[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 2, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
Even though it is stuck with the term prequel – a moniker that typically carries with it a certain justifiably negative connotation – Better Call Saul has, over its first two seasons, managed to distance itself from the inevitable end of its title character, even as he moves closer and closer to Breaking Bad territory. One of the ways the series has found success in its approach is by using the other star of the show as an anchor set firmly in the familiar world of likely and unlikely drug kingpins created by Vince Gilligan. The result is a show that at times feels guilty of stalling, of creating obstacles for the sake of temporarily preventing Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut from going too far into their own inescapable destinies and robbing the series of the unique pleasure of telling the audience something they don’t know.
But that sense of stalling or meandering, created largely by threads devoted to Jimmy’s pursuit of the Sandpiper Crossing class action lawsuit and his brief go-nowhere stint working alongside Ed Begley Jr. at Davis & Main, offers its own kind of trade-off. Yes, there’s a fine line between making a show that does a deep dive into banking law and eldercare litigation as a way to get closer to the inner workings of its characters and one that focuses so intently on the mind-numbing minutiae of legal work it practically delivers an episode wherein a legal brief is drafted in real time, but, as Better Call Saul has proven over its season 2, the balancing act of those two elements are, for better or worse, part of what makes the show work.
Essentially, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould understand that a series like Better Call Saul is constantly drifting toward a narrative that has already happened from beginning to end. Their job, then, isn’t to divert Saul from that path, but to slow it down enough that the things the audience doesn’t already know become more important than connecting a series of dots.
That requires a considerable amount of compression. However, there must also be a certain amount of dot-connecting going on to both maintain the tragic escalation of it all and to appease those tuning in solely for a glimpse of the One Who Knocks or any number of characters or Easter eggs that left such a strong impression they too were yanked backwards in time to help lend a sense of inexorability to the story at hand.
The push-pull of these characters’ known futures and their unknown pasts (which is their present as far as the show is concerned) creates the need for a subtle bifurcation of the plot, one that can move in both directions at once – inching ever closer to the world of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman and, if that note left on Mike’s windshield is from a certain proprietor of a certain fast-food fried chicken restaurant – while also pushing deeper and deeper into a storyline so utterly unfamiliar to the characters and the audience, it might as well be an entirely different show. In other words, Gilligan and Gould have concocted a way to distance their prequel from its older sibling, while still building deliberately shaky castles in the very same sandbox.
Exploring the life of a pre-Saul Jimmy while also sitting back as Mike drifts into cold-blooded murderer territory isn’t as easy as it sounds. And while Saul is guilty of indulging too much in things like Jimmy’s escalation of mildly juvenile, but still fireable offenses in the office of Davis & Main – less because they offer an opportunity to probe the mind of a consummate conman playing the legal game, and more because they can eat up and entire hour of a 10-hour commitment – it does eventually open the door for a satisfying Chuck v. Jimmy showdown that’s likely to happen over the course of season 3.
Does this kind of payoff, seeing Chuck so aggrieved by Jimmy as both his irresponsible brother and as an undeserving peer in the legal community that he tapes a confession born of familial concern, justify such lengthy digressions and deliberateness of pace? It depends on how invested you are in the battle between the good, upstanding Chuck (as far as he’s concerned, anyway) and his ne’er-do-well sibling. To their credit, Gilligan and Gould have established the conflict as one with a greater emotional depth than simply Chuck’s anger at Jimmy’s willingness to play fast and loose with the very thing he’s devoted his life to defending. The opening sequence is more than a glimpse back at a painful moment in the life of the brothers McGill; it strikes at the root of Chuck’s resentment toward his brother. Despite all his flaws and all his failings, it’s Jimmy’s name their mother calls out with her dying breath. That’s a bullet to the heart of a man who stayed by his mother’s side to the very end, instead of opting to get a hoagie at the sub shop down the street.
For the show to deliver a deeper understanding of Chuck’s motivations, and then to position him in a situation where he’s entirely in the right as far as the law’s concerned, and yet for the audience’s sympathy to still rest with the man they will one day call Saul is no small feat. It’s equally impressive when the reason Jimmy always seems to come out on top – at least according to Chuck – is actually true of the fictional character. So many times audiences are told someone is charismatic and engaging when there’s little evidence to suggest that’s actually the case. But in Saul, Odenkirk’s performance is one that, even when he’s wasting everyone’s time playing the bagpipes and not flushing, it’s nearly impossible not to root for the guy.
Despite the progression of Chuck and Jimmy’s conflict ‘Klick’ is left wanting for more from Rhea Seehorn’s Kim (especially after the stirring defense she raised on Jimmy’s behalf not long ago) and for leaving Mike’s storyline hanging the way that it does. The note left on his windshield certainly seems to suggest the arrival of Gus Fring, but that’s not entirely certain. Whether Fring is going to be in season 3 or not, the show would have been better off confirming his arrival or that of a new character. Now, all the Fring-related speculation is going to either blow the whole thing out of proportion or it will lead to disappointment if the show chooses to go another route.
Given how successful the show has been with characters like Kim Wexler and Chuck McGill, it’s hard not to see the appeal of an unknown character providing Mike’s story the same kind of un-prequel-like quality Jimmy’s is currently enjoying. The less Better Call Saul props itself up on the sturdiness of its predecessor, the more it convinces those watching it can be a compelling series in its own right. There’ll never be a day when Saul doesn’t allude to what’s down the road in Albuquerque, or that it doesn’t owe its existence entirely to its eventual Emmy-winning endpoint, but so far that hasn’t stopped the series from distinguishing itself in some surprising if not circuitous ways.
Better Call Saul will return for season 3 on AMC.
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC