In its first season, this Breaking Bad spin off showed that it had potential to move out of the shadow of its parent, one of the biggest television shows of all time. In its sophomore season, Better Call Saul deftly dodges the slump by doubling down on what made it so great, first time around.
This is a show that isn’t afraid to take it’s time. While many lamented the languid pace of the first season, Better Call Saul is rich in artistry in its shots, montages, and music, and it is more concerned with you building relationships with the multi-faceted characters to the point that you forget that the whole point of this is seeing Slippin’ Jimmy McGill become the law breaking lawyer Saul Goodman that we know from Breaking Bad.
Season 2 steps up the pace a little bit, wisely leaving a range of returning Breaking Bad characters for the second time around, returning slightly more to the Mexican drug lord stylings of the earlier Breaking Bad seasons, including appearances from a few favourite psychopaths, one of the characters in such a way that you might just think Vince Gilligan has been planning this all along. But that would be impossible, right?
At the end of Season 1 we saw Jimmy McGill deciding that he was going to the law his way, turning down a role at H.H.M to cut out a swathe of legal action on his own terms. His trend of self-destruction continues throughout the second season, with his flair for the law and brilliant mind frequently clashing with his distaste for doing things by the book. When he accepts a new job at a prestigious firm - company car, apartment, and office included - the first thing he does is turn off the switch on the wall that says do not turn off. It’s a subtle touch in a show that continues to be all about just that. Character moments are muted and realistic, and it doesn’t take a big speech to let us know that this tenure of legitimacy for Jimmy McGill will be all too brief.
His relationship with fellow lawyer Kim Wexler waxes and wanes throughout the season, through his actions, and she provides a great counterpart to his style of practicing law that looks set to lead to a spectacular car crash around season 3 or 4. Jimmy seeks to right the wrongs he feels have been visited on Kim by H.H.M as a way of punishing him. She endorsed him for his new job, and now she’s paying the price. Jimmy fails to realise that the wrongs he feels must be righted by bending the law and committing an actual federal offence were caused by him in the first place.
Segues into the childhood of Jimmy and his hyper electricity sensitive brother Chuck show that our favourite lawyer has always been in the habit of bending the rules and skirting away from trouble, and we go a long way to understanding why Chuck hates his brother so. The fantastic thing about all these scenes is they are counter parted with Chuck’s manic attempts to ruin Jimmy and Kim’s careers, and also to prove his brother is still the scoundrel he has always been. The only time Chuck is able to overcome his disease (which might be all in his head) is to do something to try and shaft his dear brother. Couple this with the fact that despite what Chuck does, we see Jimmy trying to help him, throwing himself under the bus at the end of the season to do so.
There are shades of grey everywhere here, even more so than there were in Breaking Bad. While Walter White’s journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface was punctuated by high emotional stakes, things are slightly more relatable here, with the conflict between Jimmy, Kim, and Chuck coming down to the desire to do things by the book, the desire to bend the rules for the benefit of those who need the rules bending, and the urge to maintain the old guard, and vindicate your own convictions.
The season is intercut with that crusty old man Mike, who has found himself increasingly tangled in the world of the Mexican Cartel plaguing New Mexico. A protection job for an idiot dentist in a fluorescent yellow monster truck has gone awry, and he finds himself tangled up in a plot to take out Tuco Salamenca. That’s right, that Tuco. Mike resolves to do things his own way, refusing to shoot and murder his way out of trouble, but his desire to provide for his granddaughter and his late son’s wife leads him to increasingly riskier situations for bigger pay offs.
In this season, we see Mike as human. We’ve always seen him as the mix of the grizzled bad ass and doting grandfather, but here, we see a man who is afraid. A man who knows he has backed himself into a corner like a rat due to his reluctance to pull the trigger, and now he is left with no choice but to bite his way out again. Mike’s story is this season’s call back to Breaking Bad, and while seeing him tangle with a few familiar foes is thrilling indeed, incredibly, it isn’t as good as the stuff with Jimmy McGill. Which is why he’s the title character, isn’t it?
Better Call Saul is also frequently hilarious, with one sequence involving a montage of wardrobe changes being one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. Jimmy’s dealings with the elderly and the two uninterested film students he’s uses to make dodgy commercials are brilliant, and the writing throughout the series is often brilliant, dealing with complex emotional undertones in often flippant and to the point ways. The show focuses heavily on visual storytelling and shows more than it tells, carrying an often richer visual language than Breaking Bad did. Season 2 of Better Call Saul is ten episodes that are strong enough to stand easily on their own two feet, and we find ourselves spinning out of control into a series of cleverly set emotional time bombs in Season 3. I can’t wait.