What Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk accomplished last season with the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul can’t be undersold. They followed one of the top five dramas ever created for television with a spinoff that actually worked, for the most part, and didn’t crash and burn in disappointment and ill-advised nostalgia or cash-grabbing.
When it concluded, the first season of the AMC show was, all told, very strong. It wasn’t close to Breaking Bad, but considering it could have been closer to, well, pick any failed spinoff best forgotten, that was a magnificent achievement. As it returns for its second season on Monday, Saul’s challenges are perhaps more stark than they were as the first season found its way.
For starters, this is a series built around a character that most people loved from Breaking Bad and who, in this prequel, is almost nothing like that beloved character. That’s a nifty and difficult conceit to pull off.
The essence of Better Call Saul is to tell the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman — the morally challenged lawyer and money-mover from Breaking Bad, who ended his run on the lam, bereft of everything, fearing for his life and working at a Cinnabon. Saul Goodman was one of many epic characters from Breaking Bad, but ultimately he was the chosen one — that Gould and Gilligan believed still had stories to tell. And to do that, they set out detailing the transformation from someone who is basically a very good guy (though a bit of a sad sack and perhaps lacking an elite intelligence) into the slick huckster viewers came to adore and root for in Breaking Bad.
The trouble is, Jimmy McGill isn’t nearly as interesting as Saul Goodman. And that’s going to be a problem until he actually becomes Saul Goodman, or very near it. And once that happens, theoretically given the timeline, you’re at the end of Better Call Saul and back at the beginning of Breaking Bad.
More specifically, Jimmy is a lovable loser whose pledge to be a better person and lawyer was driven by his admiration for his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who ultimately sabotaged Jimmy at the end of season one — a heartbreaking and dramatically interesting twist that gave a little oomph to a season that didn’t have enough of it. By the end of the season, the writers were also finally making better use of McKean as Chuck, a character suffering from “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” of dubious origin. For most of the season, Chuck felt like an underdeveloped character and McKean, a wonderful actor, was left with not enough time or story to dig into. However, the final couple of episodes helped give him more to work with.
However, the conclusion of season one proved that Saul was a show still finding its way, as good and funny and smart as it was along that way. Odenkirk was a standout who cemented his burgeoning reputation as a dramatic actor. Helping give some additional gravitas to the series was Breaking Bad character Mike Ehrmantraut, played superbly by Jonathan Banks. Beyond those two, however, were a string of characters that took a long time to blossom and who, in fact, ended the season not fully formed.
That’s why season two is so important — and it appears that Gould and Gilligan will be accelerating Jimmy’s transformation into Saul. That’s welcome news, even if it brings up issues about exactly how fast that will happen and how much timeline the series will have to play with. Still, it’s an essential development, because regardless of how good Odenkirk is as Jimmy, there’s this soul-sunk melancholy to the character that is 180 degrees from the good-time ridiculousness of Saul. The 10-episode first season marinated in much of that melancholy of underachieving Jimmy, never living up to the higher demands (and eventual jealousy) of older Chuck.
AMC has offered up just two episodes from season two for critics, and those two new hours are essentially more of the same — which is good and bad.
Good because it’s as funny and sweet and prickly as what viewers got in season one, with continued standout performances by Odenkirk and Banks, and a very welcome initial broadening of both McKean’s role as Chuck (there’s not enough of him in the first two episodes, but the clear message viewers get when he does arrive is that he’s perhaps more twisted and full of spite than previously imagined) and Rhea Seehorn’s role as Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s girlfriend. Yet, bad because there’s also more of the same, as Jimmy struggles to stay on the straight-and-narrow and how that struggle tears at him.
At some point, sequels reveal that the brilliance of the original is hard to duplicate. Evidence of that exists at AMC already with Fear the Walking Dead, which has yet to be as compelling as The Walking Dead, despite their close relationship. Breaking Bad was urgently compelling, and while Better Call Saul is very good, it isn’t fueled by the same kind of life-and-death stakes of its predecessor. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire was an excellent drama that, for many reasons, lacked an urgency to it (as it competed against shows like Breaking Bad). That didn’t make Boardwalk Empire less excellent — but truly “great” series are often the ones you need to watch immediately.
If the demerit of Better Call Saul is that it’s not as adrenaline-fueled and tenaciously brilliant as Breaking Bad was, well, few shows are. The question in season two will be whether it catches fire a little more quickly as the story unfolds.
One hold-up issue: It’s debatable whether Better Call Saul has adequately explained what’s tearing at Jimmy. Yes, he loves the con game (short and long). He loves manipulating people — mean people more than rubes, of course, which keeps him likeable. Maybe the con and the hustle make him feel more creative and alive than lawyering. And yet, as season one (and the beginning of season two) posit, Jimmy is actually a pretty good lawyer despite not having Chuck’s pedigree. He’s not stupid, plus people like him and he could certainly find a way to be successful as a lawyer without selling out to the big firm.
Why give it all up and become what we know he’ll become — the morally bankrupt Saul Goodman? Is it really all because his petty brother made his life miserable in law, constantly calling up his lack of education and talent and overshadowing him in the process? Unfortunately, two episodes are not enough to definitively glean that, but it’s looking that way.
The question going forward for the series’ future then is: How much of this downward, slightly depressing trajectory will be doled out to viewers? How long until Jimmy becomes Saul, everybody’s favorite? And, perhaps more importantly, is this backstory in the prequel going to make viewers feel sorry for Jimmy’s lot in life and thus — when he eventually morphs into Saul — less giddy about that transformation?
Studio: Sony Pictures
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando
Creator: Vince Gilligan
Showrunners: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.