul’s other star attraction, Mike. His current client, Pryce (Mark Proksch), an upstart drug supplier compromised by a want for signifiers of status and sentimental attachments, makes a silly lifestyle choice that strangely provokes his top client, Nacho (Michael Mando), an ambitious young underworld buck who’s working behind his boss’ back. The mess-making immaturity of these wannabes mirrors Jimmy’s messy coming-of-age, while Mike’s de facto, custodial parenting mirrors Chuck’s worrisome management of Jimmy. The situation, which ultimately draws in Jimmy, struck me as a thematic skeleton key and the unassuming start to a chain of events with major ramifications.
Better Call Saul’s natural skew toward Jimmy means Mike doesn’t have much screen time, which kinda blows, because Banks is such an assert, and because a tiny part of me that wants Better Call Saul to be pure Breaking Bad fan service wishes it could find ways to bring Jimmy and Mike together more often. (FWIW, those with encyclopedic knowledge of Breaking Bad will be rewarded with some cleverly played, deep cut references in the first two hours.) At the same time, I recognize that Mike’s beats are even more powerful because of his spare, select usage, and this season more than the first, or perhaps because of the first, I trust Gillian and Gould with what they’re doing and where they’re going.
And where might that be? Perhaps the premiere’s opening sequence provides a clue. It certainly sums so much of the series and how it entertains so successfully despite the built-in challenge of its premise. Read no further if you don’t want to be spoiled any more than you have. Season 2 begins as season 1 did, with another black and white flash-forward to Jimmy’s/Saul’s drab future as Gene, manager of a shopping mall Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, hiding out from a past that once gave him wild life and now wants him dead. We watch him take out the trash – a difficult bit of business thanks to an auto-locking door that, like many of the show’s characters, won’t heed as it should. But that isn’t Gene. Not any more. Trapped in the garbage room, Gene has a fast, cheap and easy way out, but it means breaking the law. Where the Jimmy of old wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation, the Gene of now is wired to pursue caution to a fault. Or is he? As waits for deliverance, Gene scratches something in the wall. Now, as ever, our “hero” can’t resist trying to leave a mark on the world. The camera slowly zooms in to show us what Gene left behind. It’s not hard to guess, but what’s surprising is how the suspicion is confirmed. For just as we settle into the deliberate pace of the approach, the camera suddenly takes to the wall with a cut and we see it clearly: “S.G. was here.” Such is the mesmerizing fatalism of Better Call Saul. We know the destination; the only mystery is the journey. And as if often the case with character transformation, I suspect the rate of change will appear slow, then finish with a flurry, the gradually accumulating factors producing punctuated equilibrium, an evolutionary leap. And while the show’s boundless creativity suggests it might have years of story left to tell in Jimmy McGill’s movement toward a new identity, I wonder if this one will end by showing us how Saul Goodman came to acquire that name. A-
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