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The frequent brilliance of AMC’s Better Call Saul was that it began with a simple question and has, over five seasons, thoughtfully reframed it.
Audiences signed on for the Breaking Bad prequel thinking the series’ question-of-purpose was “Who is Saul Goodman?” and expecting an origin story for the mothership’s generally amusing criminal attorney. I think the revised and repunctuated query, as we begin the dramedy’s penultimate season, is, “What is ‘Saul Goodman’?” Or maybe “What does it mean to be ‘Saul Goodman’?”
AIR DATE Feb 23, 2020
After beginning the show with the idea that Saul Goodman and his wacky hijinks were an almost aspirational goal, Better Call Saul is heading toward an endgame in which “Saul Goodman” is less a man and more a tragic, if not necessarily permanent, destination. “Saul Goodman” has become the embodiment of choices and sacrifices made in the pursuit of artificial success. “Saul Goodman” is a fresh start and a hollow acceptance — S’all good, man! — but he’s also the end condition of selling one’s soul, of having your real identity so thoroughly polluted or corrupted that you require a new one.
It’s on that level that the fifth season of Better Call Saul is very much about Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his arrival as Saul Goodman, a transition we know he will make at least temporarily permanent, but it’s nearly equally about other characters arriving at their own identity crossroads and facing the same “Saul Goodman”-esque choices. That “nearly equally” thing causes problems for some viewers, since the fragmentation of the Better Call Saul narrative has offered challenges for the writers from the beginning. But even if I recognize that there are sometimes vast gaps between the show’s A, B and C storylines, I’m just pleased to have one of TV’s best shows back.
In case you’ve forgotten where everybody left off in their journeys toward a state of “Saul Goodman” last season, a season that concluded back in October 2018, the Peter Gould-scripted premiere does a fine job of reminding you. In short: Jimmy had arrived at Saul. After getting approved to practice law again through perhaps his most epic piece of graft and manipulation yet, he’d announced that he was changing his name to “Saul Goodman,” much to the chagrin of Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who had spent much of the latter half of the fourth season seeking out pro bono cases to atone for her corporate sins, trying to either reinvent herself or at least bifurcate.
The same thing is happening with Michael Mando’s Nacho, split between Tony Dalton’s threatening Lalo Salamanca and Giancarlo Esposito’s terrifyingly chilly Gus and also unable to fully distance himself from the still-hopeful father who wishes he’d go straight. And then there’s Mike (Jonathan Banks), who may have permanently severed ties to his conscience after what he did to Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock) in the last finale. Heck, as the new season begins, even Patrick Fabian’s Howard, not previously given room to be introspective, is having waves of self-doubt.
Fittingly, the character facing the least agita amid the descent into a collective state of “Saul Goodman” is Jimmy. He was, after all, wracked with guilt and remorse for much of last season, laid so low he was literally picking up garbage. His transformation is the most amusing and fun part of the new season, especially when it comes to the myriad garish suits lined up by ace costume designer Jennifer Bryan. Each low-level, colorful criminal who reaches out for Saul Goodman’s legal assistance is accompanied by a different ludicrous tie, bizarre vest or eye-popping blazer. Saul Goodman makes the Joker look like a schlub.
Jimmy also believes the best about his new alter ego. As he puts it, “If you’ve got Goliath on your back, Saul’s the guy with a slingshot. He’s a righter of wrongs. He’s a friend to the friendless. That’s Saul Goodman.”
We know that’s not true. Certain other characters know it’s not true. With two seasons to go in Better Call Saul, maybe the actual plot is whether or not Jimmy comes to recognize what Saul Goodman is, or whether that matters.
The start of a Better Call Saul season is always my favorite, because I love the opportunity to check in on the black-and-white world of Gene from Omaha, the post-Breaking Bad coda for Saul Goodman’s life. This season’s installment, directed by Bronwen Hughes, returning to this world for the first time since the sixth episode of the truncated initial Breaking Bad season, is another winner as Gene’s tension is only increasing, despite his life being perpetually accompanied by deceptively upbeat vintage musical standards. I would watch a full Gene From Omaha episode or movie or whatever Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan wanted to give me. As it stands, “Gene From Omaha” is just another of the pre-credit short films that Better Call Saul does at a higher level than any other show out there.
I also have no hesitation in my full endorsement of every aspect of the show featuring interactions between Jimmy and Kim, my favorite presumably doomed relationship on all of TV. We’re nearing the point at which the annual snubbing of Seehorn by Emmy viewers is my biggest bafflement because Better Call Saul keeps getting nominated for drama series, as it deserves to, and Odenkirk keeps being nominated as lead actor, which he deserves — but if you are a viewer who thinks that the show is compelling and that Jimmy as a character is compelling, I would argue that Seehorn’s tough, funny, sympathetic, occasionally damning interactions with Jimmy are the reason the entire thing holds together.
And a lot of the rest of the show doesn’t always hold together perfectly.
For me, it almost always holds together well enough and that continues in these new episodes. The often overlooked Nacho has reached a point where he’s becoming the connective tissue for the disparate elements of the story. The writers haven’t always known how to position his personal choices and make them sympathetic, but these episodes do, especially as they’ve underlined how Nacho is almost the intersection of Lalo and Gus’ polar personalities.
If anything, this season’s adrift character is actually Mike, and that’s because the character is psychologically adrift and Banks is doing a very committed job of taking Mike to a very dark place, so dark that he’s a bit hard to watch. As sad as it might seem to us now, we know that the state of becoming “Saul Goodman” eventually makes Jimmy into almost a comic caricature. At the moment, Mike’s identity crisis, the “Saul Goodman” that he becomes or is becoming, has him in a miserable hole that we know isn’t exactly where we find him in Breaking Bad.
We only have two seasons left of these end-approaching arcs, as well as the mystery of where several key Better Call Saul characters are in the Breaking Bad timeline, and I look forward to treasuring them as much as I can.
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT, then airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)
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