[Review] - Better Call Saul, Season 2


In which believably developed characters take uncomfortably realistic strides towards destiny.


I was hesitant as this sophomore season of Better Call Saul began. Season one ended, after an episode that I felt didn’t exactly match what had proceeded it, with Jimmy taking a definite and final step towards shredding his old self and embracing the Goodman to come. And almost immediately, season two stepped us and Jimmy back from that finality and certainty. The opening moments of season two even committed a tiny little retcon, going back and adding in details to how season one ended that made it all a little less absolute and a little more abstract. Suddenly, Jimmy was not taking those fateful strides towards Saul, but was instead taking delicate, minuscule steps in that direction. And this makes sense. With season one in the can before it started to air, there was no telling if audiences would embrace the more comedic but just as tragic story of the rise and fall of Jimmy McGill in the same way that they had embraced Walter White. It could have just as easily joined the multitude of spin-offs that floundered on execution and been dismissed as a shadow of continuity. Having season one end with Jimmy embracing those attributes that would lead to Jimmy gave season one a self-containment.

Of course, it went hard the other way. Better Call Saul took the lessons the creative team had learned through Breaking Bad, and managed to create a series that I estimated had a chance at ultimately being an even better series then its predecessor. At the very least, Saul is one of if not the best prequel ever written, managing to find a way to tell its own story without being a slave to the inevitable, while still being respectful to what is to come. Pulling Jimmy back from his absolution was necessary to carry on the narrative. It avoids the problem that every other sequel makes, in that they feel the need to transform the hero into their known form as fast as possible. Better Call Saul has almost no interest in Saul Goodman. Saul is the narrative equivalent of Japan as seen from the California coast: if you head west, you’ll hit it eventually, but there is a hell of a lot of ocean to cover in between. Likewise, Saul is something that exists beyond the horizon. By Jimmy’s declination and orientation, he’s headed that way, and occasionally he catches a good tailwind, but there is still a hell of a lot of ocean still separating them. Adrift with spoilers.

This season also calcified the idea that Better Call Saul is probably the worst title for this series. It puts too much of the focus on Jimmy. The truth is, this is not Jimmy’s story. Bob Odenkirk is not carrying this one himself, not anymore. That might have been the original plan, and the early episodes of season one confirm that. But the writers recognized what they had in the character of Mike, and in the actor Jonathan Banks. This is equal partners the stories of Jimmy and Mike, split straight down the middle. As much as it is the story of Jimmy’s disgrace and temporary rise as a lawyer of ill repute, so too is it the story of how Mike becomes seduced by his own protective nature to becoming the hardened killer and drug cartel wonk we first knew him as. Saul then exists as a state of being, a miasmic failure of personal fortitude and character, a place of desperation where men find themselves when they have nothing left in life but their own self-interest and self-preservation. Saul is the boogeyman, the voice inside their head that makes everything sound like a good idea at the time but ultimately leads them down a path of destruction. Not self-destruction, not yet; we’ve seen that story. This is the story of how well-meaning men forget about being well-meaning.

And it’s the story of the destruction they leave in their wake. As much as season one was about raising them up, this season shifted that perspective. They weren’t rising, the ground around them was falling away. As the season began, both characters were in the clich├ęd “fork in the road” position. They were in a place that, had they chosen one road, they could have lived lives of happy contentment, uneventful and semi-successful. Jimmy would have been the lawyer he always wanted to be, and Mike would have had a quite retirement with his grand-daughter. But these characters always want more. That is the fault of all characters in the Breaking/Saul universe. They are never content. They functionally cannot be. Once they achieve their goal, they move their own goal posts. They create their own obstacles, become their own worst enemies. They live in a constant state of desperation, cleaning up their own messes. Even Mike, who comes the closest to leaving any worry or quarrel behind, insists on reinserting himself into trouble for nothing less than his own perception of honour and justice. After taking blame for the gun, Mike’s story had a legitimate ending. But the defining characteristic of Mike means that he cannot let a threat go unanswered, and cannot let a wrong go unrighted. So, he digs himself right back into the hole he just climbed out of. If I find one fault with this season, which was as near perfect as a TV show can be, it is that Mike’s situation at the end of the season is entirely manufactured. He was out. But because we know where he ends up, he had to be pulled back in. But the writers were too good, they made Mike too good, and he put himself off the board. Their method for getting him back on, while true to character, did have that feeling of necessity rather than development.

Jimmy’s story this season was actually Kim’s story, and we should all be thankful for that. Rhea Seehorn stole this season away from her co-stars, handed fantastic scenes with great development, and paid those scenes respect. Jimmy was less self-serving this season by benefit of everything he did, he did for Kim. Kim was the beginning and end of his entire motivation. In fact, the biggest pushes he took towards becoming Saul were made so that Kim could emerge from her struggles victorious. Not that the show left her the damsel in distress. Perhaps the best episode of this season was Rebecca, in which Kim – suffering for Jimmy’s actions – secures her own success. “You don’t save me,” she says. “I save me.” Not only is that a laudable and infuriatingly scarce sentiment for a female character to invoke, but it is also a mission statement for the show. When Kim acts, positive things happen, and characters thrive. When Jimmy acts, negative things happen, and characters are destroyed. Kim secures Mesa Verde and prospers. Jimmy enacts his elaborate plan to steal their business back on her behalf, and that act now looms over everything, threatening to destroy everyone.

It was also the season in which Chuck became more defined as a character. Last season he existed as enigma, before emerging a villain. This season we delved deeper into his motivation, and realized that he isn’t a villain, he’s an asshole. He’s entirely justified in his position, but he is also an inexcusable asshole. The power and beauty of Vince Gilligan’s shows has proven to be the complexity of character. We sympathized with Walter White, despite the monster he became, not because we rooted for the dark side, but because we understood why he was making the choices he was making. The same is true here. Jimmy is a crook. He’s entertaining, and sympathetic as hell, but he’s still a crook. We can fist bump the air when he pulls off his elaborate ruse against Chuck, and then step back and recognize that he committed a felony. That, in the long run, Jimmy isn’t a good guy. He’s a nice guy, but he isn’t a good guy. Likewise, once we learn of Chuck’s position, of why he loathes Jimmy so much, you cannot but 100% agree with him. Jimmy is a loser and a schmuck and toxic. But Chuck is a dick, just a major league asshole, which is enough that you can’t side with him entirely. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s a rude one. And he’s crazy, and another aspect of Rebecca that really vaults it above the rest is that brief peak into the past that makes Chuck a much more tragic figure. Even without knowing specifics, we know just enough to know that Charles McGill is a man driven by grief more than anything else.

“Tragedy is me getting a paper cut,” Mel Brooks once said. “Comedy is you falling down a manhole and dying.” I can’t for the life of me think of a series that has better exemplified this dichotomy. The show lives in this juxtaposition. We feel, we cry, we sympathize with the little failings that inflict these characters. The lost opportunities, the forced hands, the backs pressed up into corners. Then the shows lobs laughs at us in the form of high absurdity. Pie sitters and Robert Holmes and little girls drilling holes in hoses. This is a show that uses humour as a sharp sword, so sharp that you don’t realize that it’s digging into your kidneys and twisting. It’s high craftsmanship, a well-oiled production of writers and directors and producers who have honed their craft to the point where it’s much more noticeable and noteworthy when they dribble than when they excel. Add to that the sound production team, which might be the best working in the business right now. I don’t usually notice sound. In fact, some might say that good sound production is the kind that doesn’t draw attention. But this show uses sound, rightly and somewhat revolutionarily, as a vital part of set design. Why waste a sense, I can imagine them thinking. If we can play with camera angles, if we can affect the way the audience sees the product, why waste the only other of the senses that makes up television. Use every potential that sound allows. Construct tension and foreshadowing, build whole scenes around the use, disuse and misuse of sound. And it works. It makes the episodes heavy, by which I mean substantial. Like they were raised in a lower gravity environment, and suddenly find themselves with more mass. But making use of sound as a physical force, they add another dimension to the storytelling. This is a true “4-D” experience is.

So I stand by my previous assertion: Better Call Saul is an improvement upon Breaking Bad in every relevant respect. It’s a different species, but it’s in the same genus. It’s the natural evolution of the beast. It’s stronger, smoother, better. Anything that didn’t serve the creature was diluted away, and everything that will help it thrive is accentuated. The pace this season was slower, the plot allowed to play out over the course. There certainly didn’t seem to be a rush to get to anywhere in particular. Unlike in seasonal arcs, there was no real confrontation or revelation that the show was building towards, because the revelation they are building towards is Breaking Bad Season 2, Episode 8: Better Call Saul. That is where this is headed. Everything until we get there gets to be the Japanese sword making of character development. Despite only being 10 episodes long, this season covered enough ground to seem like it lasted four times that long. Watching this show is like eating a full meal; not a greasy, bloated American-sized portion, served in a bucket and covered in a florescent cheese-like substance. This is a hearty, earnest, thick, fresh from the field and slow roasted sort of old-world meal, a prime cut served in the proper proportions.

And once done, all we can do is wait patiently for the next sitting while we digest.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

1 comments :

  1. Great review. I personally don't have a problem with the show's pacing. I'm not in a rush for Jimmy to become Saul. The journey is compelling as it is, watching Jimmy being torn between his impulses as a con man and his desire to be a better man, at first in Chuck's eyes and now in Kim's. And you're right about Chuck. He isn't a villain. He's just an asshole.

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