At this point in the run of AMC’s Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s transition into his sleazy second persona is a foregone conclusion, but it’s also almost beside the point. Co-creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have constructed a truly rare prequel series, in that the element which makes all prequels inherently inferior to what came before — that the audience already knows the story’s endpoint — is almost a sidenote of the story that’s being told. When the series was first announced, who would have thought characters never before mentioned, like Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), or Chuck McGill (Michael McKeen), would matter as much or have as big an impact on the story of Jimmy McGill — another name unknown to those watching Breaking Bad — as, Jimmy/Saul and the ever-resourceful Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks)?
As the series enters into its fourth season, the end everyone knows is coming is both right around the corner and still miles away. AMC recently renewed Better Call Saul for a fifth season, meaning whether or not Jimmy’s tacky-suited alter ego makes his presence known in season 4, there’s still a lot of Jimmy McGill’s story to tell. It’s remarkable, then, how Gould and Gilligan have made the idea of Saul a blip on a distant horizon; the show will get there eventually, but until then there’s an enthralling story currently unfolding, one that makes putting off Saul’s arrival one of the most fulfilling on television.
The season 4 premiere, ‘Smoke,’ finds Jimmy in a difficult spot, one that, more so than ever before, has him grappling with a number of emotions. His professional life is in shambles, thanks to the suspension handed down as a result of season 3’s ‘Chicanery,’ but his personal life is, by Better Call Saul standards, practically idyllic. The degree to which Jimmy’s life has changed since season 1 is extraordinary. There’s a small but important impact in seeing Jimmy living with Kim, doing mundane things, like getting up early to make breakfast and look through the classifieds. It’s a small change, one that’s been meted out gradually over the course of three seasons, but it all emphasizes the degree to which the series excels at moving through story, rather than spinning its narrative wheels.
Better Call Saul’s fourth season begins with what is the biggest story development yet: the aftermath of Chuck’s death in the season 3 finale. The importance of Chuck’s role in the series cannot be overstated. Chuck filled a variety of purposes (that says nothing of the onscreen contributions made by Michael McKeen) and his absence here is distinctly and deliberately felt. Gould and Gilligan are walking a delicate line, one where their main character has to grapple with grief and anger over losing his older brother, but also the understanding that he’s been freed in some regard, too. Jimmy’s no longer tied to Chuck’s expectations or his machinations when it comes to his legal career, and as is made clear in ‘Smoke,’ that freedom has an unmooring effect on the younger McGill brother.
There’s a sense, then, that season 4 of Better Call Saul will see its characters increasingly unmoored, as they drift closer and closer to the people they will become by the time the events of Breaking Bad kick off. The emotional distance is made clear when Howard pays Jimmy and Kim a visit, unburdening himself by explaining his theory that Chuck’s death was not an accident but a suicide. Jimmy’s response is one of the clearest examples yet of how he’s able to compartmentalize not only aspects of his life, but also, and more importantly, aspects of his personality and emotional response to something as devastating as losing a sibling. In staying true to the show, it’s less the birth of Saul than it is the manufacturing of faux(?) sociopath. What Saul does, maybe better than any other show on TV right now, is make Jimmy’s fabrication of this new persona somehow gut-wrenching and tragic, rather than depict it as the triumphant emergence of the show’s title character.
That’s not to say, Saul isn’t interested in having fun with while its characters are drifting further from their already compromised moral centers. One of the greatest feats the series has managed is to do with Mike Ehrmantraut what it’s managed done with Jimmy, and with less cumulative minutes on screen to boot. Mike’s arguably a less complicated character by design; his wants are relatively simple and straightforward, and as such his methods of achieving them are as well. The series almost treats Mike’s misadventures -especially those performed for Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) as of late - as a respite from some of the more psychologically complex aspects of Jimmy’s gradual transformation. But Mike Does Cool Stuff is such a part of the show’s composition that without it, Saul wouldn’t perform as well as it does. So watching him infiltrate a Madrigal shipping facility, without exactly knowing why until after the fact, puts the emphasis on the viewer’s enjoyment of Mike simply being Mike.
Because the audience (mostly) knows where and how Mike’s story ends, the series doesn’t attempt to manufacture tension around him in the way it might if Saul weren’t a prequel. But tension is an important part of what makes the show a success — much like Breaking Bad — which is why the black-and-white glimpse into Jimmy’s “present-day” adventures in Omaha, and Nacho’s treacherous orbit around Gus and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) are both so important. While Nacho helps clarify the escalation of Gus’s war with the Salamancas, his fate (which is presumably not good) offers a welcome variable to that equation. But it’s the premiere’s cold open that offers the most interesting wrinkle to the new season, while generating an unexpected source of tension for the newest iteration of Jimmy McGill.
Up until now, the post-Breaking Bad timeline had always been carried aloft an air of nostalgia, and, for Jimmy anyway, a life he was forced to leave behind. ‘Smoke,’ however, plays with the idea that Jimmy/Saul’s story hasn’t been remanded to a wistful remembrance of criminal activities past, but that there’s still a due to be paid and someone (maybe that cab driver, maybe not) has been sent to collect. That puts a lot of pressure on a thread that moves its story forward with roughly two segments per season. It also threatens to undermine the suspense-building of the main storyline. Yet somehow, Better Call Saul makes it all work. In the end, it’s a testament to how the show’s creators and writers are conscious of and dedicated to structuring a narrative that knows Breaking Bad is just a spot on the horizon, rather than the explicit end of this story.
Better Call Saul continues next Monday with ‘Breathe’ @9pm on AMC.