Better Call Saul
Credit: Warrick Page/AMC

Better Call Saul returns with doom and glory, gorgeous visuals tense with twisted comedy and delicate heart. For Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the AMC drama’s fifth season (premiering Feb. 23) is the best of times and the worst of times. In the increasingly distant past that forms Saul’s present, he’s resurrected his legal career and changed his name. At long last, Saul Goodman patrols the Albuquerque courthouse, rinky-dinking settlements with case-loaded district attorneys. He looks like somebody Dick Tracy would punch: cabernet suit, yellow pocket square, ties loud enough for noise complaints.

He’s building himself up and digging his own grave. Even if you never watched Breaking Bad, you know Jimmy will become Gene Takovic, someone so obviously in hiding that he has glasses and a mustache, like the old variety-store mask. We get another season-opening monochromatic peek forward into the Gene-verse, with the once (and future?) Saul mall-encrusted into perpetual Cinnabon some lonely Omaha winter. I’ve come around to thinking these annual check-ins are Saul’s slow-burn masterstroke, ridiculously microscopic steps toward a final reckoning for a character who has outlived two different TV shows and three lives.

Jimmy, Gene, Saul: What do we call him? Better Call Saul launches its finest season yet by suggesting that the man is shedding his own self, starting his second (or eighth) act as a whole new (fake) person. Saul/Jimmy loads up a few dozen clients on a discount sales pitch, offering 50 percent off for nonviolent felonies. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) doesn’t look too sure about this new leaf he’s turning over, and the mood turns quiet in their apartment. So Jimmy/Saul swings her by an open house in a nice-looking neighborhood. They admire the glass bricks in the bathroom, explore a closet bigger than some tombs. Could this be their new life? And if so, for how long?

Better Call Saul has always been an addictive frustration for me, with so much to love and a couple things I don’t like. Credit co-creator Peter Gould for giving this prequel a new flavor. At Saul’s best, I swear, it is a show about the infinitesimal social comedy of being a lawyer in Albuquerque. The recession hasn’t happened yet, and the New Mexico sun shines bright enough to cast shadows everywhere. Consider Mesa Verde, Kim’s big corporate client: a series-lasting B-plot about the gradual expansion of a local bank into a regional concern. That evolution gets grander and granular in season 5. Mesa Verde breaks ground on a call center in Tucumcari. Legal maneuvers ensue, with wonky real estate bylaws and PowerPoints: the hidden levers of society, moving in strenuous microcosm.

Meanwhile, across town and TV genres, conflict simmers between the Salamanca and Fring criminal empires. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), a great villain for two Bad seasons, enters his third Saul year as The Man Who Waits Patiently For Stuff That Happened On Television In 2011. In the past, I’ve been frustrated by the dissonance: meticulous lawyering here, Gus god-shadowing the underworld there. The crime stuff can feel like an indulgence of the writers’ most fannish instincts — and an obvious attempt to reclaim Bad viewers who never grooved onto three seasons of elder law.

Certain aspects of the new season do suggest the spin-off most Bad fans were expecting. There’s a thrilling set piece that presents the Platonic ideal of Saul Goodman at work. He wheel-deals through attorney-stuffed hallways, negotiating reduced sentences and con-jobbing phony witnesses. Savvy ADA Suzanne (Julie Pearl) nails his game: “You’re looking for turnover. You wanna churn through more clients, make more money.” There’s a lot of exciting turnover in these early episodes, colorful local scuzz contracting a crooked lawyer.

Meanwhile, the drug lord duel has a new energy thanks to Lalo (Tony Dalton), yet another nephew of Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis). Lalo is the wild card Saul needed, a master criminal not on rails toward an expected ending. Dalton imbues his malevolent operator with charming swagger, so that Lalo seems to be gleefully trolling his own show. In the premiere, Gus constructs an elaborate charade to stop Lalo’s ongoing investigation of his operation. “Well, that explains everything!” Lalo responds, tone of voice suggesting that he really appreciates a good lie.

Twelve years into the lead role, Odenkirk keeps finding new shades of goofy charisma and freaky desperation, and the Saulification of Jimmy is a performance within a performance. You can always feel the little man peacocking himself into a big myth. That set piece I mentioned begins with Jimmy (Saul?) outside the courtroom door, repeating the pitch he’s about to try out: “Suzanne, I think we have something in common. Suzanne… I think we have something in common. Suzanne, I think we have something in common.” He’s rehearsing his lines, which is funny. What’s scary is how often these tricks work: He’s a caricature of a lawyer who successfully turns the law into a caricature of order.

And then there’s Kim Wexler, Saul’s most stunning creation, and the character who represents everything unreadable and original about this series as it prepares for a sixth and final season. Other characters in Bad and Saul live on familiar borderlands of morality: easy way or hard way, cook meth for money or stay poor nicely, sin for fun or do good for nothing. Kim’s working overtime to have it all, her bleeding heart juggling Mesa Verde with pro bono cases.

Her internal struggle externalizes unexpectedly. Mesa Verde’s building that call center, but an angry old man won’t leave his old house in the construction zone. Kim tries to follow the rules, and she tries to bend the rules. She honors the wishes of her client, while struggling to assist a person who openly despises her. The decisions she makes are impossible to graph on any clear moral-ethical line. Seehorn is amazing, somehow dreamy and no-nonsense all at once.

Season 5 still feels tangential, juggling placeholder subplots with hysterical continuity. There are Bad cameos that run the gamut from “Whoa!” to “Okay!” to “Did we really need that origin story?” Jonathan Banks is a mournful gruffleupagus for the ages, and I worry his material has been a long stall ever since Mike left the parking garage.

There are surprises ahead for him, though, and you really could watch Banks glower silently at an unopened phone book. I love how Gould turns every tangent into an excavation, revealing ever-weirder corners of the eerie landscape that co-creator Vince Gilligan conjured in Breaking Bad. A couple druggy hedonists run rampant through pleasant suburban streets. Broken bottles aren’t just broken bottles. Someone tosses a cone of mint chocolate chip on the sidewalk, and what happens to that ice cream treat is more memorable than anything I’ve seen recently in the various melodramatic, glossy, high-octane, totally empty money-burns that constitute TV drama circa 2020. And I propose, your honor, that Better Call Saul is just like that proverbial dropped dessert: flavorful, chilling, its colorful sweetness melting and devoured in the unforgiving desert sun. A-

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Better Call Saul

Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own prequel.



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