Tragedy Has Reinvigorated Better Call Saul

The show’s soulful fourth season uses death to springboard to Breaking Bad levels of emotion.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy in 'Better Call Saul'

Better Call Saul was always a show whose premise—the relatively nice guy Jimmy McGill breaks bad before Breaking Bad, becoming the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman—carried tragic dimensions. But now, more than three years in, there’s an actual tragedy in the story. At the end of the third season, after losing his prestigious job and relapsing into his mental illness, Jimmy’s brother Chuck set fire to his own home and—I’d put a spoiler alert here if ads for the latest batch of episodes were bothering to hide it—died. Grim as it is to say, the show is better without him.

When it premiered, Saul pleased Breaking Bad fans by reviving the feel, setting, and themes of the AMC drama that reshaped television. It even promised a similar narrative arc: the transformation of a normal person into a criminal. The distinctive vision of the co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould created moments of odd beauty, and the cast’s excellence meant you really could imagine the characters living their relatably mundane lives at the stucco condo complex down the block. But propulsive drama and gripping emotion only came in spurts. For parts of Seasons 2 and 3, Saul’s fastidious depiction of office renovations and insurance disputes almost felt like a parody of highbrow TV’s disregard for conventional thrills.

Season 4 picks up after one of the defining and sometimes tedious conflicts of the show—between Chuck’s snooty moralism and Jimmy’s by-any-means-necessary scrappiness—met a fiery conclusion. While another series might fast-forward to months after a major character’s chapter-ending death, Saul slow-walks through the devastation as Jimmy and his girlfriend, Kim, a former colleague of Chuck’s, grapple with what happened. That might sound gratuitously wrenching, but it’s actually revelatory. Old dynamics flip, long-gestating character studies pay off, and feelings geyser up in surprising places.

Kim comes off as inwardly unnerved but outwardly pragmatic while she processes her own horror and tries to anticipate her boyfriend’s. As for Jimmy, the show plays his grieving like a mystery, with existential questions creating thick suspense. Who is the underdog without his tormenter? What does a person do with peace that’s come at a terrible moral cost? How does someone routinely accused of shamelessness handle grief? By the end of the season premiere, we get something close to answers to these questions, and they’re rather shocking. What’s more, Saul resembles Breaking Bad’s most profound passages—when the implications of some monstrous choice could be felt changing Walter White deeply.

Somewhat awkwardly though, the show’s cloistered world still contains three essentially separate plot lines. Independent of Jimmy and Kim, there’s the fixer Mike Ehrmantraut continuing in his security hustle so as to ensure his granddaughter’s financial security. And there’s the saga of the drug cartel in disarray after the downfall of Don Hector at the hands of his henchman Nacho. In the latter story, rapidly escalating tension mirrors and amplifies the darkly charged energy of Jimmy’s narrative. Visceral Breaking Bad vibes surface here, as well (helped along by a few more Breaking Bad cameos). The quiet crime boss Gus Fring finally shows his capacity for brutality, and the Walter White–ian question of whether Nacho’s secret betrayal of Hector will be exposed is used to excruciating effect.

Ehrmantraut, meanwhile, undertakes a project that allows Gilligan and Gould to indulge another of their favorite genres: competence porn. It’s hard to imagine any actor other than Jonathan Banks being able to make a monologue about warehouse security that’s spine-tingling, but that’s the word I want to use here. Then again, Saul has always found beauty in the banal. The newspaper obituary, the funeral receiving line, the reading of a will: all rituals of mourning that, in the way they are filmed this season, resemble the mechanistic processes—Cinnabon baking, coffee making, trash pickup—that have previously filled the show. The difference now is that Saul obsesses more closely about the things that make us human, or inhuman.