tv review

Better Call Saul Finally Gets to the Goodman

Photo: Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Better Call Saul has consistently been, and still is, one of the best dramas on television. During its first four seasons, it has also increasingly functioned as two shows packaged into one. The first is a character study focused on the increasingly unscrupulous lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his relationships with his girlfriend, the straighter-and-narrower attorney Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), and his brother, the mentally ill, once-brilliant law firm partner Chuck McGill (Michael McKean). The second is a crime series that follows fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and his dangerous entrenchment in the local activities of a Mexican drug cartel.

A link between the two was established in season one, via the attorney-client relationship between Jimmy and Mike and, obviously and more importantly, by Breaking Bad, the series that inspired this prequel. But the line that connects these two narratives was dotted, and sometimes non-existent, in the seasons that followed. In season five, which began Sunday night on AMC and will be followed Monday by the premiere of episode two, that line becomes clearly delineated again as Jimmy — who has now officially adopted the Saul Goodman identity we know from Breaking Bad — starts to take on new clients, including one who draws him into the world of the Salamancas and Gus Fring. There has always been some bad in Jimmy. But at this point in Better Call Saul, you could say we’re finally starting to see him break … even worse?

We know what lies ahead for Jimmy based on Breaking Bad, and the post-Breaking Bad-timeline flash-forwards that have opened each season, including this one, which begins with a sequence implying that future Jimmy, living under the alias Gene, is on the verge of getting his cover blown. But now that we’re closer to the end of Better Call Saul — season six will be its last — there’s an even stronger sense of foreboding hanging over the show. That’s apparent in the circumstances Jimmy creates and/or unwittingly finds himself in, but also the smaller moments the gifted makers of this series choose to place in sharpest focus. On multiple occasions, otherwise banal objects — a dropped ice cream cone on a sidewalk covered in ants, a single drop of liquid falling from the lip of an empty beer bottle the morning after a night of drinking— are captured in close-ups that convey there’s something rotten taking over this fictional version of Albuquerque.

I am well aware of what a fantastic, thoughtfully crafted piece of television Better Call Saul is. Still, whenever I come back to it after a between-season hiatus, I’m astonished all over again by how well it’s crafted on every single level. Every aspect — the writing, directing, acting, production and costume design — has been rendered with tremendous precision, but the series still feels like an independent organism going in surprising directions all on its own.

One of the pleasures of Better Call Saul is the extent to which watching it is like looking backward with 20/20 hindsight. When Mike descends into a bad emotional place, as he does in at least the first four episodes of season five that were provided to critics, we know he’s only getting closer to becoming the hardened man he’ll be when he eventually crosses paths with Walter White. When Jimmy starts offering discounts on his legal services and attracting more criminally entangled clients, his path to becoming a guy who has to go on the lam to save his own life starts to take shape. And when two key characters from Breaking Bad make a grand entrance in episode three, one that’s maybe even more satisfying than the reintroduction of Gus Fring into these proceedings, it serves as both a callback and a preview of how easy it will be, later, for certain characters to overlook the obvious when Heisenberg is hiding in plain sight.

But another, equally vital pleasure of this series is the extent to which it keeps the audience unsure about where it’s headed. This applies most aptly to the person who has become the most fascinating character on Better Call Saul: Kim Wexler, played by Seehorn in a performance that somehow becomes more authentic, understated, and fascinating with every passing season. Unlike Jimmy, Mike, Gus and many of the other figures in this world, we have no idea what, exactly, is going to happen to Kim. Since season two, she has inched closer toward the kind of risky behavior in which Jimmy engages without even a second thought, and in season five, the number of fucks she has left to give seems to be diminishing at a rapid pace. Like so much else in this season of Better Call Saul, that makes watching a more consistently nerve-wracking experience than usual, in the best, albeit still anxiety-provoking way.

In a great moment in the season premiere, Jimmy runs into Kim at the courthouse, where she’s trying to convince a dim-witted client to take a pretty sweet plea deal that guarantees him a much shorter stint in prison than he’d likely get with a trial. Jimmy offers to help her con the guy into believing he’s with the DA’s office and has taken the plea offer off the table, a fake-out designed to make the guy beg Kim to get the plea back in play. Kim refuses Jimmy’s offer, getting angry at him for interfering in her work in a way that is reminiscent of the boundaries she set between their relationship and her professionalism all the way back in the very first episode.

“This is why this works,” Jimmy says of their dynamic. “I go too far, and you pull me back.”

After shooing Jimmy away, though, Kim returns to the client and does exactly what Jimmy suggested: she pretends the plea is off the table, and the young man immediately sees the error of his ways and begs her to get it back. It’s apparent in the look on Seehorn’s face that Kim hates herself for what she’s doing, and hates even more that Jimmy was so right about what the end result of this deception would be. Jimmy understands, instinctively, that people always want what they can’t have. And Kim realizes that as much as she tries to go high whenever Jimmy goes low, the low road is what often gets results.

The most interesting question in this season of Better Call Saul, at least to me, isn’t how far Jimmy will go or how much Kim will pull him back. It’s how far Kim Wexler is willing to go, and what will happen if and when she pushes herself into shaky territory without a partner willing to tug her back to safer ground.

Better Call Saul Finally Gets to the Goodman