The weirdest thing about Better Call Saul: how fast it exploded from a Breaking Bad spin-off prequel into a classic American crime story all its own. When it began a year ago, all anybody really asked for was the chance to spend a few more hours in the same room as Saul Goodman, the hilarious sleazebag lawyer created by Bob Odenkirk, the hardest-sweating man in show business. We already know where this tale is heading — at some point, the Albuquerque shyster Jimmy McGill will change his name to Saul, lower what’s left of his already-shaky ethical standards and jump into an all-out life of crime. By the time he enters the Breaking Bad timeline, when he meets a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher named Walter White leading a secret life as a desert drug lord, Saul is already a lost cause. And when Bryan Cranston’s “Mr. Chips meets Scarface” antihero reaches the bloody end of his brief-but-glorious career as the meth chef Heisenberg, the attorney hits the road, buys himself yet another new name, and hides out managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.
But what nobody could have predicted — probably not even Vince Gilligan and the rest of the Breaking Bad creative team — was what a swank villain Jimmy McGill makes. Odenkirk brings so much hangdog verve and pathos to the role of Slippin’ Jimmy, the small-time con man with a cheap law degree making a semi-sincere stumble at a psuedo-respectable life. And the show also goes deep into the heartbreaking origin story of Jonathan Banks’ tough mug Mike Ehrmantraut, who turns out to be a Philly ex-cop with the wrong blood on his hands.
The whole premiere season of Better Call Saul picked up steam as it went along, and as it got so much better than anyone expected, it gave fans a case of nerves. (“Hey, Jimmy won’t go Full Saul too fast, will he?”) So now it’s in the position of a prequel trying to slow down the clock. It’s the opposite of St. Augustine’s famous prayer “Make me chaste, but not yet” — watching BCS means praying, “Let him break bad, but not yet.”
In the superb new season, it’s still 2002, and Jimmy hasn’t transformed into Saul yet. But he’s a ticking time bomb. When he snarls, “I’ve been doing the right thing for all these years now and where has it gotten me? Nowhere!”, we already know “nowhere” means a Cinnabon nametag and Nebraska plates. (It’s so poignant to see the fugitive Saul/Jimmy carve “S.G. was here” on a backroom wall.) The first season ended with Jimmy in his car blasting “Smoke on the Water,” vowing to give up on the straight life once and for all. What could slow him down?
A woman, naturally: Rhea Seehorn’s Kim, who makes him wonder if there’s still time to change the road he’s on and build himself an honest career, the kind of life where he could actually hold on to her. She’s a fellow lawyer who gets an erotic kick out of his criminal side, especially when he lets her play a supporting role in his scams. But for Kim, it’s just a walk on the wild side. For Jimmy, this moral sewer is the place he calls home.
So now Jimmy has a posh corporate-law gig in Santa Fe, with a fancy office and a Mercedes to replace that beat-up Sukuzi Esteem. But he’s still a small-stakes grifter at heart, the kind of liar who can’t resist a juicy chance to show off. Forced to make up a quick cover story for a couple of Albuquerque cops, he invents a whole new sex fetish — the “Hoboken Squat Cobbler,” which involves asses and pies. Odenkirk turns it into a wild-eyed comic riff as funny as anything he ever did on Mr. Show.
But he also brings all this guy’s moral fractures to life. He makes an odd couple with Banks’ Mike Erhmantraut, who sees himself as a noble outlaw with a strong code of honor, whereas Jimmy just sees his conscience as a hangover he can’t shake off. He’s not in any hurry to hustle into Saul-hood — he likes being Jimmy McGill. And the most surprising delight about Better Call Saul is that we like him too, and we’re conflicted about losing him.