‘Better Call Saul’ Season 2 Review: The ‘Breaking Bad’ Prequel Is Sharper Than Ever
Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill is a character of continually shifting morals. In the first season of Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul we got to know the man who would go on to become Breaking Bad’s shady criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. Circa 2002 in Albuquerque, New Mexico Jimmy was a nobody working as a public defender, a one-man law firm who (mostly) tried to do the right thing. But the first season also hinted at his underlying con man persona, Slippin’ Jimmy, the nickname given to him as a kid for faking car accident injuries and conning drivers into paying him to keep quiet. In the Season 2 premiere of Better Call Saul we see even more fragments of a man riding ethical lines, further revealing Jimmy as the most complex character to emerge out of the Breaking Bad universe next to Walter White.
In the Season 2 opener (minor spoilers follow) we flash-forward (or possibly to the present day) to another black-and-white Cinnabon montage. Gene, the name Saul Goodman took after fleeing New Mexico, still works at the franchise in Omaha, Nebraska. But the grey hues of the sequence don’t only represent the jump in time, they also characterize the muted space in which Gene floats. Here he is not a man challenged by moral standards, but one entirely stripped of himself. Gene closes up the store and takes the trash out to the mall garbage bins, but forgetting to prop the door open, he gets locked inside. The only way out is through the emergency exit that will sound a fire alarm. Hesitant, Gene considers pushing the alarm-triggered door, but in a moment unlike anything we’ve seen with Saul or Jimmy, Gene chooses the noble route, sits down on a crate and waits two hours until the janitor arrives. In that time he etches a name on the concrete wall, a name that isn’t completely dead yet.
As we know, Odenkirk’s titular lawyer is a man of many identities. After Saul there was Gene, and before Saul there was James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill. But Slippin’ Jimmy is the identity that navigates much of Jimmy’s evolution into the Breaking Bad character throughout the prequel series, representing the latent urge to play with fire and get away untouched. Through much of the first season Jimmy remained the good guy, a man set on proving his worth to his reclusive and ill brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whom we learn was the one holding Jimmy back all along. It’s in the Season 1 finale where Jimmy’s shift finally starts to take hold, when he revisits his con man ways in Cicero, Illinois and gets a taste of what it’s like to break the rules again. After the sudden death of his conning buddy Marco, Jimmy returns home to find a job offer on the table from Sante Fe law firm Davis & Mane. The finale never shows us what happens at that meeting, only Jimmy telling Mike (Jonathan Banks) in the parking lot that doing the right thing is something that “will never stop me again.” He drives off humming Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” while wearing Marco’s pinky ring, symbols of the crossroads at which he’s arrived.
The first two episodes of the second season begin to explore that transition further as Jimmy figures out who he wants to be. The premiere episode, “Switch,” reveals what happened at the Davis & Mane meeting, showing that Jimmy turned down the job offer to finally start doing things his own way. Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who is finally further developed this season as a stronger supporting character and Jimmy’s romantic interest, is the one who fought to get him the job. She’s less than thrilled to later find him lounging in a hotel pool sipping cocktails and declaring, “I finally decided to be me.” As she encourages him to reconsider the offer, Slippin’ Jimmy emerges out of nowhere. A cocky stock broker at the bar catches his ear and Jimmy begins to sell him a brilliantly made-up story, roping a reluctant Kim into the scam. The two end up fooling the broker into buying them hundreds of dollars of alcohol and as they make their escape, Jimmy is more radiant than ever before. He’s at his best when using his charms of trickery, and in one hilarious sub-plot in the second episode, “Cobbler,” he finally exercises the genius lengths of his deceit.
But Jimmy is no Saul yet. He’s still caught between right and wrong, uncertain of which role to play or how bad is too bad. In one of the premiere’s best moments, Jimmy lingers near an office switch taped down by a label reading, “Always leave on! Do not turn off!!” He hesitates, then peels back the tape, flips the switch off, and looks around to soak up his defiance. Jimmy is a man constantly in flux, titillated by the urge to cheat but reeled back in by the moral standards ingrained in him, and much of which is anchored by Kim. Is this the moment where Jimmy finally breaks, where Saul emerges? Eventually Jimmy flips the switch back on, replaces the tape, and continues as if nothing happened. That’s just the type of corruption that begins to bubble under the surface as Better Call Saul watches Jimmy test the waters. On one side there’s Kim and the promise of a flourishing future in law, and on the other there’s Mike, Saul’s gateway into Albuquerque’s budding criminal underground.
The brilliance of Gilligan’s Better Call Saul is in how it continues to examine the same notions of Breaking Bad — man’s intrigue with crossing the lines of right and wrong and the thrill of getting away with it — but does so on its own terms. Fans of the parent series expecting the same level of intensity and violence-fueled drama will continue to find Better Call Saul a disappointment through its second season. The spinoff is entirely its own creature, a slow-burning show that’s much more concerned with the finer details that create the mosaic of the series. Better Call Saul is woven with subtle nods and the intricate symbolism of its lead character’s moral quandary, making it one of the richest and smartest character dramas on television. We already know where Jimmy eventually ends up, but as Better Call Saul charts his path deeper into corruption, Gilligan’s spinoff is only bound to get more addictive.