9:00am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Why 'Better Call Saul' Is Better Than Ever
It seems like the second season of Better Call Saul only just began and yet the finale is coming up this Monday (April 19). While it's still more episodes than Happy Valley and the same number of episodes as The People v. O.J. Simpson, "10" just doesn't feel like enough.
I've been too busy doing exit interviews and whatnot to write evaluatively about Better Call Saul this season, but this seems like a great place to touch base, as well as to point to an exclusive clip from Monday's finale up above. It appears to follow somewhat directly from the climactic events of this week's penultimate episode, so don't watch it if you haven't seen that episode. Probably don't read this article, either.
When I hear criticisms of Better Call Saul, they usually relate to the show's pacing and the fact that we're nearing the 20th episode of the Breaking Bad prequel and Jimmy McGill remains Jimmy McGill and he's no closer to legally changing his name to "Saul Goodman" than he was when he started, at least if you look at things really superficially.
To me, though, Better Call Saul has unfolded like a Choose Your Own Adventure book from the '80s, where we know going in that the destination is going to be that Bob Odenkirk's ethically flexible Jimmy is going to eventually end up as Saul Goodman, but there was never any rule that said he was going to get there quickly. For each Saul character — frankly, for every good character in every good drama ever written — the series and this season has been about individual choices and paths taken and paths eschewed. Maybe you take the high road here. Maybe you cut a corner there. The destination may not change at all, nor does the slipperiness of the slope, but maybe the incline changes. It's almost like Jimmy McGill has watched Breaking Bad and he doesn't want to become that man, but he also can't stop himself.
He can't stop himself for loving Kim (Rhea Seehorn). He can't stop himself from offering brotherly support to Michael McKean's Chuck, but he also can't stop Chuck from bringing out his baser instincts, from goading him into being his worst self, rather than inspiring him to be his best self. It's interesting that when Better Call Saul was first announced, it was going to be a comedy, but the show as delivered by masterminds Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould has been closer to a tragicomedy. Never has that been more true than in the relationship between Jimmy and Kim, which has elevated this season just as Seehorn's less-is-more acting approach has elevated her every well-selected appearance. The first season it was possible not to invest in this pairing, but as they've become entangled with both legitimate business and flirtatious cons, I've become more and more terrified that their sweetness is leading to either misery or eventual happy corruption and I don't know which would be worse.
The thing about choices is they have consequences and the antepenultimate and penultimate episodes marvelously paralleled Jimmy and also perpetually forlorn Mike getting clever and not pausing to think of blowback. Jimmy just wanted to recover a big client for Kim and perpetrated an act of heist-esque sabotage on his own brother. And it worked, except that Chuck was too smart and the spiral hit its bottom, literally, with Chuck having a spell and bashing his head while investigating Jimmy's fraud at a copy shop fraught with the threatening crackle of florescent lights. Mike, meanwhile, planned a perfect heist to take down a single Hector Salamanca drug shipment. He planned it out both carefully and with the light amusement of his granddaughter's contribution, hoping to get away with money and have the Salamanca empire run afoul of the law, hurting no innocents. Instead, the driver Mike hijacked was found by a good Samaritan who went to Hector and not the law, leading to a bullet in the head and a body on Mike's conscience. Every romantic moment with Jimmy and Kim, every bonding scene with Mike and Kaylee, they're all just knives ready to twist, because these are character dynamics we know either won't exist or will be changed by the time Breaking Bad arrives.
And make no mistake, even if Jimmy hasn't become Saul as fast as some fans have wanted, the Breaking Bad world is coming. This season has seen Tuco and Hector Salamanca play major roles and has introduced the eventually important resonance of Ice Station Zebra, in addition to a dozen other variably smaller nods. I haven't seen Monday's finale yet, but additional references sure wouldn't surprise me.
The second season has cemented Better Call Saul's position as one of TV's best-directed shows, whether you're talking about showy set-pieces like the black-and-white season opener or the various ballyhooed extended oners, or the ever-expanding mastery of the New Mexico environs, beautifully shot by DP Arthur Albert. And while Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks have done more than enough to repeat their Emmy nominations from last year, Seehorn and McKean definitely should be joining them. Maybe Better Call Saul hasn't had some wild acceleration in plotting or high tension drama this season, but it has continued to tighten the screws on these flawed characters and it has only grown more confident with a tone that is one of TV's trickiest, balancing humor, sadness and nostalgia for one of the most successful shows in TV history.
Stay tuned for more Better Call Saul coverage after next week's finale and check out the exclusive clip above.