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While this review of Season 4 avoids most spoilers, it does contain them for Season 3.
As it does every season, AMC’s Better Call Saul opens its fourth season with a black-and-white scene of Gene (Bob Odenkirk, who remains magnificent), the former Saul Goodman that everyone first met on Breaking Bad and the former Jimmy McGill, the character’s real name, whose story is front and center on Better Call Saul.
AIR DATE Aug 06, 2018
But is anything really front and center when you’re a prequel barreling hard into a story that originated your character, and four seasons into it and counting and you’re looking forward with black-and-white glimpses of the future, under another assumed name? Maybe Better Call Saul is not just a prequel to Breaking Bad but a precursor to Gene’s future life and AMC’s future series, Searching for Gene, or something like that (though don’t expect it to be shot in black and white).
There’s always been an existential crisis in Better Call Saul, just as there was in Breaking Bad. It’s just that nobody imagined four seasons ago that the jovial shyster Saul Goodman, who added so much levity to the thoroughly bleak Breaking Bad, would have his origin story as Jimmy McGill told by creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, and would be revealed as an infinitely more heartbroken creature than anyone imagined.
As Better Call Saul illustrated particularly keenly in the first two seasons, in his early days, Jimmy was mostly the ebulliently positive, morally swayable, dumber brother to Chuck (Michael McKean). But Chuck’s resentment of, and disdain for, Jimmy — and seemingly relentless mistreatment of him — eventually tipped the scales and led to the darker days of Season 3, a brilliant unraveling of both men, but more grievously of Chuck, whose suicide ended last season’s finale.
The first two seasons of Saul were very good, building out the pre-Breaking Bad world with a slow, steady recreation of the early days of many familiar characters while introducing new ones; the setting clearly owed a debt to Breaking Bad but achieved its own realness without merely mimicking what had already been done. That ability to stand alone was a tremendous achievement, as Breaking Bad is easily one of the greatest dramas ever made. But Season 3 of Better Call Saul was itself a grand accomplishment, a strong and assured move forward. It doubled down on the trick at the heart of the series — that Saul, the show, wasn’t even mostly funny, but, instead, rarely funny; that Saul, the ethics-challenged character whose amoral shenanigans goosed that character to prominence in the original series, was built on a slow and steady heartbreak inflicted by his own brother, the world at large and an interior weakness of will — which is really one of the most audacious bait-and-switch tactics in TV history.
That’s how great Season 3 was.
As Jimmy McGill moves ever closer to Saul Goodman, the series gets darker instead of lighter. Though AMC only gave three episodes of the new season for review, a good guess (based on the pacing of the series, and a rough estimate of about when the present collides with the future) would conclude that there’s about two more seasons. The end of Season 4 should bring everything together, and then it’s up to writers and executive producers Gould, Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz and Melissa Bernstein to create some magic and brilliance that will unite the two series (and ostensibly everyone’s favorites from Breaking Bad) and then make sense of it all.
Until then, whither Jimmy? Well, now that Chuck is physically dead you can probably expect the emotional fallout from that to ultimately “kill off” Jimmy and birth Saul. That transformation will, undoubtedly, be thorough and bleak as ever. (But there are enough fun cameos to keep things ever so slightly offset.)
It’s probably telling, then, that this season of Better Call Saul opens with The Ink Spots singing their 1940 lament, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me),” with its tortured lyrics of regret and loss: “We three, we’re all alone, living in a memory/My echo, my shadow and me/We three, we’re not a crowd, we’re not even company/My echo, my shadow and me.”
The transmutation of Jimmy to Saul (and don’t forget Gene and his season-starting cameos) is likely to produce the best balance of darkness and humor that the series has mustered, if for nothing else than there’s a gleeful appreciation on the part of the audience for Saul’s shenanigans; their rising occurrence will be amusing while, at the same time, watching the exacting toll it took on Jimmy to get there will be distressing.
Speaking of Gene, there’s definitely a cumulative sense now, after four seasons of his story unfolding, that we’ve seen too much to stop after Jimmy fades into Saul.
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael McKean
Created by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould
Premieres Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. on AMC