“We want to make a show that stands on its own,” Better Call Saul’s co-creator Peter Gould has said about his and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spinoff. Two seasons in, Saul has achieved many things, but this particular goal isn’t one of them. In fact, the longer the show’s been on, the more it’s felt powered by the lingering energy of the supernova that was Breaking Bad.
Cameos are a small part of why that might be; arguably the biggest source of suspense from last night’s finale was the fan realization that the first letters of the season’s episode titles make an anagram for “FRINGS BACK.” More important, though, is the fact that Saul’s creators clearly feel the luxury of built-in viewer interest. Its affiliation with one of the best shows of all time allows it to work at a pace that would doom an original series to quick cancellation.
You might call that pace brilliantly deliberate, or you might call it merely boring. Saul, of course, never promised to be as gripping as Breaking Bad: The journey from somewhat morally compromised lawyer to more morally compromised lawyer is a less obviously dramatic trip than one from high-school teacher to murderous drug lord. Making it pop on screen would seem to require an imaginative, colorful plot. The cast’s strong acting and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s beautiful cinematography counts for a lot, but serial TV dramas cannot run on formal virtuosity alone.
The first season demonstrated that a compelling story can be told even when the stakes are low. The nail-salon denizen Jimmy McGill, the headtrip that is Chuck, the steely law associate Kim, and the tragically human version of Mike were introduced. Amusing capers—involving a family of scammers, the consequences of insulting a drug dealer’s abuelita, and the scutwork required to uncover an extortion scheme at a retirement facility—were staged. The moral arc was clear and relatable, creating true suspense with the question of whether the system would allow Jimmy to succeed above board. And the big twist, which revealed that Chuck had been working against his brother, was constructed for maximum devastation and seemed like the perfect inciting incident for Jimmy to become Saul. In the finale, he declined a legitimate lawyer job and drove off humming his dead conman friend’s favorite song, “Smoke on the Water.”
Season two, though, started out by having Jimmy turn around and accept that same job. This was a surprising choice, one that would seem to hint that Gilligan and Gould decided to revise whatever master plan they had for the series. There’s no sin in course correcting, but this was more like hitting the brakes and taking a U-turn—only to then drive a slightly different route to the same spot. Season one depicted Jimmy trying to move away from his old Slippin’ persona to earn Chuck’s respect before realizing Chuck was worse than unreachable. Season two had Jimmy again try to walk the path of respectability in hopes of pleasing a different loved one, Kim. This time, instead of being actively undermined by someone else, he faced an authentic clash between his own criminal leanings and the strictures of legal ethics. Jimmy’s problem is Jimmy.
But, still, it’s really also Chuck. He’s the one man Jimmy can’t fully con because the normal calculations about a mark’s humanity, compassion, and mercy don’t apply when that mark loathes you. Much of this season has been spent with flashbacks showing how firmly rooted Chuck’s resentment toward Jimmy is, and with present-day deceptions from Jimmy that show why some amount of that resentment is warranted. When the last scene of the finale revealed Chuck had been taping Jimmy’s confession of fraud, I’m not sure it represented all that different a betrayal from Chuck’s big betrayal in season one. But it was meant to feel deeper and more tragic given how much more we’d learned about their relationship.
It would be churlish to ding a show for deciding to shade more nuance in its characters. Better Call Saul’s recursive second season did, happily, have time to round out Kim by giving her goals, struggles, a code, and a personality—but ideally it would have done that in any case. It gave Mike a full arc of trying and failing to resist the pull of underworld violence—but many viewers sort of assumed that arc had already happened after seeing the first-season flashback to his time as a cop. Mike’s storyline was nevertheless the most exciting thing here, a reminder of the fact that though Vince Gilligan has a charming obsession with the peeling-paint banality of administrative offices and parking lots, his real talent is as a crime writer. Those talents went underused this season because all the work Better Call Saul did to deepen its world came at the expense of expanding it, or even playing around very much. One-off cases were not taken. New characters obviously worth seeing more than once were not introduced. The same battles that defined the first season were mostly just waged again and again. The best scene was a montage with an inflatable air dancer.
Again, whether this makes for brilliant or boring TV is on some level a matter of preference. This week’s, Slate editor, Julia Turner, argued that Better Call Saul is superior to Breaking Bad, and her enthusiasm is shared by many viewers. But it’s probably worth noting that she used the word “subtle” four times in 1,200 words. Her same publication recently ran an essay called “Against Subtlety,” which for all its seeming provocation was centered on an idea that should be uncontroversial: Subtlety is not a virtue in itself, and many of the greatest works of art make their points bluntly. Saul, I’d argue, has made so many fine needlepoint stitches around the same delicate patterns for the past two seasons to approach its own kind of tackiness. We’re meant to admire the work, but at a certain point you start to wonder if there are better ways for all involved to be spending their time.
Breaking Bad’s second season ended with a midair plane collision that rained debris over the house of the man whose callous actions had set off the chain of events that caused the collision. It was a gloriously preposterous climax signaling that the world the show inhabited was one where fate has a strong hand and morality is a force as real as gravity. When Saul Goodman eventually showed up, he seemed like a manifestation of that magical-realist universe, a creature of supernatural sleaze. Better Call Saul supposedly exists in that same modern mythos, and perhaps by taking things so slow, Gould and Gilligan are setting up an even greater transformation routine than Breaking Bad achieved. For now, though, many viewers might feel as though they’ve been left stranded in a Cinnabon, law-firm basement, or some other place that people both in the show and watching it might be trying to escape from.