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.