Breaking Bad was one the high-water marks of this modern Golden Age of Television, an intense mixture of pulpy crime drama mixed with top notch visual storytelling. With few exceptions, it was the last time that television felt like a true event. The events of each Sunday’s episode dominated the water cooler chatter on Monday, and those that missed out covered their ears screaming “la la la!” hoping to avoid even the tiniest of spoilers. As happens with wildly popular television shows, the spinoff wasn’t far away. Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman would be the subject of his own series, Better Call Saul, which despite many returning members of the cast and crew left some people (including myself) feeling somewhat apprehensive due to the fact that rarely does a television spinoff live up to its predecessor. The excellence of Better Call Saul wasn’t really a surprise as much a welcome relief. The show created by Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan doesn’t have the same cutthroat tension of Breaking Bad but is just as excellently acted and crafted as its roots, and may very well be the better all-around show.
The first season focused on Saul Goodman before he was the famed criminal lawyer for Walter White, just a low level lawyer working under his given name of James or Jimmy McGill. We’re privy to his struggles as a public defender, the sibling rivalry with his successful and respected attorney brother Charles (Michael McKean), his odd relationship with the grizzled parking lot attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the on-again off-again relationship with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), whom he has worked with at his brother’s law firm many years ago, and his own personal history as a grifter. Incredible depth is given to the inner working of the mind of Jimmy McGill and the pieces are in place to explain how his attempts to be an honest man of the law are undermined by his own ego and entitlement, providing a fascinating mirror image to the same characteristics that drove Walter White.
In its second season, Better Call Saul follows Jimmy McGill as finds the greatest success of his professional career. Having found a culture of financial malfeasance in a chain of nursing homes put the ethically challenged Jimmy McGill on the map. Despite having been rejected for work from his brother’s prestigious firm of Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, he’s hired at the law offices of Davis & Main, headed by Clifford Main (Ed Begley, Jr.). At first, Jimmy rejects the offer only to accept when he believes that accepting the job will aid his relationship with Kim Wexler. Hard as tries to dive into the earnest work of a prestigious law firm, it soon become apparent that the style of David & Main will cramp the style of Jimmy McGill, as evidenced by their shocked reaction when he runs a provocative TV ad without the consent of his superiors. This drives Jimmy to don the outlandish suits that became a trademark of Saul Goodman and engaging in other unflattering behavior in order to get fired so he can secure the severance pay in his contract to start his own independent firm.
Meanwhile, Mike Ehrmantraut is finding himself deeper and deeper in the seedy underbelly of Albuquerque. Mike rarely crosses paths with Jimmy McGill this season, though Jimmy does provide a few legal favors to Mike. The former Philadelphia cop finds himself on the other side of the law because of his determination to provide for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Mike is also the character that has the interactions with most of the memorable characters from Breaking Bad, trading blows with Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) and getting entangled in match of wits with Tuco’s uncle Hector (Mark Margolis). There’s also the tenuous agreement, an honor amongst thieves, between Mike and Nacho (Michael Mando), which provides the series with much of its violent tension.
With all the personal turmoil of Jimmy’s professional life and Mike’s further travails into the criminal underworld, the most fascinating aspect of Better Call Saul’s second season is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. She knows that Jimmy is of questionable morals in his professional life yet still finds a kindred spirit in the conflicted lawyer. One episode involves the two drunkenly taking up aliases in order to grift an investment banker into paying for their expensive tequila shots that evening. Kim has an appetite for the grift like Jimmy, though she has her limits and her own career to look out for. The season concludes with the two setting up a separate but equal partnership in their own law firm, one that Jimmy treads in immoral waters to nourish and one that could lead to all sorts of unraveling as the season finale’s cliffhanger episode suggests. Herein lies one of the most honest love stories in all of filmed media, with a flawed man trying desperately to retain the affection of the woman he loves and a woman that accepts her lover with all of his faults. There’s a mutual push and pull between these two characters, and they each find themselves flirting with the breaking point. It remains to be seen if and when Jimmy will reach that point, but it’s not hard to imagine that the very breaking point may not be off too far away.
Special features on the 3-disc set include a gag reel, audio commentary for every episode, a fascinating chat between Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn about the complicated relationship between Jimmy and Kim, a featurette examining the production design of the rustic-themed offices of Davis & Main, and finally an interesting conversation between Jonathan Banks and Mike Margolis, where the two veteran actors recount stories of their decades of acting, ranging from the struggles to the triumphs of their careers. As a nice little bonus, there are also the television ads that Jimmy haphazardly constructs, which are a perfect spoof of countless daytime ads for class action lawsuits.
Even though we all know how Better Call Saul ends – with Jimmy McGill morphing into Saul Goodman before finally settling in as the manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha – it’s the journey that makes it such compelling television. Sure, it doesn’t feature the violent tension of Breaking Bad, but Better Call Saul is crafted with just the same level of care, and with a bit more humor. Better Call Saul is a character study much like Breaking Bad, the story of man driven by resentment and entitlement. Like Walter White, Jimmy McGill sheds the façade of decency and embraces the alter ego he has crafted for himself, shunning morality for profit. With Season 3 on the horizon, Better Call Saul is just getting started.
Better Call Saul
The rarest of series — a prequel of astounding quality, Better Call Saul may not have the high tension drama of Breaking Bad but is just as good, if not better, due to its fascinating character study of the transformation of Jimmy McGill as he becomes Saul Goodman, an evolution that very much mirrors that of Walter White into Heisenberg.