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‘Better Call Saul’ Season 4 Review: This Isn’t a ‘Breaking Bad’ Prequel — It’s an Evolution Into Something Greater

The first three episodes of Season 4 illustrate how the series' genre-defying powers make it one of the most subtle and brilliant shows on TV.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

How many more times can it be said that “Better Call Saul” is one of the best shows on television? As many more times as they’re willing to make new episodes.

Because honestly, if the only reason you’re watching “Better Call Saul” is for a glimpse of Walter White, you’re doing it wrong. It’s been 10 years since “Breaking Bad” premiered (an anniversary still being celebrated), but four since the Vince Gilligan- and Peter Gould-created prequel premiered.

And in that time, the (mostly) same creative team that changed television with the original series has only continued to up their game year after year. Watching the ways in which the “Better Call Saul” team challenges themselves to push beyond the expected, beyond the easy, beyond the mundane (especially when depicting the most mundane of events) has been one of the most fascinating experiences possible for a TV fan.

This review will be spoiler-free — except for the well-established news that the house fire at the end of Season 3 was, in fact, fatal for Chuck (Michael McKean), and as you might expect, this fact hovers over these early episodes. It’s just one facet of the story, though: Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) might be grieving, but he’s also a wounded animal in search of work following the loss of his law license in Season 3 and the impact of Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) accident (leaving her nursing a broken arm and other damages).

Plus, dealing drugs in Albuquerque has become very complicated following Don Hector’s (Mark Margolis) stroke, especially given the fact that Nacho (Michael Mando) swapped Don Hector’s medications so that he could try to keep his father out of the business — and maybe even free himself. But Nacho might be screwed on that front, given how Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is lurking in the shadows and Mike (Jonathan Banks) is still sorting out how he fits (or not) into the local criminal underworld.

Much of last season had to do with consequences, and that certainly isn’t any less the case this year (just look at the publicity photos released so far for a clue as to how long Kim is stuck in that plaster cast this season). But as more is learned about these characters, all the details, spoken or not, that make them feel so real build upon one of the show’s most interesting truths: With a prequel, so many outcomes are already known. Thus, the most exciting mysteries are the ones based in character.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

There are so many times in Season 4 where a character is confronted by another with some seemingly small gesture or comment, and whatever emotion they’re feeling is simply impossible to decode based on their reaction. That’s because there’s no such thing as a simple emotion in this world, at least right away. The brain has to take a moment to process its reactions.

These are the sorts of moments where “Saul” is at its best, the subtle sequences where it’s not clear what might be happening, but sussing out why becomes more gripping than any dragon battle.

How have things changed in Season 4? The answer is simple: just more, but better, deeper, and more daring. One element that stands out more prominently than in the past is how each episode of “Saul” ends: Rather than go for a clean button or a bold proclamation, each final fade-out of the first three episodes brings with it a bit of a shock, coming as it seems to in the middle of a gasp of air, a slap to the face — just abrupt enough to leave us reeling.

These unexpected ending choices, along with so many other elements, are just part of the puzzle as to what makes “Saul” so great. It takes a legendary level of confidence to make television like this, to trust an actor to hold the screen for silent minutes or to trust the audience’s patience in waiting for answers. It’s the sort of self-confidence that could slide into self-indulgence, but that’s a trap “Saul” has always seemed to avoid, while still finding fresh ways to shock us with a new angle on the action.

It’s true that as “Saul” continues, it will more and more find itself engaging with the world of “Breaking Bad,” and of course it’s exciting when those moments emerge, primarily in the form of characters.

But what should be consuming us isn’t obsessing over every little detail that might tie the two series together — instead, the vibe should be a sense of deep gratitude, for the privilege to continue living in this oddball, undefinable yet so distinct universe, invested in humanity at its best and worst and (more often yet) its most middling. The reflection of life seen in “Better Call Saul’s” mirror isn’t terribly flattering, but perhaps more than any other TV show on the air, it stands out as true.

Grade: A

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