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The most surprising element in AMC’s wonderful drama Better Call Saul, which returns for its third season on Monday, is not how the sad-sack comic foil Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad came to be, but the humanity that series creators and writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have found in the evolution of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) as they mine the pre-life of Saul.
What Gilligan and Gould have done is take one of the funnier characters in the bleak Breaking Bad world and, instead of spotlighting his ridiculous side, relentlessly focus on the outside forces that took a flawed but well-meaning and empathetic man and battered him into change.
Air date: Apr 10, 2017
Of course the duo followed a similar, parallel track with the original series, famously desiring, in the words of Gilligan, to take “Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” There has never been anything like that process on television before — taking your likeable main character, Walter White (a beaten-down chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer, a pregnant wife and a teenage son with cerebral palsy), and turning him into a sociopath, letting the audience battle its early feelings of love and support for him as they try to process what he has become.
It was, quite simply, audacious.
In Better Call Saul, the entire concept is turning Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, and the aforementioned surprise at how nice Jimmy was and how focused he was on doing the right thing (with what he perceived as a few ethically dubious so-what shortcuts in the name of the greater good) has been absorbing in its slow turns.
As season three kicks off (the first two episodes were sent to critics), what stands out is the quickened pace of Jimmy’s downfall. Now, it may take a full season or more for Gilligan and Gould to get to full-Saul, but the path is clear and, not surprisingly, mostly fueled by Jimmy’s own brother, Chuck (Michael McKean). There are a lot of root causes here. Chuck is the smarter, better lawyer who worked so hard to get where he is. There’s family jealousy. And there undoubtedly are more reasons percolating (the short of it being that Chuck is kind of a jerk).
And while I had issues with the development of Chuck in the first season of Better Call Saul, he was a total revelation in the second, and McKean’s performance was outstanding. There is a scene, at the end of the second episode of this new season, where the actor has never been better, speaking volumes for his character with just a look that Gilligan (who directs the first two episodes) wisely lingers on. The look is crushing and revelatory and spot-on perfect. McKean really needs to be in the Emmy discussion.
Obviously the same is true for Odenkirk, who has in fact been nominated for his fine work but often seems to be in the outlier position that many comic actors find themselves in as they take on (and even nail) more dramatic roles. But at this point, it’s going to be very hard to count Odenkirk out of the serious contender position because the cumulative power of Jimmy’s character shift — the utter sadness and unfairness of it all — is directly rooted in Odenkirk’s ability to convey it so dolefully. Just in these first two episodes of season three, the weight of Jimmy’s eventual turn is all over Odenkirk’s face. It’s truly something to behold, and brings a surprisingly downbeat mood to Saul.
But if the vast improvement evident in season two of this series proved anything, it was that Gilligan and Gould knew enough to build a broader world for the series beyond just Jimmy (who, in fairness, had to dominate the first season). Developing compelling stories, like the backstory of fellow Breaking Bad character Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), was central because it gave Better Call Saul more layers and kept a connection to the grittier side of things that fueled Breaking Bad.
The same can be said for the involvement of Rhea Seehorn as fellow lawyer and Jimmy’s love interest Kim Wexler. As McKean’s Chuck was branching out in season two, so were these others (and, honestly, there was a welcome and surprising inclusion of Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin — one of my favorite underrated performers).
Season three stands to benefit from this growth (add Michael Mando’s Nacho to the group) and will no doubt reach new heights now that AMC and everybody on this series decided to reveal that Giancarlo Esposito was returning as Gus Fring. It was always noted by Gilligan and Gould that Breaking Bad characters would return, some bigger than others, but the decision to really promote the reappearance of Gus and not keep it a secret was smart (though it certainly seems, as they do the reveal in this third season, that they wanted it to be a surprise, which slightly undercuts the actual scene).
The larger point is that, with all this character growth continuing, the already superb Better Call Saul is in a position to take its biggest creative leap yet. It’s not a surprise that we will eventually get to Jimmy McGill becoming Saul Goodman, but it’s certainly surprising just how heartbreaking that transformation has become.
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito
Created by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)
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