You can call Better Call Saul a few things: a prequel, a work of prestige TV, an economic stimulus package for the Albuquerque economy (which would have otherwise taken a hit when Breaking Bad ended). But perhaps the most important ways to think about it are as a writing challenge and as a morality fable. The promise that viewers will see the origins of the criminal-friendly lawyer who enabled Walter White’s escapades creates structural and storytelling conditions that no other show has ever had. It also means that, by necessity, the show will have something to say about psychology and about ethics—not that you’d expect anything else from the Breaking Bad universe.
In season two (which airs Monday on AMC), as in season one, things begin at the end. In artfully composed black-and-white frames, Vince Gilligan flashes to a time after the events of Breaking Bad, with the sadsack formerly known as Saul Goodman now running a Cinnabon in the Midwest. Season one jumped ahead in time to show how someday, Jimmy McGill would live in perpetual fear, unable to relax even when at home listening to records. Season two pulls a similar trick to show how his decision making will eventual change. He accidentally locks himself in the mall trash room, where his only immediate escape is through a fire door that’s only to be used in case of emergency. Jimmy opts to wait for someone to stumble in and help him, rather than set off the alarm.
Does he do so because he doesn’t want to break the rules by using that door? Or does he stay put out of fear that the alarm would bring law enforcement attention—which could then lead to his cover being blown?
By now it’s clear that Gilligan’s storytelling primarily concerns itself with questions of moral motivation and risk-taking. When people do good or do bad, the common theory goes, they either do so for intrinsic reasons or extrinsic ones. And they do so after cost/benefit analysis. Walter White’s descent into villainy at a certain point flipped from being driven by extrinsic factors under-girded by internal pride—paying his bills without becoming a charity case—to a full-blown, deeply rooted drive to become the biggest drug dealer in the Southwest, no matter the cost. Better Call Saul season one, meanwhile, revealed that Jimmy’s quest to succeed in the legal industry came out of a desire to impress his brother, Chuck. When it became clear that he could never achieve that goal, his priorities reverted to something simpler: using his innate talent for deception to make money.
Yet anyone who thought that season two might settle into a simpler, seedier story now that Jimmy seems to have pledged allegiance to illegitimacy will be surprised. Certainly, for much of the premiere, Jimmy seems to be all-in on the huckster lifestyle. He turns down the cushy law firm job he’s offered and opts to spend his days in the lazy river at a desert resort, bilking naive patrons at the bar.
But there’s a complicating factor—another motivation. Love. It’s revealed that Jimmy only turned down his law-firm gig after receiving assurances from the cool-headed attorney Kim that it wouldn’t impact their relationship. This is, as far as I remember, the first time the show has made it unambiguous that the two really do have an ongoing, officially recognized romantic relationship and not just hints of tension and a shared history. Now that it’s a factor in the plot, Kim’s involvement puts some wobble in what otherwise might be a straightforward trajectory from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman.
A sequence involving the two of them collaborating on a low-grade scam in the premiere reminds viewers of all the strengths of Gilligan as a filmmaker and Odenkirk as an actor. The plotting, performances, and creative camerawork makes the audience feel as drunk on tequila and hopped up on the thrill of the con as the characters on screen are. But this sequence is the only moment of pure, entertaining payoff provided in the two second-season episodes I’ve seen so far. There’s also the continuation of a farce-like storyline that involves a hapless, newly crooked pharmaceutical worker: basically Walter White if he’d been a lot dumber. The plot line teeters between being amusing and being tiresome; the main fun of it is in affording Jonathan Banks’s wonderful Mike Ehrmantraut more chances to show off his patented glare of impatience.
All of which is to say that Better Call Saul season two is not yet as gripping as season one’s best episodes were. But there’s plenty of reasons to bet it soon could be. While Breaking Bad offered a Shakespearian tragedy about grand ambition and the nature of evil, Saul provides a humble fable about people clumsily groping for a better life. Accordingly, it moves at a more languid pace and spends a lot of time in strip malls and law offices whose all-too-recognizable drabness could have only resulted from careful production design. The underlying sick thrill, always, is in knowing where this all is headed, and the suspicion that a cosmic thunderbolt of justice could strike at any point.
During the premiere, Jimmy finds himself in one of those delightfully tacky New Mexico offices, where a light switch has a piece of tape on it, with a note that it’s not to be flipped in any circumstances. Jimmy, obviously quite different from the guy who eventually is unwilling to open a fire door to escape a dumpster room, flips it. Nothing happens. This time.