When the man in the cowboy hat appears on screen, "Better Call Saul" throws down the gauntlet. With the red, white, and blue of the Lone Star Flag as the backdrop, the opening sequence of "Amarillo" — the third installment in the AMC series' sophomore season — registers as a schoolyard challenge. It dares you not to laugh, or at least not to flash a knowing smile, as blundering hero Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) sets in motion yet another half-cocked scheme. By the time he's convinced a bus full of retirees to become plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, however, the extravagance of his patent-leather boots and bolo tie is inextricable from his charm: "Better Call Saul" floats along on the slightly dreamy current of Jimmy's outsized ambition. "When we dance together, my world's in disguise," Ernest Tubb croons, fittingly enough, as the episode begins. "It's a fairytale land that come true."
Like Odenkirk's perfectly calibrated turn, walking the line between the humorous and the hangdog, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's "Breaking Bad" spinoff — an origin story for the unscrupulous Saul Goodman, also known as Jimmy McGill, lawyer to meth-slinging New Mexicans Walter White and Jesse Pinkman — peppers its portrait of a con man-turned-attorney with flashes of near-fantastical excess. A small-time dealer in pilfered pharmaceuticals turns up in a canary-yellow Hummer, "like a school bus for six-year-old pimps"; Jimmy's older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), partner in the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, sequesters himself in his darkened home for fear of exposure to electricity.
In form and in function, "Better Call Saul" highlights the allure of Odenkirk's performance, close kin to that of the snake-oil salesman, the ambulance chaser, the carnival barker. In the wide-angle shot of Jimmy dwarfed by the outline of Texas, or the image of his serene, open face as his pushes up the brim of his Stetson, the series finds a visual analogue to its protagonist's impish manner. "Whatever happened to showmanship?" Jimmy asks later in "Amarillo," as he prepares to film a commercial for his new firm, and "Better Call Saul" nods in agreement: It's right here.
What sustains our interest in both Odenkirk and the series, however, is the refusal to paint Jimmy as the sum of his ruses, on an inevitable path to becoming the sleazy figure we know as Saul. For every sight of him in clashing Hawaiian shirt and board shorts, sipping a ridiculous cocktail he charged to some stranger's hotel room, for every glimpse of the "morally flexible" man willing to fabricate evidence to free a client, there's a flicker of the underdog, the crusader, the Robin Hood. After all, Jimmy's attempt to skirt the prohibition on solicitation, in the aforementioned scene from "Amarillo," is rooted in his commitment to protecting the elderly from the shady billing practices of a chain of retirement homes. (In its own quirky way, "Better Call Saul" is as highly attuned to the uses of legal loopholes, technicalities, and gray areas as "The Good Wife.") What he bristles against, in his new job at the tony Santa Fe firm of Davis & Main, are the pedantic restrictions of partners' meetings and formatting requirements: To him, the law is a script with room for improvisation, the courtroom a stage for the star turn.
Jimmy's halting evolution, matching each step forward with another step back, brings Odenkirk, and the style of "Better Call Saul," nearer to drama — which may be an advantage for the actor in this year's Emmy race, where the absence of the past three winners (Jeff Daniels, Bryan Cranston, and Jon Hamm) gives him a fighting chance against "House of Cards" stalwart Kevin Spacey. While continuing to deploy the funny, fleet-footed montages that defined the first season, the best of which used a courthouse coffee machine to trace the development of Jimmy's career as a public defender, the second sees him grow more restless, more anxious, reflecting the stress of navigating a new, stricter set of social norms. The series has also squared increasing space for Jimmy's adversary-turned-ally, former cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), and especially for Jimmy's love interest, fellow lawyer Kim Wexler (the superb Rhea Seehorn) — subject of a dazzling interlude in last week's episode, set to a Spanish-language rendition of "My Way," that sees her crack her head on Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill's glass ceiling.
The result is a more expansive, enterprising series, one that doesn't relinquish its comic energies so much as channel them through the characters' darkest instincts: anger, frustration, even despair. Jimmy's estrangement from Chuck, Mike's growing entanglement in the Albuquerque underworld, and Kim's struggles at work all assume the shape of intractable, if not yet insoluble, problems — consequences not only of their poor choices, but also of their position as outsiders in their respective spheres. When Jimmy comes to Chuck's for dinner in one flashback, for instance, the contrast between his six-pack of Heileman's Old Style and the "chiffonade" of herbs in the risotto initially plays as a fish-out-of-water gag, but by the end of the meal he no longer reads as a rube: What forces him time and again to stretch the rules of the game — whether the field of play be the law, office politics, or polite society — is that fact that the game is rigged against him.
Still, "Better Call Saul" has yet to succumb to fatalism, even as the future, seen in the black-and-white sequences that open each season, casts its indelible shadow. Jimmy's pitch in "Amarillo" is a performance, surely, a pointing, winking, smiling ploy to sign two dozen new clients, but the episode also captures Odenkirk's softness, his warmth, as if to suggest the many forks in the road that lay between Jimmy and Saul. On the bus with the retirees, the camera nudges in close as Jimmy squats in the aisle, and for a moment the man himself — the eager night-school student, the earnest striver — emerges from his disguise. I, for one, have come to trust Jimmy: He may be a con artist, but he always looks you in the eye.
"Better Call Saul" airs Mondays at 10pm on AMC.