Here’s a confession: In the months since “Better Call Saul” aired its Season 1 finale last spring, I haven’t spent too much time thinking about it.
It’s not that Season 1 wasn’t good, or that it didn’t feature some of the year’s best acting and writing. And it has nothing to do with the fact that, yeah, there’s a lot of other television happening right now. Really, the fact is that it was such an odd season of television, so deliberately subtle and quiet, that, thanks to its lack of jaw-dropping oomph, it nearly reached the point of being… well, a bit forgettable.
It ultimately wasn’t, however, and, in some ways, that’s the best trick the AMC drama ever pulled off. In second place is the fact that “Saul” is a prequel that lived up to the challenge of surviving the legacy of “Breaking Bad,” one of TV’s most distinctive series ever. Having a show like “Breaking Bad” as your metaphorical big sister in some ways isn’t that bad a thing. But it does make it hard to find your own voice.
(There’s going to be a lot of coverage of “Better Call Saul” over the next few months at a lot of different sites. Hopefully, this is the only review that basically compares the show to Jan Brady.)
While Season 1 didn’t set the sky ablaze, it did turn out 10 compelling episodes of television rich with character and detail, and, in the first two episodes of Season 2, there’s every indication that they’ll be able to keep a good thing going.
Will it be great? Well.
If you need a quick reminder about what the hell we’re talking about, here you go: In the early 2000s, years before he became entangled with Walter White’s criminal enterprises, “criminal” lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) was a well-meaning guy going by his real name of Jimmy McGill. While trying to build up a tiny little legitimate law practice from the back room of an Albuquerque nail salon, Jimmy found himself taking on some work that pushed him into not-so-savory territory. It also tested his friendship with one-time colleague Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and destroyed his relationship with older brother Chuck (Michael McKean).
At the end of Season 1, Jimmy stormed into the world determined to be his own man, but in Season 2, all I can reveal is that it’s not as easy as that. Essentially beginning immediately after Season 1 ended, Season 2 is so interconnected with what came before that you might brush up beforehand, so as to keep up with the many plot threads. Those include the case surrounding the elderly residents of Sandpiper Assisted Living Facility and Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) dealings with mid-level criminal Nacho (Michael Mando) and naive drug dealer Price (Mark Proksch) — of which are all essential to the action this go-around.
That being said, it remains Bob Odenkirk’s show. Neither “Breaking Bad” nor “Better Call Saul” were ever series built on mystery. There are twists, but they’re always based on characters discovering truths, as opposed to the audience finally catching up with what they already know. The only exception to that, though, comes when creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould let a moment live within the performance of the actor, trusting them to make it work. Without revealing too much, there’s a key decision made in the premiere that is played completely silently by Odenkirk, and thus leaves you entirely on your own when it comes to figuring out what the hell just happened. It demands your attention on a level we just might not be used to these days. But, fortunately, Odenkirk’s performance is just good enough to pull it off.
In general, “Saul” is a show that really rewards the viewer’s attention to detail — because however much you might pick up on, there’s probably at least three levels of meaning you’re missing. Hear a reference to something you don’t quite understand? Google it, and you’ll probably fall down a rabbit hole of connections to past episodes. This is not a show to be watched lightly — frankly, AMC should consider footnotes. (Or maybe a “Pop Up Video” approach for reruns? That’s a great idea. AMC, you can have that one for free.)
It also remains one of the best-photographed shows on TV. Plenty of series emphasize natural lighting and unconventional camera angles, but none of them look like this. The meticulous care that goes into visually creating this world is genuinely hard to describe because it’s not that it just looks good, but that it is a distinctive entity. A few times, it does break one of the golden rules of filmmaking — being so eye-catching that it’s a bit distracting.
At the end of the day, though, what “Better Call Saul” has built for itself is a drama about two relationships: Jimmy and Kim, and Jimmy and Chuck. One of those has technically gone nuclear already, thanks to the heartbreaking conclusion of last season’s “Pimento.” But Chuck still looms in Jimmy’s life, and meanwhile Kim becomes a bigger player in this season. Jimmy and Kim were sweet to watch last season, and there’s even more to enjoy this year, but, as always with a show like this, you learn not to trust happiness. Because in order to fall, first you have to ascend.
We’re willing to fall with this one, is the thing. Even if it ends in broken hearts. Honestly, at this point I’m kind of hoping that happens. Broken hearts, you never forget.