Like a rebellious teen, or like a certain “morally flexible” lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk in an ironic coming-of-age saga, the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul defies the expectations of its audience and demands to be taken on its own terms. You want to plot-driven capers, racing pulse, and zeitgeist pop? No! You’re getting a willfully idiosyncratic drama that moves at a deliberate clip and with self-conscious style. You want fixer and contract killer Mike (Jonathan Banks) to, like, kill people? No! You’re getting a whole season of Mike not wanting to kill people. You want Breaking Bad cameos and backstory? Okay, fine, here’s some Salamancas. “Fring’s back?” Psych! Now stop looking for anagrams and suck on the beauty of my elegant and rigorous filmmaking, dammit!
Season 1 of Better Call Saul tried too hard to be its own beast. It risked pretentiousness and artifice in the pursuit of moral perspective and originality. It was Michael McKean’s Chuck, super-responsible and solipsistic, weird with highly metaphorical electro-phobia. But in season 2, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould refined their vision and aesthetic and gave us a more humane work while remaining true to core values. I love how they geek out on psychology, not mythology. How they take their shots (and make their shots) with patience and careful framing of Mike behind a rifle scope (and now know when they don’t need to take them, too). How they can take your breath away with a small “Klick” of a tape recorder and the silence of an unfired gun. What I find fascinating and compelling about Better Call Saul is its deep ambivalence for the anti-hero romance it represents, and how it makes that ambivalence infectious. I want Jimmy and Mike to break bad, but what I want more is for them to not break bad, or at least, any worse.
Season 2 began with a black-and-white flash-forward to what we might assume to be the present, with Saul now living a colorless if more ethically simple life as Gene, the night manager at a shopping-mall Cinnabon. While throwing out the garbage, he locked himself in the dumpster room for hours. When liberated, we saw he had left something behind, some defiant graffiti. “S.G. was here.” My fanboy brain immediately theorized foreshadowing. Oh, Goodie-Goodman! This is the year Jimmy goes full Saul! In retrospect, we see all kinds of allegory for Jimmy, but if all it meant was a nostalgia for younger, wilder glory days, then it was perfectly fitting. Trash chores, time-outs, and tagging? Those are childish things, and they set the tone for a season that dug into what we might call the adolescent phase of the Jimmy-to-Saul transition.
Another image in the premiere, the last one, found Jimmy in his fancy new office in his super-respectable new job, peeling away a piece of tape on a light-switch he wasn’t supposed to touch, an expression of Jimmy’s natural inclination toward lawlessness. And it was. But it was also metaphor for Jimmy as a rebellious teen surging with developing strength and testing boundaries with authority figures, from his brother to his bosses. He chased responsibility and rejected it, then accepted it, sabotaged it, and abandoned it. He landed a girlfriend he didn’t deserve and almost lost her by being the bad-boy boyfriend, breaking a promise to be faithful — to the law — repeatedly, like a horny boy who can’t keep it in his pants. He even experimented with his identity via his rebel filmmaking phase (I think every teenager in the digital age has one), recruiting a pack of delinquents to help shoot a commercial for his nascent practice. (The number: 505-842-5662. Call it.) Jimmy was never more Saul-esque in these scenes, the huckster-auteur working hustles to chase a dream. “A man who says what he does and does what he says,” the ad proclaimed, a promise of authenticity, no hypocrisy. “Jimmy McGill: A lawyer you can trust.” The commercial was low-rent cheesy and indicted the ironies he had rationalized as righteous, but it was poignant for casting a vision of a man he believed he was and desperately, recklessly wanted prove.
Jimmy’s peak rebellion was classic adolescent hyper-rationality, an impulsive pursuit of reward while squelching the fear of risk and not thinking through the consequences. He snuck out in the middle of the night and doctored some legal documents, just like he did during his fake I.D.-making days in high school — all part of a romantic errand that was neither sought nor wanted, and really rather self-serving. It was thrilling work, secretly exercising his dark hands in the middle of the night, made even more exciting by the possibility of getting caught. He didn’t. Not right away. His scheme worked, then backfired terribly, as his actions yielded the unintended effects of nearly driving his father-figure brother Chuck insane and staining his rep and ruining the virtue of girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn). It could have been a one-to-grow-on mistake — the birth of conscience. Instead, he lied and denied, blame-shifted and self-justified, digging himself deeper into a hole he’ll never get out of.
Jimmy’s relationships with Kim and Chuck made for a complex three-way conflict. Kim could have been a lame archetype, the girlfriend as redeemer or scold, a reward for success or punishment for failure. What was funny was how she was all those things, and not. From the get-go, the writing invested in Kim, giving us long scenes that made us understand their attraction and vested us in her career and her ambition to be a moral person. She carried Jimmy, personally and professionally, into the season, so when Jimmy began playing the part of scorpion to her frog, stinging her with his grifter nature, I hurt for her, and certainly shared Chuck’s want to save her from Jimmy’s poisonous influence. But at the same time, I didn’t want them to break up, either.
Like Jimmy, Kim sought to prove her worth and make a name for herself in the beginning of the season and chased self-determination and independence at the end. Jimmy thought he was helping her — loving her, even — by perpetrating the doc-doctoring felony that brought a lucrative client, Mesa Verde, back to her after mean old Chuck had stolen it away. In doing so, though, he subverted her agency and compromised her miserably. In a sensational moment for Seehorn in an altogether strong, breakout season, Kim ruthlessly diagnosed the Jimmy-Chuck enmeshment and indicted Chuck as at least partially responsible for Jimmy’s destructive/self-destructive pathology. It was loving to Jimmy — and she hated herself for doing it. The tragicomic punchline came afterward. She got Jimmy alone and punched and punched and punched his arm, full of anger at him for violating his vow to play straight, for making her feel worthless in so many ways, especially since she knew she wouldn’t refuse Jimmy’s damnable favor. We left her as she was made to fetch coffee and donuts for Jimmy’s clients, the sad trombone to a storyline about a woman demeaned by the men in her life.
Kim was a casualty of war in the Chuck-Jimmy conflict, a quagmire of psychological enmeshment and Biblical tensions, from brother’s keeper resentment to prodigal son bitterness. I remain baffled by Chuck and the electromagnetic hypersensitivity that makes him buggy, a quasi-recluse cocooned in a space blanket and terrified of the world outside his darkened house. I still don’t know whether to accept him as a character or read him as a mirror to Jimmy or see his afflicted state as metaphor for a cultural condition. His fear of radioactive contamination and his disdain for his lawless, irreverent brother are linked; Chuck fears the “moral flexibility” of a broken world represented by his brother. But has Chuck broken bad himself? The season’s best scam was Chuck’s emotionally manipulative sting operation against Jimmy that ended the season. Note that it also came after Chuck’s electromagnetic bombardment in the hospital. (Hulk Chuck smash puny immoral brother!) We wonder how Chuck will use the tape against Jimmy. To prod him into becoming a better caretaker of the law? A better caretaker of him? But I’m also wondering that by playing Jimmy’s games, we just watched a good man put on a black hat. THEORY! Jimmy sheds the family name after Chuck ruins it with his fall and that’s how he becomes Saul Goodman.
Better Call Saul’s parallel narrative — Mike’s progression from parking lot attendant to underworld Mr. Fix It — saw him building his brand in the dirty deeds biz while trying to maintain the self-deception of his own fundamental decency. He was maturity to Saul’s immaturity, but the intrinsic wickedness of his profession tripped him up. Choosing to take a beating and send Tuco (Raymond Cruz) to jail instead of killing him set in motion a chain of events — a spike strip of cause and effect, if you will — that left him responsible for the murder of an innocent. Everything about his finale story was about trying to execute bloody justice — assassinating Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) using a long range rifle — while trying to hold onto his illusions by literally distancing himself from his evil. Direction, editing and performance — man, does the camera love Banks’ face, and man does Banks know what to do (and not do with it) — combined to create a sequence of exquisite dread. The twists and turns of the scene seemed to suggest that a moral universe had intervened to sabotage Mike. Nacho (Michael Mando) kept getting the way of a clean shot; Mike’s car horn started blaring. But then he found the tree limb propped against the steering wheel and a note that said “DON’T” on the windshield. Someone was looking out for him. Or threatening him. Both? Maybe FRING’S BACK after all.
The season finale set us up for heartbreak and tragedy, breakups and blood. Instead, life goes on for all, their incremental slouches toward whatever they’re becoming continue. I love how the show is so keenly interested in the process, how it makes that process compelling and surprising despite the determinism that governs its creative world. Mike’s extraordinary finale scenes stand for the themes that helped season 2 of Better Call Saul go next-level: that we’re all enmeshed and connected by threads seen and unseen; that our actions vibrate across those strings across time and space with evolving, far-reaching consequences; and most ironic coming from a prequel, that nothing except death is inevitable, not even character. Good and evil, breaking good or breaking bad, are choices we make every day, every moment, with every honest word we say, every lie we tell, every button we push, every trigger we pull. Or don’t.